Western Kentucky in the Twentieth Century: From the End of Isolation to the Collapse of the “Gibraltar of Democracy”
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Western Kentucky in the Twentieth Century:
From the End of Isolation to the Collapse of the “Gibraltar of Democracy”

Kentuckians take pride in their home state, but that does not prevent them from expressing a strong allegiance to the counties—described as “little kingdoms” by historian Robert M. Ireland—or regions from which they hail. Political scientist Penny Miller has observed that the counties and regions of Kentucky are “centrifugal forces” that enrich and divide the state. Regions, Kentucky historian James Klotter pointed out in 1982, are vital to understanding the history of Kentucky, making it difficult at times to discuss its history without qualifying what is said to accurately capture the regional diversity of the state.1 This is certainly true in the case of western Kentucky, especially in the Jackson Purchase, the parcel of land west of the Cumberland River.2 Neither as fabled as the Bluegrass nor as [End Page 357] stigmatized as the mountains, western Kentucky has largely been overlooked by scholars. Yet the twentieth-century history of the region suggests many productive avenues for future scholarship on subjects vital to the recent historiography on the commonwealth, the South, and the United States. During the twentieth century, western Kentucky underwent profound changes, often with the federal government as the driving force behind them. Yet, at the time these changes occurred, and in the decades since, western Kentucky citizens and politicians have been torn about the mixed blessings and hardships that modernization, electrification, industrialization, and urbanization have brought—best expressed in a growing ambivalence about the activist government philosophy that brought these changes about.

In the first two-thirds of the century, western Kentucky, with its reputation as the Kentucky “Gibraltar” of the Democratic Party, was positioned to take advantage of state and federal initiatives from the New Deal to the Great Society, advancing the well being of an area that modernization had largely bypassed.3 Thus, western Kentucky offers scholars an opportunity to assess the impact of the New Deal and other government reform efforts on one region within a conservative southern state. Amity Shlaes, a conservative economist, has questioned whether President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s program of public remedies to fix the nation’s economic woes so crippled the ability of the private sector to restore the nation to prosperity that economic recovery was delayed until the Second World War. In the case of western Kentucky, it is arguable that federal initiatives, especially the New Deal, and the actions taken in Frankfort in the twentieth century were essential to spurring the region’s economy in the short term. Yet there is also evidence that progress faltered by the turn of the twenty-first century, leaving questions about the enduring impact of government reform and the ability of the region to sustain [End Page 358] progress in the face of significant threats to its economy, especially within the new global economy.4

Although Democratic leaders in the region were active in securing the political benefits of the New Deal and its legacy programs in the first half of the century, they were not spared from the remarkable surge that the Republican Party made throughout the South in later decades. Edward T. “Ned” Breathitt, a former governor from Hopkinsville, believed western Kentuckians voted for the Democratic Party and its programs, from the New Deal to the Great Society, to improve their lot in life. In western Kentucky and across the South, though, the social upheaval of the 1960s divided the New Deal coalition. Civil rights, women’s rights, and opposition to the Vietnam War were, Breathitt suggested, “totally different kinds of issues,” unrelated to the “old work ethic” issues cherished by conservative western Kentuckians. For many “legacy Democrats,” the change in their party loyalties could be summed up with the explanation, “I did not leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me.” As the century progressed, Republican influence in the region grew, accelerated by a “southern strategy” aimed explicitly at wooing disaffected conservative Democrats. Social issues related to “God, guns, and gays,” along with policy disputes over environmental issues, rose to the top of the political agenda and favored Republican candidates in...