Editor’s Note: This column, “Once ‘Athens of the West,’ a Kentucky city seeks revival and improvements,” was originally published in the Deseret News of Salt Lake City, Utah. Here is a complete list of Drew Clark’s weekly columns for the paper.
LEXINGTON, Ky. — This city now best-known for horse racing and bourbon was, 200 years ago, once described as the “Athens of the West.”
And while east-central Kentucky has since gone through its economic ups and downs, last month the state’s civic leaders announced an ambitious fiber-optic development project that boosters say will once again put Kentucky in the national spotlight.
Lexington enjoyed its early heyday from its founding in 1787 until the early decades of the 19th century. Its most notable resident was Henry Clay, the lawyer who became one of the three most influential national legislators (with Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun) of the antebellum era.
Clay, the founder of the Whig Party, was a vigorous advocate of the “American System” of internal improvements. Today we would describe these as infrastructure investments.
It was the internal improvement sought by Clay that made transportation possible across the Western frontier. They began creating a truly national marketplace.
Lexington bequeathed us another figure sympathetic to the Whig cause: Mary Todd Lincoln. Visiting the museum here that was her home, I learned that her father — a member of the Kentucky Legislature — frequently invited his politically minded young daughter to sit in on meetings with constituents.
Mary Todd left Lexington, or course. More than 400 miles west, in Springfield, Illinois, she met and fell in love with a more hardscrabble Kentuckian. Abraham Lincoln also was a strong proponent of “internal improvements.”