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The “Free and Easy” Generation of Kentucky and the War of 1812
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“I thought Bardstown the worst place in the world, but I begin to think other places as bad.” In the spring of 1803, itinerant minister Joshua Wilson found himself in a community where the “Blackest Athesims” abounded, where men displayed limitless egoism, and youth received daily training in blasphemy and debauchery—the town of Lexington, Kentucky. “Men [here] are lovers of their own selves, proud, boasters, blasphemers,” he warned. For Wilson, the source of profligacy was a “devilish society . . . called free and easy.” At the Free and Easy Tavern located beside the town courthouse, men gathered to drink, sing songs, play cards, and perform nightly rituals of defamation and ignominy. “It is easy to see,” he concluded, “the unhappy effect that such an institution will have upon the morals of youth.”1 Many Kentuckians of the day would have disagreed. Of course, the men of Lexington were morally bankrupt, corrupted, and avaricious, their sons dissolute, languid, and villainous. But the Free and Easy Tavern was only an acute symptom of a chronic social illness—the post-Revolutionary War generation of Kentucky was run amuck.

Throughout the 1790s and early 1800s, public officials and private citizens of Kentucky ruminated about an increasingly amoral youth. In 1797, the trustees of Lexington issued strong recriminations against adults who permitted or encouraged gambling among youths. Those who allowed children to play cards, dice, or other games of chance would be found “unworthy of the countenance of his fellow-citizens” and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.2 As the problem worsened, parents came under direct attack. “A most fatal mistake is made by parents of all classes in the present age,” Stewart’s Kentucky Herald exclaimed in 1799. “Many of them seem to think vice and irregularity the marks of sense in a boy; and that innocence, submission to superiors, application to study, and every thing laudable, are the signs of stupidity.” Turpitude was condoned if not promoted. Parents, the author continued, “often smile at the tricks of a young villain, and seemed pleased with boyish profligacy.”3

Religious leaders added similar condemnations. For the Reverend James Blythe, youthful indiscretions were especially troubling when viewed against the deeds of patriotic forebearers. “The fathers of our revolution,” Blythe raged, “the men who with their prayers and with their swords achieved for us our great deliverance, who built for us this fair fabric of American independence; these men have not all laid them down in their peaceful graves before we their degenerate sons, have by our wickedness, our love of power . . . defaced the whole.”4 The sons of Kentucky, the infidel free and easy young men, prided themselves in vulgarity, hard drinking, and high gambling.5

The story of the firstborns of Kentucky, the young men and women born during or shortly after the Revolution, develops accordingly; historians see stories of raucous, immature, and self-aggrandizing behaviors as evidence of a generational divide. Americans of the new nation celebrated their liberation from British rule by separating themselves from social and economic conventions of the past. Patriarchal authority in families became associatively British and inherently antirepublican; a more egalitarian and affectionate style of parenting emphasizing childhood independence and individuality replaced strict discipline and hierarchical parental relationships.6 Traditional economic associations were similarly upended; subsistence-based “moral economies,” based on ties of mutual obligation, gave way to market economies favoring impersonal credit over personal barter, national over local interests.7 These and other socioeconomic breaks called forth new attitudes and expectations in youths. Individualism and self-interest became standards of adulthood and the youth of Kentucky, historians argue, quite naturally sacrificed communal responsibility to personal self-interest, favored “cutthroat rivalry” over “friendly competition,” and subordinated moral behaviors to ambition.8

The effect of education on these attitudinal shifts is mostly absent from the discussion. When addressed individually, students are indistinguishable from a mass of immoral youths. When addressed collectively, they become byproducts of larger social or political trends; they either mimic eastern student behaviors or mindlessly rehearse ideological debates of their elders.9 But student culture in early America was anything but monochromatic; the expectations and effects of instruction varied significantly from state to state. The...

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