Kentucky’s original Constitution returns to place it was written — Danville

Published 7:33 am Saturday, September 23, 2017

Though many outside the “City of Firsts” may not know it, the original 1792 Kentucky Constitution was drafted in Danville. On Friday, the state’s founding document returned to the city where it was born for a brief visit.

(Ben Kleppinger/
Nikki Smith of Washington County pages through the constitutional journals as Tim Smith of Washington County looks at the Constitution next to her.

The Constitution was available for public viewing at Grayson’s Tavern in Constitution Square Park, where the original constitutional conventions drafting the document were held.

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It’s not common for the public to have access to see the first Kentucky Constitution — it’s usually kept locked in an archival, climate-controlled safe at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort.

However, the document and its accompanying journals — the notes from meetings leading to the drafting of the Constitution — have not always been kept so safe. It’s only since the 1930s that the state has possessed the document, said Dr. Amanda Higgins, community engagement administrator for the Kentucky Historical Society and one of the two KHS employees who traveled with the documents to Danville, as required whenever the Constitution travels.

The Constitution was taken from the state by a professor who was studying it, and it wound up stored at the Library of the University of Chicago from the 1890s until the 1930s, Higgins said.

According to a report saved from when the Constitution was returned to the state, Col. Reuben T. Durrett of Louisville had it in his private collection until the collection was sold to the Chicago library in 1913.

The “valuable old document” previously possessed by Durrett “is a well-written manuscript of a little over 100 pages including fly-leaves and cover, and is in the handwriting of Thomas Todd, clerk of all the early conventions,” the report reads. “The writing is quite legible, altho the ink on a few of the pages is faded. The paper is in a good state of preservation and shows three different water-marks.”

(Ben Kleppinger/
Stuart Sanders with the Kentucky Historical Society points out a detail in a document to Danville City Manager Ron Scott.

Higgins said today, each page of the Constitution and its journals is kept in archive-quality plastic sheets that block ultraviolet light and prevent oil from fingers from damaging the more-than-225-year-old paper. The protective plastic will last “longer than any of us,” thanks to constant storage in a climate-controlled space, she said.

When the Constitution makes a rare trip, it travels in specially built cases designed to keep it safe and the two KHS employees who travel with it — one archivist and another to assist — are trained on how to handle it and how to set it up for viewing. And they stay on alert to protect the Constitution just in case.

“We were here (at Grayson’s Tavern) and the (building) alarm went off and we all dove in front of it,” she said, laughing.

(Ben Kleppinger/
Dr. Amanda Higgins displays one of the custom-made “briefcases” used to safely transport the original Kentucky Constitution.

Higgins said Kentucky has actually had four constitutions — the original on display Friday made Kentucky a state in 1792; leaders wrote new constitutions in 1799 and 1850; and the one the state currently operates under was written in 1891.

The original Constitution notes on its final page that it was created in Danville. And it’s signed by two people — Thomas Todd, the clerk for the conventions credited with writing the Constitution down; and Samuel McDowell, the president of the constitutional conventions and a founder of Kentucky known well to Danville and Boyle County as an influential politician and father of Ephraim McDowell.