Kentucky's Third Constitution, 1849 


Louisville Times - 1890

Scintillating in the rough setting of the sleepy old country village of Shepherdsville there shines a mind that was one of as brilliant a cluster of mental gems as ever was gathered together within the confines of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. This is Judge William R. Thompson, and the lustrous cluster referred to was composed of the bright minds who assembled in Frankfort, October 1, 1849, to frame a new constitution for the state.

The result of the labor done by the convention was the present [third] constitution of Kentucky, now soon to be replaced by another, the provisions of which will override every other rule of action and become the organic law of the land.

Judge Thompson is now in his 80th year, but his physical strength is, yet, in fair condition; and his mental faculties are as clear and useful as when, 41 years ago, he took such an active part in the construction of the (then) new constitution.

Attentive and retentive, Judge Thompson's mind is a treasure-trove, which only needs uncovering, and the world would be all the richer for the wealth of knowledge that would be discovered there. This is especially true regarding the Constitutional Convention of 1849, its workings, the incidents, and its personnel.

Judge Thompson is one of the very few of the 100 men still living, whose brains labored with the questions that arose in forming what has, for nearly a half of a century, been the supreme law of the state. One by one, the others have passed away from the scenes of usefulness, leaving but seven bent figures to follow ere long to that bourne from which there is no returning.

All information regarding that convention of long ago, being particularly interesting now, when a similar work to that done then, is about to be undertaken, a Times reporter went to Shepherdsville to obtain from Judge Thompson a sketch of the convention; and of the man who composed it.
The venerable gentleman was found sitting beneath the spreading boughs of thick-leaved shade trees in the ample yard at his home. A proof of his good sense and inclination to keep up with the world's doings was observable when the caller glanced at the title page of the paper the judge laid aside to greet his guest. It was The Times.

The object of the visit was stated, and the judge added to his hospitable greeting an expression of perfect willingness to give whatever information he could regarding the past.

After an understanding on the point, the Times man withdrew amid the last rays of the setting sun with an engagement to meet Judge Thompson again the next morning. The aged gentleman was left to refresh his memory overnight, of those days of the long ago, while his visitor wandered out through the town and up the banks of that classic stream, Salt River; which glides by the county seat of Bullitt County.

Some later inquiries brought out the fact that Judge Thompson is the oldest man in Shepherdsville, both from a point of age and a point of residence. He has a strongly marked head, one of that grand old kind that one would expect to see on a canvas, as the portrait of one of the eminent early statesmen. It is the opinion of all who know his ability that the only reason his name is not to be found among those of the most famous men of this country is that he kept himself in the obscurity of a small place like Shepherdsville; his modesty preventing him from seeking and taking the station that might have been his for the asking.

With the forgiving and gentle disposition of a woman, the sense of right and justice that marks the learned, equitable mind of a really great, true man, Judge Thompson's closing years are rendered pleasant by the honor and esteem in which he is held by his neighbors; and the recollection of the way in which those tributes have ever been paid him.

He was, for many years, a valued servant of the people of his county in various capacities; serving at different times as county attorney, county judge, and legislator and delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1849-50. He might have had far more distinguished preferment, had he sought it.

Judge Thompson was born in Nelson County. He studied law in the office of the famous Ben Chapeze, then a leading member of the Bardstown Bar, the strongest, at that time, in the state; probably in the South. A grandson of Ben Chapeze, of the same name, is now a rising young attorney of Shepherdsville, and a candidate, with flattering prospects of success, for county attorney.

Judge Thompson married Miss Sallie Dunn, of Nashville, a daughter of Jack Dunn, who was probably the closest personal friend that President Andrew "Old Hickory" Jackson ever had. Mrs. Thompson is still living, but she is scarcely as hale as her husband.

After a night's rumination on the events of long ago, Judge Thompson was prepared to furnish the information that he was applied to for:

"I was in Nashville in 1834, and although I was not a delegate to the convention that framed Tennessee's constitution that year, I heard nearly every word of the proceedings," said he. "I was constantly on hand during nearly every hour of the 103 days they were in session. The biggest men of Tennessee composed that convention, and I had an opportunity to study them all. It is no disparagement to that state when I say that there was a wide gap between the Kentucky convention of 15 years later, and it, in the point of ability, for it is rarely that as able a body of men is ever seen as that which framed the present constitution of Kentucky.

"Ben Hardin, who had commingled with the statesmen of the entire country for years before, said in a speech toward the close of our convention that he had never seen, in Congress or elsewhere, as intelligent and able a body of men as was then gathered in Frankfort. I only mention this to show of what manner of men the convention was made up.

"We were in session 82 days, at first convening October 1st and adjourning December 20, 1849. Then the question was submitted to a vote of the people, and we reconvened on the first Monday in June 1850, to ratify the constitution. We were in session nine days the last time, making 91 days altogether.

"The convention was first called to order by David Meriwether, who is still living near Louisville. He is now in his 91st year, I think. The only party vote taken during the convention was upon the selection of the president of the convention.

"Judge John Hargis, father of Judge Thomas F. Hargis, of Louisville, who was representing Morgan and Breathitt counties, placed James Guthrie's name in nomination; and Richard Apperson, of Mt. Sterling, placed the name of Archibald Dixon, of Henderson, before the house.

"The Democrats all voted for Guthrie and the Whigs voted for Dixon. The vote stood, Guthrie, 50, and Dixon, 43. Seven, for one cause or another, did not vote.

"In the election of the other officers, the party affiliations were not strictly observed. Thomas J. Helm, of Glasgow, a cousin of Gov. Helm, was elected secretary; Thomas D. Tilford, of Frankfort, was elected assistant secretary; and Calvin Sanders, of Shelby County, was chosen sergeant-at-arms."

"What was the mode of procedure, Judge?"

"As soon as the permanent organization was effected, President Guthrie, agreeable to a resolution that had been adopted, appointed a committee of seven to formulate the rules of action. This committee consisted of David Meriwether, of Jefferson County; Archibald Dixon, of Henderson County; Garrett Davis, of Bourbon County; John H. McHenry, of Ohio County; John Smith Barlow, of Monroe County; William D. Mitchell, of Oldham County; and James W. Irwin, of Logan County.

The Work Mapped Out

"There were five plans offered for going about the work of making the new constitution. Gov. Charles A. Wickliffe, of Nelson County, offered one; Garrett Davis offered another; and Squire Turner, of Madison County, offered still another. Judge George W. Kavanaugh, of Anderson County, proposed a different one, and after his plan was submitted, I presented one.

"My plan was to refer each article of the Constitution of 1799 to a separate committee, of from five to nine members. These committees were to make amendments, additions, or other changes they might deem wise, and each report separately on the work it had had in hand. The question of any change, thus, came before the whole convention in the committees' reports, after each article had had careful revision by the committee appointed to take care of it.

"My plan was adopted and carried out, it taking 82 days to complete the work, but when it was done, it was thoroughly done."

"How was the representation divided among the professions, trades, and other avocations?"

"There were 100 members in all. Forty-two of these were lawyers, 39 were farmers, nine were physicians, two were mechanics, one was a minister, one a horse trader, one a salt maker, one a sheriff, one a merchant, one a miller, one a clerk, and one kept a tavern. Only four in the convention were under 30 years of age, 24 were between 30 and 40, and the same number between 40 and 50 years of age. Forty-one members were between 50 and 60, six were between 60 and 70, and one was over 70. This was James Dudley, of Fayette County, who had outlived the three score and ten allotment of the Bible by two years. But he made a good member, notwithstanding his age.

"The youngest member was Selucius Garfielde, who represented Fleming County. He was but 26 years of age, but he was a bright fellow and a good delegate. Notwithstanding the slight difference in the spelling of his name, I am pretty certain he was a relative of the president, whose life was cut short by Guiteau's bullet."

"Was not this young Garfielde the same, who afterward became the famous gambler in Washington, and who died a few years ago?"

"I have heard that he turned gambler, but as I was never in Washington, I cannot say of my own knowledge that he was a gambler, and I would not like to say anything about that. It is charitable to overlook the missteps a man may make."

The Living Members

"Who of all the 100 are still living?"

"There were really more than 100 who were members of the convention. Two vacancies arose before the final adjournment, and two new men were chosen to fill the seats those first elected had filled. Six of the original 100 and one of the other two are still living. They are David Meriwether, of Jefferson County; ex-Senator Willis B. Machen, of Caldwell County; ex-governor Silas Woodson, of Missouri, who then lived at Barbourville and represented Knox County; Larkin J. Proctor, of Lewis County, who was the second youngest man in the convention, being only 27, one year older than Selucius Garfielde; John D. Morris, of Christian County; Richard H. Hanson, of Bourbon County, a brother of Gen. Roger Hanson, who was killed at Stone River; and myself.

"David Meriwether is now the oldest living ex-delegate. Hanson was not a member of the convention at first, and the way he came to be was this: Garrett Davis was chosen a delegate for Bourbon County. He was a pugnacious and intolerant little fellow, not much longer than a schoolboy, but made up of pluck and combativeness. He was the champion on the floor of the convention of the Know-Nothing Party, and he was violently opposed to the judiciary of the state being elected. He was a lawyer of set opinions, and he was uncompromising in the position of wanting the judiciary appointed instead of elected.

"When the constitution was finished, the only vote that was recorded against a resolution to sign it was that of Garrett Davis. He would not agree to the election of judges, and he refused, point blank, to sign the constitution. He then seemed to think that it would be appropriate to resign his seat, and he did so. Richard H. Hanson was chosen to succeed him, and he served during the nine days of the second session."

"Who do you think were the ablest men in the convention?"

"There were so many unusually able, brilliant men there that it is rather hard to say who. As I said before, it was the ablest body of men that was probably ever assembled together for any one state in the Union.

"But of all the delegates, Ben Hardin, of Harrodsburg, was undoubtedly the biggest-brained man, in my own opinion. He did more than any 50 men in the state toward calling that convention together, and his brain directed even the other leaders in most that arose for discussion, but Hardin was not a jumping jack who was always talking. When he did speak, he had something to say, to which all paid respect. He was, at that time, about 65 years of age.

"Then there were such men as James Guthrie; Archibald Dixon; George W. Johnston, who was temporary chairman of the convention, and afterward judge of the Jefferson Circuit Court; four members of the great Marshall family; David Meriwether; Judge Moore, of Mercer; Hugh Newell; Gen. William Preston; Ira Root; Ignatus Spalding; Gov. Stevenson; Thomas D. Brown; Congressman James W. Stone; Squire Tucker; Phillip Triplett; Gov. Charles A. Wickliffe; and Gov. Woodson, of Missouri.

"But I might go on in this strain through the whole list, and not one in the lot would be found wanting in mental ability."