Isaac Shelby (December 11, 1750 – July 18, 1826) was the first and fifth Governor of Kentucky and served in the state legislatures of Virginia and North Carolina. He was also, a soldier in Lord Dunmore's War, the American Revolutionary War, and the War of 1812. While governor, he led the Kentucky militia in the Battle of the Thames, an action, that was rewarded with a Congressional Gold Medal. Counties in nine states, and several cities and military bases, have been named in his honor. His fondness for John Dickinson's The Liberty Song is believed to be the reason Kentucky adopted the state motto "United we stand, divided we fall".
Issac Shelby's military service began, when he served as second-in-command to his father at the Battle of Point Pleasant, the only major battle of Lord Dunmore's War. He gained the reputation of an expert woodsman and surveyor and spent the early part of the Revolutionary War gathering supplies for the Continental Army. Later in the war he and John Sevier led expeditions over the Appalachian Mountains against the British forces in North Carolina. He played a pivotal role in the British defeat at the Battle of King's Mountain. For his service, Shelby was presented with a ceremonial sword and a pair of pistols, by the North Carolina legislature and the nickname "Old King's Mountain", followed him the rest of his life.
Following the war, Isaac Shelby relocated to Kentucky, on lands awarded to him for his military service, and became involved in Kentucky's transition from a county of Virginia, to a separate state. His heroism made him popular with the state's citizens and the Kentucky electoral college unanimously elected him governor in 1792. He secured Kentucky, from Indian attacks and organized its first government. He used the Citizen Genet affair to convince the Washington administration to make an agreement with the Spanish for free trade on the Mississippi River.
At the end of his gubernatorial term, Isaac Shelby retired from public life but he was called back into politics by the impending War of 1812. Kentuckians urged Shelby to run for governor again and lead them through the anticipated conflict. He was elected easily, and at the request of General William Henry Harrison, commanded troops from Kentucky at the Battle of the Thames. After the war, he declined President James Monroe's offer to become Secretary of War. In his last act of public service, Shelby and Andrew Jackson acted as commissioners to negotiate the Jackson Purchase from the Chickasaw Indian tribe. Isaac Shelby died, at his estate in Lincoln County, Kentucky, on July 18, 1826.
Under the new constitution, the voters chose electors who then elected the governor and members of the Kentucky Senate. Though there is no indication that Shelby actively sought the office of governor, he was elected unanimously to that post by the electors on May 17, 1791. He took office on June 4, 1792, the day the state was admitted to the Union. Though not actively partisan, he identified with the Democratic-Republicans. Much of his term was devoted to establishing basic laws, military divisions and a tax structure.
One of Shelby's chief concerns was securing federal aid to defend the frontier. Although Kentuckians were engaged in an undeclared war with American Indians north of the Ohio River, Shelby had been ordered by Secretary of War Henry Knox not to conduct offensive military actions against the Indians. Furthermore, he was limited by federal regulations that restricted the service of state militiamen to thirty days, which was too short to be effective. With the meager resources of his fledgling state he was only able to defend the most vulnerable areas from Indian attack. Meanwhile, Kentuckians suspected that the Indians were being stirred up and supplied by the British.
Shelby appealed to President Washington for help; Washington responded by appointing General "Mad" Anthony Wayne to the area with orders to push the Indians out of the Northwest Territory. Wayne arrived at Fort Washington (present-day Cincinnati, Ohio) in May 1793, but was prevented from taking any immediate action because federal commissioners were still attempting to negotiate a treaty with the Indians. He called for 1,000 volunteer troops from Kentucky, but few heeded the call and Shelby resorted to conscription. By the time the soldiers arrived, winter had set in. He ordered the men to go home and return in the spring.
After a winter filled with Indian attacks, including one which claimed the life of Shelby's younger brother Evan Shelby III, Kentucky militia units won some minor victories over the Indians in early 1794. In spring the response to Wayne's call for troops was more enthusiastic; 1,600 volunteers mustered at Fort Greenville and were hastily trained. By August, 1794, Wayne was on the offensive against the Indians and dealt them a decisive blow at the August 20, 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers. This victory, and the ensuing Treaty of Greenville, secured the territory, and although Shelby did not agree with some of the restrictions placed upon western settlers by this treaty, he abided by its terms and enforced those that were under his jurisdiction.
Another major concern of the Shelby administration was free navigation on the Mississippi River, which was vital to the state's economic interests. For political reasons the Spanish had closed the port at New Orleans to the Americans. This would have been the natural market for the tobacco, flour and hemp grown by Kentucky farmers; overland routes were too expensive to be profitable. This made it difficult for land speculators to entice immigration to the area to turn a profit on their investments. Many Kentuckians felt the federal government was not acting decisively or quickly enough to remedy this situation.
Gabriel Slaughter was the favorite choice for governor of Kentucky in 1812. Only one impediment to his potential candidacy existed. Growing tensions between the United States, France, and Great Britain threatened to break into open war. With this prospect looming, Isaac Shelby's name began circulating as a possible candidate for governor. Slaughter, who lived near Shelby, visited him and asked whether he would run. Shelby assured him that he had no desire to do so unless a national emergency that required his leadership emerged. Satisfied with this answer, Slaughter began his campaign.
The situation with the European powers grew worse, and on June 18, 1812 the United States declared war on Great Britain, beginning the War of 1812. Cries grew louder for Shelby to return as Kentucky's chief executive. On July 18, 1812, less than a month before the election, Shelby acquiesced and announced his candidacy.
During the campaign Shelby's political enemies, notably Humphrey Marshall, criticized his response to Jefferson's second letter regarding the Genêt affair and questioned his loyalty to the United States. Shelby contended that his noncommittal response to the letter was meant to draw the federal government's attention to the situation in the west. He cited the agreement between Washington and the Spanish as evidence that his ploy had worked. He also claimed to have known at the time he wrote the letter that the French scheme was destined to fail.
Slaughter's supporters mocked Shelby's advanced age (he was almost 62), calling him "Old Daddy Shelby". One Kentucky paper even printed an anonymous charge that Shelby had run from the Battle of King's Mountain. Though few even among Shelby's enemies believed the story, his supporters and Shelby himself responded through missives in the state's newspapers. One supporter typified these responses, writing "It is reported that Colonel Shelby 'run [sic] at King's Mountain.' True he did. He first run [sic] up to the enemy... then after an action of about forty-seven minutes, he run [sic] again with 900 prisoners."
As the canvass stretched into August, Shelby grew more confident of victory and began preparations to return to the state house. He predicted a victory of 10,000 votes; the final margin was more than 17,000. When he took the oath of office, Shelby became the first Kentucky governor to serve non-consecutive terms. (James Garrard had been permitted to serve consecutive terms in 1796 and 1800 by special legislative exemption.)
Preparations for the war dominated Shelby's second term. Two days before his inauguration, he and outgoing governor Charles Scott met at the state house to appoint William Henry Harrison commander of the Kentucky militia. This was done in violation of a constitutional mandate that the post be held by a native Kentuckian. Already commander of the militias of Indiana and Illinois, Harrison picked up Kentucky volunteers at Newport before hurrying to the defense of Fort Wayne.
Shelby pressured President James Madison to give Harrison command of all military forces in the Northwest. Madison acceded, rescinding his earlier appointment of James Winchester. On the state level, Shelby revised militia laws to make every male between the ages of 18 and 45 eligible for military service; ministers were excluded from the provision. Seven thousand volunteers enlisted, and many more had to be turned away. Shelby encouraged the state's women to sew and knit items for Kentucky's troops.
Shelby's confidence in the federal government's war planning was shaken by the disastrous Battle of Frenchtown in which a number of Kentucky soldiers died. He vowed to personally act to aid the war effort should the opportunity arise, and was authorized by the legislature to do so. In March 1813, Harrison requested another 1,200 Kentuckians to join him at Fort Meigs. Shelby dispatched the requested number, among whom was his oldest son James, under General Green Clay. The reinforcements arrived to find Fort Meigs under siege by a combined force of British and Indians. Clay's force was able to stop the siege, but a large number of them were captured and massacred by Indians. Initial reports put James Shelby among the dead, but he was later discovered to have been captured and released in a prisoner exchange.
On July 30, 1813, General Harrison again wrote Shelby requesting volunteers, and this time he asked that Shelby lead them personally. Shelby raised a force of 3,500 volunteers, double the number Harrison requested. Future governor John J. Crittenden served as Shelby's aide-de-camp. Now a Major General, Shelby led the volunteers to join Harrison in a campaign that culminated in the American victory at the Battle of the Thames.
In Harrison's report of the battle to Secretary of War John Armstrong, Jr., he said of Shelby, "I am at a loss to how to mention [the service] of Governor Shelby, being convinced that no eulogism of mine can reach his merit." In 1817, Shelby received the thanks of Congress and was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his service in the war. Friends of Shelby suggested he run for Vice President, but Shelby quickly and emphatically declined.
Upon Shelby's leaving office in 1816, President Monroe offered him the post of Secretary of War, but he declined because of his age. Already a founding member of the Kentucky Bible Society, Shelby consented to serve as vice-president of the New American Bible Society in 1816. He was a faithful member of Danville Presbyterian church, but in 1816, built a small nondenominational church on his property. In 1818, he accompanied Andrew Jackson in negotiating the Jackson Purchase with the Chickasaw. He also served as the first president of the Kentucky Agricultural Society in 1818 and was chairman of the first board of trustees of Centre College in 1819.
In 1820, Isaac Shelby was stricken with paralysis in his right arm and leg. He died of a stroke on July 18, 1826, at his home in Lincoln County. He was buried on the grounds of his estate, Traveller's Rest. The state erected a monument over his grave in 1827. In 1952 the Shelby family cemetery was given to the state government and became the Isaac Shelby Cemetery State Historic Site.