THE COMMON COLONEL
 

Ron D. Bryant

 

The Kentucky Gazette August 12, 1997

 

'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.'

 

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 similar provisions.

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 bestow.

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 Kentucky Colonel.

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."

 
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