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On June 1,1792, Kentucky became the fifteenth state in the new nation and the first west of the Alleghenies. Lowell Harrison reviews the tangled and protracted process by which Virginia's westernmost territory achieved statehood.
By the early 1780s, survival of the Kentucky settlements, so uncertain only a few years earlier, was assured. The end of the American Revolution curtailed British support for Indian raids, and thousands of settlers sought a better life in the "Eden of the West." They swarmed through Cumberland Gap and down the Ohio River, cleared the land for crops, and established towns. The division of sprawling Kentucky County into three counties in 1780 indicated its rapid growth, and that growth accelerated during the following decade.
With population increase came sentiment for separation from Virginia. Such demands had been voiced earlier, but a definite separation movement began in 1784 when a convention—the first of ten such—met in Danville. Not until April 1792 was a constitution finally drafted under which the Commonwealth of Kentucky could enter the Union. While most Kentuckians favored separation, they differed over how and when and on what terms it should occur. Three factions struggled to control the movement, but their goals and methods shifted with changing circumstances. This confusing situation was made more complex by the presence of the exotic James Wilkinson and the "Spanish Conspiracy" he fomented.
Harrison addresses many questions about the convoluted process of statehood: why separation was desired, why it was so difficult to achieve, what type of government the 1792 constitution established, and how Governor Isaac Shelby and the first General Assembly implemented it. His engaging account, which includes the text of the first constitution, will be treasured by all Kentuckians.
Lowell H. Harrison is professor emeritus of history at Western Kentucky University.
The University Press of Kentucky
Place of Publication
Kentucky, Kentucky history, Kentucky politics, Statehood
United States History
Harrison, Lowell H., "Kentucky's Road to Statehood" (1992). United States History. 138.