Home / General / Most Prominent Politicians (XV): Kentucky

Most Prominent Politicians (XV): Kentucky


Kentucky has a very impressive set of politicians for its size. Like most southern states, it’s probably overperformed over the years, particularly as compared to many northern states.

1. Henry Clay. One of the towering politicians of pre-Civil War America. Secretary of State. Leading Whig. Believer in the power of government to improve people’s lives. 3 time presidential candidate. Unfortunately undermined by the accepting John Quincy Adams’ offer to be Secretary of State in 1825, leading to suggestions he had thrown his votes to Adams as part of a “corrupt bargain.” Architect of the Missouri Compromise and Compromise of 1850. I could go on.

2. John C. Breckinridge. One of the most loathsome figures in American history. In many ways, the opposite of Clay. Where Clay sought to keep the nation together, Breckinridge embraced its collapse after doing no small part to cause it as the Southern Democratic candidate in 1860, after the southern hardliners decided Stephen Douglas wasn’t committed enough to slavery.

3. Alben Barkley. Senate Majority Leader, 1937-47, Vice-President, 1949-53.

4. John Marshall Harlan. Supreme Court justice, 1877-1911. I can’t speak much about Harlan’s jurisprudence. But I can say that Harlan was the only Gilded Age Supreme Court justice who didn’t seek to codify racial prejudice in American law. Harlan was the only dissenter in the Civil Rights Cases and Plessy v. Ferguson, despite being a slaveholder in his younger days. He was a strong anti-imperialist and argued for the rights of colonized peoples.

5. Mitch McConnell. Senator Minority Leader, 2007-present. Very strong chance to become Senate Majority Leader in 2013. Has played a major role in polarizing the nation and stopping President Obama from getting even the most basic pieces of legislation passed.

6. Fred Vinson. Congressman, Secretary of the Treasury, Chief Justice. Helped create the International Monetary Fund. After William Douglas stayed the execution of the Rosenbergs, Vinson stepped in to make sure this was reversed.

7. John J. Crittenden. Major figure of the antebellum years. Whig powerhouse. Congressman, Senator, Governor, 2 time Attorney General (under Harrison and Fillmore). Author of the Crittenden Compromise, trying desperately to keep the nation from dissolving after Lincoln’s election.

8. Richard M. Johnson–Vice-President under Van Buren. Senator, 1819-29. An interesting figure. His open relationship with his slave, who he considered his common-law wife, led to him becoming a major political liability. Van Buren ran for re-election in 1840 with no VP candidate. Johnson tried to get back into politics, but was political poison, though he did briefly return to Congress in 1850, just before his death. During the Panic of 1837, Johnson also took a 9 month leave of absence, moving back to Kentucky to run a tavern.

9. Happy Chandler. Governor, Senator, Baseball Commissioner. It’s not that the last really should count in a political list, except that it was Chandler’s political power that made him attractive. He oversaw the integration of the game, a not insignificant achievement and was kicked out by the owners for being too pro-player, ensuring that they received a pension for instance.

10. Wendell Ford. Senator, 1974-99. Majority Whip, 1991-95. Generally not that prominent on the national front. Was more concerned with protecting Kentucky’s interest and bringing home the pork. Perhaps most notable was his diehard support for the tobacco industry.

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  • Like most southern states, it’s probably overperformed over the years, particularly as compared to many northern states.

    Or you could say “Throughout its history the United States has been deformed and degraded by the disproportionate political power of the ignorant and brutal South.”

    • Frankly

      BINGO! – having lived through the zenith of their power, the 50s & 60s when they dictated to their Democratic party pretty much what would be allowed and seen them flee to the Republican party where their bile has become the driving force of the whole “conservative” movement I have to say there are times I wish we could have just let those troglodytes go in 1860 and built a successful nation, one that still had a future while they devolved into the third-world banana oligarchy they are trying to foist on all of us

  • Davis X. Machina

    Couldn’t John Sherman Cooper go in there at the bottom someplace? An anti-Vietnam Republican (Cooper-Church Amendment), early enemy of Joe McCarthy, voted for the Civil Rights act of 1964…

    Or does having mother-henned an intern named Mitch McConnell cancel all that out.

  • Tybalt

    stopping President Obama from getting even the most basic pieces of legislation passed

    That’s a joke, right?

    American politics looks a lot different from those of us outside the belly of the beast than it does to those inside.

    • Murc

      I’m game, Tybalt. Why is that statement ludicrous? Seems pretty accurate to me. Unpack that, we love ourselves some long digressions here.

      • Obama’s ability to get a basic piece of disaster relief legislation passed clearly shows that I am completely wrong about modern Republican tactics….

        Even if it wasn’t McConnell involved in this one.

  • Frankly

    I am disapointed you didn’t mention Alben’s greatest quote. When asked what he thought of the job of being VP he said:
    “It isn’t worth a pitcher of warm piss!”

    • rkd

      I think that was John Nance Garner from Texas, FDRs 1st Vice-President.

      • Warren Terra

        Indeed it was Garner (and will Garner make the Texas list? seems a bit unlikely to me). And having encountered the bowdlerized version in authoritative books in mmy youth (“bucket of warm spit”), I was shocked to discover what he’d really said – not shocked by what he said so much as by the seamless bowdlerizations I’d encountered, that did not acknowledge themselves to be anything of the sort.

        • Murc

          I encountered the same thing with a lot of military history I read when it comes to the etymology of the word ‘snafu.’

          That f? It doesn’t stand for ‘fouled.’ But you wouldn’t know it from a lot of texts! You can describe the terrible carnage at Stalingrad in minute detail, but heaven forfend you present language accurately.

        • I visited John Nance Garner’s grave in beautiful Uvalde, Texas. I thought about pissing on it, seemed almost respectful.

          Will Garner make the Texas top 10? I’d say probably. He would have been president had FDR not wanted the 3rd term. And Texas politicians before the 1930s or so aren’t really all that impressive. I’d guess he’ll be in the 5-7 range.

          • I just went to a talk on Texas tonight (don’t ask), and apparently, the Annexation statement of 1845 declared that at a later date Texas would be divided into smaller states, not to number more than 4 (plus Texas), which effectively would have given “Texas” 10 senators. Apparently, Garner enjoyed reminding his New England colleagues in the House of the fact that there could still be 10 senators from “Texas” if the Texans wanted.

          • Western Dave

            We are not going to have a reply of the EotAW Lincoln vs FDR for who is number 1 debate over here are we? Because all right thinking people know the real answer is Washington.

            • Throwing down a gauntlet here!

              Without thinking too hard about it, I’d probably go Lincoln, Washington, Adams, FDR. But I can definitely see why one would put Washington first.

              • Brett Turner

                Didn’t your tag line for FDR on the New York list say he was our second-greatest President?

                • Third I think. Maybe I did say #2, my mind does change. The prime contribution of Washington in the end is giving up power and for Adams it is giving up power to another political party. FDR was undoubtedly a greater president than John Adams, but Adams’ single act there was so, so important for establishing a stable nation.

  • Jestak

    Yep, some heavyweights from Kentucky. Besides three VP’s, the state can claim to be a cradle of Supreme Court Justices, Besides Harlan and Vinson, you have three others who were from Kentucky.

    Best known of those is probably Stanley Reed, FDR’s Solicitor General before being appointed to the Court. He might be an outside contender for the top 10. The other two are early 19th Century justices Thomas Todd and Robert Trimble.

    Beyond them you have three more Justices who were born in Kentucky but made their mark in other states: Louis Brandeis, Samuel Miller, and Wiley Rutledge. Brandeis made the top 10 for Massachusetts, while Miller and Rutledge will get their chance when we get to Iowa.

  • rm

    Happy Chandler gets points for having a great nickname, and for being an example that George W. Bush should have followed — going from a governorship to Baseball Commissioner.

  • rm

    Oh, and . . . Daniel Boone? Kit Carson? I know we don’t get to claim Abe Lincoln, but those guys spent a good amount of their careers here.

    • Boone and Carson aren’t really politicians. Hell, Boone ended up living in Missouri.

      • rm

        I knew you’d say that (and Kit Carson died in the Alamo, didn’t he?) but I had to try.

        • No, Carson was not at the Alamo. If anything, Carson is most known for the roundup of the Navajo in 1864 to force them to the Bosque Redondo int he Navajo Longwalk. He didn’t actually really support this but still went along in one of the worst single incidents in the history of the United States and Native Americans.

          • rm

            I remembered that he did something shameful and evil out West, didn’t remember what.

        • rea

          You’re thinking of Davy Crockett, who was a politician (multiple terms in Congress) and died at the Alamo–but was from Tennessee, not Kentucky.

  • Ronnie Pudding

    Does Henry Clay advance to the next round?

    • Most prominent politicians in American history? That is a tempting list once I get through the 50 states.

      • Murc

        New York and Mass are going to dominate that list so hard its not even funny.

        • Western Dave

          Don’t count out Illinois and Virginia.

          • Will Illinois’ list be that strong? I haven’t thought much about it yet, but I suppose you have Lincoln, Obama, Douglas and then….Daley? Altgeld? Stevenson?

            • Murc

              Even assuming no Altgeld, a single state claiming one-fifth of the spots on a top fifty (I would assume a top fifty list for the sake of symmetry) list of prominent American politicians isn’t too terribly shabby at all, and Lincoln would be in the top ten.

              • Lincoln’s probably #1, Obama is somewhere fairly low on the list, not sure Douglas would make the top 100. Maybe. So 3 at the outside. No way Stevenson or Daley make it.

                • Murc

                  Wait, are we talking impact or prominence here?

                  In terms of prominent American politicians I would have to say that Stephen Douglas definitely takes a spot in the top 50, simply because so many people have heard of him.

                  Many of those don’t know a damn thing about him, true. But there are probably millions of people who know the term ‘Lincoln/Douglas debates’ just because that bullet point comes up so often. They might not know anything more, but they know who Stephen Douglas IS, and that’s the only bar your need to clear for ‘prominent’.

                  Stevenson probably wouldn’t make the list. Daley MIGHT but it would be way down near the bottom and, like Douglas, it would be on pure 100% name recognition.

                • CJColucci

                  Wait, wasn’t Douglas that black guy who, according to Fox News, debated Lincoln?

            • Halloween Jack

              Everett Dirksen. Paul Simon. Dan Rostenkowski, despite throwing it all away in a penny-ante scandal. Arguably, Rahm Emanuel and Donald Rumsfeld. Harold Washington was a one-term rep, but his influence was mostly limited to Chicago. I’m tempted to throw in Rod Blagojevich, but even people who are mildly amused by him are kind of sick of his shtick by now.

  • The dates you have for John Marshall Harlan aren’t right. According to Wikipedia his birth date is 1833. I was wondering how a guy born in 1877 owned slaves.

    • Those are his Supreme Court dates, not his birth/death dates.

  • CJColucci

    Is there a worthwhile biograohy of Richard Johnson? Seems as though there ought to be.

    • I don’t believe there is a modern biography of Johnson at all. The latest thing I found in a quick search is from the 1930s.

  • rea

    Cassius Clay–no, not Ali, but the 19th Century abolitionist, politician and diplomat after whom Ali and his father were named

    • rea

      Although Ali himself–maybe not a politician, but certainly a political figure–might be worthy of consideration.

    • Yeah, I probably should have included Clay.

  • rea

    No mention of John C. Crittenden would be complete without mentioning that two of his sons were Major Generals in the Civil War–one for each side.

  • Brett Turner

    It worth mentioning, as a small silver lining in the dark cloud that is John Breckinridge, that as Jeff Davis’s last Secretary of War, he fought hard to end the war on terms that had some chance to reconcile the South with the rest of the country. As opposed to Davis, who wanted to fight on in the hills and turn the South into Northern Ireland for a generation.

    • Murc

      As opposed to Davis, who wanted to fight on in the hills and turn the South into Northern Ireland for a generation.

      Had the rest of the Union not consented to the Old South turning itself into a region in which racial apartheid was enforced by free-roaming terror groups, that probably would have happened anyway regardless of what Breckinridge or Davis wanted.

  • CashandCab;e

    Harlan’s dissents were admirable, but in terms of positive impact you cannot top the Shipp Trial of 1907, where SCOTUS tried a sheriff for defying the Court’s efforts to intervene in a state murder case on due process grounds – the first such effort in history. Harlan was the justice who ordered the stay in the defendant’s execution, and it was Harlan who was the target of the lynch mob’s note: “Justice Harlan: come get your nigger now”. Not only did Harlan attempt to intervene, but he moved the rest of the Court to assert its supremacy by trying the men responsible for the post-stay lynching. You could draw some pretty unflattering comparison’s between Harlan’s willingness to punish those who flout the norms of justice and the current GOP nominees at SCOTUS.

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