Respected, patriotic, democratic, uniquely engaged, optimistic, socially mobile, advanced, and “globally oriented” are just some of the words that James Ramage and Andrea Watkins use to describe antebellum Kentuckians in Kentucky Rising. Rescuing Kentucky from its reputation as a wild and rugged backwater, the authors depict antebellum Kentuckians as full of hope, socially advanced, and culturally cosmopolitan people at the forefront of American development. European observers recognized and historians have commented on antebellum Americans’ overzealous optimism; in this case, the authors take that optimism seriously, as they write in the introduction, “Hyperbole was the order of the day, but . . . behind the overstatements were the optimistic and hopeful dreams of a rising globally oriented society” (p. 16).
Organizing the book thematically allows Ramage and Watkins to cover a wide range of topics. With subjects ranging from cholera epidemics to Henry Clay and from the steamboat industry to the advent of Shaker communities, the authors have succeeded in drawing together widely disparate subjects to provide a more complete picture of the history of Kentucky. Chapters on the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Civil War provide a rough chronology to the otherwise thematic organization. The juxtaposition of chapters on science and war or politics and education allow the reader to make connections between the social and political development of Kentucky. For example, Kentuckians’ fervent support for the Mexican War makes more sense in light of their long history of political engagement and belief in honor. Similarly, Henry Clay’s American System seems uniquely suited to Kentucky when considering the [End Page 189] importance of not only commerce but also scientific progress to Kentuckians. This connection between the social, cultural, and political history of the state is the signal achievement of this book.
Perhaps most importantly, the authors have made slavery, and the politics of slavery, central to the narrative of Kentucky history. Long considered of limited significance to the Kentucky economy, slavery has traditionally had a vexing relationship with Kentucky history. Historians of slavery, eager to capture its essence, paid only limited attention to the unique configuration of slavery in border states because there were few large-scale plantations. Similarly, perhaps because Kentucky failed to join the Confederacy, historians of Kentucky concluded that slavery was not central to state history either. Drawing on recent scholarship, Ramage and Watkins rightly argue that slavery not only influenced antebellum Kentuckians but also their reaction to the Civil War. Many Kentuckians were devoted Unionists precisely because they believed that secession posed the greatest threat to slavery. Similarly, when Abraham Lincoln redefined the Union war effort as a battle to destroy slavery, Kentuckians increasingly rejected the Union cause and sympathized with the Confederacy. In fact, Ramage and Watkins argue that Kentuckians’ ardent faith in democracy and unique engagement in public affairs posed a threat to the loyalty of Kentucky because residents felt betrayed when Lincoln used Federal power to abolish slavery.
Insights abound in Kentucky Rising, but at times the book falls short of the authors’ intentions to provide a complete history of Kentucky based on optimism and hope. Instead, there are moments when the authors overstate their case when the evidence they have collected does not support it. For example, the authors argue that “class lines were not as hardened as they were on the Atlantic coast and one could move up more easily” (p. 141). Yet works by both Craig Thompson Friend and Stephen Aron suggest that social classes in Kentucky were far from fluid and, in fact, became more fixed as the state developed.
As this suggests, while the authors make efforts to situate their work with recent historiography, they also use older works to craft [End Page 190] their narrative. In particular, in the chapter on the War of 1812, the authors refer to the Native American participants only as “Indians,” without any attempt to differentiate between various groups despite the recent flowering of ethnohistory and exceptional scholarship on Native American history. They...