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Sunday, September 13, 2015

History of Kentucky's Governors (1840-1867)

By Paul Whalen 

2015 is a Gubernatorial election year, with Republican candidate Matt Bevin set to take on Democratic candidate and current Kentucky Attorney General, Jack Conway. 

Fort Thomas resident, Paul Whalen, continues his look into the history of Kentucky's Governor's that will take us up to present day. 
Robert Perkins Letcher. 

Active in Kentucky and national politics for the first half of the 19th Century, Robert Perkins Letcher was elected Governor of Kentucky in 1840.

Letcher, the son of a brickyard owner in Lancaster, Kentucky became a lawyer practicing in Garrard County prior to his election to the Kentucky House of Representatives.  He was later elected to the U.S.  House of Representatives.  He represented a district which extended from Garrard County to Harlan County from 1823 to 1835.  When the Presidential Election of 1824 was deadlocked between Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, Letcher acted as an intermediary between Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams.  As a result of Letcher’s work, John Quincy Adams became President and Henry Clay became Secretary of State.  The appointment of Clay as Secretary of State by Adams, was called “the corrupt bargain” by Jackson.

For reasons unknown, Letcher was given the name of “Black Bob”.

In 1840, “Black Bob” was nominated by the Whig Party for Governor of Kentucky.  As in his congressional races, he exhibited the skills as a gifted campaigner with his stump speaking and debating skill.  He also played a fiddle at campaign rallies and often interrupted his opponents by playing his fiddle while they spoke.  He also took musical requests from the crowd.

Letcher assumed the office of Governor during the fourth year of the “Panic of 1837”.  As a result the state stopped construction on turnpikes and river improvements.  As a result, Letcher was able to cut the state’s deficit and create a small surplus in the state treasury.

After serving as Governor, Robert Letcher was appointed by President Zachery Taylor as the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico where he served for three years.

Letcher was married twice.   His first wife Susan Oden Epps died in 1816 and when he died in 1861 he was survived by his second wife Charlotte Robertson Letcher whom he called “the Queen”.

Letcher County was named in his honor.

Term 1844-1848

William Owsley was elected governor as a member of the Whig Party over Democratic candidate General William O. Butler a hero of the War of 1812 and US Congressman from 1839-1843.  It was a relatively close election with Owsley receiving 59,680 votes to Butler’s 55,056 votes.

It should be noted that Owsley’s opponent Butler had a distinguished military and political career.  After being defeated by Owsley, Butler served in the Mexican War as General Zachery Taylor’s second in command during the Battle of Monterrey in which he was wounded.  In 1848, Butler was the Democratic nominee for Vice President of the United States with Lewis Cass.  They were defeated by Zachery Taylor and Millard Fillmore.  In Kentucky, Butler has been honored by “General Butler State Park” and the City of Butler in Pendleton County.  At least two counties have been named for him including Butler County, Iowa and Butler County, Missouri.

Owsley was born in Virginia in March 1782 the third of thirteen children. Within the year his family moved near Crab Orchard in Lincoln County.

Owsley’s political career began with his election in 1809 to the KY House of Representatives.  Gov. Charles Scott appointed Owsley to the KY Court of Appeals in 1810.  When the numbers of seats on the Court were reduced he resigned his seat and then sought election again to the KY House in 1811.  With a vacancy on the Court of Appeals in 1813, Governor Shelby appointed Owsley to the Court.  Owsley served on the KY Court of Appeals until 1828.

After leaving the Court, Owsley developed a substantial law practice in Frankfort.  He returned to the KY House in 1831 and was elected to the KY Senate in 1832 where he served until his appointed by Governor Morehead as KY Secretary of State in 1834 until 1836.  In 1843, Owsley County was formed and named for Owsley one year prior to his 1844 election.

National events of the Mexican War and issues regarding slavery impacted Owsley’s term.  He pardoned the abolitionist Delia Webster for helping Calvin Fairbanks taking Lewis Hyden (a slave) and his family from Maysville to Ripley, Ohio on the Underground Railroad.  

Owsley’s major accomplishment was the appointment in 1847 of Robert J. Breckinridge as superintendent of public instruction.  Breckinridge is recognized as the father public education in 19th Century Kentucky.

Owsley’s term was tarnished by his dispute with Ben Hardin.  Owsley appointed Hardin as Secretary of State and then attempted to replace him but was prevented from doing so by the State Senate and the Court of Appeals.

After his term as governor was over in 1848, he retired to his farm in Boyle County.

In 1803, Owsley married Elizabeth Gill who had been one of his students when he taught school prior to beginning his law career.  They had six children and were married until her death in 1858.


Next to Henry Clay, John J. Crittenden was probably the most influential Kentucky statesman of the 19th Century.  Crittenden was elected Governor as a member of the Whig Party in 1848.

Crittenden was born in Woodford County in 1787.  He practiced law in Logan County.  He served briefly as Attorney General of Illinois Territory prior to returning to Kentucky where he was elected to represent Logan County in the Kentucky House of Representatives.  During that time he also served in the War of 1812 part of the time as an aide to Isaac Shelby in the Battle of the Thames.  During his last term in the legislature, he served as Speaker.

Prior to his election as Kentucky’s Governor, Crittenden had served three terms in the U.S. Senate and as Attorney General under Presidents William Henry Harrison and John Tyler.  When he entered the U.S. Senate in 1817, he was the youngest person to become a U.S. Senator.  It should be noted that his initial service in the U.S. Senate wer 14 years over 31 years.  ( 1817-1819; 1835-1841 and 1842-1848)

Between stints in public office, Crittenden was a renown attorney.  He was particularly in demand to defend those indicted for murder.

Crittenden’s accomplishments as Governor include securing passage of legislation authorizing local taxes for support of local public or “common” schools.  He also provided funding for public schools from a statewide 2% property tax as well as from proceeds from tolls on the Kentucky, Green and Barren Rivers.

Crittenden resigned as Governor in 1850 to serve as U.S. Attorney General under President Millard Fillmore.  During the illness of Secretary of State Daniel Webster, Crittenden served as Secretary of State for Fillmore.

After serving as Attorney General, Crittenden was elected to the U.S. Senate to serve a term from March 1855 to March 1861.  During that term, he became known for proposing the “Crittenden Compromise” ( a series of amendments to the U.S. Constitution) in order to avert the Civil War in December 1860.  Even after the failure of the Crittenden Compromise, Crittenden worked to keep Kentucky in the Union.

Crittenden was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1861 where he served until his death in July 1863.  He was survived by his third wife, Elizabeth Moss.

Crittenden had married Sarah Lee of Versailles in 1811.  They had seven children prior to Sarah’s death in September 1824.  In November 1826, Crittenden married Maria Knox Todd a widower with three children.  They later had two more children of their own.  Maria died in September 1851.  In February 1853, Crittenden married his third wife, the twice widowed Elizabeth Moss.

Terms –1850-1850 & 1867

Lt. Governor John Helm became governor for the final 13 months of John J. Crittenden’s term when he resigned to become President Fillmore’s Attorney General.  Helm would be elected to a full term 16 years later in 1867.

Helm was born in 1802 in Hardin County, near Elizabethtown.  Prior to his election as Lt. Governor,

Helm had been active in the Whig Party and served several terms in the Kentucky House of Representatives representing Hardin County, including a couple of terms as Speaker.

During his brief term as governor, Helm was a fiscal conservative.  Though he did support state sponsored stimulation of the economy with the state chartering of the L & N Railroad and the state sponsored geological survey.

Helm also supported legislation which would prevent voter fraud and violence at the polls including the prohibition against carrying concealed weapons.

After his first stint as governor, he served as president of the L& N Railroad beginning in 1854.  During the Civil War, Helm was targeted as Confederate sympathizer.  After his arrest by Union soldiers, Kentucky Governor Robinson was able to prevent his imprisonment.

In 1867, Helm was overwhelmingly elected Governor as a Democrat.  Unfortunately, Helm became ill and died five days after his inauguration (which had to be held in Elizabethtown due to Helm’s inability to travel to Frankfort.)  Helm was succeeded by his Lt. Governor John White Stevenson of Covington.

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