Marker #1325, "Neighbors - Governors / Mercer Governors"

Historical marker #1325 outside of Harrodsburg highlights Kentucky’s five nineteenth-century governors from Mercer County: Christopher Greenup (1804-1808), Gabriel Slaughter (1816-1820), John Adair (1820-1824), Robert Letcher (1840-1844), and Beriah Magoffin (1859-1862). The marker provides a brief overview of those five governors, highlighting either where they lived (such as the homes of Slaughter and Adair) or providing a brief list of their accomplishments. Beriah Magoffin’s role as the first of Kentucky’s Civil War governors warrants further consideration.

Beriah Magoffin was born on April 15, 1815, in Harrodsburg to Beriah Magoffin, Sr. and Jane (McAfee) Magoffin. The junior Magoffin graduated from Centre College in 1835, studied law at the Transylvania University Law School, and briefly practiced as an attorney in Mississippi. When he returned to Kentucky, Magoffin embarked upon a political and legal career that would shape his antebellum experiences. Prior to the conflict, Magoffin served as a police judge for Harrodsburg, was elected a Democratic state senator, and ran for lieutenant governor in 1855. Before the Civil War, he made a name for himself in central Kentucky politics, earning for himself an influence that extended well beyond Mercer County.

In August 1859, Magoffin defeated Joshua Fry Bell to become the twenty-first governor of Kentucky. Elected as a Democratic governor in a divided border state at the end of a tumultuous decade, Magoffin would discover that his time in Frankfort revolved largely around the growing sectional tensions connected with slavery in a divided and actively dividing nation.

During the early months of his term in office, he faced a response to John Brown’s assault on the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Brown and his collaborators intended to seize weapons and arm enslaved African Americans in the Shenandoah Valley in an attempt to begin dismantling the institution of slavery through force. Brown’s attack failed, as local residents and U.S. Marines quickly surrounded and defeated the attackers. Despite the raid’s failure, the assault aroused Southern fears about an uprising by enslaved Americans.

As historians have argued, Southerners long worried about rebellions from enslaved African Americans—fears that reached back to the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) and other instances of enslaved resistance in the South, including Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831. In Kentucky, Magoffin led the charge to revitalize and rearm the state militia system, building the Kentucky State Guard. Other Southern states similarly responded to the events of late 1859 with reorganized militias to protect their states and suppress any resistance to established power structures.

The following year, after the election of Abraham Lincoln as the sixteenth president of the United States, sectional divisions tore the United States asunder when South Carolina and other slaveholding states seceded from the Union. Kentucky was divided over secession. From Frankfort, Magoffin supported compromise but also urged the Kentucky Legislature to call for a sovereignty convention to allow Kentuckians to address the issue of secession. His seeming willingness to support a public debate over secession led many Unionists in the state to view the Governor as a secret secessionist and Confederate sympathizer. While Magoffin’s politics were complicated—and he did work to ensure compromise—Unionists in Kentucky would continue to grow in their distrust of the Governor.

Magoffin is perhaps best remembered for his role in steering, albeit briefly, Kentucky down a path of neutrality. Unwilling to furnish troops to suppress the Confederate rebellion, but aware that Kentuckians increasingly favored the Union, he championed a stance of “armed neutrality” for the Commonwealth. From late May to early September 1861, Kentucky was officially neutral. However, Unionists steadily gained support throughout the state. Distrustful of Magoffin’s potential Southern sympathies, the Union-controlled Kentucky Legislature consistently reduced Magoffin’s control over the State Guard by creating a Military Board on May 24, 1861. They also redirected funds to create a pro-Union militia, the Home Guard.

Over the next year, Magoffin grew increasingly frustrated as Unionist victories in August 1861 strengthened this faction’s position and weakened his. After Confederate forces under General Leonidas Polk invaded western Kentucky in September 1861, the State Legislature and most Kentuckians fully shifted their support to the Union war effort. With strong majorities in both legislative houses, Unionists continued to constrain Magoffin’s power, uncertain of his true allegiances. Frustrated, Magoffin looked for a way out and was willing to resign if a suitable replacement could be found. Because of the death of Linn Boyd, Magoffin’s lieutenant governor, in 1859, the next elected official in the order of succession was Speaker of the Senate John F. Fisk. When Fisk stepped down as speaker so moderate Unionist James F. Robinson could assume this role and therefore position himself to be the next governor, Magoffin resigned and returned to Mercer County.

After the Civil War, Magoffin remained an active politician, returning to the General Assembly as a Representative from 1867 to 1869. He would retire from politics to his home in Harrodsburg, living there as a farmer and attorney until his death on February 28, 1885. He is buried in Harrodsburg at the Spring Hill Cemetery.

The marker reads:


Former home, grave, of Gabriel Slaughter, governor 1816-20. Born in Virginia, 1767. Died here, 1830. While in office, advocated state support for the public schools. - Former home of John Adair, governor 1820-24. Born in S.C., 1757. Died here, 1840. As governor, he promoted expansion of higher education, prison reform, abolition of imprisonment for debt. Over.


Three other governors have been residents of Mercer County:

Christopher Greenup, 1804-8, with prestige of governor's office backed establishment of Bank of Kentucky.

Robert Letcher, 1840-44. In 1844, proclaimed first state Thanksgiving.

Beriah Magoffin, 1859-62, refused Lincoln's call for troops, 1861, in effort to keep Ky. neutral. See over.