Tuesday, July 05, 2016

A New History of Kentucky (Book Review #30 of 2016)

A New History of Kentucky by Lowell H. Harrison and James C. Klotter
I read this book during the 2016 Regular Session of the Kentucky General Assembly. I work in the Executive Branch at the intersection of budget and policy and appreciated that so much of this book is devoted to Kentucky's governors and their policies. I like to see how history is repeated as "new ideas" are really just rehashing of old ideas. I'm also the descendant of settlers having moved from Virginia to Western Kentucky in the early 1800s, and I enjoyed reading about the context in their areas and imagining the impacts of events on my forebears. While there is something in this book for everyone, there is not enough on any topic to satisfy anyone. (The authors sort of go out of their way not to write about basketball and modern horse breeding and racing, despite those activities mattering much more to the average Kentuckian than what happens in Frankfort.)

The highlights from my digital edition take up 38 pages, too much to summarize here. This book (1997) is billed as "the first comprehensive history of the state since the publication of Thomas D. Clark's landmark History of Kentucky over sixty years ago;" I have not read Clark's work. I had previously read John Mack Farragher's biography of Daniel Boone, which provides helpful early colonial context that takes up much of the New History. I had also read Penny Miller's Kentucky's Politics and Government (1994), which is a history of Kentucky's constitutions, legislative reforms, politics, and demographics. There is much overlap between that book and New History, but I found that book provided better explanations and details about various state government policy decisions. Harry Caudill's Night Comes to the Cumberlands (1963) is another indispensable book to aid one's reading of New History, along with books like Mutzenberg's Kentucky's Famous Feuds and Tragedies (1916).

My takeaway impression from New History is that Kentucky has spent much of its history as a lawless and violent place, where inhabitants faced danger either from Shawnee, armed gangs and mobs (as in the "Black Patch War" and dozens of feuds), Civil War soldiers from both sides, and poverty from exploitation. Those who are concerned about the decrease in civil discourse and increase in division ought to read books from the 1800s about how mobs pulled preachers from their pulpits and killed a gubernatorial candidate, farmers burned down each others fields, how feuds endangered entire populations, and how the numerous county officials maintained (and still maintain) their corrupt fiefdoms. While things get a bit better in the 20th century with advances in education and urbanism, and sports which unite the Bluegrass, New History leaves one with the distinct impression that Kentucky has a ceiling on its potential.

Some tidbits that go unappreciated: Kentuckians have had several important members of the Supreme Court, and these have not always sided with the politically conservative forces as you might expect. One example where a Kentucky justice was more "progressive" than his colleagues from clearly more progressive states than Kentucky is when the Kentucky legislature passed a law requiring a private college to racially segregate-- against its wishes. The Supreme Court upheld this federal overreach, as described on p. 382:
"In November 1908 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Berea College vs. Kentucky. Justice John Marshall Harlan, a Kentuckian, dissenting from the majority opinion, asked, 'Have we become so inoculated with prejudice of race that [Kentucky] . . . can make distinctions between such citizens in the matter of . . . meeting for innocent purposes simply because of their respective races?' His fellow justices in essence answered 'yes,' as they turned down Berea's appeal. The Day Law remained in force, and biracial education in Kentucky and the South legally ended for nearly a half century."

Kentucky did not have nearly the problem from the KKK as one might expect, as much as it did a cooperative of tobacco farmers who were united as an oligopoly and took to vigilantism to bully others. P. 240:
"In central Kentucky the Burley Tobacco Society organized in order to decrease production and increase demand. But success depended on cooperation, and if significant numbers of farmers defected, then the pool would not be effective. Some farmers, particularly those strapped for funds, did agree to continue to sell to the trust, and these so-called Hillbillies soon became the focus of violence, particularly in the dark patch tobacco areas of western Kentucky...Night Rider armies of hundreds of men took over entire towns and burned trust tobacco stored in warehouses...With some thirty thousand members in the PPA, more in the burley group, and an estimated ten thousand in the
paramilitary Night Riders, the tobacco farmers formed a formidable group."

Ten thousand paramilitaries is something I don't remember reading about growing up as a schoolboy in the 1980s-1990s. As I read other articles in the local papers touching on some of the history covered in this book, I note that the book did miss some important details. Watching some recent episodes about the Civil War in Kentucky on the local PBS affiliate taught me that the book did not do a good job explaining the major battles and perhaps majored on the minor aspects and local heroes of the war.

I appreciated all the history of Governors and political parties included in New History. The explanations of Gov. "Happy" Chandler's politics, along with the spoils system of his day and the later 1962 reforms by Bert T. Combs (p. 408) were insightful for a state worker watching the pension system fall further and further into the least-funded in the U.S. I've come to believe that perhaps the most important 20th-21st century achievement by a sitting governor was Martha Lane Collins' working of the deal that brought Toyota to the Commonwealth in the mid-1980s. Toyota is now responsible for almost two percent of Kentuckians' paychecks, its factory is in the fastest-growing county in the state for the last several years, which now has over 50% of its workforce employed in manufacturing, a rarity in the US today. Toyota's presence has encouraged other parts suppliers move to the state providing thousands of more jobs as the other major auto manufacturers (Ford, GM) in the state have also expanded in synergy. As coal is no longer "king" and some of the highest unemployment rates are found in the Appalachians, automobile-related manufacturing has provided jobs with benefits for those willing to come down from the mountains. It has also increased the diversity of Kentucky by bringing in many educated Japanese. Future governors have only been able to add to this achievement, by helping broker workforce training initiatives between Toyota and the various universities and technical colleges. Kentucky may not have a high-educated workforce spinning off tech start-ups, but it has harnessed its lower-skilled population into middle-class incomes via transportation equipment manufacturing.

New History also reinforces my opinion that Kentucky has far too many counties for its own good. Many were created with names of Governors as almost a spoil for their reward. The problem is that the Constitution mandates offices, such as jailer, that each county has to maintain (whether or not there is actually a jail). This further propogates the fiefdoms that the county Fiscal Courts maintain, and corruption is still well-documented. Perhaps had some counties been combined, the feuds that were maintained within one county may have been eliminated when united with a larger populace with a force more capable of keeping the peace.

I give this book 4.5 stars out of 5. It's definitely a must-read for anyone who claims to be really interested in Kentucky.

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