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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

History of Kentucky's Governors (1871-1891)

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. 

1871-1875 Term

When Gov. John White Stevenson was elected to the U.S. Senate in February 1871, as there was not a Lt. Governor, Senate President Preston H. Leslie became governor for the final 6 months of Stevenson’s term.  Leslie obtained the Democratic nomination for governor for the regularly scheduled August General Election of 1871.  Leslie’s Republican opponent that year was the future U.S. Supreme Court Justice, John Marshall Harlan who wrote the minority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.

Preston Leslie was born in Clinton County, (then Wayne County) Kentucky on March 8, 1819. He was educated in the public schools of the day and studied law under Judge Rice Maxey.  Prior to practicing law, Leslie worked as a stagecoach driver, ferryboat worker and store clerk, in addition to working on the family farm with his father.

Leslie was admitted to the practice of law in October 1840 and served the deputy clerk of the Clinton County Courts.  In 1841, he moved to Tompkinsville where he farmed and practiced law. In 1842, he became Monroe County Attorney.

On November 11, 1841, Leslie married Louisa Black.  They had seven children.  Louisa died on August 9, 1858.  A year later, he married a widow Mary Maupin Kuykendall on November 17, 1859.  They had three children.

Prior to the Civil War, Preston Leslie had been elected to the Kentucky House and Senate as a Whig due to his admiration of Henry Clay.  With Clay’s death and that of the Whig Party, Leslie became a Democrat.

Preston Leslie did not participate in the Civil War as he had southern sympathies, but he did not believe that southern states should succeed.

After the War, Preston Leslie was elected to the KY Senate from the district which included Barren County.  As a state senator, he was elected Senate President in 1869 until becoming governor in February 1871.

The 1871 contest for Kentucky Governor was unusual in that Preston Leslie and John Marshall Harlan, his Republican opponent, traveled throughout the state together and even “slept together”.  For the most part, they spoke to the same audiences on the same platforms and on many days slept in the same bed after a day of rigorous campaigning where they often discussed the events of the day in good humor.

One story about the campaign told by Justice Harlan tells, “one night near the end of the struggle, as they lay in the same bed, he (Harlan) said to his bed-fellow, “I feel sure that the next governor of Kentucky occupies this bed tonight,” which prophetic remark was somewhat emphasized the next morning.  Mr. Harlan woke up first, and Leslie from the bed called out, “I say, Harlan, you may well say the next governor of Kentucky occupies this bed.”

Leslie beat Harlan in the election.  It was also significant in that it was the first time a large number of blacks participated in a gubernatorial election in Kentucky.

Leslie’s challenges as governor included putting an end to the violence caused by bands left over from the Civil War called “bushwackers” and putting down Klan violence.

Successful legislation submitted and passed by Governor Leslie included allowing blacks to testify against whites in state courts.  Being a temperance man and good Baptist, he supported legislation which regulated the sale of alcoholic beverages in Kentucky for the first time.  A Board of Pharmacy was created as was an agency for educating black children in public schools in Kentucky.

Upon leaving the Governor’s Office, Preston Leslie served as a Circuit Judge in Barren County and was appointed by President Grover Cleveland as Governor of Montana Territory.  A story relating to the appointment is set forth below.

In 1887, when President Grover Cleveland was trying to decide who to appoint as governor of the Montana Territory, Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan told Cleveland, “Mr. President, I can name you a man, who, for integrity and ability, will fully measure up to the requirements; a man against whom I can say but one thing. He once beat me for governor of Kentucky—but he made a splendid officer, no doubt about that.”  “If he beat you for governor of Kentucky” said the president, “and yet retained your high regard and warm friendship, he is just the man I’m looking for, and I’ll appoint him.”  Immediately, President Cleveland sent Preston Leslie’s name to the U.S. Senate for confirmation.

After his appointment as Montana Territorial Governor in 1887, a term which he served until 1889, Leslie and his family stayed in Montana serving the U.S. Attorney for Montana from 1894 until 1898 under the second Cleveland Administration.

Leslie County, Kentucky was named in his honor.

1875-1879 1st Term
1911-1915 2nd Term

The 25th person to serve as governor of Kentucky was James B. McCreary of Madison County.  He served two non-consecutive terms.  His first term was from 1875 to 1879.  Then 32 years later, he served  a second term in 1911.  He is among three Kentucky Governors who were elected and served two non-consecutive terms, the others being Isaac Shelby and Happy Chandler.

McCreary was born on July 8, 1838 in Madison County.  He earned a bachelor’s degree at Centre College and a L.L.B. or law degree from Cumberland University in Tennessee in 1859.  He served as a Lt. Colonel in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.  After the war, he married Kate Hughes of Lexington.

McCreary also began  his political career with three terms in the Kentucky House, including two as House Speaker following the Civil War.  In the election of 1875, he campaign against the corruption of the Grant Administration and reconstruction policies.

McCreary’s first administration was not marked with legislative accomplishment.  Though a state board of health was established and charged with the responsibility of “public health”, including collecting vital statistics and inquiries into causes of diseases, death and epidemics.  It should be noted that state laws requiring the recording of births and deaths was not enacted until about 1910 in Kentucky.

Much of McCreary’s time during his first term includes attempting to stop the violence which continued to plague parts of the state.  Some of the worst violence was found in the mountain region stemming from “feuds” which was seen in the term “bloody” Breathitt County.  This can be seen in the November-December 1878 fight over who should escort an accused “wife murderer” from Lexington to Jackson for trial.  Essentially, two parties fought over who was to escort the prisoner for the fees generated by the mileage and transport of the prisoner.  As a result of this fight, Governor McCreary had to send 56 militia men to Jackson to attempt to restore order.

After leaving office in 1879, McCreary returned to Richmond to practice law.  In 1884, he was elected to his first of six terms representing Kentucky’s 8th Congressional District in the U.S. Congress.  In 1902, he was elected by the Kentucky legislature to a term in the U.S. Senate from 1903 to 1909.  While in Congress, he advocated the free coinage of silver.

In 1911 at age 73, he was elected to his second term as Kentucky’s Governor.  As a Democrat he ran as a “progressive”.  In his campaign, he supported direct election of U.S. Senators, direct primary to nominate candidates, a public utilities commission, an anti-lobby law and to fight against the “trusts” or monopolies.

In respect to getting reforms through the Kentucky legislature, McCreary was successful in creating Department of Banking and the Compulsory (School) Attendance Act.    It was during McCreary’s second term that a new Governor’s Mansion was built for approximately $75,000.

McCreary County, formed in 1912, was named in the Governor’s honor during his second term.

McCreary died two years after leaving office in 1918.

1879-1883 Term

Dr. Luke Pryor Blackburn was the 26th person to serve as Kentucky Governor and the first physician.

Prior to his election as governor, the Woodford County native practiced medicine in Natchez, Mississippi, where he won national acclaim for his work in curtailing the spread of the “Yellow Fever” epidemic in the Mississippi Valley in the 1850’s.

Blackburn was born in Woodford County on June 16, 1816.  He graduated from Transylvania’s medical school in 1835.  The same year he married Ella Gist Boswell of Lexington.  The couple had one son, Cary.  Ella died in 1856.  He later married Julia Churchill of Louisville.

Blackburn’s younger brother Joseph C.S. Blackburn, born in 1838, was a U.S. Senator from Kentucky from 1885 to 1897.  Though a Democrat, he was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt as the Governor of the Panama Canal Zone from 1907-1909.

During the Civil War, Blackburn served as a civilian agent for the Confederate Government in Canada.  He also aided Confederate Blockade Runners from Canada.  Due to his expertise in yellow fever, he was accused of plotting to spread yellow fever throughout the northern American cities-which  would be considered bio-terrorism in the 21st Century.   His activities were so notorious that he was indicted in Toronto for violating Canadian neutrality.   He was acquitted.  However, due to his activities on behalf on the Confederacy, Blackburn lived in exile in Canada until 1872.

Upon leaving Canada, he returned to Kentucky to practice medicine.  He became well-known for his work giving aid to victims of yellow fever during the 1873 epidemic in Memphis, the 1877 epidemic in Florida and an 1878 epidemic in Western Kentucky where he became known as the “Hero of Hickman”.

In 1878, the “Hero of Hickman” was elected governor of Kentucky.  As governor, Blackburn encouraged the General Assembly to pass a variety of judicial, educational and public health reforms.  The Agriculture and Mechanical College was re-organized as the “State College”, ultimately to be known as the “University of Kentucky” in 1816.

Blackburn’s greatest single accomplishment as governor was to focus the need to reform Kentucky’s prisons.  He was successful in forcing attention to make changes to the state prison in Frankfort, known at that time as “Kentucky’s Black Hole of Calcutta” due to its crowded and unsanitary conditions.    He did this in part by issuing a large number of pardons when the legislature initially did not respond.  He issued over 1,000 pardons to alleviate prison overcrowding. Governor Blackburn became exceedingly unpopular due to the pardons gaining the nickname-“Lenient Luke”.

The General Assembly responded by authorizing a new state prison at Eddyville.  At Blackburn’s urging, the General Assembly passed legislation establishing Kentucky first system of parole.

After leaving office, he briefly practiced medicine before his death on September 14, 1887.

As most of Blackburn's work preventing the spread of yellow fever was done without compensation, the stone marking his grave has an inscription of the "Good Samaritan" in recognition for his work with the sick.

In recognition of Blackburn’s efforts at prison reform, the Commonwealth of Kentucky in 1971, named the Blackburn Correctional Facility in his honor.

1883-1887 Term

Prior to his election as Kentucky Governor in 1883, Proctor Knott was the elected attorney general for Missouri at the outset of the Civil War.

James Proctor Knott was born on August 29, 1830 in Marion County, Kentucky.  As to his education, he was tutored by his father Joseph and later attended public schools in Marion and Shelby Counties.  In 1848, he began to study law.  In 1851, he moved to Memphis, Missouri where he practiced law and served as clerk of the circuit and county courts.

Knott married Mary E. Forman in 1852.  She died in childbirth in 1853.

Knott’s political career began when he was elected in 1857 to the Missouri House of Representatives representing Scotland County.  In 1858, Knott was appointed to  fill an unexpired term of the Missouri Attorney General.  In 1859, Knott was elected to a full term as Attorney General of Missouri.

During the Civil War, Knott had sympathies for the south.  When approached by Union troops in Missouri’s capitol city of Jefferson City, he refused to make a pledge of loyalty to President Abraham Lincoln.  As a result, Knott resigned as Missouri Attorney General and was imprisoned in the St. Louis Arsenal by Union forces.  Soon after his release, Knott moved back to his roots in Marion County, Kentucky.

During his career as a U.S. Congressman, Knott made a satirical speech ridiculing funding of railroad expansion near Duluth, Minnesota.  This speech gave Knott national acclaim for its satire and gained untold publicity for Duluth; even though what Knott said about Duluth was negative.  The railroad who wanted the money named a rail siding  outside of Duluth for Knott even though he opposed it.  To read the speech in its entirety, go to  

As a result, a city on the railroad near Duluth was named Proctorknott in his honor and invited him to a dedication in 1891 where he was honored.  The name of the town was shortened to Proctor in 1904.  

Knott did not run for re-election to Congress in 1870, but instead sought the Democratic nomination for governor in 1871.  He was defeated by Preston Leslie.

Knott successfully ran for Congress in 1874 and served until 1883.  In 1883, Knott secured the Democratic nomination for Governor over former Congressman Thomas Jones of Newport.  He then defeated Republican Thomas Z. Morrow of Somerset.

Upon assuming the office of governor, Knott called for reform of the tax assessment, reform of state finances and overhaul of public education.  In doing so, he noted the “grossest disparity” between the assessed value of property and its market value.  This resulted in the creation of the state Board of Equalization whose duty was to see that assessments were more uniform throughout the Commonwealth.  He also advocated for the elimination of certain tax exemptions for corporations and elimination of lotteries.  He was unsuccessful in this last effort.

In respect to public education, Knott supported the passage of laws which made public education more uniform across the Commonwealth.

During Knott’s administration, Kentucky had extreme problems with violent crime.  The Rowan County War or “The Martin-Tolliver-Logan Feud” broke out on election day in 1884 and lasted over 3 years.  The Tolliver’s took control of the city of Morehead after driving Sheriff Cook Humphrey out of town in 1885.  An attempt  made to dissolve Rowan County was denied by the state.  Attorney Daniel Boone Logan gathered a vigilante army and in June 1887 won the final battle.  During this bloodshed in Rowan County, there were 20 killed and 16 wounded in a period of 3 years.  Unfortunately, Knott was not aggressive in combating the violence as some of his predecessors and successors.

He is best known as a fiscal conservative and one who lead for positive improvement of the public schools.

After leaving office, Knott practiced law in Frankfort and in 1890 served as a delegate to the constitutional convention which wrote the present Kentucky Constitution.  He taught at Centre College and helped found its law school.

He died in Lebanon, Kentucky where he is buried.

In addition to Proctor, Minnesota, Knott County was named in honor of Governor Knott.

1887-1891 Term

West Point Graduate and career soldier Simon Bolivar Buckner, a native of Munfordville and Hart County, became Kentucky’s 30th governor and the 28th person to serve as governor with his election in 1887.  Prior to his entry into politics, Buckner was a West Point (1844) friend of Ulysses Grant (West Point 1843). He served in the Mexican War and he was wounded at Churubusco and after that war taught at West Point.  He left his post at West Point due to his objection to mandatory chapel attendance.

On May 2, 1850, Buckner married Mary Jane Kingsbury.  Her father was also an army officer who had extensive real estate holdings in Chicago.  In 1855, Buckner resigned his army commission to assist his father-in-law in the real estate business in Chicago.  With the birth of his daughter, Lily in 1858, Buckner and his family returned to Kentucky.    

Prior to the Civil War, Buckner was active in the Kentucky and Illinois Militia.  He was an adjutant general of the Illinois militia and later had a similar position in Kentucky.  In 1861, Buckner represented Governor Magoffin in negotiations with Confederate and Union officials in an effort to preserve Kentucky’s neutrality.  Buckner was offered a commission as a Brigadier General in the Union Army.  He accepted one with the Confederate Army instead in September 1861.

In February 1862, Simon Bolivar Buckner was part of the Confederate command defending Western Kentucky and Northern Tennessee.  During Union General Grant’s campaign against Confederate forts on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, Buckner became one of the sole Confederate Generals at Fort Donelson when General Bedford Forrest fled.  As a result, he surrendered Fort Donelson to his friend from West Point, Union General Ulysses S. Grant.  Buckner had loaned Grant money in the previous decade.  In accepting Buckner’s surrender at Fort Donelson, Tennessee, Grant made sure Buckner had funds to make himself comfortable during his time as a POW.  He was part of a prisoner exchange in late 1862.  Upon his release, he was promoted to major-general.  On May 26, 1865, as a lieutenant general, Buckner surrendered the Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi.  As a result of his activities on behalf of the Confederacy, Buckner was prohibited from returning home to Kentucky until 1868.

After the war, he worked on the staff of the New Orleans’ Daily Crescent newspaper.  Upon returning to Kentucky, he became involved in commercial interests which resulted in him becoming extremely wealthy.  He also served as editor of Louisville’s Daily Courier.

In 1874, Buckner’s wife Mary Jane died after a long bout with tuberculosis.  He continued to live in Louisville until 1877 with his daughter Lily.  In 1877, he returned to his family home of “Glen Lily” in Hart County near Munfordville.  On June 10, 1885, Buckner then age 62, married Delia Claiborne, age 28 of Richmond.  The following year on July 16, 1886, their son Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. was born. (Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. was the commander of the 10th Army which invaded Okinawa.  General Simon Bolivar Buckner was the highest ranking officer to be killed by enemy fire during World War II.)

In 1887, he won a close race for governor over W.O. Bradley who would be elected governor in 1895.

As governor, Buckner made extensive use of the veto to kill private interest bills.

Much of Buckner's time was spent trying to curb the continuing problem of violence in the eastern part of the Commonwealth.  Soon after he was inaugurated, the Rowan County War escalated to vigilantism, when residents of the county organized a posse and killed several of the leaders of the feud. Though this essentially ended the feud, the violence had been so bad that Buckner's adjutant general recommended that legislature dissolve Rowan County (Morehead).  Further east in 1888, a posse from Kentucky entered the state of West Virginia and killed a leader of the Hatfield clan in the Hatfield-McCoy Feud. This caused a political conflict between Buckner and West Virginia Governor Emanuel Willis Wilson who complained that the raid was illegal. The matter was adjudicated in federal court, and Buckner was cleared of any connection to the raid. There was additional friction between Buckner and the Governor of West Virginia when West Virginia refused to extradite members of the Hatfield clan under indictment in Kentucky.  Violence broke out or escalated in Breathitt, Harlan, Letcher, Perry and Knott counties later in his term.

Governor Buckner proposed a number of “progressive bills” which were rejected by the legislature.  He was successful with the creation of a parole system for convicts, state board of tax equalization and codification of school laws.

After the 1888 session of the Kentucky General Assembly, Governor Buckner vetoed 60% of the 1,571 bills or about 942 pieces of legislation due to the fact Buckner believed they were special interest bills or were passed for the personal gain of individual legislators.  By vetoing over 942 bills, Buckner vetoed more bills than the previous ten governors put together.  Only one of those vetoes was overridden by the legislature.

The 1890 session of the Kentucky General Assembly failed to heed Buckner’s warning that he would continue to veto “special interest” legislation.  As a result, he vetoed half of the legislation passed in that session.  This caused the Kelly Axe Factory (formerly of Louisville) and the largest axe factory in the nation, to present him with a ceremonial “Veto Hatchet”.

One of Buckner’s vetoes in 1890 was the tax cut passed by the legislature.  Taxes had not been raised during Buckner’s term.  However, the tax cut as proposed would drain the treasury.  When the legislature overrode Buckner’s veto, the treasury was in fact drained.  Fortunately for the Commonwealth, Buckner was wealthy enough to make an interest free loan so the state had enough money to remain solvent until existing tax revenues were collected.

While Simon Bolivar Buckner is considered a successful governor, there was a financial scandal in 1888.  Buckner ordered a routine audit of the state’s finances which had not been done for years.  The audit revealed that the longtime state treasurer, James “Honest Dick” Tate had been mismanaging and embezzling the state’s money since at least 1872.  Faced with possible imprisonment, Tate was last seen taking a train from Frankfort to Cincinnati.  It was later discovered that he had taken at least $250,000 in cash with him.  The legislature soon thereafter impeached Tate and convicted him in absentia in order to declare the office of treasurer vacant.  Tate had been KY State Treasurer since 1867 and re-elected every two years.  As a result of Tate, the Kentucky Constitution of 1890 put consecutive term limits on the Constitutional Officers below Governor and Lt. Governor.

In 1890, Buckner was chosen as a delegate to the state's constitutional convention from Hart County.  In this capacity, he unsuccessfully sought to extend the governor's appointment powers and levy taxes on churches, clubs, and schools that made a profit.

After leaving the Governor’s Mansion, Buckner retired from politics except for a stint as the Vice Presidential candidate on the “Gold Democratic” Ticket with former Union General and Illinois Governor John Palmer for President.  This ticket was a protest against William Jennings Bryan and his policy of “free silver” in 1896.

By 1908, Buckner was the only living Confederate of the rank of Lt. General.

On January 8, 1914, he died at his home “Glen Lily” in Hart County, Kentucky.

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