Kentucky’s drive to attain statehood–independence from Virginia–formally began in September, 1784. It ended successfully in spring 1791. Tennessee’s started in the same year, in October, and settled out in 1796–but that is deceiving: Kentucky, by 1790, had surpassed the federal threshold of 60,000 population and could apply for statehood, while Tennessee reached that threshold late in 1795. A reasonable way to approach the temporal/population gap in attaining statehood is that by 1791 both states had finalized their approach to statehood and both had begun to formalize their policy systems. Also both states faced similar environments and domestic dynamics in the post-1791 period, although the intensity of Indian conflict in Tennessee and a sustained surge in Kentucky migration inflows clearly put the latter on the higher ground, further confirmed by it being a recognized state, while Tennessee was still a work in process.

The point of the previous paragraph is that the period between 1783 and 1791 was most critical to both states in their quest to attain statehood. Tennessee’s path was chaotic, an aborted cession, a secession by the State of Franklin, a semi-serious flirtation with independent state/nation, a political elite criss-crossed with factions and riddled with land-acquisition schemes, then a final, controversial second cession to the federal government, followed by the creation of the federal-led Southwest Territory. Federal management of Tennessee on the whole was favorable to Tennessee’s development and political stabilization, but it left in its wake a new state with few ties to its mother-state North Carolina, and an initial policy system that lacked roots and functioning institutions.We will deal with Tennessee, however, after first discussing Kentucky’s path or drive to statehood. Kentucky went first, and the political environment central to Kentucky’s drive differed meaningfully from the environment Tennessee encountered.

The Kentucky Constitutional Convention of 1792 represented the culmination of the struggles over the institutional shape of the future state, the first on the trans-Appalachian frontier. At issue here were the traditional institutions gradually carried into and adopted in the western country …  since the first permanent Anglo-American settlement. Those dealt specifically with the protection of property  and the adoption of the English common law, with its large body of precedent and its widespread use of lawyers [1]

Kentucky’s Drive for Statehood

Kentucky’s drive to statehood, I think, can best be understood by recognizing the existence of a centripetal and centrifugal dynamics  that interwove themselves into a push-pull-driven  process that if anything, makes it difficult to understand–and follow–when viewed two hundred years later. Thus far I have argued that Kentucky was in many ways a creature of its mother-state Virginia. I do not depart from that position in this module, but insert a second dynamic that many chaffed at Virginia governance and administration, while others were open to a future as something other than the fifteenth state of a new and apparently floundering Early Republic. While not rejecting the influence and inheritance of Virginia institutions, Kentucky elites had to overcome its perceived shortcomings–and substantial elements of its new migrant population had their own ideas which squared not at all with its more traditional Virginia-Tidewater elites. There were several conflicting parallel cross-currents and eddies that flowed through the Kentucky drive to statehood. The trick, I think, to understand these flows is to recognize the bedrock role Virginia elites and institutions played in holding a moderate center that ultimately prevailed in 1792–amazingly, I must confess only to be checked and re balanced in 1799. One step at a time. First the reader might remember Kentucky was in this period the western counties of Virginia.

Kentucky began to grow and grow rapidly, from twelve thousand to forth thousand people in four years. The change flowed in part from the creation of political units that began with Virginia’s organization of Kentucky County that began in 1776 … power was now rooted in the continuing influence of Virginia. The officials of this Virginia county court [the Kentucky County Court] were only the first of a huge corps of appointed officials who would fill public office on the trans-Appalachian frontier. Joining them were the surveyors of land claims, and after 1779, the all-powerful land commissioners. This group of leaders achieved prominence and power through its control of the machinery of what Virginia recognized as legitimate form of government, and in the final analysis their impact on the frontier would be much greater than that of the early Indian fighters and pathfinders [i.e. Kentucky’s first pioneer domestic elite]. …. Throughout the decade before statehood … vigorous political struggles continued at the county level. The influence of the county was wide and lasting. The county court passed judgement on  a broad range of economic, political and social matters that directly affected the lives of frontier people. Members of county courts often appointed their own successors. As a self-contained political unit with enormous influence, the county became the focal point of politics [2] 

Given that Virginian law incorporated primogeniture until it was officially removed in 1785, Kentucky in 1783 was literally an generational offspring of a mother-state.

Centripetal and Centrifugal Dynamics Viewed from 40,000 Feet

Virginia supplied the majority of Kentucky migrants, be they  second generation or multi-generation 17th century Royalists and their indentured servants–and slaves. They came mostly over land routes outlined in previous modules. But it also might be remember that large numbers–non-Virginians–flowed down from the north on the rivers. The brought with them non-Tidewater cultures and the experiences of other colonies. Pittsburgh, and the flock that descended on it, were a major source of Kentucky’s earliest settlers.

The settlement of Kentucky was accelerated by the practice of Virginia paying Revolutionary soldiers in land warrants entitling the holder to locate his grant in western lands. Many of these warrants were purchased cheaply by speculators. The advanced of the frontier into the Bluegrass Region was financed by speculators and most of the good land was acquired by masterful men with money. ‘The Bluegrass country … was never a poor man’s frontier’. The poor people settled principally below the Green River where they later followed the leadership of the demagogue [populist] Felix Grundy [2a].

Philadelphia, its financiers and land speculators, had tentacles reaching into Kentucky. Philadelphia could “launder” Tidewater (including Maryland) plantation owners through education, marriage, and career, and send them on to Kentucky by way of Pittsburgh. Such was the experience of James Wilkinson, a character of immeasurable impact on the affairs described in this module. Kentucky’s  rapid in-migration brought with it a counter current of cultures and peoples not tied to Virginia politics or culture. More independent, they were receptive to finding their own path for Kentucky, with little loyalty to Virginia. So political and cultural diversity Kentucky had in abundance–but the bulk of its elite were loyal Virginian plantation owners and middle class professionals.

Nevertheless this openness generated a desire for Kentucky statehood, and a series of statehood “petitions” from “Kentucky” counties to the Virginia legislature. The petitions reflected genuine concerns over events and situations, and real dissatisfaction with elements of Virginia’s implementation of law/administration and its Kentucky-relevant governance in general. Amazingly, petitions were also sent to the national government, the Articles of Confederation as well. The Articles’ Congress was then feuding with the Virginia legislature over Kentucky public land ownership–and since many Virginia elites, folk like George Washington and Thomas Paine for two, owned land in western territories, they were more than anxious as to the intentions of Articles’s decision-makers. That prompted Virginia to both take Kentucky complaints seriously, just in case they were able to convince the Articles to get involved. Virginia, for example, had just passed legislation awarding Kentucky land grants, instead of pensions or pay, to its Revolutionary War veterans, and use of “Virginia” public lands for this purpose could be be questioned by the Articles, who might want to sell those lands to pay their own bills.

But to many Kentucky residents, in addition to statehood assistance the Articles represented a potential major resource in their struggles with Native Americans. That issue was still hugely critical to 1780’s Kentucky. There was, however, one major fly to using the federal government as the savior to Kentucky’s problems. The Articles Congress tended to reflect “northern coastal states” not all of which were sympathetic to slavery, western expansion–or to foreign trade using the Mississippi River. “Go West Young Man” was far from a national consensus in 1790, especially among northern commercial elites. There was a genuine fear in Kentucky the Articles did not rank free trade on the Mississippi as central to their version of economic growth and development. The 1785-87 years were the high water of the so-called “Spanish Conspiracy”–and as we shall soon see, Kentucky played a major role in it. In any case, the use of the federal government as a lever to negotiate a favorable statehood deal, or even to have the feds actually manage the drive to statehood, was an interesting option, somewhat attractive, and somewhat scary. That much of the Kentucky drive to statehood process was conducted in the transition from the Articles to a new constitution and a new Early Republic, caused considerable hope, fears, and confusion-delay in Kentucky’s drive to statehood.

This bewildering swirl of cross-currents injected an openness among Kentucky elites to whether the federal government should get involved, a fear that it would become involved–and a “wonder” if the way to proceed was to have Kentucky, at least initially, become not the fifteenth state, but an independent nation. As an independent nation Kentucky could negotiate its own solution to the meddling by England and Spain with Native Americans and Mississippi trade–or it could use the threat of such independence in its negotiations with the Articles and with Virginia. Among those Kentucky elites consumed by land speculation and wealth accumulation an open West offered its own enticements and opportunities.

Today, these swirls are long lost in the fog of history. That they were very real in those days is almost trivial and laughable today. As the reader proceeds through this module, and others that will follow, take seriously these swirls, and the people associated with them. Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton, at least in part, because of them. But flirtation with state western state independence, while tempered a bit by the 1795 Jay’s Treaty, never seriously abated until the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.

In any case,

Given the barriers imposed by geography, and the isolation of Kentucky counties from the Virginia legislature in Richmond (moved there by Governor Thomas Jefferson), local trans-Appalachian counties, and their elites, enjoyed considered autonomy and some discretion–at the expense of not being able to have their needs heard and addressed by the Virginia legislature. Some of these needs, gunpowder for instance, were vital to daily life. Neither Kentucky or Tennessee possessed gunpowder of munitions manufacturing, so they had to import it by purchase–and they didn’t have the money. So they needed the state to pay–and it frequently wouldn’t. And even if it did, it took months. Simple realities such as this saturated daily life, and as Kentucky began its second population surge in 1784, it took no time at all for the population explosion to generate tensions and the logic of separate statehood was an obvious solution. The first (in a series of ten) statehood conventions was held in Danville in 1784.

Too Innumerable to Describe: Kentucky State Constitutional Conventions

The trigger for the December 1784 statehood convention was a perceived Indian attack on Lincoln County (Kentucky) in which its local militia colonel and station-founder, Benjamin Logan found himself and his militia unable to effectively mobile its defense or preventive attack. Logan took it to the “county court” and all hell broke loose, culminating in a call to send delegates (from Kentucky counties) to the convention. At that point Kentucky’s population was estimated at about 30,000 (Harrison, p.24). Thirty delegates arrived present for voting and they approved a resolution asserting their right to organize and hold a convention (representing the residents of their counties), and a second resolution asserting (Kentucky counties) as “entitled to equal Liberty and Privileges with brethren in the Eastern part of this State”. With the arrival of Logan and Issac Shelby the next day, the latter was elected “chairman”, and the assemblage discussed, debated, whined about, a litany of concerns, complaints, wants and needs, including registering reports of wandering stray animals. Included in the venting sessions were a call to demand of Virginia that Kentucky statehood be approved. Shelby and the majority of the convention did not feel empowered by the voters to advance such a fundamental and controversial issue so they believed a second convention need to elected, specifically empowered to do so. A second convention was authorized for May 1785, along with elections. The drive to statehood had started.

At this point the reader is noticeably shuddering with excitement hoping that I will proceed to discuss all ten conventions in complete detail. Alas I will not. Instead, a paragraph summary will demarcate only key break points that lead to the final two conventions that completed the statehood approval in 1791. The reader desiring a more comprehensive treatment should consult Lowell H. Harrison, Kentucky’s Road to Statehood [3]. Rather than the convention process and debate, I will spend time outlining the factions that waged war, advocated their perspectives, and inserted their values into the constitution and its political structures and institutions. In that process I will introduce a couple of Kentucky initial political leaders, major leaders in the future first Kentucky policy system (Issac Shelby, George Nicholas, and James Wilkinson).

Virginia-Kentucky’s Version of Succession Statehood

Public agitation for Kentucky statehood began as early as 1780. Several formal petitions for statehood were filed as early as 1778 and 1780–another more aggressive petition in 1782. Of all people, Thomas Paine wrote a pamphlet, “the Public Good” claiming Virginia’s claim over the Kentucky counties was not valid, and even if it were valid it was in Virginia’s best interests to let it form into a new state. The publication gave some credence to the proposition that western lands beyond the Proclamation Line belonged to the British King, and that the 1783 Treaty with Great Britain in fact transferred those lands to the Articles. Paine, being Paine, stirred up Kentucky interest, both pro and con, and the matter was in constant debate from that time on. Two observations on debate, which extended for more than a decade was (1), Kentuckians were of different mind on statehood, and (2), they request it–petitioned for it, negotiated for it–with Virginia primarily. In an age of revolutions, this was always a legal and negotiated matter–even in the early years when populist types were in the ascendancy.

From the start, there was no one position that dominated local consensus. That in fact would continue through 1785. The flexibility to respond to Indian attacks, mentioned above added urgency to the topic, but in general it was the distance, both physical-communication and detachment of Virginia decision-makers to Kentucky needs and realities that generated the meat and potatoes interest in statehood. Danville was the informal Kentucky capital in these years; it was several hundred long, uncomfortable, and periodically unsafe miles from Richmond. The practical difficulties inhibited civil rights and the effectiveness of Virginia’s rule of law; in particular, it was virtually impossible to appeal a local court decision. On the chronic issue of land claims, that meant the land commissioners were all-powerful. There was no postal route into Kentucky at this time. Virginia taxed land sales, of course a big deal in Kentucky, and Kentucky got no discernible benefit from it.

Apparently, the issue that unified the various groupings in the debate was a solid consensus that Kentucky’s future was tied to the Mississippi  River (and its tributaries), and that meant commercial and economic growth. Free navigation to New Orleans was their specific rallying argument. In 1784, Spanish authorities closed the river to American traffic, and that brought the debate to a boiling point. The Articles ambassador who negotiated the American position, John Jay, was willing to waive the Article’s right to Mississippi access for twenty-five years–giving credence to fears and perception the national government did not share Kentucky (and Tennessee’s) position on free navigation. Scots-Irish in particular, never much willing to trust far away governments, saw the Articles’s indifference as indicating the hearts and minds of eastern port cities were not their allies. Jay’s Treaty in any case was blocked by Virginia–but this was not to be the last we hear of John Jay and foreign trade treaties that affected the western trans-Appalachian states.

The spark that lit the statehood fire was a 1784 Indian raid on Logan’s Station. The uproar it caused made a hero out of its leader and militia chief, Colonel Benjamin Logan, a leader of at least equal standing as Daniel Boone (Logan BTW was Richard Henderson’s chief enemy). Logan’s tribulations and his demand for resolution mobilized all factions , and when Logan called a meeting in Danville (December, 17 1784) to discuss the matter, the meeting turned out to be the first “Kentucky Convention”, of nine to follow through 1792, that debated statehood. From the start, statehood and ‘convention politics’ was an elite affair, with periodic media outbursts. Hard and fast positions were few and over the years elite leaders were on many sides of the issue. That elite consensus did not exist, and that populist sentiment in favor of statehood was mostly confined to the “complaint and comment” level of intensity is one major reason the negotiated process with Virginia took so long to resolve. Even the conventions often wandered into other issues in their deliberations, and one convention simply packed up to join an expedition against Indians. Delegations to the various conventions were sent by counties, and were determined by each county’s procedures. The Conventions were the first all or pan Kentucky assemblies in its history–and deliberations among the counties and their leadership were the first time Kentucky had come together in a deliberative body. They were to be the midwife for the future state policy system.

Lest the reader conceive the Kentucky drive to statehood as a hostile and hard-fought affair, wrung from an unwilling Virginia, that was not at all accurate. True Jefferson and his allies Monroe and Madison were essentially opposed–desiring a larger and more powerful Virginia to wage its own power struggles within the Federal Union–they eventually were diverted by the former’s Ambassadorship to France, and Madison’s compelling role as the principal author of the Constitution. By the Third Convention (August 1785), Kentucky had made clear to Virginia it wanted to break away, and in response Virginia approved its “First Enabling Act. This Enabling Act and others that followed were terms and conditions for Virginia’s approval of Kentucky statehood. The terms were never unreasonable; they were understandable and reflected Virginia interests. That Act promised its willingness to spin off Kentucky and specified its initial terms for doing so.

This was the first in four such “Enabling Acts” which further narrowed down terms so that eventually they were acceptable to Kentucky, and its voters. Virginia’s terms were not unreasonable from her perspective, but it did take some time for the delegates of the Kentucky statehood conventions to determine exactly what they wanted–they were quite fractured, and a number of the conventions essentially continued debate into a future convention. One convention effectively adjourned so the delegates could fight an Indian attack. Shelby was a player, although he was not necessarily a successful one. It is helpful that we next take some time to examine some of these internal Kentucky divisions so that we can understand the forces that would become important when statehood was achieved. It was at the critical Third Convention that a domestic consensus for statehood jelled among the factions and leaders–and James Wilkinson as a, if not the, leader of a major faction (the “court faction) enters the picture. His disruptive role through the Seventh Convention in 1788 is a major reason the negotiations extended as long as they did. The next several state conventions were consumed or reflected Wilkinson’s antics.

James Wilkinson and Kentucky’s Spanish Conspiracy

James Wilkinson

Wilkinson deserves some mention, not only for his role in Kentucky’s drive to statehood, but also to introduce him for a major role during the first decades of Kentucky (and national) politics. A Maryland Tidewater plantation heritage, Wilkinson had gone to college in Philadelphia and married the daughter of its most wealthy businessman-one of the wealthiest in North America (the Biddle family). The Biddle family were closely associated with a rising young politician. Aaron Burr. Wilkinson joined the Continental Army at its very beginning during the siege of Boston, served with Benedict Arnold in his invasion of Quebec, and was an aide to General Gates at the Battle of Saratoga. Entrusted with the news of victory, it was Wilkinson who notified the Articles Congress of the victory in what was the turning point of the Revolutionary War. At twenty years of age, he was made brigadier General and was appointed to serve on the Congress Board of War (its War Department).

A total gossiper he became involved in the cabal to oust Washington from his command, and replace him with General Gates. Washington won out, and Wilkinson was sent off to a remote desk job, leaving the Army in 1781. He moved into Kentucky in 1784 and almost immediately became a leader in the drive to statehood. It was a Wilkinson drafted document that in effect served as Kentucky’s Declaration of Independence from Virginia that in form and spirit constituted the major decision of the Third Convention [4].

Wilkinson became heavily involved when between the Third and Fourth Conventions Kentucky and Virginia came together and were very close to a negotiated settlement of the issues and preconditions included in the Virginia’s First Enabling Act. The matter would have been brought to a final vote at a Fourth Convention scheduled in September 1786–and during which a state constitutional convention would be convened. Statehood was expected to commence early in 1787. The seeming agreement perhaps surprisingly produced a backlash, and at that point concerns regarding free navigation of the Mississippi were raised. The court faction (see below) backed away from the consensus they had agreed to earlier–and James Wilkinson was now their clear leader, and they were now joined by Partisans who also had their Mississippi fears.

While some felt they should stay united with Virginia and let Virginia take the lead on free navigation, others like Wilkinson openly suggested that Kentucky become a free and independent NATION, not state. Wilkinson delivered a three and half hour speech on his position in a very contested election for the next convention. His opponent, Humphrey Marshall, a Federalist took the opposite opinion. Concerned he would loose the election, Wilkinson in command of the Lexington militia, called it out and send Humphrey voters back home. At this point convention politics during the Fourth Convention became chaotic and in the midst of that chaos Virginia compounded the matter by issuing a more specific Second Enabling Act–which more formally detailed the process by which each side would secure its approval to go forward and approve statehood and constitution. Unfortunately, the Second Act linked final approval to concurrence by the Articles, which by that time was in its final session expecting a new constitution to end its existence. To further compound affairs, after the Fourth Convention media leaks revealed that Wilkinson had traveled shortly beforehand to New Orleans where he had met with the Spanish Governor.

Wilkinson in fact had left Kentucky in April 1787, on flatboat, down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Wilkinson’s trip with freight and cargo seemed intended to force a confrontation–or negotiation with the Spanish on free trade for Kentuckians. Wilkinson in New Orleans wrote publicly that Kentucky might invade Spanish territory, as a separate nation from the United States. Would not Spain prefer to have Kentucky as an ally, he asked? Even better, would he want Kentucky immigrants into Spanish territory to populate Spanish-controlled territory. The Spanish Governor intrigued, a bit confused and quite on his own, conceded some level of free navigation to Wilkinson, and Wilkinson taking a round-about return by sea through Philadelphia eventually made his way back to Lexington in February 1788, arriving in the form of a small parade.

He convened a group of sympathetic delegates, and implied a number of half-defined and open-ended agreements with the Spanish Governor, that when translated to others took the form of a so-called “Spanish Conspiracy”. Wilkinson’s bluster and charisma attracted several of the convention’s key leadership to his side–although none were too sure just what they were, in fact, supporting. They were, it seems, united at that point that Kentucky should its own Nation. Rumors spread there was more to the deal than Wilkinson revealed, and conflicts among Wilkinson’s various comments became apparent. While his popularity skyrocketed, rumors about whether Wilkinson had signed on as a Spanish agent and provocateur rose to the surface. Philadelphia newspapers picked it up, and the rumors spread nationally–naturally reaching Virginia. Swirling rumor and policy confronted the Seventh Convention when it assembled.  Wilkinson was elected its chair. The debate produced new alignments and remarkably, the Convention agreed to Virginia’s Second Enabling Act.

What about Wilkinson, the reader asks? What happened? Ultimately, the delegates backed away from Kentucky independence, in any form. Across the nation a new Republic was forming, a new constitution was being approved by each of the states–which Wilkinson strongly opposed–and its momentum, the hopes generated by a new Union overwhelmed the Convention and it voted unanimously to seek orthodox statehood through Virginia. Doubts about “the deal”, the “conspiracy” were troublesome, but obvious to the delegates was Wilkinson had no authority from anybody to negotiate anything–and neither did the Seventh Convention. Nationhood and involvement with Spain in any form was a leap too far both legally and politically. Wilkinson, obviously frustrated, made a return trip to New Orleans and the Spanish Governor in which he negotiated a Yazoo River (Georgia) land grant, and a sum of money with which to bribe Kentucky officials to abandon their decision. Wilkinson himself, in hindsight, became a paid Spanish agent as well–and remained so until 1803–that however, remained a secret.

It would take more than three years to wade through, but from that point on, Virginia and the Kentucky Conventions were on the final runway to statehood. We will resume his discussion in our module on the Kentucky constitution.

As to Wilkinson, see footnote [9]

Factional Politics of the Kentucky Conventions

Patricia Watlington [5]  asserts the drive to Kentucky statehood was itself driven by the values and activities of three different political factions.

First, “the Partisans” were most often landless men, too poor to purchase good land, and too late to find it–held as it was by the aggrandizing Virginia elite plantations. Having no faith in Virginia government, they turned to the federal government (Articles) as their savior, despite their misgivings concerning the Mississippi River issue. Their views on governance upon attaining statehood was a radical [populist and unrestrained] democracy by Federalist standards.  Demanding land be redistributed from (mostly Virginia-born) landed elites, such populists linked the anticipated statehood to their own land ownership. Populist Partisans also thought their opponents to be fiscally profligate spendthrifts, and that inevitably meant higher taxes–on them. The 1785 version of today’s absentee corporation, was the Virginia “absentee landholder” who did not use the land he owned to farm or raise livestock/horses. These abusers of land were the ones that should be taxed the most.

They wanted as open a political franchise (eligibility to vote) as possible–certainly no property restrictions and poll tax.”They hoped to construct the outlines of a state in which the ‘farmer, the mechanic, and even the common laboring man have a voice … equal to the lawyer, the colonel or the general[6]. Often strongly religious, they, perhaps surprisingly, thought little of the African-American, but had no sympathy for slavery. This was further reinforced because their chief competitor for good land was the rising plantation owner class. Often “squatters”, they wanted a court system and land claims process that was sufficiently flexible to their needs for legal claims–easy to understand law and simplified court/legal procedures centralized in a special “land court”

The poor people demanded manhood suffrage, election of all local and state officials by the people [the long ballot], the ballot instead of the viva voce method [‘live voice, similar to today’s “the ayes have it”] practiced by Virginia, a legislature of one chamber, and strangely the omission of the bill of rights. The reason for this last demand was the fear of the [Populist Partisans] that a bill of rights would protect vested interests, including slavery, which they wished to abolish [6a].

The Partisan’s inability to wade through the seven year statehood process seriously limited their influence on debate and final outcomes, but they mustered one last stand in the eighth and ninth statehood conventions. Perhaps  the main thrust of the Partisans was their extreme fear of executive power, symbolized by George III and various colonial governors. Partisans were closely associated with Sons of Liberty (which was as much southern as northern/Massachusetts) and in the mid-1790’s were feeding the Citizen Genet’s Democratic Societies–which, as the reader knows became in this period political cells of the rapidly jelling Jeffersonian D-R Tribe. Supporting a one-house super-legislature necessarily meant a weak governor, elected by the Legislature. In a nutshell, Partisans wanted a government that was “local, democratic, simple and cheap[7].  The overlap with our “populists” screams out. Isolated in hinterlands, perhaps the ‘silent majority’ of Early Republic political life.  Most Kentuckians were effectively outside of politics, and not willing to advocate positions on complicated statehood schemes which, they no doubt, fatalistically believed would change little.

The “Gentry” were the perceived as opposed to anything the Partisans advocated  As described by Watlington, the Gentry broke into two factions which she labeled as “country“, large landowners, and the “court” faction literally because their occupations were related to land claims and legal processes: land speculation and lawyers. It seems the latter were more successfully wooed by a Third Group, centered on the activities and interests of James Wilkinson. Whether court or country there was a huge overlap of Gentry and Virginia-born plantation owners. A small minority of the state’s population, they stressed continuity with colonial political culture’s pre-democracy “deference politics” and policy-making. More compatible to Burkesian elites, they argued they were better-suited to rule–and  that appealed to many who were unmotivated to put aside personal and individual concerns, for intense political involvement. “If the Gentry want to mess around in politics, let them do it-I don’t

In the rapidly polarizing partisanship of the 1790’s, the Gentry had its sprinkling of Federalists, but most would, using future Governor Shelby as an example, wind up as D-Rs. But their version of D-R included a more state-rights sensitive Federalist economic development perspective. In fact they reluctantly could support economic development and limited state-building institutionalization, which included state banks and a state version of Hamilton’s public credit initiative. Like Jefferson they could support a an radically open electoral franchise. More often anti-Federalist, they were surprisingly liberal or libertarian in their commitment to a limited government, narrow interpretation of the Constitution, and intense support for the Bill of Rights which was in process of being approved by the states during this period. Said and done, what we today link with “states rights”, a decentralized federalism centered on states was the centerpiece, or default button in their approach to national government. The early pre-Whig Kentucky Virginia-born Constitutional Convention Gentry leader, and in fact was it presiding speaker, through most of the various conventions, was George Nicholas.We shall discuss this gentlemen in our module on the Kentucky constitution.

The “country faction”plantation owners were not about to surrender one square inch of land to anyone. Many were war heroes and were intense Patriots, they identified with the new democracy and were sensitive to the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation–particularly in its inability to confront Native American and British attacks on western lands. They also believed the Federal government should sternly enforce traditional English property rights. Possessed of a streak of anti-capitalism, which found capitalist finance epitomized in Robert Morris, repulsive, ungentlemanly, if not immoral, they were not adverse to trade and agricultural versions of capitalism–and manufacturing useful to agriculture, or necessary for domestic life in the newly-settled west.

The “Court” faction were the “experts”, the lawyers and judges who often were in process of assembling their own land ownership  (aspirational)—they always had a “dog in the land ownership game”. Well-educated, involved, and quite noisy, they were strong proponents of economic development, including infrastructure, banking, and manufacturing which was critical to their and the collective’s prosperity. Skeptical of many northern Federalists who seemed unwilling to allow western development to dissipate their head start in those new economic clusters, they identified with a certain trans-Appalachian regional patriotism. With mixed feeling on the reliability of the national government to Kentucky’s long term interests, they were willing, to consider whether an independent nation-state was best, or at least a good tactic. That last point divided the court and country factions most in the statehood convention process. For the most part, however, Watlington believes personal antagonisms, opportunities, and personality rivalries were at the core of their differences.

It was left to George Nicholas to muster the votes to resist both Partisan–and James Wilkinson (see below) onslaughts. A future professor of law at Transylvania University and so obese, his friend James Madison once described him as “a plum pudding with legs”, Nicholas didn’t write the Kentucky constitution, but without doubt, he was its political author. Critical and powerful, Nicholas was not neutral in terms of his view of what Kentucky’s constitution should resemble and achieve: “The conservatives led by George Nicholas wished to make the new state a replica of Virginia, with the institution of slavery as the basis for aristocratic control[7a].

Over the seventeen days of the state constitutional convention his was the voice that overcame the debate, and his was the vision that Gentry could unify under.”He argued that a new society such as Kentucky’s required a government more stable and better run than those to the east of the mountains in order to ensure that the new State of Kentucky would grow and mature … [he] emphasized protection of property in order to ensure that Kentucky would attract immigrants of substance and standing. So Nicholas proposed to control the power of local county interests by a strong executive [governor]. Nicholas [would] add a Senate to balance the popularly elected House of Representatives. … Nicholas appealed to the common denominator that united all Kentuckians, namely the need to grow. [He sought} to provide the best conditions for future immigration[8]. The first Kentucky state constitution that emerged can be summarized as containing: [unrestricted] provisions for manhood suffrage, the second in the nation to do so [Pennsylvania the first], the ballot [not viva voce], the apportionment of representation in the legislature according to population [which included slaves, and rejected Virginia’s county-based apportionment], slavery was preserved,  ministers were disqualified from serving in the legislature [separation of powers],and both the governor and the senate were to be chosen by an electoral college [checks and balances]. “With a frame of government influenced both by Virginia, and by the democratic constitution of Pennsylvania, Kentucky was admitted to the Union in 1792 [8a]”.

The Ninth Convention (July, 1790)  accepted Virginia’s Fourth Enabling Act, and called for the a constitutional convention. A separate constitutional convention was held in early 1792, met for eighteen days, produced the constitution, and sent it to Congress around May 1, 1792. The Tenth Convention approved Virginia’s final terms on April 19th, 1792; the matter was not submitted to voters for their approval. The Federal Congress approved statehood on June 1, 1792–the fifteenth state in the Union.

Wrap Up

In Nicholas we can see the key thread that united Tidewater D-Rs with Washington Federalists, the need to grow and to create conditions through a strong ED agenda that led to growth. Whether this is the seen for eventual Tidewater D-R, the Virginia Dynasty, failure, or an inner tension that was never to be resolved, it was to be incorporated into post-1820 Whig and northern Democrat approach to ED. Part of the reason for this continuity is that Henry Clay, upon arrival in Lexington, apprenticed himself to Nicholas and worked in his law firm and within a decade joined Nicholas as faculty member in Transylvania’s School of Law. In Nicholas we can also see the tenuous balance of anti-Federalism D-R, the attachment to a strong bill of rights, but also the equally strong Madisonian belief in checks and balances, separation of powers as means to temper popular majorities. Nicholas crafted first Kentucky Constitution essentially traded off a election franchise without property and religious restrictions–and the extension of that to eligibility for holding office–with a very strong separation of powers, checks and balances and slavery, preserving the core of political power in the hands of plantation owners. The intriguing question of how an open franchise and an ability of all classes to become officeholders, combined with a second bite of the constitutional apple (i.e. allowing a review of the constitution in seven years), would provide an opportunity to undo Nicholas’s delicate compromise. That question will be dealt with in the next module.


It would be a Tidewater scion that, after 1800 would emerge as Kentucky’s dominant and leading politician, and whose leadership would carry over to the national level, becoming the nation’s chief political force into 1850. That leader was Henry Clay, a man lost to American history, but one of the most fundamental in our history of American economic development. Interestingly, Clay’s chief opponent, with which he had a semi-duel, was Tennessee’s Andrew Jackson. Both advocated a 180 degree ideologically-opposed political/ED visions that profoundly impacted the policy and strategies choices chosen by state, local and the federal policy system. The economic development approach espoused by these two fellows  radically defined the parameters and dynamics of American ED through the Civil War. Moreover, their heritage as important determinants of Contemporary Era economic development continues, silently and unnoticed. Encased and embedded within our existing political infrastructure, like the trunk of a large tree, they are obscured by the more visible branches, leaves and fruit.–where the action is perceived to be.

The amazing future reality is that the embedded structural heritage would be put to opposing ideological goals/political uses over the next hundred years. Political structures it seems, can like a car be driven in opposite directions–depending on the vision of the driver behind the wheel, its political elites. In any case, infusion of the Tidewater culture, mainly through Virginia-born or raised migrants, mostly scions of its coastal and western planter elites, carried with it an unique Tidewater approach to state and local economic development. In several states, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois come to mind, that culture would clash and compromise with other cultures, but less so in Kentucky. We will greatly develop this theme in Part II


[1] Mathew Rohrbough, Trans-Appalachian Frontier: People, Societies and Institutions, 1775-1850 (3rd Ed) (Indiana University Press, 2008), p. 70

[2]  Mathew Rohrbough,Trans-Appalachian Frontier, p. 531.

[2a] Clement Eaton, a History of the Old South: the Emergence of a Reluctant Nation (3rd ED) (Macmillan Publishing, 1975), p. 126. Internal quote from Thomas Abernethy, Three Virginia Frontiers (Baton Rouge, 1940), p.65.

[3] Lowell H. Harrison, Kentucky’s Road to Statehood (University Press of Kentucky, 1992)

[4] Lowell H. Harrison, Kentucky’s Road to Statehood, pp. 35-41.

[5] Patricia Watlington, the Partisan Spirit: Kentucky Politics, 1779-1792 (New York 1972)

[6] Mathew Rohrbough, Trans-Appalachian Frontier, p. 71

[6a] Clement Eaton, a History of the Old South: the Emergence of a Reluctant Nation (3rd ED) (Macmillan Publishing, 1975),  p. 127

[7] Mathew Rohrbough, Trans-Appalachian Frontier, p. 70

[7a] Clement Eaton, a History of the Old South, p. 127

[8] Mathew Rohrbough, Trans-Appalachian Frontier,pp. 71-2.

[8a] Clement Eaton, a History of the Old South, p. 127

[9] In 1791 Wilkinson co-commanded the Kentucky militia in the St Clair debacle, Battle of the Wabash. In 1802 Wilkinson will ally himself with Vice-President Aaron Burr in perhaps the greatest scandals and conspiracy to ever haunt American history. As a delegate at the various Kentucky Conventions, Wilkinson maneuvered the byways and backrooms of the convention, and by the fifth convention had become a force of his own, with his own delegate constituency. By the Fifth Convention he rose to prominence as the de facto leader of the “court” fraction. In April 1787 he traveled semi-secretly to New Orleans, and began what would be a long-standing retainer-based relationship with the Spanish government. That Spain saw the independent Kentucky nation as a vassal state or at least some kind of buffer is logical–but the Spanish Governor was wary and nothing formal every happened. In any case, someone has to make a movie about this guy. Historian Robert Leckie described him as “a general who never won a battle, and never lost a court-martial“, he rose to become commander-in-chief of the American Army and Governor of the Louisiana Territory, then U.S. Ambassador to Mexico which was amazing in that he was a known conspirator from his activities in the drive to Kentucky statehood. He was a player in Jefferson-led impeachment of Aaron Burr–and rose to even more power afterwards. Described by Theodore Roosevelt as there being “no more despicable character in American history” (beating out not only Burr but Benedict Arnold). Lest economic developers think they would not be contaminated by him, it is worth note he sold his plantation so that it could become today’s Frankfurt’s (the state capital) central business district. Wilkinson personally designed its physical layout–so he’s a planner too. Anyway, he is buried in Mexico City which somehow seems appropriate.