When crisis leading to the “War Between the States” came to a peak with the beginning of the Civil War, it was hard for Kentucky to not be put in the middle of the fray. Kentucky, after all, held prime trade routes and was bordered by the very important Ohio River to the north and Mississippi River to the west. What does a state do when the legislature is in favor of the Union and the people (including the Governor) sympathize with the Union cause? In Kentucky, governor Beriah Magoffin proclaimed a (short-lived) neutrality policy.
Kentucky’s 21st governor was born on April 18, 1815 in Harrodsburg. Following graduation from Centre College in Danville, he attended Transylvania University where he studied law. He entered state politics in 1850, when he was elected to the state Senate. Magoffin defeated Joshua Bell in 1859 in a gubernatorial race.
Magoffin accepted slavery and states’ rights; he believed in the right of secession but hoped to prevent it by collective action of the slave states in reaching an agreement with the North. To avoid total conflict in Kentucky, he proclaimed that the Commonwealth remain neutral on May 20, 1861 and rejected aid from both the Union and Confederate armies.
Because of his Southern sympathies the 1861 two-thirds Union majority in the Kentucky legislature distrusted Magoffin. They would not pass any of his legislation. When he suggested that a Kentucky convention be held so that the Commonwealth may choose its stance in the Civil War, they blocked his effort.
Beriah Magoffin resigned from office in 1862 and was succeeded by James F. Robinson. He returned to a private life of farming and his law practice in Harrodsburg. Following the Civil War, he urged Kentucky to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which would grant civil rights to African-Americans. He died on February 28, 1885, and was buried at Harrodsburg.