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Little Kingdoms

Little Kingdoms: The Counties of Kentucky, 1850--1891

Robert M. Ireland
Copyright Date: 1977
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    Little Kingdoms
    Book Description:

    Kentucky's counties though theoretically provinces of the state were in reality powerful semi-sovereign entities during the latter half of the 19th century. Their positive accomplishments were many. Government funds were wisely invested in internal improvements, road construction, law enforcement, tax collection, and relief of the poor. Keen competition for county offices, placed on an electoral basis by the Constitution of 1850, brought added vitality to Kentucky's uniquely intense political life, and the official day on which the county courts met continued to be the foremost social and economic day of the month.

    Despite these positive facets and the good intentions of the reformers of 1849-1850, however, Kentucky's counties retained a tradition of parochialism, corruption, and inefficiency. The establishment of elective offices eliminated few of the deficiencies of the county system. The railroads were the focus of rivalry and scandal. Prevailing lawlessness compounded the semi-anarchical condition of many of the counties. Rising crime rates rendered insecure the lives of many Kentuckians. Nineteenth-century Kentucky left no legacy of law and order. A grasp of this paradoxical situation is essential to an understanding of late 19th-century Kentucky history. In this probing study, Robert M. Ireland offers the first thorough examination of the impact of Kentucky's counties on the state's constitutional, political, social, and economic development during this period.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6346-8
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-xii)
    (pp. 1-17)

    Theoretically only an arm of state government, Kentucky’s counties in reality took on characteristics of semi-sovereignties. Once created, they refused to be abolished, fought with neighboring counties over boundaries, resisted encroachment on their own territories, engaged in internecine struggles over county seats, and besieged the legislature with requests that their own particular problems be ameliorated by special legislation. Such activity not only tended to distract the attention of legislators from the more general needs of the Commonwealth but also contributed to its prevailing condition of localism.

    Already possessed of 100 counties by 1850, Kentucky added nineteen more in the next...

    (pp. 18-41)

    As with all institutions, the usefulness of county governments in nineteenth-century Kentucky depended upon the competence of their officers. Alleging that many county officers performed inadequately, mid-nineteenth-century reformers adopted a simple remedy: they prescribed heavy doses of democracy, providing that the voters would elect most county officials. But they and subsequent legislators failed to alter the basic structure of local government and the fundamental responsibilities of most officials. It remained to be seen whether democracy alone could alter the nature and problems of the local constitution.

    The reformers of 1849-1850 sought to redress the cumbersomeness of the old county court...

    (pp. 42-59)

    The reformers of 1849-1850 plunged county government into the thicket of elective politics. The Constitution of 1850 provided that all but two county officers were to be elected for four-year terms; the sheriff and constable were to be elected for two-year terms. By legislation elections for most county officers were held on the first Monday in August every four years beginning in 1854, the first being held in an odd year, 1851. For a time elections for justices of the peace and constables were held in May of odd-numbered years.¹

    Although Kentucky’s first two-party system had reached full maturity by...

    (pp. 60-70)

    No event highlighted the semi-autonomous nature of Kentucky’s counties more than the Civil War. Although the Commonwealth itself remained in the Union, individual counties and their officers and governments conducted themselves in ways approaching secession. The war also disrupted the functioning of county governments and their officials, necessitating emergency legislation and much improvisation.

    Although there is no evidence that the abortive pro-rebel Provisional Government of Kentucky created county governments to aid in its secessionist activities, there is some indication that individual county officers aided the Confederate cause. Because it had been represented to the General Assembly “that in some of...

    (pp. 71-89)

    Never a state committed to domestic tranquillity, Kentucky’s lawlessness reached prodigious proportions during and after the Civil War. Summing up the course of criminality during the previous twenty years, theNew York Timesreported in 1883 that “probably there is no state in which lawlessness and bloodshed prevail to such an outrageous extent as in Kentucky, and there certainly is no state in which the laws against crime are so feebly executed.” Popular outcries against crime and the lack of law enforcement constituted a major impetus for the constitutional convention of 1890-1891. Would-be reformers debated the issue “at almost every...

  9. 6. COURT DAY
    (pp. 90-100)

    County court day, one Monday a month devoted primarily to court business, by mid-century had evolved into an occasion with emphasis on activities of all kinds. By the end of the Civil War, the judicial-governmental nature of the event had so diminished that in some cases it went practically unnoticed. Thus the day on which the county judge and justices of the peace would come to the seat of government to do the county’s business had given way to a day on which farmers and vendors sold their wares, politicians made speeches, and local citizens gossiped, imbibed, and sometimes brawled.’...

    (pp. 101-123)

    No subject more clearly demonstrates the parochialism of nineteenth-century Kentucky and the unique position of her counties than that of internal improvements during the period of the third state constitution. Before 1851 counties constituted only one of several principal sources of investment for turnpikes and other transportation ventures. After this date counties became the main impetus for such enterprises which by then included a far more exciting and expensive proposition—the railroad. Because of the great risks involved, the private investor, at least in several early ventures, continued to be a secondary source of funds. (In early 1851, when Fayette...

    (pp. 124-140)

    Along with most Americans, nineteenth-century Kentuckians paid the bulk of their taxes to state and local governments. The county was the principal agent of assessment and collection while locally the court of claims set the county levy. The county assessor established property valuations for ad valorem taxes, both county and state. Primarily the sheriff collected taxes, although special collectors were sometimes appointed. Yet what was on paper a logical system was often in practice chaotic.

    Although the framers of the third constitution provided for two associate judges to assist the county judge in fiscal matters, the legislature of 1850-1851 exercised...

    (pp. 141-150)

    The Civil War settled the question of the ultimate sovereignty of the federal government, and the industrial and urban revolutions which followed it did much to draw Americans closer together in a physical, economic, and social sense. Yet during the remainder of the nineteenth century, the nation remained primarily rural in nature and local government continued to play a significant role in the lives of most citizens. This was especially true in Kentucky, where on the eve of constitutional reform in 1890 only 19.2 percent of the people lived in cities. If anything, county government came to affect Kentuckians even...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 151-172)
    (pp. 173-176)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 177-184)