William Owsley was elected governor as a member of the Whig Party over Democratic candidate General William O. Butler a hero of the War of 1812 and US Congressman from 1839-1843. It was a relatively close election with Owsley receiving 59,680 votes to Butler’s 55,056 votes.
It should be noted that Owsley’s opponent Butler had a distinguished military and political career. After being defeated by Owsley, Butler served in the Mexican War as General Zachery Taylor’s second in command during the Battle of Monterrey in which he was wounded. In 1848, Butler was the Democratic nominee for Vice President of the United States with Lewis Cass. They were defeated by Zachery Taylor and Millard Fillmore. In Kentucky, Butler has been honored by “General Butler State Park” and the City of Butler in Pendleton County. At least two counties have been named for him including Butler County, Iowa and Butler County, Missouri.
Owsley was born in Virginia in March 1782 the third of thirteen children. Within the year his family moved near Crab Orchard in Lincoln County.
Owsley’s political career began with his election in 1809 to the KY House of Representatives. Gov. Charles Scott appointed Owsley to the KY Court of Appeals in 1810. When the numbers of seats on the Court were reduced he resigned his seat and then sought election again to the KY House in 1811. With a vacancy on the Court of Appeals in 1813, Governor Shelby appointed Owsley to the Court. Owsley served on the KY Court of Appeals until 1828.
After leaving the Court, Owsley developed a substantial law practice in Frankfort. He returned to the KY House in 1831 and was elected to the KY Senate in 1832 where he served until his appointed by Governor Morehead as KY Secretary of State in 1834 until 1836. In 1843, Owsley County was formed and named for Owsley one year prior to his 1844 election.
National events of the Mexican War and issues regarding slavery impacted Owsley’s term. He pardoned the abolitionist Delia Webster for helping Calvin Fairbanks taking Lewis Hyden (a slave) and his family from Maysville to Ripley, Ohio on the Underground Railroad.
Owsley’s major accomplishment was the appointment in 1847 of Robert J. Breckinridge as superintendent of public instruction. Breckinridge is recognized as the father public education in 19th Century Kentucky.
Owsley’s term was tarnished by his dispute with Ben Hardin. Owsley appointed Hardin as Secretary of State and then attempted to replace him but was prevented from doing so by the State Senate and the Court of Appeals.
After his term as governor was over in 1848, he retired to his farm in Boyle County.
In 1803, Owsley married Elizabeth Gill who had been one of his students when he taught school prior to beginning his law career. They had six children and were married until her death in 1858.