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Kentucky's Connection to the Vice Presidency as Debate Lands Here

KY Forward, a partner of The River City News, has compiled a tremendous collection of coverage leading up to Thursday night's Vice Presidential debate at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. From professors at the school analyzing the political winds to a look back on three Vice Presidents from Kentucky, here is an aggregated collection of the work:

First VP from Kentucky, Richard Johnson, a larger than life character


Richard Mentor Johnson, for whom counties would be named in five states, was born in 1780 (or ’81 by other accounts) on the frontier of what was then Kentucky County, Va., at a settlement called Beargrass, near modern day Louisville. Johnson’s family soon moved to Fayette County, where they were caught up in Simon Girty’s Raid on Bryan’s Station, a fort that gives its name to modern day Bryan Station Pike.

Girty was a Scots-Irish mercenary, leading a band of Native Americans fighting for the British during the Revolutionary War. In August of 1782, they surrounded Bryan’s Station. The settlers had no water, and Jemimah Johnson, Richard’s mother, decided that the women of the fort should pretend that they didn’t know the Indians were there, go to the nearby spring, fill their buckets, and bring them back to the fort.

The plan assumed that Girty’s forces would not attack the women, and open themselves to fire from the fort. The plan worked beautifully, and the water was brought in to the fort. Girty’s forces tried to set the fort on fire with burning arrows. One of those arrows landed in the straw-filled crib containing the infant Richard Mentor Johnson. However, with the water fetched by Mrs. Johnson and the other women, the settlers were able to put out not only that arrow, but the fires set by all the rest, and hold off the attackers until help arrived. Johnson and his family escaped the battle unscathed. A historic marker commemorates the event on Bryan Station Pike today.

How would you like to be able to tell that story about yourself in a stump speech? It gets better. Johnson, perhaps incensed by his treatment by the Native Americans, raised his own regiment during the War of 1812 and headed north, where once again, the British had paid the Native Americans to fight against our forces. Surrounded by the fog of war, the Native American chief Tecumseh, leading his troops, was killed in battle, reportedly by Johnson personally.

Full story: KY Forward by Robert Treadway


Alben Barkley, the nation's first "veep"

The hardest fought political battle of the twentieth century was the presidential election of 1948. Harry Truman had become an accidental president on the death of Franklin Roosevelt three and a half years earlier, and many thought he wasn’t a big enough man to be president. The polls showed him running a distant second to his Republican opponent, New York Gov. Thomas Dewey.

Truman’s response was to leave Washington behind, climb aboard Roosevelt’s private railway car, the Ferdinand Magellan, and make the most famous whistle stop campaign tour in history. As the train left Union Station, Truman’s newly nominated vice presidential candidate, Kentucky Sen. Alben Barkley, saw him off. Then, as David McCullough reports in his brilliant bestselling biography, “Truman,” the two made history:

“With everything ready, Truman and Barkley posed together on the rear platform for a few last pictures.

“‘Mow ‘em down, Harry!’ Barkley exhorted.

“‘I’m going to fight hard. I’m going to give ‘em hell,’ said Truman . . .”

The phrase stuck, and, according to McCullough, became the rallying cry of the campaign:

“’Give ‘em hell, Harry!’ someone would shout from the crowd – news accounts of his promise to Barkley to ‘give ‘em hell’ having swept the country by now. The cry went up at one stop after another, often more than once – ‘give ‘em hell, Harry!’ – which always brought more whoops, laughter, and yells of approval, but especially when he tore into the 80th Congress.”

Despite the premature headline in the deeply conservative Chicago Tribune, “Dewey Defeats Truman,” history records that Truman and Barkley won the victory.

Read the full story: KY Forward by Robert Treadway


VP John Breckenridge was Centre College alumnus

Breckinridge, the scion of one of Kentucky’s most important political families, and co-incidentally an alumnus of Centre College himself, became one of our nation’s most important leaders on the eve of the Civil War, but his service to the United States was marred by his having taken up arms against it during the Civil War.

Breckinridge was the son of John Breckinridge, one of the early attorneys general of the United States, the patriarch of a political and business family that would include not only a vice president, but a famous (or notorious) actor and Mary Breckinridge, the founder of the Frontier Nursing Service. Like many Kentuckians of his generation, John Cabell Breckinridge had fought in the Mexican War in 1847-48 already. The muster rolls show that he served as a major in the Third Kentucky Volunteers, a unit in which my own great great great grandfather, about whose own Civil War exploits I wrote in my Fourth of July column, served as a lieutenant.

In the years preceding the Civil War, Breckinridge emerged as a spokesman for the slave-owning interests of the South. It is difficult to get the modern mind around the idea that owning another human being is a good thing, but the economy of the South was thought to depend on slave labor, and the abolition of slavery was thought by some to be an economic disaster from which the South would never recover.

Breckinridge, a loyal member of the Democratic Party, was elected vice president under James Buchanan, a weak and ineffective president who, after his election in 1856, spent the most valuable four years of the 19th century, those just prior to the Civil War, fretting and fiddling and doing little to prevent the conflict. Buchanan was out-maneuvered in his own party, denied the nomination in 1860, and the Democratic Party split into North-South factions.

Full story: KY Forward by Robert Treadway


More on the VP Debate from KY Forward:

Foreign relations likely to be downplayed at debate

Voter IDs, Bounces, and Debates: A Centre Professor Weighs In

Theatrics of Politics: What you may see at the Centre Debate

PHOTO: Alben Barkley