Earlier this week, I submitted an article to the Stone-Campbell Journal for review and publication on the pioneer preacher, John Mulkey. If they find this article favorable, it will be my second article on Mulkey—one of Barton W. Stone’s democratizers—to be published by this journal whose focus is the American Restoration Movement. The thrust of the article centers, partly, on early Kentucky history.
A couple of years ago, I took a tutorial guided by Dr. Jason Jewell with several of my readings having been suggested by Dr. Sean Busick. The tutorial was on early American intellect. I wanted to get into the mind of early America so that I could better understand John Mulkey and his milieu. Interestingly enough, I came to know a great deal more about Thomas Jefferson, who quickly became my favorite president, as well the writings of Thomas Paine. Paine’s writings were highly popular in early Kentucky and were an enormous contributor to American gaining her independence from Britain.
What I learned about early Kentucky was just how much her earliest inhabitants loved liberty. With the war of independence won, many Patriots hated the newly constituted federal government. It looked too much like the Old World. The Continental Congress had promised much to those who fought in the Revolution, but they were so broke that they could not come through on their promises. Land parcels in the West—which was how Kentucky was referred to in early America—was given as payment to those who served. On the Western border of the state lay the Mississippi River, which was, then, controlled by the Spanish. Most of what is Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi was controlled by Spain—as well as Florida. Because the Westerners, the frontiersmen, hated the newly established government so much, Kentucky became known as the land of the free even in early America. They loved liberty so much that they almost succeeded from the newly established government.
In a letter to Archibald Stuart, Thomas Jefferson wrote,
I fear from an expression in your letter that the people of Kentucké think of separating not only from Virginia (in which they are right) but also from the confederacy. I own I should think this a most calamitous event, and such as one every good citizen on both sides should set himself against. (c. 1786)
The Patriots of early Kentucky were willing to work with any government, foreign or otherwise if it meant greater freedom and less of an appearance of the Old World. Several historians described the mindset of early Kentuckians as such:
The Western settlers were as defiant of the new American authorities in the East as they had been of the British crown. (Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty)
[Kentuckians were] reckless, exuberant, lawless, violent, brave, the frontiersman of Kentucky acted the part of the utterly free agent and by word or gesture expressed a lively contempt for artificial ethical prescriptions. (Arthur K. Moore, The Frontier Mind)
The Kentuckians who opened that part of the Old Northwest on the Ohio River were distinguished by a restless energy, freedom of thought, and a sense of destiny, all attributable to their military heritage. (R. C. Buley, The Old Northwest)
Thomas Jefferson was a favorite of early Kentuckians. An old Kentucky toast was worded:
May the patriots of ‘76 step forward with Jefferson at their head and cleanse the country of degeneracy and corruption
The Kentucky of today has seemed to have forgotten this heritage of loving liberty to this degree. Instead, one of the largest employers of the Commonwealth is government entities, which means excessive taxation which no Patriot would have tolerated. Things change, that’s for sure. I know someone might rebut, “Yeah, but we have thus-and-such now, and they didn’t then.” I get it. We do have so much more. Kentucky isn’t a frontier anymore but is a civilized state. Nevertheless, civilization doesn’t mean that we should or must abandon the overarching principle of liberty. Perhaps an excellent synthesis of this was seen with the Kentucky clerk who refused to grant marriage licenses on religious grounds. Just because one works for the government doesn’t mean that they surrender their liberties.
Hegel wrote, “What experience and history teach is that peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” What can we learn from early Kentucky? I suppose the lesson is in the eye of the beholder. However, at the forefront of the mindset of old Kentucky—even before she became a state in 1792—was a love of liberty. Liberty from government above all else.