Legislature reflects on history, changes in Old State Capitol

By Stuart W. Sanders

Guest Columnist

The Kentucky General Assembly held a session in the Old State Capitol in Frankfort recently.

It was a special occurrence for the legislature, who last met in the historic structure more than a decade ago.

This National Historic Landmark, completed in 1830 and managed by the Kentucky Historical Society, was the commonwealth’s capitol building until 1910.

During its service, prominent Kentuckians like Henry Clay, John C. Breckinridge and John J. Crittenden spoke there. When Daniel Boone’s remains were moved to Frankfort in 1845, his coffin lay in state in the building.

The site also witnessed turmoil. Legislators argued about slavery and secession there before the Civil War, and lawmakers contended with the assassination of Governor William Goebel, who was shot in front of the building in 1900.

Past legislators approved two of the state’s constitutions in the Old State Capitol, one in 1850 and the other in 1890. The state still uses the 1890 constitution today.

When the General Assembly met there recently, there were no raucous debates. Instead, members of the House and Senate took time to reflect upon the legacy of the building, the power of authentic places and the importance of history.

“For me, as a history teacher, it’s incredible,” Rep. John “Bam” Carney said. “To stand at the place where Henry Clay and so many other famous people spoke and to recognize the history of this building, it’s really just an honor to be here.”

Carney, who said he uses history every day as a legislator, told his fellow representatives that it “sends chills up my spine” to hold the session in that building.

Speaker of the House David Osborne was also inspired by the echoes of the past.

“Being in the same building and presiding over a chamber where Henry Clay was—that’s a cool experience,” Osborne said. “I do think it’s important to pause every once in a while and realize where we’ve come from and where we’re going,” he added.

Legislators also recognized that the state has made progress since the General Assembly met there. In an interview with the Frankfort State-Journal, Rep. Derrick Graham said, “Here I am, an African-American, representing a majority district sitting in the chamber. That would have been unimaginable 100 years ago.”

Rep. Jim Glenn, who is also African American, agreed. In another interview, Glenn noted the importance of being able to “participate in what we couldn’t participate before.”

Meeting in the structure also allowed lawmakers to assess the importance of history.

“I think everybody needs to know where they’ve come from so they know what type of decisions to make in the future to help the direction we are going,” Senate President Robert Stivers said. “If you forget history you have a tendency to lose direction.”

Speaker Osborne also believes that the study of history helps lawmakers make informed decisions. “I think that every single day we have to use history because we have to know where we come from to give us direction on where we’re going. I think to forget history is to lose purpose,” he said.

Stivers recognized that the meeting acted as an important reminder.

“I’m very proud of this day,” Stivers said. “I think it’s a very good day, because it brings back a certain historical perspective to the duties and obligations each of us have to our districts, and to the state and to this institution,” he said.

This legislative meeting in the Old State Capitol illustrates why authentic places are important. They remind us of our past transgressions, highlight our recent progress, teach leadership, give deeper meaning to the places we live and work and inspire all of us to do better.

Because of that, historic places have power.

Stuart W. Sanders is the Kentucky Historical Society’s history advocate.