Kentucky, never having been a territory, broke off from Virginia to become the nation's fifteenth state in 1792. Its first constitution, drafted that year, was soon found unsatisfactory, and a second constitution was framed in 1799. Despite the presence of a few prominent Federalists, Kentucky was a virtual one-party state, with the Jeffersonian Republicans dominating throughout the era of the First Party System. This ostensible political unanimity, however, masked substantial political conflict throughout the state's early history, antagonisms that exploded in the wake of the Panic of 1819.
The first white settlers moved into Kentucky on the eve of the Revolutionary War, and the region remained the westernmost district of Virginia for almost twenty years. After extensive negotiations—including several enabling acts passed by the Virginian Assembly and a seemingly endless series of state conventions convened to discuss the terms of separation and the structure of the proposed state government—Kentucky finally secured its independence from Virginia in 1792.
Late that spring, a state constitutional convention, dominated by the well-connected and aristocratic George Nicholas, convened at Danville and finished its work in less than three weeks. Kentucky's first constitution has often been characterized as a forward-looking product of the democratic frontier, and many of its features do support this view: The document abolished all religious qualifications, incorporated a comprehensive Bill of Rights, prohibited viva voce voting, provided for the annual election of state representatives, and, most notably, granted universal white adult male suffrage. Yet the decision to lift property requirements for voting had as much to do with extraordinary high rates of landlessness and rampant confusion over land titles as it did with democratic enthusiasm; the delegates did not dare disfranchise well over half of the state's population. In fact, a majority of the convention was determined to contain the swiftly moving democratic currents of the early republic, and they leaned heavily on Pennsylvania's 1790 constitution—itself a conservative revision of the state's far more radical 1776 constitution. The document, therefore, created a powerful executive, one chosen by electors every four years and possessed of substantial powers of appointment; a bicameral General Assembly in which the upper house would also be decided by an electoral college; and a nonelective judiciary. Significantly, the constitution gave original and final jurisdiction over land cases to the state supreme court, a provision that the great landowners of Kentucky had advocated for years because it precluded any chance for appeal. Furthermore, conservative elements at the convention turned back an attempt to end slavery in the state and, in fact, secured a positive and explicit protection for slavery, the first such constitutional provision in the nation.
The delegates, apparently not overly confident in their handiwork, included an unusual provision for another constitutional convention seven years hence if "it shall seem expedient." Sure enough, many Kentuckians soon became convinced that fundamental changes to the state's supreme law were not only expedient but necessary. Proposed reforms ranged from the relatively mild suggestion that members of the county courts be prohibited from serving in the legislature to more radical demands for the emancipation of slaves, the abolition of the governorship and the Senate, a complete overhaul of the state's court system, and a renunciation of the separation agreement with Virginia that protected the property rights of nonresident landholders.
And so, in 1799, the state's voters authorized a second state constitutional convention. This time, John Breckinridge, a Virginia-born lawyer soon to be Thomas Jefferson's attorney general, dominated the proceedings in much the same way that Nicholas commanded the first convention. Under Breckinridge's guidance, the conservatives succeeded in curbing the most radical demands for reform: The legislature remained bicameral, the separation agreement with Virginia was upheld, the attempt to reform the judiciary and its control of land titles was turned back, and slavery was once again protected and preserved. Although delegates made some concessions to popular sovereignty (including the direct election of the governor and state senators), they reinstated viva voce voting, preserved the appointment of judges, and made other minor offices, previously elective, appointive. To cap things off, the conservatives included a clause that made further revision of the constitution extremely difficult.
Throughout its first thirty years, Kentucky overwhelmingly supported the Republican Party. In 1798, when Vice President Thomas Jefferson needed a friendly venue to channel anonymously his resolutions condemning the Alien and Sedition Acts, he naturally turned to the legislature of Kentucky. Although a nominal Federalist Party did exist in the state, and a few of its adherents managed to secure election, the Republican Party's dominance was virtually unchallenged.
But however monolithic Kentucky's political structure may have been, by no means did this translate into political consensus. Several issues proved to be immensely contentious in the state's early years: the establishment of a state circuit court system in 1803, the creation and spread of a banking system in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, and the controversy in 1817 over whether the death of a sitting governor necessitated a new election. One traveler in 1807 amused himself in a Lexington coffee house by perusing "the wonderful mass of political contradiction to be found in forty different newspapers, where scarcely any two editors coincided in opinion."
But it was the financial ruin that descended upon the country in 1819 that triggered early Kentucky's most divisive and vehement political conflict. In the wake of bank failures, sheriff's sales, and ruinous deflation, the state's citizens demanded that the state government alleviate their suffering. By 1821 the General Assembly had constructed a relief system that allowed debtors to postpone repayment of debt, created a Commonwealth's Bank that generously lent paper money, and mandated that any property sold under execution must bring three-quarters of its pre-depression value. An Anti-Relief faction appeared almost immediately, vehemently insisting that the state and federal constitutions prohibited such legislation. After the state courts struck down major portions of the relief system in 1823 and 1824, the General Assembly responded by actually attempting to abolish the state high court (the Court of Appeals) and establish a new court more to their liking. It was, as it turned out, a bridge too far, for in the next year's elections, the "Old Court" Anti-Relief candidates decisively defeated the "New Court" pro-relief slate. In early 1827, the new legislature restored the original court, thus bringing to an end the state's notorious Relief War. In the 1830s, Kentucky reverted to its traditional one-party status, as the Whig Party came to dominate the state's politics for another generation.
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- First American West
- Kentucky Historical Society
- Filson Club Historical Society
- Kentucky Virtual Library
- Kentuckiana Digital Library
- Moments in Kentucky Legislative History The Old Court / New Court Struggle
- Moments in Kentucky Legislative History The Boundary
- Moments in Kentucky Legislative History The Dueling Oath
- Moments in Kentucky Legislative History Housekeeping
- Moments in Kentucky Legislative History Henry Clay and Homespun cloth
- Moments in Kentucky Legislative History Kentucky Resolutions
- Moments in Kentucky Legislative History First Session