History of Kentucky Governors

Kentucky Governors and Elections




            When Gov. John White Stevenson was elected to the U.S. Senate in February 1871, as there was not a Lt. Governor, Senate President Preston H. Leslie became governor for the final 6 months of Stevenson’s term.  Leslie obtained the Democratic nomination for governor for the regularly scheduled August General Election of 1871.  Leslie’s Republican opponent that year was the future U.S. Supreme Court Justice, John Marshall Harlan who wrote the minority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.

            Preston Leslie was born in Clinton County, (then Wayne County) Kentucky on March 8, 1819. He was educated in the public schools of the day and studied law under Judge Rice Maxey.  Prior to practicing law Leslie worked as a stagecoach driver, ferryboat worker and store clerk in addition to working on the family farm with his father.

            Leslie was admitted to the practice of law in October 1840 and served the deputy clerk of the Clinton County Courts.  In 1841, he moved to Tompkinsville where he farmed as well as practiced law. In 1842, he became Monroe County Attorney.

            On November 11, 1841, Leslie married Louisa Black.  They had seven children.  Louisa died on August 9, 1858.  A year later, he married a widow Mary Maupin Kuykendall on November 17, 1859.  They had three children.

            Prior to the Civil War, Preston Leslie had been elected to the Kentucky House and Senate as a Whig due to his admiration of Henry Clay.  With Clay’s death and that of the Whig Party, Leslie became a Democrat.  

            Preston Leslie did not participate in the Civil War as he had southern sympathies but he did not believe that southern states should succeed.

            After the War, Preston Leslie was elected to the KY Senate from the district which included Barren County.  As a state senator, he was elected Senate President in 1869 until becoming governor in February 1871. 

            The 1871 contest for Kentucky Governor was unusual in that Preston Leslie and John Marshall Harlan his Republican opponent traveled throughout the state together and even “slept together”.  For the most part, the spoke to the same audiences on the same platforms and on many days slept in the same bed after a day of rigorous campaigning where they often discussed the events of the day in good humor.

One story about the campaign told by Justice Harlan tells, “one night near the end of the struggle, as they lay in the same bed, he (Harlan) said to his bed-fellow, “I feel sure that the next governor of Kentucky occupies this bed tonight,” which prophetic remark was somewhat emphasized the next morning.  Mr. Harlan woke up first, and Leslie from the bed called out, “I say, Harlan, you may well say the next governor of Kentucky occupies this bed.” 

Leslie beat Harlan in the election.  It was also significant in that it was the first time large number of blacks participated in a gubernatorial election in Kentucky.

Leslie’s challenges as governor included putting an end to the violence caused by bands left over from the Civil War called “bushwackers” and putting down Klan violence.

Successful legislation submitted and passed by Governor Leslie included allow blacks to testify against whites in state courts.  Being a temperance man and good Baptist, he supported legislation which regulated the sale of alcoholic beverages in Kentucky for the first time.  A Board of Pharmacy was created as was a an agency for educating black children in public schools in Kentucky.

Upon leaving the Governor’s Office, Preston Leslie served as a Circuit Judge in Barren County and was appointed by President Grover Cleveland as Governor of Montana Territory.  A story relating to the appointment is set forth below.

In 1887, when President Grover Cleveland was trying to decide who to appoint as governor of the Montana Territory, Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan told Cleveland, “Mr. President, I can name you a man, who, for integrity and ability, will fully measure up to the requirements; a man against whom I can say but one thing. He once beat me for governor of Kentucky—but he made a splendid officer, no doubt about that.”  “If he beat you for governor of Kentucky” said the president, “ and yet retained your high regard and warm friendship, he is just the man I’m looking for, and I’ll appoint him.”  Immediately, President Cleveland sent Preston Leslie’s name to the U.S. Senate for confirmation.

After his appointment as Montana Territorial Governor in 1887, a term which he served until 1889, Leslie and his family stayed in Montana serving the U.S. Attorney for Montana from 1894 until 1898 under the second Cleveland Administration. 

Leslie County, Kentucky was named in his honor.

Justice Harlan’s reflections on Preston Leslie were found at---

Wade, John W.  “Hon. Preston Hopkins Leslie; A Short Sketch of His Life” Contributions to the Historical Society of Montana, Vol. 7 (1910) Rocky Mountain Publishing Company. p 205-206.

 Preston Hopkins Leslie--Governor of Kentucky; Territorial Governor of Montana