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.
- Aron, Steven.
How the West Was Lost: The Transformation of Kentucky from Daniel Boone to Henry Clay.Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
- Coward, Joan Wells.
Kentucky in the New Republic: The Process of Constitution Making.Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1979.
- Ellis, Richard.
The Jeffersonian Crisis: Courts and Politics in the Young Republic.New York: Norton, 1971.
- Friend, Craig Thompson.
Along the Maysville Road: The Early American Republic in the Trans-Appalachian West.Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2005.
- Harrison, Lowell H.
Kentucky's Road to Statehood.Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1992.
- Tachau, Mary K. Bonsteel.
Federal Courts in the Early Republic: Kentucky 1789-1816.Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.
- Teute, Fredrika Johanna.
Land, Liberty, and Labor in the Post-Revolutionary Era: Kentucky as the Promised Land.Ph.D. dissertation, Johns Hopkins University, 1988.
- Watlington, Patricia.
The Partisan Spirit: Kentucky Politics, 1779–1792.Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972.
- Young, Bennett H.
History and Texts of the Three Constitutions of Kentucky.Louisville, KY: Courier Journal Job Printing Co., 1890.
- 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
In the "Era of Good Feelings", when many candidates were of the same party, specific issues would divide the candidates and the candidates would be described in newspapers in terms of their support or opposition of that issue. The various one-issue parties include:
- New York 1807 Assembly, Dutchess County: The Division and Anti-Division Tickets.
- New Jersey 1810 Essex County: The Bank Tax Ticket and the Anti-Bank Tax Ticket.
- Pennsylvania 1814 Assembly, Columbia, Northumberland and Union: In 1813, Northumberland County had been divided into three counties: Northumberland, Columbia and Union. The 1814 Assembly election for the district composed of these three counties split on the division.
- Maryland 1816 House of Delegates, Montgomery County: Moderates and Violents. Both groups appeared to be Federalists, but were listed in several newspapers as Moderates and Violents (including the Daily National Intelligencer (Washington), Alexandria Herald, Federal Republican (Baltimore) and Federal Gazette (Baltimore). Throughout the early republic, the Federalist remained incredibly united. One exception was the 1816 Montgomery County election. Montgomery was among the most Federal counties in Maryland, and as sometimes happens when one party is so dominant, dissension, often in the form of personality conflicts erupt. The exact cause of this split is not yet known, but it is interesting that none of the Delegates chosen in 1815 ran for re-election, although one was a candidate for Congress. Although all the candidates for Delegates were Federalist, it was stated that Republicans supported those listed as Moderates. Among those listed as Violents was Alexander C. Hanson, owner of the virulent Baltimore Federal Republican, which had recently moved back to Maryland from Georgetown. Although Hanson was not elected to the House of Delegates, he was chosen a few months later to the United States Senate. With his appointment, this conflict seemed to subside.
- New Hampshire 1816 House of Representatives, Portsmouth: Brickites and Woodites. Both groups were Republicans but were split on a "law passed for the exclusive erection of brick buildings" (Portsmouth Oracle. March 16, 1816.)
- Kentucky 1817 and 1818: George Madison who was elected Governor of Kentucky in August 1816, died very shortly after being inaugurated. He was succeeded by Gabriel Slaughter, who had just been elected as Lieutenant Governor. The new Lieutenant Governor, appointed John Pope, who was considered by many to be an avowed Federalist, to the office of Secretary of State for Kentucky. This caused uproar among the Kentucky Republicans and many of them demanded a new election for Governor and that became a big issue in the state elections of 1817. It would have required an act of the State Legislature to call for a new election of a Governor, so in the 1817 and 1818 state elections, candidates for the state legislature aligned themselves into those who were in favor of a new election for Governor, and those against a new election for Governor.
- New York 1819 Assembly, Ontario County: The Division and Anti-Division Tickets.
- Illinois and Missouri 1820: Various elections included tickets there listed as either Pro-Slavery and Anti-Slavery or Restrictionist (anti-slavery) and Anti-Restrictionist or variations of the two tickets running against each other (e.g. Pro-Slavery vs. Restrictionist). These would come up again in Illinois in 1824.
- Maryland 1822 and 1823 House of Delegates elections in Anne Arundel County and the 1822 Assembly election in Annapolis City: The Caucus and Anti-Caucus tickets. With their loss of the State Senate in September 1821, and even more for Delegates in the following month of October, by the next election of 1822, the Federalists in many counties offered only token any opposition. With the upcoming Presidential election, in which a Congressional caucus would be called upon to choose the republican candidate, the system of caucus nominations, both nationally and on the state level was coming under increasing attack. In 1822, several Federalist newspapers, listed some candidates in Annapolis City and Anne Arundel County as Anti-Caucus. In Annapolis City, Lewis Duvall who had been elected for many years a Republican member to the House of Delegates was not re nominated in 1821. This apparently caused some dissension, as he still received substantial support in both 1821 and 1822. In Anne Arundel County, two candidates were set up in opposition to the Regular Republican ticket and both were elected. It is interesting to note that almost half of their votes came from the most Federalist district within that county. It does appear that in both places, much of the support for these candidates was drawn from Federalists. Throughout the states, regularly nominated Republican candidates faced opposition from others within their party, a further reflection of dissatisfaction with the nomination process.
- Kentucky 1822 House of Representatives, Bullitt County, Assembly, Fayette County and Assembly, Franklin and Owen Counties, 1823 Assembly, Fayette County and 1824 Assembly, Madison County: The Relief and Anti-Relief (or Constitutionalist) Tickets. The Relief and Anti-Relief parties were a reaction to the crisis caused by the national economic downturn [Panic of 1819] and how the state of Kentucky was dealing with the aftermath.
- Maryland 1823 House of Delegates, Washington County: The Jew-Bill Ticket and the No Jew-Bill Ticket. This was in reference to the bill, eventually passed in 1826, that removed the Christian oath requirement for public office in Maryland.
- Pennsylvania 1824 Commissioner, Moyamensing Township: The People's ticket and the Family Ticket.
- Pennsylvania 1824 Commissioner, Southwark District: The 25 Cent ticket and the Quality Ticket.
- Kentucky 1824 House of Representatives, Bourbon, Fayette, Franklin, Mercer and Washington Counties: The Court Ticket and the Country Ticket.