DON'T LET ANYONE FOOL YOU. Americans love
titles. We may have fought a war over the supposed tyranny of a British monarch
in 1776, but we didn't get rid of the trappings of nobility just because we got
rid of the King.
Shortly after the American Revolution ended, the good citizens of the United
States were faced with the peculiar dilemma of what to call their new leaders.
Upon George Washington's election to the presidency it was noted that he needed
to be given some title. Some people referred to him as General Washington.
Others astutely pointed out that his successor might not be a military man.
Although Americans considered themselves democratic, they wanted their leaders
to have titles of respect.
Fortunately for future Americans, we did not accept the titular suggestions of
some of the founding fathers. Among the titles proposed were those of Your
Majesty, His Excellency, the Protector of our Liberties, His High and
Mightiness, and His Republican Majesty.
Despite the rejection of these honors, Americans did not reject their love of
titles. Before long a number of patriotic and lineage groups were formed that
made great use of aristocratic appellations.
Kentuckians were no different than any other Americans in their love for titles.
The governor of Kentucky is still referred to in some circles as His Excellency,
the governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Politically, congressmen,
legislators and judges are given the dignity of the title, the honorable.
However, a title that once had strong political and military connections is that
of the Kentucky Colonel.
If there was ever a part of the Federal Union that is synonymous with the title
of colonel it is Kentucky. When a Kentuckian is asked to describe an image of
their state, one of the first to come to mind is that of the Kentucky Colonel.
The genteel, goateed, string tie, linen suit, mint julep carrying colonel. This
image has been a part of Kentucky for well over a century.
For years, the tourist industry has used the image of the colonel as a trademark
for the Commonwealth. Literature increased the profile of the Kentucky Colonel.
In 1895, Annie Fellows Johnston (1863-1931) published the first of the immensely
popular Little Colonel series. Set in Oldham County, the Little Colonel stories
perpetuated the image of the old South and the Kentucky Colonel. In 1935 Shirley
Temple portrayed the "The Little Colonel" in the movie of the same name, and
Lionel Barrymore became the epitome of the Kentucky Colonel.
For many Americans the Kentucky Colonel persona became the dominant image of the
Commonwealth. Despite Hollywood and tourism, the Kentucky Colonels have a long
and colorful association with state politics. In the early days of the state's
history some of the members of the state militia were commissioned colonels.
These colonels were uniformed members of the governor's staff. These uniforms
were resplendent with brass buttons and gold braid.
However, after the need for an active militia began to fade, colonel became a
title of honor. Gov. Isaac Shelby commissioned his son-in-law, Charles S. Todd,
as a colonel on his staff. As time went on, the governor commissioned colonels
to serve as a guard. They attended most official state functions.
The first mention of staff and field officers of the militia being appointed by
the governor is in the first constitution of Kentucky. In article VI, section 3,
the Constitution notes, "The field and staff officers of the militia shall be
appointed by the Governor ... " The second and third Constitution provide
In 1887-88 the Kentucky General assembly amended the act dealing with the
militia. The amendment stated that the governor's staff be limited to "not more
than ten officers," each with the "rank of colonel." By 1903 the number the
number of staff officers could be expanded to 12.
Kentucky governors varied in the number of colonels appointed. Between 1792 and
1916, 34 governors commissioned 650 colonels. Some 250 were actually military
related and 400 were honors. Gov. John Young Brown issued eight commissions.
William S. Taylor had time to appoint only one colonel before he was ousted from
office in 1900. His successor, Gov. J.C.W. Beckham, issued 77.
One of the first complimentary commissions was issued by Gov. William O. Bradley
to Master Harry G. Mulligan. Bradley also commissioned Annie Poage as the first
female Kentucky Colonel. Gov. Flem D. Sampson issued 677 colonel commissions,
nearly all of these were complimentary. On March 13, 1929, the first
international commission as a Kentucky Colonel was issued to a citizen of Egypt.
In 1931 a group of Colonels endeavored to form an organization called the
"Kentucky Colonels" under the leadership of Gov. Sampson. The term "Honorable"
was added in 1932, under the oversight of Gov. Ruby Laffoon.
During the 1930s the number of Kentucky Colonels rose dramattically. Within two
years, Gov. Ruby Laffoon and his Lt. Gov. A.B. "Happy" Chandler bestowed 1,324
colonelcies. Gov. Earle Clements commissioned 201 Colonels in 18 days. It's with
Laffoon's administration, however, that the modem and more familliar period of
the Kentucky Colonel begins.
Govs. Laffoon and Chandler named some of the Hollywood elite to the rank of
Kentucky Colonels. In 1933 Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Clark Gable became
honorary Colonels. Other famous recipients of this unique Kentucky honor were Al
Jolson, Jack Demsey, Eddie Cantor and World War I hero Alvin York. The title of
colonel became one of the highest honors the Commonwealth of Kentucky could
What is the image of the Kentucky Colonel in the closing years of the 20th
Century? For many Americans and foreigners alike, the image remains the same. If
one individual personified most people's vision of the Colonel it would be the
late Harlan Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame. His goateed face appeared
throughout the world as an advertisement for the fast food chain. In one sense,
Sanders perpetuated the traditional colonel image more than any one person.
Politically, the Kentucky Colonel does not have the rank it once did.
Nevertheless, the title is still a coveted prize. While thousands fill the ranks
of Kentucky Colonels, there is still a mystique to being given the award. In
fact, the colonelship is an award. it is an award for merit and service to the
Commonwealth. It is also an award of appreciation from Kentucky to an individual
from any where in the world who has made their mark in some positive way. In
this sense, the Kentucky Colonel is a goodwill ambassador. Many of the
Commonwealth's politicians realized the worth of the award long ago.
In a different, but very important aspect, the organization of the Honorable
Order of Kentucky Colonels is one of the most charitable and helpful
organizations in the nation. Through the years, the Kentucky Colonels have given
a great deal of time and money to many worthy causes.
Chris Patton of the Governor's Office noted that the process of receiving a
colonelship is much more efficient than it used to be. Due to the use of
technology, the document itself has been enhanced.
From the days of Kentucky's first governor, Isaac Shelby, to the present,
Kentuckians remain enamored with their colonels. From presidents to auctioneers,
the rank of colonel is a part of our great Commonwealth. The title is so dear to
some people that in their obituaries it is recorded that the deceased was a
In the words of a former officer of the organization, a Kentucky Colonel's duty
is to be "just and considerate of others and to spread the fame of Kentucky
wherever he or she lives or travels."