| The perfect Father’s Day gift for Kentucky dads interested in our state history is Berry Craig’s new book, “True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bourbon, Bombast & Burgoo”. Berry arranges his book in chewable chunks. The chapters are short and divided into vignettes joined not by date, but by similarity in place and rank. Governors and their families get a good raking over, as do state legislators. The misbehavior of Kentucky pols and their “kith and kin” in our nation’s capital has to be read to be believed.
It is popular in this age of instant news and analysis to bemoan the rancor between the political parties. Modern politicians can use only sound bites and press releases to attack their foes. Our ancestral lawmakers used whips, pistols and in one case a strong set of teeth to go after their opponents. Craig’s book illustrates over and over the violent nature of Kentucky politicians. Even the Great Compromiser, Henry Clay, was a duelist. Craig tells the little known story of how Clay, early in his political career, took a chance and a lucky shot in his first campaign for office.
Clay wasn’t the only Kentucky pol who was quick on the draw. Representatives in Frankfort and Washington shot it out on a regular basis. Rowan County was named for a Democratic duelist who beat the rap of killing his opponent when the issue was “who shot first”.
Pistols may have been the gentleman’s weapon in early Kentucky politics. But they weren’t the only weapons. Lyon County in West Kentucky owes its name to Matthew Lyon who spat in the face of a fellow congressman. In the melee that followed, Lyon bit off the thumb of an opponent.
Kentucky politicians were more than “barbaric Yahoos”. One governor had a talking parrot, which is buried near him and his wife. Another had a pig that had taken part in the War of 1812. Vice President Alban Barkley’s time as a janitor is recounted. Long before Rosa Parks refused to get up on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama sparking the modern civil rights movement, Bourbon County born Rev. Elisha Green refused to give up his seat on a train – and suffered a beating for it. Marcellus Cassius Clay’s defense of his teenage bride belongs in the category of stranger than fiction.
Craig’s book is filled with colorful characters. While not shining the kindest light on Kentucky’s representatives, the book is a fun read and one that goes beyond the fifth grade knowledge of Kentucky history that many of us labor under. It certainly explains why our elected officials have to swear that they have not fought a duel or seconded a duel under the 1898 Kentucky Constitution. The drafters had firsthand experience with bloodshed for political purposes.
If Dad is a history buff or he just likes a good read, “True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics” will delight him. With a glass of sweet tea, it’s the perfect summer gift for a Kentucky reader.
“True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bourbon, Bombast & Burgoo” by Berry Craig, published by The History Press, (ISBN 978-1-59629-636-7) retails for $19.99.