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  • To Open “the Doors of Commerce”: The Mississippi River Question and the Shifting Politics of the Kentucky Statehood Movement
  • Christopher L. Leadingham (bio)

In the September 13, 1788, edition of the Kentucke Gazette, Ebenezer Brooks, writing as “Cornplanter,” discussed the most pressing question of the day—whether and when the Kentucky district would separate from Virginia. Brooks noted four of the “prevailing arguments” offered by Kentuckians who desired separation: 1) people (Kentuckians) should govern themselves rather than be governed by someone else (Virginians), 2) Virginia did not provide adequate support or resources to help Kentuckians defend against or attack Native Americans north of the Ohio River, 3) the seat of state government was too far removed from the Kentucky settlements, and 4) separation would “speedily procure us a free Navigation of the Mississippi [River].” Brooks admitted the third argument had some merit because of the distance and difficulty of reaching Richmond, Virginia, but believed none of these arguments should compel Kentuckians to separate from Virginia—the “most considerable state in the Union.” Brooks warned readers of the Gazette that “Revolutions in government are always dangerous” and “never to be attempted but from necessity; or at least, a strong probability of a change for the better.”1 [End Page 341]

Despite such admonitions, Kentuckians assembled in convention ten times between 1784 and 1792 to discuss the possibility of separation from Virginia. The Kentucky statehood movement developed at a critical juncture in the early republic’s history and takes on much greater significance when viewed as part of the larger struggle to control the trans-Appalachian West. Kentucky lay at the center of a complex competition between the British, Spanish, and regional Indian groups to halt U.S. expansion beyond the Appalachian Mountains. These groups hoped to stunt the growth of the young republic and protect their regional interests by quashing its efforts to achieve sustained commercial and territorial development. The fate of the new nation remained largely unsettled throughout the 1780s. Although American officials hoped to bring stability to the trans-Appalachian West through diplomacy, they were often at odds with one another and the region’s leaders about how best to accomplish that goal.

The debates at the Kentucky statehood conventions were shaped by the national and international politics of the day, as Kentuckians wrestled with tough questions: should Kentucky separate from Virginia? Who would benefit from separation? How and when should independence occur? What should the new state government look like? Who should fill leadership positions? How would separation affect the local economy? These questions defined the Kentucky separatist movement and were quickly complicated by the many answers and differing viewpoints offered by Kentuckians. The early statehood conventions centered on issues of land redistribution and security concerns and were framed by an East/West divide as delegates disparaged what they considered to be a distant and unresponsive state legislature. It was not until Spain closed the Mississippi River to U.S. traffic in 1784 that the movement gained traction and began [End Page 342] to be viewed as a North/South conflict, as legislators from Virginia sided with Kentuckians by calling for free and unrestricted access to the river.2

The First Convention

Violence characterized the daily lives of Kentuckians long after the official close of the Revolutionary War. Although no longer supplied and orchestrated as part of large-scale British operations, Indian attacks continued to menace the frontier well into the 1790s. Kentucky attorney general Walker Daniel cautioned in May 1784 that the failure of the national government “to prevent the cruelties & Depredations of the Savages” encouraged discontent among the settlers and was the leading cause of separatist movements across the frontier.3 In November 1784, Lincoln County militia colonel Benjamin Logan received intelligence that a group of Cherokee and Chickamauga raiders were threatening to advance upon the region. Logan called for westerners to assemble in Danville, the meeting place of the newly established Kentucky district court, to discuss how best to approach the situation.4 Aware there was no time to contact officials in Richmond, Logan hoped to quickly assemble militia units and launch preemptive strikes against the raiding party. [End Page 343] George Muter, Samuel McDowell...


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