A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Kentucky’s Governors: James Garrard was state’s first governor elected by popular vote

This year, as they do every four years, Kentuckians will elect a new governor. Prior to the Nov. 3 general election, independent historian Paul L. Whalan will share profiles of the 58 people who served previously in the state’s highest office.

1 garrard

James Garrard
1796-1804 (Term)


Kentucky’s second governor could be considered as one of the most tolerant people who ever served in public office. During his tenure, he pardoned a slave who was accused of trying to poison him.

A veteran of the American Revolution, he served both as a sailor and as a soldier. Col. Garrard was also a planter and member of the Virginia House of Delegates prior to moving to Kentucky. As a member of the Virginia House of Delegates he was responsible for legislation providing religious liberty for citizens of Virginia.

Garrard was an active Baptist minister who helped found many churches in Central Kentucky. He was also a well-known maker of bourbon whiskey. He was a resident of Bourbon County, where he owned 35,000 acres.

As a Baptist minister he advocated religious tolerance and even Unitarian ideas. He was an early opponent of slavery, he attempted to include language in Kentucky’s First (1792) and Second (1799) Constitutions which abolished slavery.

Prior to his election as governor, Garrard helped organize and establish Bourbon County, where he served as surveyor and magistrate. During Garrard’s two terms he signed legislation creating 26 Kentucky counties, including his namesake county of Garrard. (Garrard Street in Covington is also named for Gov. Garrard.)

One of the major issues of Garrard’s first term surrounded the state constitution. This was reflected in Garrard’s election in 1796. There were four men, including Garrard, who were candidates. The other three were Benjamin Logan, Thomas Todd and John Brown. The State Constitution of 1792 required an electoral college (similar to the U.S. Electoral College) to elect the governor as well as members of the State Senate.

The “electoral college” was called into question when it took two ballots to elect James Garrard. During the first ballot, Logan received 21 votes, Garrard 17, Todd 14 and Brown 1. The Constitution of 1792 seemed to require the winning candidate for governor to have the majority votes of the electors and not a plurality.

A second ballot was held as Garrard and the two other candidates received a total of 32 votes to Logan’s 21 votes. During the second ballot Garrard received a majority of the electoral votes. This resulted in a protest by Logan which did not overturn the decision of the second ballot electing Garrard.

In August 1799, delegates from Kentucky’s 25 counties adopted the second constitution of Kentucky. That Constitution abolished the “electoral college” and provided for the direct election of the governor and lieutenant governor (The first constitution did not provide for a lieutenant governor).

James Garrard was the only person prior to Paul Patton to serve two consecutive four-year terms as governor. Garrard was so popular that the drafters of the second constitution made a provision which allowed him to serve a second term. Thus, James Garrard became the first Kentucky governor elected by popular vote.


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To read Whalen’s other profiles, click here.


paul whelan

Paul L. Whalen is an attorney and independent historian. He has a bachelor’s degree in history/Latin American studies from University of Kentucky, a juris doctorate from Northern Kentucky University’s Chase College of Law, and a master’s from Ft. Hays State University in Hays, Kansas.

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