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Kenner, Duncan Farrarlocked

(11 February 1813–03 July 1887)
  • Craig A. Bauer
  •  and Mark LaFlaur

Kenner, Duncan Farrar (11 February 1813–03 July 1887), businessman and Confederate legislator and diplomat, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the youngest son of William Kenner and Mary Minor Kenner. He was educated by private tutors and in private schools in New Orleans, where his father was a prosperous merchant, planter, and public official. Duncan's mother died at age twenty-seven when he was twenty months old, and his father died when he was eleven. Raised by relatives, Duncan attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he completed his studies in 1831. From the spring of 1832 to the fall of 1834 he traveled and studied in Europe; letters of introduction and social contacts brought him twice to the Austrian court, including a private meeting with Prince Klemens von Metternich, and to a ball for European royalty given by Baron Rothschild.

On his return from Europe he studied law in the New Orleans firm of John Slidell, a friend of his father. Having inherited a sizable estate, Kenner turned his attention to the development of his large sugar plantation, “Ashland,” in Ascension Parish, Louisiana. A talented businessman and planter, he was able to develop Ashland into one of the largest and most profitable plantations in the state. By the eve of the Civil War, he maintained a slave force of 473, making him Louisiana's eleventh-largest slaveholder.

Kenner's financial success as a sugar planter permitted him to enjoy a grand lifestyle. The manor house he and his wife built at their Ashland estate was among the finest in Louisiana. (He married Anne Guillelmine Nanine Bringier, a member of one of Louisiana's most prominent French families, on 1 June 1839. They had two daughters and two sons.) Training and breeding thoroughbred horses on a private track at Ashland, Kenner earned a national reputation as his horses won prizes at New Orleans, Saratoga, and other prominent tracks.

In 1836, at the age of twenty-three, Kenner was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives; he served several terms in the house and the state senate. Respected by his colleagues for his judgment and his serious, businesslike manner, he was a leader of the state's Whig party. An advocate of constitutional reform in antebellum Louisiana, he served as an active member of the state's 1844 Constitutional Convention and as president of the 1852 Louisiana Constitutional Convention. During his prewar political career, Kenner focused more on state issues than national problems, but as Louisianians became engaged in the sectional debate of the 1850s he maintained a hard-line position in favor of states' rights and favored secession following Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860.

With his sugar-growing neighbors opposing secession, Kenner lost in his effort to win election to Louisiana's secession convention. However, once the state broke its ties with the Union, he was one of seven Louisiana delegates sent by the state in February 1861 to the Montgomery convention, where the Confederate States were formed. At the meeting he was a strong supporter of Jefferson Davis and took a nationalist approach, advocating a national government similar to that of the United States. While he urged protective tariffs and subsidies for internal improvements, he called on the new nation to develop a more diversified economy.

As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Kenner focused on the Confederacy's financing. Having studied and traveled in the North, he understood the massive power of the South's adversary and advocated conscription and all-out military preparation. As New Orleans fell to Union forces in April 1862 and a large part of Louisiana came under Federal occupation, he argued for impressment of slaves into military service and opposed exemptions from military duty, particularly the detested Twenty Slave Law. Early in 1863 he notified President Davis and Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin, a close friend (and fellow Louisianian) with whom he shared lodgings while living in Richmond, that he was going to propose in Congress that, as a wartime measure, slaves should be emancipated and drafted as a way of bolstering the South's military and diplomatic efforts. Not only would the move provide needed men for the military, it would go a long way—or so Kenner thought—in winning diplomatic recognition from England and France. (It was widely believed that the slavery issue was the main obstacle preventing those nations from recognizing the South's independence.) Such recognition by the European powers, it was hoped, would soon lead to military aid for the floundering Confederacy. Otherwise, Kenner argued, the South could not win the war or remain an independent nation. Although Benjamin agreed with the reasoning, he felt the time was not right, and he and Davis quickly vetoed the notion and urged Kenner to say no more about it.

By late 1864, following Lincoln's reelection and a series of crushing reverses on the battlefield, and with several southern newspapers urging that slavery be sacrificed, if necessary, for national independence, Benjamin urged Davis to send Kenner to Europe on a secret mission to negotiate for diplomatic recognition in exchange for the abolition of slavery. Kenner possessed the conviction to speak persuasively and had the political acumen to carry out such a mission; further, he already had longtime relationships with the Confederacy's European emissaries John Slidell and James M. Mason, in France and England, respectively. To win support, Davis discreetly arranged a meeting with several leading congressmen, who violently objected that emancipation would ruin them financially. Kenner insisted that the Confederacy was in peril and pointed out that, as one of the South's largest slave owners, he was not requesting any greater sacrifice than he was willing to make himself. It was decided that Kenner would have plenary power to negotiate with England and France for recognition in exchange for emancipation and the authority to sell all of the South's cotton to finance arms purchases.

Kenner's bold crossing of enemy lines (in disguise) and sailing from New York City on a German passenger liner was a truly daring adventure. Five weeks after leaving Richmond, Kenner reached Paris on 24 February 1865. Slidell and Mason strongly opposed the plan until they understood that Kenner had both the president's and the secretary of state's backing and authority, which superseded their power. Slidell's meeting with Napoleon III on 4 March and Mason's with British prime minister Palmerston on 13 March, however, were to no avail; France would not act first, and Britain refused to risk a war with the United States. The British concluded that even if they wanted to assist the South, the Confederacy's military options were exhausted and beyond resuscitation.

Kenner was still in Europe when Richmond was evacuated by the Confederate government; a week later, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. At the United States Legation in Paris on 20 June, Kenner took an oath of loyalty to the United States and applied for an executive pardon. Having obtained a pardon from President Andrew Johnson, Kenner returned to his economically devastated Ashland estate. Unlike many of his fellow planters, Kenner survived the war with some resources. When confiscated by Federal forces, his Ashland estate had been leased by the government to individuals friendly to Kenner. Hence, when he returned home his holdings, though much reduced from their prewar grandeur, were substantial enough to permit the talented planter to regain quickly much of his prewar wealth. Faced with the many challenges of the postwar economy in Louisiana, Kenner resorted to innovative ways to rebuild his financial assets. He was probably the first in Louisiana to use the portable railroad to transport sugar cane from the fields to the mill. He used the very latest machinery in sugar production, including Norbert Rillieux's double-effect pans and the hydraulic pressure regulator developed by John McDonald. Kenner helped organize and was the first president of the Louisiana Sugar Planters' Association in 1877 and the Sugar Experimental Station in 1885.

Prominent in Louisiana politics during Reconstruction, Kenner played an active role in the Democratic party's attempts to regain control from Republican domination. He served in the state senate from 1866 to 1867 and again in 1878. While in the postwar legislature, he took the lead in preparing legislation that became known as the Black Code. Designed to return the former slaves in Louisiana to a status historian Roger Shugg has described as being somewhere between peonage and serfdom, the code was considered by people in the North and the U.S. Congress as an outrageous attempt to circumvent the Thirteenth Amendment and contributed to the imposition of Radical Reconstruction in the South.

During Radical Reconstruction, Kenner maintained amicable relations with both sides of the controversy, including a friendship with the controversial and corrupt Republican governor Henry Clay Warmoth. Because of his conciliatory attitude, Kenner became an active player for the Democratic party during the disputed presidential election of 1876, pitting Rutherford B. Hayes against Samuel J. Tilden, and he was instrumental in the Democrats' successful effort to regain control of the state's political machinery. Kenner eventually abandoned his hard line against the former slaves and worked for some political accommodations to be extended to black Louisianians.

Kenner continued to contribute his services to public endeavors for the rest of his life. In 1882 President Chester A. Arthur appointed him to the United States Tariff Commission, and Kenner also served on the Louisiana Levee Board. In 1884–1885 he served as chairman of the building committee for the World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition held in New Orleans. Continuing his passion for thoroughbred training and racing, Kenner was one of the founders of the Louisiana Jockey Club and served as president until his death in New Orleans in 1887 at age 74.

Although Kenner's most memorable action was his attempt to get the Confederacy to exchange emancipation for European diplomatic recognition and assistance, throughout his life he played a pivotal role in the political, economic, and social development of his state and region. Even though he uncritically accepted the racial assumptions of the antebellum South, Kenner contributed much to the development of Louisiana and the region. The breadth of his contributions across such a diverse spectrum of activities as state and national politics, diplomacy, large-scale commercial agriculture, science, business, and sports places him among the leading social and political architects of the nineteenth-century South.

Bibliography

Duncan Kenner's travel diaries of his Grand Tour are collected (with notes and an introduction by Garner Ranney) in A Man of Pleasure, And a Man of Business: The European Travel Diaries of Duncan Farrar Kenner, 1833–1834 (1991). The most abundant single source of Kenner's private papers is the Louisiana State University Archives, Baton Rouge, which holds the Duncan Farrar Kenner Papers, Kenner Family Papers, William Kenner Papers, an Ashland Plantation Record Book, and a half dozen other collections of family papers. The Historic New Orleans Collection has the Duncan Farrar Kenner Papers and an Ashland Plantation Journal, 1858, while the Louisiana State Museum's Archives and Manuscript Collection, New Orleans, has Duncan Farrar Kenner Papers. Tulane University's Manuscript Department, Special Collections Division, has a Duncan Farrar Kenner file and Benjamin Farrar Papers. The Library of Congress's Manuscript Division holds a Duncan Farrar Kenner Collection and the James M. Mason Papers.

The only full-length biography of Duncan Kenner is Craig A. Bauer, A Leader among Peers: The Life and Times of Duncan Farrar Kenner (1993). Bauer recounts Kenner's daring mission in “The Last Effort: The Secret Mission of the Confederate Diplomat, Duncan F. Kenner,” Louisiana History 22 (1981): 67–95. A master's thesis by Grady Daniel Price, “The Secret Mission of Duncan F. Kenner, Confederate Minister Plenipotentiary to Europe in 1865” (1929), is at Tulane University.