Antebellum Kentucky was the Frontier for Liberty

Having only recently completed F. H. Buckley’s latest work, American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup, my mind reverted to some work I’d done several years ago. In a history tutorial I took on Early American Intellect, I’d read several sources about Kentucky herself during the post-Revolutionary period. I was intrigued to discover that the state, then, was considered a frontier for liberty and that those who disdained the newly formed federal government of the United States traveled to the Commonwealth to escape the hustle of what they disliked about the newly formed republic. One might find it amazing to envision that the country in her infancy would still find citizens unhappy after defeating the British, but this is indeed what many felt.

Republicanism became a reality when America liberated itself from England. The English crown could no longer claim rights to the prosperity of the new world, and a turning point in history was reached when colonists fought for the chief prerogative of man—liberty. However, in the new republic, factions threatened to unseat any stability that resulted from freedom. The Federalists sympathized with English practices and ways while Republicans—not the political party, but those who favored a republican form of government—disdained the traditions of the former motherland. Those sympathies towards certain customs from the homeland (e.g., aristocracy, monarchical titles, and pomp) were readily associated with a return to the Old World in the New World.

The aftermath of the Revolutionary War did not result in a utopia, and the early republic was not ideal for those who occupied the territory of Kentucky. Several founding fathers were fearful that Kentucky would deal with any government that best suited it regardless of its country of sovereignty; however, Kentucky was not formally a state until 1792. Thomas Jefferson, from Paris in 1786, wrote to Archibald Stuart,

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.[1]

While conceding to their right to separate from Virginia, Jefferson did not desire the territory departing from the confederacy, and with good reason. Jefferson wrote on to Stuart that America should be cautious about how this dilemma played out because America’s response might press Spain, which he did not think was wise at the time.

Since Spain controlled most of what is currently Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, Spain controlled the Mississippi River. The river was vital to transporting goods, so Spain closed the Mississippi River to American trade to detract the westward move. However, once Spain realized that settlers in the Kentucky territory belonged to them, they changed their approach towards the settlers. The Spanish conspiracy, wherein Spain offered trading licenses to settlers in Kentucky, threatened the allegiance, albeit dwindling, of the state to the new republic.

Many Americans were moving to Kentucky in search of greater freedom, and the land was promised as payment to soldiers who fought in the Revolution. The Continental Congress was so poor that it could scarcely afford to live up to its promises to those who fought for liberty—a detail that almost resulted in a Revolution against the Continental Congress—so land in the West seemed to be sufficient.  Kentucky was a sought-after territory because it was believed to have been “a mine of vast wealth.” [2] Many left the East coast for the open land and smaller-to-no government in Kentucky, and the central government was too weak to deal with the exodus: “The Western settlers were as defiant of the new American authorities in the East as they had been of the British crown.” [3] This disdain for the British may be one explanation as to why Western politicians voted for the War of 1812 as a matter of honor.[4]

John Jay and the federal government worried about the West’s propensity to cause trouble in the union. Kentucky would not accept the position of United States attorney, and they disdained the federal government’s excise tax, which nearly led to a show of force from the federal government. One historian described the frontier mind as:

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.[5]

Another wrote,

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.[6]

This freedom of thought welcomed the ideas of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson: “Thomas Paine had been the most widely read author in early Kentucky. His Age of Reason was viral, and answers to it were widely circulated.” [7] While Thomas Paine was very popular with Kentuckians, Thomas Jefferson won their hearts. One 1795 Kentucky toast was stated this way, “May the patriots of ’76 step forward with Jefferson at their head and cleanse the country of degeneracy and corruption.” [8]

Kentucky was in a phase of expansion, and goods from the east were continually being traded with the state. From the previous decade’s treaty enacted by John Jay that favored the British, the Treaty of San Lorenzo was welcomed by Kentuckians for its negotiated open-navigation of the Mississippi. By the end of the eighteenth century, the Federalists had passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, and Kentucky—along with Virginia—called upon the other states to declare this act unconstitutional. Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison that Kentucky should, “Sever [themselves] from that union [they] so much value, rather than give up the rights of self government which [they] have reserved, and in which [they] alone see liberty.” [9] What is interesting to note from Jefferson’s letter to Madison was that he used personal pronouns when describing Kentucky as if he was a Kentuckian himself. Nevertheless, the Kentucky legislature repeated its opposition and declared a “nullification” of those acts.[10]

By what right did authority claim obedience? This was the question now being asked of every institution, every organization, every individual. It was as if the Revolution had set in motion a disintegrative force that could not be stopped.[11] Perhaps no one understood this sentiment better than Thomas Jefferson, and no people practiced it more than the Westerners. As volatile and vital as the West was in the early republic, Kentucky was at the forefront of liberty. Coupled with Jeffersonian policies, Kentucky became a magnet for the purest lovers of freedom. The stability of Kentucky concerning the union can be said to have been a catalyst for a westward expansion of the United States.


[1] Thomas Jefferson, Letters, in Thomas Jefferson Writings, Merrill D. Peterson, comp., (New York: The Library of America, 2011), 844.

[2] James Madison, Federalist 38.

[3] Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 115.

[4] Ibid., 661.

[5] Arthur K. Moore, The Frontier Mind (Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press, 1957), 48, 67. Cf. Wood, Empire of Liberty, 319.

[6] R. C. Buley, The Old Northwest (University of Indiana Press, 1951), 1:139.

[7] Kent Ellett, “Jeffersonian Evangelical: Christian Liberty in the Life and Letters of Barton W. Stone,” Discipliana 64, no. 3 (Fall 2004): 79–93.

[8] Wood, Empire of Liberty, 164.

[9] Ibid., 270.

[10] Ibid., 271.

[11] Ibid., 321.

[12] Ibid., 594.

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