History of Kentucky Governors

Kentucky Governors and Elections






            Garrard County native, William O’Connell Bradley became Kentucky’s first Republican Governor upon his election in November 1895.  He had unsuccessful ran for governor against Simon Bolivar Buckner in 1887. 

             Soon after Bradley’s birth in 1847, his family moved to Somerset.

             As a teenager, Bradley ran away from his family home on two in order to join the Union Army.  Being only 14, he was returned to his father.

             As a teenager, Bradley served as a page for the Kentucky legislature and began the self-study of law.  At age 18, the General Assembly passed a special law allowing Bradley to take the bar exam.  After passing the bar, he practiced law with his father.

             In 1867, Bradley married Margaret Robertson Duncan.  They had two children, Robert and Christine.  They were Presbyterians.

             In 1870, Bradley was elected Garrard County attorney.  During the 1880s and 1890s, he ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for various including U.S. Representative from Kentucky’s 8th district, Governor and U.S. Senator.  In 1889, he declined an appointment from President Benjamin Harrison as Ambassador to Korea.

             In 1895, Democrats were split in a three way race for governor which included the Populist Party candidate who was popular in Western Kentucky.  The Democrats nominated attorney general P. Wat Hardin and the Populists, Thomas S. Petitt.  This split assisted in the election of “Billy O” as the 30th person to serve as Kentucky’s Governor.

             As Governor, Billy O faced a divided General Assembly.  During his term, the House had a Republican majority and the Senate had a Democratic majority.  The Senate President at that time was William Goebel of Covington. 

             In 1896, the General Assembly was responsible for electing U.S. Senators.  However, this was the era of the debate concerning “free silver” and the gold standard.  The legislature was deadlocked after 112 ballots and tempers flared causing Governor Bradley to call out the National Guard in order to keep the peace among members of the General Assembly.  Eventually, William J. Deboe was elected as Kentucky’s first Republican U.S. Senator.

             Under Bradley’s leadership, a special March 1897 session of the General Assembly passed an “anti-lynching” law which included a fine of $500 and removal from office for any peace officer who did not prevent a lynching or mob violence.  It could be said that during Bradley’s four year term there were only 25 lynchings as compared to 56 in the previous four year period in Kentucky.

 In 1898, Bradley unsuccessfully advocated repeal of Kentucky’s “Separate Coach Law”, which provided that blacks and whites ride in separate cars on trains and street cars.  He named the black person to the board of trustees of Kentucky State College, Edward Underwood.

             Violence throughout Kentucky dominated much of Bradley’s tenure.  Feuds plagued Eastern Kentucky.  In Central and Northern Kentucky, there were the “Tollgate Wars” in which Kentuckians protested violently against toll roads.

             There was another economic crisis during the mid-1890s.  Many Kentuckians were upset about paying tolls for worn out roads, many which had been severely damaged by extensive troop traffic 30 years prior during the Civil War.  Yet most toll roads had not been repaired.  There had been a custom whereby tolls were not collected from farmers going to mill.  So many farmers would carry bags of “bran” as if they were on the way to the mill in order not to pay the toll. 

             In April, 1897, armed and masked marauders went through parts of Washington and Anderson Counties and forced gatekeepers to chop their pikes into pieces and gates.  Raids on toll houses were later made in the month in Mercer County.   In 1898, there were raids against the tollgates in Maysville, Georgetown, Owingsville and Harrodsburg.

(Pp.85-92 Kentucky Land of Contrast by Thomas D. Clark (1968)) 

             In an address to the legislature, Bradley mentioned the need to repair the Governor’s mansion in Frankfort.  The floors were being propped up and holes were being filled with hundreds of yards of weather stripping during the winter.  On February 10, 1899, the Governor’s Mansion caught fire due to a faulty flu in the Governor’s bedroom.  As result the governor had to reside in a hotel until the end of his term.

             When “Billy O’ left office in 1899, he served briefly as the political advisor to William S. Taylor who ran for governor against William Goebel.  Taylor was inaugurated as Kentucky Governor but after the assassination of Goebel was force to flee Kentucky.  He represented Taylor and the Republicans in Federal Court in the lawsuit which unseated Taylor from the governor’s office.

   Billy “O” moved to Louisville to practice law but remained active in Republican politics.  He seconded the nomination of Theodore Roosevelt at the Republican Convention of 1904. 

             In 1908, he was elected by the Kentucky General Assembly to serve in the U.S. Senate.  He was elected in part due to his opposition to prohibition.  He served until his death in 1914 of injuries sustained as a result of being hit by a street car in Washington, D.C.