The Origin of Convict Leasing: Slavery and Incarceration in Kentucky

“I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.”

—President Abraham Lincoln

In this talk, I suggest that convict leasing did not begin with formerly enslaved African Americans in the years following emancipation, as the scholarly consensus suggests. It began in the antebellum era with white inmates at the Kentucky Penitentiary.

In the years following the American Revolution, Kentucky was settled as a place of progress, optimism, and democracy. When Kentucky began as an outpost of Virginia, legislators promoted a vision for criminal justice reform that Thomas Jefferson had designed but was not able to institutionalize in his native state. Kentuckians wanted criminal statutes that were more humane—where the punishment fit the crime instead of being an opportunity to enact vengeance. Instead, Kentucky would institutionalize the nation’s first convict-lease system. This framework for coercive labor was later replicated in southern states searching for ways to extract profits from labor well aware that abolition was on the horizon.

Convict leasing is widely seen as an effort to preserve the southern plantation system. But, those Kentuckians who owned slaves usually only had a few. The crops harvested in this state were not conducive to plantation agriculture and Kentuckians were adamant that enslaved workers not compete with free citizens for industry jobs. As such, in The Origin of Convict Leasing, I demonstrate that this form of coercive labor was not an outgrowth of plantation justice but the byproduct of a liberal reform project that intersected with new possibilities for profit in the first few decades of the nineteenth century.

This lecture is organized by The Townsend Center Working Group on Labour, Philosophy and Change with support from a Townsend Center for the Humanities Lecture Grant, the Center for African Studies and the Critical Theory Program.

Professor Ralph will also be holding a workshop on Tuesday, February 28.