The author of this concise and beautifully written book offers a new perspective on an old question: why did Kentucky become the second state in the new nation to adopt universal male suffrage in 1792? Frederick Jackson Turner suggested long ago that the answer could be found in the unique nature of manhood in the early American West. Men who experienced the rough frontier conditions and abundant economic opportunities of the West became individualistic and self-reliant, leading them to demand political rights that in older states were reserved only for men with property.1 Honor Sachs argues here that white men’s experiences as men were, in fact, central to shaping their relationships with their government in eighteenth-century Kentucky. But white men’s expectations for these relationships grew out of their economic failures, not their successes. Poor white men demanded expanded political rights because they were unhappy about their inability to support their families without help from the state.
Sachs suggests that white men who moved to Kentucky in the late eighteenth century expected to enjoy the privileges of patriarchs. As many historians have shown, eighteenth-century Anglo-Americans defined manhood in terms of family relationships.2 Men were considered manly to the extent that they became patriarchs able to command the labor and the loyalty of their wives, children, and other dependents. White settlers who moved westward after the American Revolution expected that their governments, at both national and state levels, would provide them with access to cheap land, guarantee them stable titles to property, and protect them against attacks from Indians who resented their presence. With their governments’ backing, they would find family-sized farms, fulfill their responsibilities as family patriarchs, and bask in the loyalty and gratitude of their family members.
These men’s expectations, as Sachs shows, were disappointed at every turn. Defensive raids by Indians drove white settlers in the Kentucky [End Page 772] territory into frontier forts and destabilized family relationships, highlighting the inability of male settlers to protect their wives and children. The Virginia legislature passed laws that advanced the interests of wealthy speculators but weakened small farmers’ claims to the land that they had cleared and planted. The vast majority of the white men who had flooded into the Kentucky backcountry with their families after the revolution had no land at all by the 1790s. These men, having failed to become family farmers, often worked for low wages, competing with slaves for jobs and relying on the wages of wives and children to supplement their meager earnings. County governments faced rising expenses for poor relief to support women and children whose husbands and fathers were unable to support them. Poor white men found themselves being treated with contempt as failed patriarchs rather than enjoying the deference of their wives and children and the respect of their neighbors.
These conditions, Sachs argues, helped provoke the separatist movements that roiled the Kentucky backcountry during the 1780s and 1790s. White men in Kentucky became angry that their governments had not provided the economic and legal conditions necessary to secure men’s authority over their households. In particular the U.S. government, having failed “to provide security for the household head” (96), was no longer entitled to the settlers’ allegiance.
Sachs’s linkage between the disappointed patriarchal expectations of eighteenth-century Kentuckians and their rejection of state authority is original and convincing. Previous historians have shown connections between western insurrections and class, demonstrating that poor whites in the West were angered by state and federal policies that undermined their ability to acquire land and become economically secure. At least one has shown that settler-colonizers in some parts of the backcountry tried to legitimize their aggression toward Indians by claiming that their anger was authentically masculine.3 But none has argued so convincingly how much western white men’s fury toward their state and federal governments was tied to their own failure to live up to the expectations of...