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Thursday, October 15, 2015

History of Kentucky's Governors (1900-1911)

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. 

 1900-1907 (Term)

John C.W. Beckham was  the grandson of the former Governor Charles “The Duke” Wickham, and was William Goebel’s Lt. Governor in the election of 1899.

Beckham was a native and resident of Bardstown, Kentucky.  He attended Central University, now Eastern Kentucky University prior to becoming a public school principal and beginning the study and practice of law.

Beckham served three terms in the Kentucky House of Representatives, becoming Speaker in 1898.  (Goebel was Senate President at that time)

He was sworn in as Governor after Goebel’s death on February 3, 1900 and following the appeals of the 1899 election to the General Assembly, the Franklin Circuit Court, the Kentucky Court of Appeals and a U.S. Supreme Court’s decision upholding the Kentucky Court of Appeals decision validating Goebel’s election.  A special election for KY Governor was held in November 1900 for the remainder of the term where Beckham was elected in his own right.  In the special election of November 1900, Beckham won over Republican John W. Yerkes.

As governor, Beckham sought to calm the state and unite the Democratic Party.  He avoided references to Goebel’s assassination during his inaugural address.  He intentionally was less progressive than Goebel.  His most progressive proposals were state taxation of out of state corporations operating in Kentucky and sought to regulate insurance companies during the 1906 General Assembly.  It should be noted that Republican Governor Charles Evans Hughes of New York popularized the regulation of insurance companies by the states.  At the same time, Beckham urged the General Assembly to create the office of “State Fire Marshall” in an effort to help lower fire insurance rates in Kentucky.

In February 1904, Beckham County, Kentucky was created in his honor.  The county seat was Olive Hill.  The short-lived 121st county was dissolved in April 1904.

Achievements of Beckham’s administration include the building of the “New State Capitol”, as well as expanding Central University in Richmond to the Eastern Kentucky State Normal School and the Western Kentucky State Normal School at Bowling Green.  (Now known as EKU and WKU respectively)

Among Beckham’s failures was his lack of resolve to deal with bloodshed in Breathitt County which was so bad that no insurance company could be found to sell fire insurance in that county during the first decade of the 20th Century.  In addition to the ongoing violence from Eastern Kentucky feuds, there was the “Black Patch Tobacco Wars” in West Kentucky. Farmers were losing money raising tobacco as there was no competition between buyers of tobacco.  In September 1904, tobacco farmers got together to boycott the sale of tobacco to the American Tobacco Company owned by James Duke the tobacco tycoon.  Farmers were opposed to the way Duke controlled the tobacco market by fixing prices. After a couple of years of boycott, the farmers took matters into their own hands.  As a result, the American Tobacco Company controlled tobacco warehouses and factories and warehouses in Princeton were burned by the farmers' “Night Riders”.

When he left office in 1907, he returned to the practice of law.  In 1914, Beckham became the first popularly elected U.S. Senator from Kentucky.  (U.S. Senators had previously been elected by the General Assembly).  As a member of the Senate's Military Affairs Committee, he was responsible for bringing two Army bases to Kentucky during World War I--Camp Zachery Taylor and Fort Knox.  Camp Zachery Taylor was closed soon after the war, but Fort Knox continues to be an important part of the U.S. Army.

He was defeated by fewer than 5,000 votes in the 1920 elections by Covington resident and Republican Richard P. Ernst.  It is said that his support of prohibition might have cost him the election.  (In 1900, Kentucky was the third largest distiller of alcoholic beverages in the nation.)

Beckham County, Oklahoma which still exists was named in honor of Governor JCW Beckham.

1907-1911 Term

Maysville native Republican Augustus Willson became the 35th person to serve as Governor of the Commonwealth in the fall of 1911.

Prior to being orphaned at age 12, Augustus Willison lived in Covington and Indiana. After the death of his parents, he was raised by a grandmother in western New York and later lived with an older brother in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  While in Cambridge, he attended Harvard where he earned two degrees. and spent some time at the law school.

Willson returned to Kentucky in the early 1870’s after practicing law in Boston and Indiana to work in the law firm of the future U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan in Louisville.  Willson worked with Harlan until Harlan’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1877.

Willson’s first political position was that of Chief Clerk of the U.S. Treasury, a position he held from 1875 to 1876 under Benjamin Bristow, a Kentuckian who was Secretary of the Treasury under President U.S. Grant.  Prior to running for governor, Willson ran unsuccessfully once for the KY State Senate and four times as a Republican nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives.

On July 23, 1877, he married Mary Elizabeth Akin.  They had one child who died in infancy.

Willson was nominated by the Republican Party for Governor in 1907.  One of the major issues of the 1907 general election was the issue of temperance or the sale of alcoholic beverages.  (According to Ken Burns’ “Prohibition” was America’s first wedge issue.)  Both Willson and the Democratic nominee, State Auditor Samuel Hager supported the adoption of a uniform local option law which would allow each county to determine whether liquor would be sold within its borders.  The candidates were in a tough spot.  In 1900, Kentucky was the largest manufacturer of alcoholic beverages in the south and the third highest manufacturer of alcoholic beverages in the United States.  Both candidates favored temperance but wanted each community to the ability to choose.  The Democratic Party was split three ways on the issue of alcohol and many stayed home on Election Day.  Being from Louisville, Willson was able to carry Jefferson County by 8,900 votes.

The other issue was the civil unrest and violence which continued to plague the Commonwealth particularly the “Tobacco Patch War” or “Black Patch War” in Western Kentucky which Governor Beckham seemed to ignore.  Independent tobacco growers or common farmers attempted to halt the monopolistic price fixing of the James Duke’s “American Tobacco Company.  Mediation between the farmers and the tobacco company failed and farmers called “Night Riders” began the  burning of tobacco factories and warehouses in western Kentucky cities of Princeton, Elkton and Hopkinsville to retaliate against the price fixing of the American Tobacco Company.  Upon assuming office on December 10, 1907, Willson attempted to mediate the dispute between the growers, the buyers and the residents of the Western Kentucky Counties.  When Willson’s mediation failed, he sent the Militia to Western Kentucky in an attempt to stop the violence and declared martial law in over 20 counties in Western Kentucky.

When the 1908 General Assembly came into session it was controlled by Democrats, many unhappy with the declaration of martial law in the Democratic counties of Western Kentucky.  While legislative Democrats were not willing to accept Willson’s leadership, they were split on many issues including prohibition or temperance which tempered the 1908 election of a U.S. Senator from Kentucky.

Gov. JCW Beckham had supported former Governor James B. McCreary when he was elected by the 1902 General Assembly to the U.S. Senate.  However, in 1908 Gov. Beckham wanted the U.S. Senate seat.  The Republican candidate was former Gov. William O. Bradley.  With three candidates contending for the U.S. Senate seat, the 1908 General Assembly spent seven weeks and 28 ballots trying to select a senator.  Finally, “wet Democrats” and “wet Republicans” decided on former Gov. Bradley, a Republican.

Some of the legislation enacted in 1908 included the establishment of high schools in every county and the establishment of a juvenile court system.

Willson further alienated the General Assembly when he took pictures of the late Gov. Goebel off of state checks and pardoned former Gov. William S. Taylor and former Secretary of State Caleb Powers for their alleged parts in the murder of Goebel.

The 1910 General Assembly failed to achieve much either.  The Democratic General Assembly failed to consider Willson’s proposals for redistricting and tax reform.  The General Assembly did pass legislation making electrocution (or use of the electric chair) the method of public execution in the Commonwealth.

After leaving office in 1911, Willson sought election to the U.S. Senate for the first popular election after passage of the 17th Amendment.  He was defeated by Gov. JCW Beckham in the general election.

Willson returned to his law practice in Louisville after serving as governor.  He died in Louisville in 1931.

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