LAZARUS W. POWELL
19th Governor of Kentucky
Lazarus Powell was born in Henderson County about 12 miles south of Henderson in 1812.
He was elected Governor in 1851. Powell’s election as a Democrat would eventually signal the end of Whig dominance in Kentucky politics.
Powell’s father and mother, Lazarus and Ann Powell supported their family on their farm where the primary crop was tobacco.
He was educated in the “common schools” of Henderson County later by a tutor and then he attended and graduated from St. Joseph’s College in Bardstown. He attended law school at Transylvania where he studied under John Rowan (1825-1831) who had been a U.S. Senator from Kentucky.
Powell was married to Harriett Ann Jennings in 1837. They had three sons prior to her death in July 1847.
Powell returned to Henderson to practice law. In 1836, he was successful in winning election to the Kentucky House as a Democrat in Whig district. He was defeated in his bid for re-election in 1838. Powell ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1848, being defeated by John J. Crittenden.
In 1850, Kentucky adopted its Third Constitution. Article III, Section 26 mandated the first elections under that constitution to be held on the first Monday in August 1851. In addition to state wide elections for Governor and Lt. Governor, there would be elections for the offices of Treasurer (two year term); Auditor of Public Accounts, Register of the Land Office and Attorney General for terms of four years.
As Kentucky’s Governor, Powell’s achievements concern sponsoring achievements in Kentucky’s education and transportation systems and the geological survey. Powell built upon the achievements Kentucky’s first Superintendent of Public Instruction Robert Breckinridge. He created the “sinking fund” which was used to pay school bonds. In 1855, he helped pass a state-wide increase in property tax from two cents per hundred dollars of value to five cents per hundred dollars of real property. The statewide vote on the tax increase for education was 82,765 votes for the tax to 25,239 votes against the tax. (James Ramage; Kentucky’s Governors. Edited by Lowell H. Harrison; UK Press) As a result of the contributions of Breckinridge and Powell, Kentucky’s common or public schools were considered one of the two best state school systems in the south prior to the Civil War.
After leaving the Governor’s mansion in 1855, Powell returned to elected office in 1858 as a US Senator from Kentucky. Prior to taking office, Powell was appointed by President Buchanan as an emissary to the Mormons in Utah to negotiate an agreement for the Mormons to submit to Federal Authority.
As a US Senator from March 1859 to March 1865, Powell supported Kentucky’s neutrality during the Civil War and opposed President Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Powell’s criticism of Lincoln caused fellow Senators including Kentucky’s other US Senator, Garrett Davis to attempt to have him expelled.
Powell retired to his home in Henderson where he practiced law until his death in July 1867. Powell County was named in his honor.