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Friday, March 23, 2012

When Kentucky was the West


Kentucky Rising:  Democracy, Slavery, and Culture from the Early Republic to the Civil War
by James A. Ramage and Andrea S. Watkins
Lexington:  University Press of Kentucky and The Kentucky Historical Society
445 pp. $40

Review by Katherine Dalton

Entire contents copyright © 2012 by Katherine Dalton. All rights reserved.




This wide-ranging survey of Kentucky's history through 1865 has two advantages for the reader.  The book is organized by topic, and it covers a period of our history when Kentucky was a leader in education, politics and valor. 

It opens with the story of Henry Clay—from his not-so-humble beginnings in Virginia, to his national prominence, his “American system” and his efforts to keep the Union together while maintaining the States' legal rights to govern themselves on matters such as slavery. 

Clay was both loved as “Valiant Hal” and hated as “the Judas of the West” (Kentucky was America's early western frontier), and he was no Puritan and no fool.  Ramage and Watkins tell that when a New England woman charitably exclaimed to Clay's wife, Lucretia, “Isn't it a pity that your husband gambles so much!” Lucretia calmly answered, “Oh, I don't know.  He usually wins.”

Even in politics, even though Clay was accused of a “corrupt bargain” with John Quincy Adams and never won the Presidency he craved, that was true. 

When Clay died in 1850, his national eminence was so great that he lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington (the first person to do so), and then in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the Liberty Bell tolled for him.

The authors cover many topics, moving quickly but with detail:  Kentucky artists of the period, journalism, medicine, steamboats, the Mexican War and the War of 1812, whose centennial we are largely ignoring this year.  That's a shame, because Kentuckians played a great part in that war. Of the nearly 1900 Americans killed in it, 1200 were from Kentucky, and its heroes included Col. Richard M. Johnson of Fayette County (later Vice President under Martin Van Buren) and Col. George Croghan, who was born at Locust Grove in Louisville and was the nephew of William and George Rogers Clark. 

Here's another fact every Kentuckian should know:  with the exception of Senator John Pope--who wanted to declare war on  France as well as England--all of Kentucky's U.S. Senators and Representatives supported the 1812 war declaration, and then all of them except Pope and Clay enlisted.  Imagine that today.

In eight of the ten presidential elections right before 1860, a Kentuckian was a candidate for either President or Vice President.  (Often it was Henry Clay.) 

Under the Kentucky constitution of 1799, voting was conducted over three days, which gave voters in certain counties the chance to vote “early and often,” as the old joke goes.  In the 1832 election, for example, Oldham County tallied the votes of 163 percent of its voters. (Voting was not limited to one day till 1850.)

Kentucky Rising also devotes several chapters to slavery and to Kentucky's complicated history during the Civil War.  A state which was strongly pro-Union and which sent three-quarters of its soldiers into the Union Army, Kentucky was nevertheless a Southern State with many Southern sympathizers, and during the war it was ruled as occupied military territory and treated as enemy ground. 

My South Carolina friends like to say that Kentucky joined the Confederacy after 1865, but the tide of public opinion turned well before the war was over.  This was largely due to the interference in elections, loyalty oaths and retaliatory executions ordered by Union military commanders like Boyle and Burbridge, but Lincoln's own acts to suspend habeas corpus, silence the critical press even in the North and declare martial law were also hated.  Not to mention the Emancipation Proclamation. 

The authors of Kentucky Rising are nationalistic and unsympathetic to the injustice of slavery, but history is what it is, and the story of the “pacification” of an unseceded Kentucky is a painful one.  Ramage and Watkins give a useful retelling of it.  


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