The End of Kentucky’s Winning Season?: A Fresh Look at Early-Twentieth-Century Kentucky Decision-Making
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The End of Kentucky’s Winning Season?:
A Fresh Look at Early-Twentieth-Century Kentucky Decision-Making

Who does not like to recall a favorite sports team’s winning seasons? Fans replay the buzzer-beating baskets and Hail Mary passes that led to upset victories. They recall championship games when their players brought home the title, telling tales about them until they become legendary. Obviously spectators prefer to focus on these triumphant moments instead of highlighting the years when the team struggled to get just a win or two over the bottom-of-the-barrel rivals that traditionally provide sure victories. So has it been with Kentucky history. Scholars have dwelled on the high points. They have spent much time and ink recounting the allure of the frontier and the exploits that led to settlement.1 Recently the historiography has centered on Kentucky’s antebellum “glory days,” when the state, particularly the central Bluegrass area, hit its stride, establishing itself as a thriving center for culture and commerce, the home of nationally [End Page 201] influential politicians, and a region known for cutting-edge medicine.2 Scholars choose to recount a time when the nation embraced the West and all the possibilities it seemed to offer, a time when, at least for a moment, Kentucky became “one of the nation’s most important states.”3 One could say that the antebellum period has been perceived as Kentucky’s winning season.

The written history of Kentucky following the Civil War becomes simultaneously more sporadic and less flattering. By 1900, the descriptors that the nation had once used to identify the state—vibrant, influential, relevant—were replaced with a simple shorthand: backward.4 Historians validate this unflattering image, emphasizing the lawlessness, inertia, and growing poverty that swept Kentucky in the wake of the war. They conclude that the momentum and promise of the state faded in the late nineteenth century, leading Kentucky to fall to the bottom of national rankings by the early twentieth century. In the most comprehensive study of Kentucky in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, Hambleton Tapp and James C. Klotter describe a state caught in limbo, deeply divided politically and wracked with violence. “At a time when America was being transformed and was leaving behind one way of life,” they argue, “Kentucky often fought that transformation and met change reluctantly.” Instead of looking forward, Kentucky residents clung to the status quo.5 Other scholars concur, arguing that the state made important missteps in this period that led it down the wrong path. Building on ideas originally [End Page 202] introduced by E. Merton Coulter, historians continue to emphasize the pronounced postwar Confederate shift in Kentucky.6 No study of Kentucky in this period can avoid discussing the lawlessness that prevailed in these years, and Kentuckians’ unique code of honor is often blamed for causing it to fail to advance.7 More specifically, some scholars have identified the 1900 assassination of the polarizing, reform-minded governor William Goebel as the watershed event that ended any momentum for progress in the state at the very moment when the reform spirit swept the country.8

Few people today would call Kentucky one of the most important states in the nation. Clearly something occurred to undermine Kentucky’s progress significantly, but what? Although certainly one cannot deny that the Civil War, the violence that continued after the war, and Goebel’s assassination were game changers, scholars have failed to explore adequately the multiple, interrelated forces that [End Page 203] account for the declining reputation of Kentucky in the twentieth century. The existing narrative implies that the state stopped keeping pace sometime after the Civil War, but scholars have not adequately identified the timeline for this turn-around, nor have they even defined what is meant by the amorphous term “progress.” To all involved, progress seems naturally to imply industrial development, educational advancement, and population growth. Others factor in the development of social-welfare programs, declining disease rates, and additional time-specific markers of advancement, such as miles of improved roads and the prevalence of indoor plumbing, as measures of progress.

Although much research has been done...