Founding Father of Kentucky

Emphatically you are one of the founders of Kentucky wrote John Beckley in 1806. Beckley, the Clerk of the House of Representatives (1787-1797 and 1801-1807), was writing about his friend and political ally, John Brown.

John Brown (1757-1837) was an early American politican. He was the youngest member of the Confederation Congress and its last surviving member. He was also one of the founding fathers of Kentucky. This is not widely recognized today, due in part to the lack of scholarship devoted to his contributions and because he was a quiet, behind-the-scenes politician. He is mentioned by scholars documenting the Political Club in Danville, Kentucky that led the effort towards statehood. Yet he is virtually unknown, even in his home state. Visiting his restored home in downtown Frankfort is the best way to learn about how he assisted in establishing Kentucky as the 15th state and thus initiated the westward expansion in American history.

Brown was from Virginia and educated at the College of New Jersey (Princeton University) and the College of William & Mary. His education placed him in contact with men whose names are more synonymous with the story of American independence. While at William & Mary, Brown studied under George Wythe, the first American law professor and a signer of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Brown was tutored in the law by Thomas Jefferson and friends with many U.S. founding fathers such as James Madison.

In 1783 Brown moved West and established a law office in Danville, Kentucky, the seat of government at that time. Kentucky was still part of Virginia. He was quickly seen as a leader and represented Kentucky in the Virginia Legislature from 1784-1788. At this time, a movement to separate from Virginia was growing. Kentucky’s settlers felt the distance from Virginia’s capital, Richmond, was too great. They also felt that Virginia had failed to provide adequate protection from the conflicts with Native Americans. Kentuckians also wanted free navigation of the Mississippi River, an economic necessity that had been threatened in 1786. Most Kentuckians agreed that Easterners had failed to place much importance upon the free navigation issue.

In 1787, John Brown was nominated by his peers to represent the county of Kentucky in the state of Virginia in the Confederation Congress, a post he held for one year. He was in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention. He wrote many impassioned letters urging the ratification of the Constitution which he saw as critical to establishing the new state of Kentucky and ultimately expanding the union beyond the original thirteen colonies. Virginia’s vote for ratification was a close one, 89 to79 in June of 1788. In 1788, under the new Constitution, John Brown was elected to the United States House of Representatives. John Brown represented the interests of the West and worked for statehood in a series of conventions held in Danville. In 1788, Brown presented a petition to separate the district of Kentucky from Virginia. In 1792, after several attempts, Kentucky became the 15th state. John Brown and John Edwards were selected as Kentucky’s first U.S. senators. Brown served from 1792-1805. In the Eighth Congress, Brown served twice as president pro tempore. In this position, he was the second highest ranking official in the Senate, following the Vice President. Brown held this position when the Louisiana Purchase occurred in 1803.

Senator Brown established residency in Frankfort once it was selected as the new state’s capital. This vantage provided him the opportunity to shape the formation of Kentucky’s government and the community of Frankfort, which was barely more than a settlement when he built his home there in 1796.