- Kentucky Rising: Democracy, Slavery, and Culture from the Early Republic to the Civil War
Slavery, Kentucky, Civil War
In Kentucky Rising, James A. Ramage and Andrea S. Watkins present a well-crafted and diverse overview of Kentucky from the late eighteenth century through the 1860s. The authors assert that the state strove for [End Page 738] “greatness in a global sense” (336) from its inception. Through an analysis of culture, politics, and society, they document how Kentuckians came to be a leading nationalist force in the early West and in the ante-bellum United States. After the Civil War, Kentucky became thoroughly identified with the Lost Cause ethos, despite never officially joining the Confederacy. Ramage and Watkins point to Henry Clay’s theory of Union, wherein only states had the constitutional right to legislate slavery internally, as the cause behind this phenomenon. When the Union was not restored “as it was” and the federal government outlawed slavery completely, many in the state felt betrayed and sympathized with the defeated Confederacy. Ramage and Watkins rely mainly on the vast array of existing secondary literature, while only occasionally using primary resources, mostly newspapers, to enhance the narrative. The reader is often alerted to previous historians’ arguments, but these are rarely challenged. This lack of contention is not necessarily a weakness; it is simply not the authors’ objective. Instead, they focus on presenting a diversity of topics to demonstrate the forward-looking culture that existed in ante-bellum Kentucky and the effects of slavery and Civil War on the state’s perception of its place within the nation.
A variety of detailed chapters on cultural and social development support the argument that Kentuckians actively worked toward a “rising globally oriented society” (16). In particular, many accomplished artists and architects provided Kentucky’s upper class with quality pieces of work. Portrait painter Matthew Harris Jouett, wildlife artist John James Audubon, and the renowned architect Benjamin Latrobe are just a few individuals highlighted to show the demand for artistic cultivation in the state. The fostering of education, science, and medicine is central to the theme of advancement put forth by Ramage and Watkins. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Ephraim McDowell and Benjamin W. Dudley were pioneers in surgery, while medical botanist Constantine Samuel Rafinesque roamed the wilderness identifying plants still used in medicine to this day. Transylvania University, with its Medical Department, became the West’s premier institute under the tutelage of Horace Holley, and even eastern families sent their sons west to be educated.
Ramage and Watkins also examine popular culture and society through the lens of everyday citizens in Kentucky. The growing diffusion of newspapers and stump speaking marked a growth of participatory politics in the state. The increased presence of theatres, musical troupes, and the fascination with steamboat racing show the full range of entertainment [End Page 739] pursued by Kentuckians of all classes. Social stratification itself, the authors maintain, was softened in this environment but not eliminated. They argue that economic opportunity was available in this West, but Atlantic desires and mindsets were brought and reestablished in Kentucky. This frontier was a democratizing force, not because class was eliminated, but because of the economic policies pursued by its leaders. On this point Ramage and Watkins disagree with historian Stephen Aron’s thesis that the West was “lost” for the poor laborer because of Henry Clay’s American System for Kentucky. In particular, they assert that it was through Clay’s system of internal improvements that “the West was found” (90), because all Kentuckians benefited from greater access to national and international markets created by improved transportation infrastructure.
Henry Clay’s political theories on the Union and slavery tie the early republic and Civil War era together in this study. For Ramage and Watkins, these ideas ultimately led to the alienation and discontent that pushed Kentucky into the ideological fold of the Lost Cause. The state suffered...