Kentucky became a state 225 years ago, on June 1, 1792, but it wasn’t easy.
It took eight years, 10 statehood conventions, four Congressional enabling acts and the consent of Virginia. Along the way, we almost ended up speaking Spanish.
With the end of the French and Indian War, France gave up ownership of the land which would be Kentucky, under the Treaty of Paris in 1763. That left England owning most of Canada and land east of the Mississippi River while Spain owned west of the Mississippi.
Kentucky was a part of the colony of Virginia under its royal charter. Shortly after the American Revolution began (and the future city of Lexington was named), Virginia created a Kentucky judicial district and divided Kentucky County into three counties: Fayette, Jefferson and Lincoln. And then it essentially stopped.
As settlements grew, Indian attacks continued. Frustrations grew with the Virginia government’s inadequate protection and general support. At the same time, Kentucky began to produce surplus products that it was easier to sell down the Mississippi to New Orleans than to haul through the mountains and Cumberland Gap to the eastern centers.
Two major events in Kentucky history happened in 1784. A group of leaders convened the first convention advocating statehood; and Spain closed the river and port of New Orleans to American commerce. Adding fuel to the fire, the United States was negotiating a new treaty with Spain, one proposed provision of which would have left the river closed for 25 years.
Not surprisingly, a political factor at the convention comprised primarily of lawyers and judges, the so-called “Court party,” began advocating that Kentucky leave the U.S., declare itself an independent country and seek an alliance with Spain. The other choices were to remain a part of Virginia, mutually agreeable separation and admission as a state, or unilateral separation and a petition for admission.
The first convention (all met in Danville) determined to take the pulse of the 30,000 Kentuckians, and called for a second convention in 1785. That convention passed a petition asking Virginia for separation upon certain terms, including assumption of part of the war debt and recognition of land grants.
A third convention later in 1785 did the same and sent delegates to Richmond to lobby. Former general James Wilkinson, who by then had established the first general store in Lexington and had several warehouses in Frankfort for shipping downriver, traveled to the Spanish viceroy in New Orleans and offered to become a paid agent for Spain at future conventions to advocate for independence of Kentucky and alliance with Spain.
The viceroy agreed to make secret payments to Wilkinson and certain other men, all delegates. They were able to make strong economic arguments that their plan would reopen commerce.
Congress passed the first enabling act in 1786, requiring a fourth convention. However, that convention failed to achieve a quorum; many delegates were off fighting Indians. A quorum was finally achieved in January 1787, but by then Congress had passed a second act, requiring yet another convention, and setting a July 4, 1788 deadline. Wilkinson made another trip to New Orleans asking for further funding.
The fifth convention in late 1787 agreed to the congressional terms but by now the new U. S. Constitution was being submitted to the states for ratification (Kentucky’s 14 delegates voted 10 to 4 against the new Constitution.) The outgoing Congress decided to wait and see if the Constitution was adopted and, if so, let the new Congress decide Kentucky’s status. This news arrived as the sixth convention was at work. Its members decided their authority was terminated, called for a new convention and adjourned.
Lest it be thought all this conspiracy was uniquely a Kentucky thing, Spain also had secret, paid agents in Tennessee attempting the same goal of separation from the United States.
At the seventh convention in November, 1788, Wilkinson made his move and called for a vote on independence. At the last moment, another of Spain’s agents had a change of heart and only weakly supported Wilkinson and the effort failed. A call was issued for yet another convention, petitions were sent to Washington, D.C. and Richmond, and they adjourned. The next month Congress passed the third act with tougher conditions on potential statehood.
Three months later, in March, 1788, Spain reversed its policy and reopened the river and New Orleans to American commerce. This took away the arguments of the Wilkinson faction and ended talk of independence. The eighth convention in July 1789 sent more petitions east to no effect. Wilkinson declined to be re-elected to the next convention and left Kentucky.
Congress passed the fourth enabling act in December, 1789, leading to a ninth convention to vote on the new conditions. This convention finally voted 24 to 18 in favor of statehood, asking for admission effective June 1, 1792.
Virginia approved Kentucky statehood on Dec. 12, 1790, and Congress passed the act of admission on Feb. 4, 1791. The tenth and final convention met in April, 1792, adopted the first Kentucky Constitution and set elections for officers on March 1.
That convention designated Lexington as provisional capital of the new state until the legislature could choose a permanent site. Upon statehood, the legislature convened in Lexington’s first courthouse, Isaac Shelby was sworn in as the first governor, the first judges of the court of appeals were selected and Kentucky entered into the business of organizing its new government.
But the uniqueness of Kentucky’s admission doesn’t stop there. Vermont was admitted as the 14th state, with Kentucky as the 15th. The U.S. flag at the time was the “Betsy Ross” flag of 13 stars in a circle and 13 stripes. Congress added two more stars, now in horizontal rows, and two more stripes.
Nicknamed the “Kentucky Flag,” this was the Star Spangled Banner which flew over Fort McHenry under the British bombardment during the War of 1812. When Tennessee and other states were later admitted, Congress added stars but returned to the original number of stripes.
This flag served as the unofficial state flag until 1907 when the current state flag was designed and adopted.
Foster Ockerman Jr. is president and chief historian of Lexington History Museum, Inc. Reach him at email@example.com.