Governor Robert P. Letcher.
Among the scores of distinguished Kentuckians who have achieved greatness by their own merit is Robert Letcher. According to his own account he was, in the strictest sense, self-made. He was a native of Garrard county, born of humble parentage, his father being a bricklayer. Robert's industrial education began in a brick-yard, where he served as a carrier. He was quick-witted, mischievous and hard to control; had an ambitious and unruly spirit, that for a while caused his father and his employers trouble — not from any disposition to do wrong things, but a determination to do his own way, small as he was, because as he explained, he saw a quicker and better way to do things than the slow-minded workmen who undertook to teach him. He was sent to the common schools, but he would not learn, and was sent back to the brick-yard, where, between working hours, he taught himself "to read and write and cipher." He grew tired of being dismissed from school, and determined to find a teacher that he could obey and would learn from something better than he had yet acquired from books. He heard of the school of Mr. Joshua Fry, who taught at his own home in Mercer county, and Robert determined to go to him and ask that he might be admitted as a pupil in the school of this benevolent and finely-educated teacher of that day. We read he went barefooted — perhaps bareheaded, too — out of the brick-yard to the house of Mr. Fry. This gentleman met him kindly, and Robert made known his desire to come to his school, that he thought he could teach him and manage him, and Mr. Fry consented to take him as a scholar. This school was the turning point in his life. He was impressed with the nobility as well as the learning of Mr. Fry, and his young heart yielded up its waywardness and became obedient to command and instruction. And in this way the future governor was educated for his high position.
He pursued his calling as a brick mason, enlivening his labors with his fiddle. He played by ear the popular airs of the day, and many a country dance was made delightful with his music and his wit as a leader.
Like Thomas Metcalfe, he seized every opportunity for improvement, and as these two men worked together, building the present Executive Mansion (it is contended they did), they doubtless discussed their future, when they should lay aside the brick and the trowel and become builders on the rising foundations of the State government of Kentucky, then less than ten years old.
p14 We have written he was ambitious. Conscious of a strength of purpose and of power in himself to win in the battle of life, he eagerly seized the candidacy in Garrard county for the Legislature in 1813, and was elected by a handsome majority a member of the General Assembly. From Kentucky House Journals of the General Assembly, we see he was in the Legislature from 1813 to 1823. He had made such a record as a legislator and uncompromising Whig that his district, then a Whig stronghold, sent him to Congress, where he remained as its representative until 1838.
In the summer of this year he was again elected to the Kentucky Legislature, and became Speaker of the House. At all times he was distinguished for his intelligence, his prompt grasp of every question of policy for his party, his energy, industry and integrity, and all his speeches were flavored by his incisive wit and good humor. He was a man who took nothing seriously. He had Dickens' sense of humor, and it was indulged to the amusement of the great political gatherings, and more than his ability as a legislator contributed to his popularity and success. He was elected Governor of Kentucky in 1840, and was the Governor who wrote the first Thanksgiving proclamation in Kentucky, September 26, 1844. This was among his last official acts, and this one immortalized him.
He had married, when young, Charlotte Robertson, the sister of Chief Justice George Robertson, of Lexington, Ky., and daughter of Alexander Robertson, of Augusta county, Va. She was a woman of rare beauty, exemplary character and fine intelligence. Governor Letcher, with fond pride, called her "the queen," and the affectionate title he gave her was recognized as appropriate for her who had so many graces of heart and head, of gracious manner and majestic beauty. She was tall and graceful, and is said to have been one of the most beautiful of Kentucky women in the society of Washington, and was a leader of distinction there.
Of the Governor and Mrs. Letcher when at the Governor's mansion we have written in the Register (May, 1904). Mrs. Woodson, who knew them intimately, thus writes of them, in her paper on "Washington Street," for the Colonial Daughters. She writes. "On the northeast corner of Washington and Wapping streets there stood the large frame house built by Mr. Clement Bell first. He lived there for some years, and until he moved to his farm in the country (Bell's Grove). This house stood there until 1835, when Mr. Thos. Triplett tore it down and built the present house. Before it was finished, he died, and it was purchased and finished by Dr. Dickinson, who died shortly afterward, and it was sold to Governor Letcher when he retired from the gubernatorial chair. He was appointed by President Fillmore minister to Mexico. The Governor being a very jovial and companionable man, he made there many friends in the city, and was afterward visited by one of Mexico's most distinguished citizens, Hargods,b and family.
"Mrs. Letcher was a beauty, and to the day of her death was as pretty as a picture. Benevolent and ever ready to help the distressed, devoted to her church (First Presbyterian church), always interested in the welfare of her friends, she retained her youthful feelings to the last. She died October 29, 1879. She was the center of attraction to old and young in the city. The Governor always called her 'the queen.' They had no children, but reared from childhood a niece, Maria Cronley, as a daughter, and she fully repaid them for their care by her devotion and her untiring, unselfish watchfulness over their health and comfort."
Their home was "liberty hall" for their young kindred; nieces and nephews and cousins were always welcomed gladly, and a gay time was assured. Their hearts were glowing with kindness and hospitality. They lived in ease and luxury for that day. The house was thronged with visitors, many of them the most distinguished people of antebellum days, and they shared their prosperity and their happiness with the town. It was a social education to the young to visit this famous couple and meet them and their friends. There are many persons in the senior society of Frankfort who still recall Governor Letcher's appearance as he would stand, sometimes at the entrance of his house on Washington street, or again in the small portico on Wapping street, and in his cheery voice call out to one or more of his distinguished neighbors on this famous square an invitation to breakfast after the following manner:
"I say, Crittenden (or Harlan, or Carneal, or Lindsay), come over and take breakfast with me in the morning. I will set you down to briledº middling, corn-meal muffins, fried eggs and coffee."
This homely menu was not all he had, but his friends accepted the invitation gladly and enjoyed an elegant breakfast, brightened with witty repartee.
They (Governor and Mrs. Letcher) preserved simplicity, with genuine hospitality. They never copied the viands or the customs of the very rich, North or South, nor the luxuries of the foreign court of Mexico. The Governor claimed what Kentucky produced was good enough for himself and "the queen," and the most extravagant epicure should not desire more.
In that period there was little of the restlessness and selfish striving after things beyond the pleasant every-day accomplishment, which we see now. The two parties then dominant were the Democratic party and the Whig party, and the latter party was becoming gradually disintegrated by affiliations with other parties and theories in the North and East. About this time, the summer of 1853, Governor Letcher consented to give up his retirement from politics and run for Congress again. Though the Whigs saw their power as a party waning elsewhere in the South, they did not dream of the extent of their loss in Kentucky. And so, with accustomed vigor, they brought out Governor Letcher as their candidate for Congress against the talented Democrat, John C. Breckinridge, of Lexington. Governor Letcher had never been defeated. He was known to be one of the most popular Whigs in Kentucky, p16 and one of the most forceful and entertaining speakers of his day and party.
Years after the death of Governor Letcher, we remember to have heard the following anecdote, told of him during this campaign by a gentleman who was a friend, though a prominent Democrat, and one of controlling influences in the eastern end of the county. He said he was standing on the street at the Mansion house corner, when Governor Letcher came across from the old bank, and, slapping him on the shoulder, said cheerily, "Well, Frank, I hear you are proselyting my men out your way, and that Eli and the mill hands have gone over to the Democrats. That won't do at all. Why, I am going to beat you so badly in this race you will be ashamed not to have voted for me yourself."
"Ah, indeed," his friend Frank replied, "candidates are most always elected before the election comes on; but there's Eli — let him speak for himself."
Turning around, he called Eli, and when he came up to them, Governor Letcher shook hands with him in his friendly style and said to this back-sliding Whig, who like himself, was very dark complexioned:
"Eli, this news I hear about you won't do at all. Why you must stick to your color, man."
Eli was confused, but he stammered out: "N‑n‑no, sir, not when it turns black."
Governor Letcher laughed, and looked at Eli, and laughed again as he walked away, and said, "Frank, you told him to say that."
About this time the Republican party was styled the "Black Republican" party, and the Whigs were going over to it in many places, or separating into the "Know Nothing" party. Party feeling began to run fiercely along the lines at issue as the election drew near. Governor Letcher, the good-humored jester, began to be serious, as he met at the hustings the graceful young orator of Democracy, who was sweeping victoriously the district and producing that intense enthusiasm with the people in his behalf that is resistless.
In August the election came on, and when it closed John C. Breckinridge was elected over Governor Robert P. Letcher by a handsome majority. The Whigs at first refused to believe the reports from the various voting precincts, but when Owen county sent in her vote, it was so overwhelming they gracefully surrendered, and contended no more that "Governor Letcher had never been defeated and was not this time."
The Governor after this retired from politics, but watched with deep solicitude the trend of affairs that culminated in the Civil War. He died in his home in Frankfort, that is shown in the picture, January 24, 1861. Mrs. Letcher survived him many years. Both were conspicuous figures in society, and were widely known and greatly beloved, and no two people were ever more universally missed and mourned by relatives and friends than Governor and Mrs. Robert P. Letcher.
Home of Governor Robert P. Letcher.
Doubtless the preservation of many old homesteads is due more to realization of their stability than to any sentiments or associations enshrining them. Frankfort, the capital of our Commonwealth, from its foundation, contains many such structures, linking its past to its present. Their honestness of workmanship has spared them to us, reminders of those days when the capital was the center of interest in the State, as it was the home of the historic men of the time. Among the older homes, intimately connected with its social life for generations, is this one which stands on the northwest corner of Washington and Wapping streets. The first building which occupied this corner, a large two-story frame structure, was erected as a home for Mr. Clement Bell, a pioneer, from Salisbury, Maryland, to Kentucky in 1790, who was the first owner of the lot. Mrs. Clement Bell was a daughter of Captain Andrew Steele and his wife, Jane Lindsay Steele, of Pennsylvania. The house was occupied by Mr. Bell for several years, and until his removal to his farm, "Bell's Grove," several miles front city.
In 1835, the property was sold to a Mr. Triplett, who demolished the pioneer building and began the construction of the present house, but died before its completion. Again it was sold — this time to Dr. Dickinson, who finished the building and occupied it. Shortly afterward, however, Dr. Dickinson died. Mrs. Dickinson was, before her marriage, Miss Margaret Dudley, a daughter of Colonel Ambrose Dudley, a granddaughter of Senator Isham Talbot, and a great granddaughter of Governor Garrard, all of Kentucky; she is but recently deceased, and, as Mrs. Randolph Smith, she is well remembered by a host of friends as a woman of a most superior character, possessing all those charms of heart and intellect which constitute a perfect gentlewoman.
When the term of Governor Letcher expired, in 1844, he vacated the mansion and bought this residence, which he occupied until his death. It continued the home of Mrs. Letcher until she died, in 1879. Governor and Mrs. Letcher were famed for their generous hospitality. They delighted in the entertaining of friends and visitors. It has been said that a greater number of distinguished people, not only Kentuckians and Americans, but also foreigners, were entertained in this, their home (Governor Crittenden's excepted) than in any other home in the city. In those days the main entrance, with its portico, was on Wapping street, commanding a beautiful view of Frankfort's encircling hills, and receiving, p20 in the heated season, the cool river breezes from the Kentucky, flowing scarcely more than a square below. On the death of Mrs. Letcher, the place was sold to Judge William Lindsay, later United States senator, who in a few years exchanged it with Captain Harry I. Todd for the beautiful Todd mansion on the corner of Wapping and Wilkinson streets. The ancestors of both Captain and Mrs. Todd had been prominently connected with the fortunes of the Commonwealth since pioneer days. Captain Todd was a grandson of those two illustrious sons of Kentucky, Harry Innes and Justice Thomas Todd, of the Supreme Court of the United States. Captain Todd's mother, who was Miss Innes, married Governor Crittenden after the death of her first husband, Mr. Todd. Mrs. Harry I. Todd, now living at an advanced age, was Miss Davidson, a direct descendant of General Benjamin Logan, of pioneer fame. Here, although in their declining years, Captain and Mrs. Todd, both of whom were by inclination most hospitable, fulfilled their social obligations in a charming manner, assisted by those of their large family circle who remained at home. Since Captain Todd's death, it has been the residence of Judge Holt, a member of the Court of Appeals, and more recently judge in Porto Rico.
Subsequently, the place was purchased by Mr. James Saffell, the postmaster of Frankfort.
The present owner of the property is Dr. J. S. Collins, whose residence it now is. Well repaired and carefully kept, it stands to‑day one of the most charming homes in a city famous for its hospitality and its century old homes.
G. C. Downing.
The Letcher-Lindsay House,
My photograph, © William P. Thayer 2006.
a The gentle reader should not set her hopes too high; a much better title would have been something like "Reminiscences of Governor Letcher and his Family": this anecdotal and commendatory article, typical of small-town historical writing, is thoroughly unsatisfactory as history — no explanation at all of how this brickmason suddenly found himself governor of Kentucky, for example — and the serious student should check its statements elsewhere, or read something else.
That said, as Pliny the Younger once said, no writing is so bad that something good cannot be got from it; here, at the very least, a good feel for life, and political life, in mid‑19c frontier America.
b An un-Mexican name if ever there was one; and although just conceivably someone in the family may have become a Mexican citizen, on balance I don't think so. The person mentioned here is very likely Peter Hargous, a New York banker; he and his brother Eugene were the central figures in a project to build a railroad across Mexico when Letcher was minister of legation in that country in the early 1850's. The scheme became a lightning rod for some unsavory nationalism on both sides of the border, and had a few sensible people not backed down, was on its way to embroiling Mexico and the United States in a second Mexican War: the story is well told in "Diplomacy of the United States and Mexico regarding the Isthmus of Tehuantepec" (MVHR 6:503‑531). It's interesting, but not very edifying, to meet with these people as his personal guests in Kentucky.
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