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Wickliffe, Robert

Born: 1774-01-16 Pennsylvania

Died: 1859-09-01 Lexington, Kentucky

Flourished: Fayette County, Illinois

Known as the "Old Duke," Robert Wickliffe was a wealthy landowner, attorney, politician, and patriarch of the Wickliffe family of Kentucky. Wickliffe moved with his parents from his native state to Kentucky, settling near Bardstown, where Robert received his early education. He read law and earned admission to the Kentucky bar in 1799. After the Department of Justice opened an office in Lexington, Wickliffe received appointment as U.S. attorney for Kentucky. He won election to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1818, 1823, and 1824, and served in the Kentucky Senate from 1825 to 1833. In the late 1830s, he was an advisor to his brother Charles A. Wickliffe, who was governor of Kentucky from 1839 to 1840. He also served as chairman of the board of trustees of Transylvania University. Wickliffe's representation of clients in real estate cases and litigation of land claims on his own behalf allowed him to accumulate one of largest fortunes in antebellum Kentucky, including thousands of acres of land and numerous slaves. In 1840, he had thirty-three slaves at his Lexington residence alone; he owned more than two hundred slaves, being one of the largest slaveholders in the commonwealth. Far from seeing slavery as an unfortunate legacy of the colonial and revolutionary period that needed to fade away, Wickliffe became one of the most prominent pro-slavery advocates in the Democratic Party in Kentucky. In 1850, he owned real estate valued at $28,000. In 1804, Wickliffe married Margaret Howard, with whom he had seven children. Margaret Wickliffe died in 1825, and a year later, Robert married Mary Todd Russell, the only daughter of John Todd and cousin of Robert S. Todd. Wickliffe obtained ownership of his second wife's property--valued at an estimated $250,000--, drawing the ire of Robert S. Todd. Todd and Wickliffe were bitter personal and political enemies, and Wickliffe's acquisition of Mary's estate further strained relations between the two. Robert S. Todd filed suit against Wickliffe in 1848 for recovery of the estate--a suit in which Abraham Lincoln would become embroiled after the death of his father-in-law.

Gravestone, Howards Grove Cemetery, Montrose, KY; William Henry Perrin, ed., History of Fayette County, Kentucky (Chicago: O. L. Baskin, 1882), 66, 343; U.S. Census Office, Sixth Census of the United States (1840), Lexington, Fayette County, KY, 128; U.S. Census Office, Seventh Census of the United States (1850), Fayette County, IL, 168; Elizabeth Prather Ellsberry, comp., Marriage Records Fayette County, Kentucky 1803-09 Volume I, Chillicothe, MO; Andrea S. Ramage, "Love and Honor: The Robert Wickliffe Family of Antebellum Kentucky," The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 94 (Spring 1996), 115-16; Todd et al. v. Wickliffe, Martha L. Benner and Cullom Davis et al., eds., The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition, 2d edition (Springfield: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, 2009), http://www.lawpracticeofabrahamlincoln.org; William H. Townsend, Lincoln and the Bluegrass: Slavery and Civil War in Kentucky (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1955), 176-83; Betty B. Ellison, "Wickliffe, Robert," The Kentucky Encyclopedia, ed. by John E. Kleber, (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1992), 951.