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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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