Monday, July 12, 2010

The Bunning Seat -- the Return of Isham Talbot

With the resignation of William Logan to run for governor in the election of 1820, the Kentucky General Assembly was once again faced with the duty of choosing someone to complete a term in the Bunning Seat. And once again, they chose Isham Talbot -- who prevailed in a very close vote over John Rowan. Talbot returned to the Senate on October 19, 1820, and held the seat until the term expired on March 3, 1825.

These were very important years in the history of Kentucky. The old unity in the state was continuing to break down under the pressures of the Panic of 1819. Under the leadership of Governor Adair, the state government adopted a number of measures designed to provide relief to debtors who had been wiped out by the crash. But in 1823, the Kentucky Court of Appeals -- then the highest court in the Commonwealth -- held that some of these measures were unconstitutional. Enraged by this decision, pro-relief forces supported Joseph Desha for governor, and he won by an overwhelming majority. The pro-relief forces then revoked the law that had established the Court of Appeals, and established a new Court. The new Justices were all to be pro-relief supporters.

But the old Court, as well the anti-Relief party, refused to recognize the legitimacy of this law, or the new Court. In fact, for a time Kentucky had two separate Courts of Appeal, and Civil War seemed imminent. But by 1825, conditions had begun to improve and the anti-Relief forces took control of the state legislature. As time went on, and business conditions improved, the old Court forces became even stronger. By December 1826, the measures establishing the new Court had been repealed, and the Old Court-New Court controversy was at an end.

In a sense, however, the basic controversy has never ended. The distinction between the established, wealthy families in the state and the poor masses has been a constant refrain in Kentucky politics from that day to this. Sometimes matters are so harmonious that this refraint can barely be heard; at other times it is violent in intensity. As we continue our story, we will watch these two groups struggle for power.

Of course, this distinction also has great significance outside of Kentucky. In the Presidential election of 1824 -- which I will discuss in the next entry -- the Era of Good Feelings finally and truly came to an end, and the resulting divisions that sprang up within the country as a whole were very similar to the distinctions drawn between supporters of the Old and New Courts. Eventually, those distinctions would pull Kentucky and Tennessee in very different directions, and would lead to decades of conflict between the greatest citizens of those two states: Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson.

But that is still to come, and Isham Talbot's role in such controversies was at an end. He never held office again after 1825. He returned to Kentucky -- apparently leaving behind his very young second wife in Washington. (According to this excellent web page summarizing Talbot's life, he and his second wife were effectively separated after he left DC.) Talbot remained an important member of the Kentucky bar in Frankfort, and died in 1837 at the age of 64.

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