Monday, August 07, 2006

Lexington Notes

This is the first time I've spent in Lexington, Kentucky. I'm finding it a fairly interesting place. Here's a few thoughts:

1. Visited the Lexington Cemetary. This is most known for the giantic tomb of Henry Clay with a huge statue of him on a very high pedestal. No one hardly knows who Henry Clay is these days. Of course this is to some extent that few people pay attention to antebellum politics. Everyone's heard of Andrew Jackson, but that's because he's on the 20. But Clay was at least as important to American development. To the extent that he's remembered at all, it's as "The Great Compromiser." He managed to forestall the Civil War for a long time. He managed not only The Missouri Compromise in 1820 but then at the end of his life saved the nation again with the Compromise of 1850. Clay was hardly an abolitionist. In fact, he owned slaves. But he also wanted the country to stay together. What's important about these compromises today is something that Clay never intended at the time. While today we might say that these compromises kept the slave power alive and people oppressed, in reality it gave the North time to build enough power to crush the South. In 1820 or even in 1850, the North would have had a much harder time defeating the South, as if they didn't have enough troubles in the 1860s. What was key to the Union victory was its industrial power and technology. In 1820 this had just barely begun to develop. Even in 1850 it was fairly nascent. But by the 1860s, the North had become enough of an industrial power to defeat the South. In a way, we owe Clay some thanks for allowing that to happen.

Clay's other great contribution to American life was the American System. Clay believed in an activist government. He wanted the federal government to invest in roads to tie the country together and other public improvements as well. He believed that a powerful government would lead to a powerful nation. Now there's no doubt that he did because he wanted the US to be a rich nation. To talk of Clay as some sort of anticapitalist would be extremely ahistorical. But in a day when government power to help anyone but business is under attack, the idea that the federal government should spend large amounts of money to help all its citizens has more than a little appeal.

2. The Lexington Cemetery also holds the bones of John C. Breckenridge. Supposedly. We couldn't find them, although we found many other members of the Breckenridge family. Breckenridge was the presidental candidate of the Southern Democrats in 1860--the election when the Democrats split over how vigorously to push for the US to be a national slave power as opposed to a regional slave power. The national Democrats led by Stephen Douglas was content with the US only giving everything to the South they wanted. For the fireeaters in 1860, this wasn't good enough. So they broke off, led by Breckenridge, which allowed Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans to take power. Things didn't go so well from there. Unlike Clay, Breckenridge is a hard character to feel good about. Plus he was spiting me in my quest to find his grave. Bastard.

3. One thing I love about southern towns (and let's not get into whether Kentucky is the South) is the nice old theaters they have downtown. Knoxville has the lovely Tennessee Theater, which they have recently renovated to what I understand is a spectacular level. I saw Scoop at the Kentucky Theater, which is less beautiful but is still a wonderful (and large) place to see a film. They also put on a lot of shows there and run old movies. I guess I wish that Lexington could support showing Woody Allen movies in normal theaters too, but I'm sure glad this is here.

4. Lexington has done a very nice job saving their old buildings. In comparison to Knoxville, Lexington has a wonderful old historic district, with many pre-Civil War homes. They don't look dead either. People live in many of them. There's something about pre-Victorian American architecture I find tremendously appealing. It's usually pretty simple and sometimes quite derivative of European styles but I like it a lot.

5. I think the Upper South was designed with me in mind. I went to an amazing Chris Knight concert the other night. More on that later. But between the music, the gren landscape, the historic preservation, and the interesting culture, I've found this part of the country (by which I mean Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina) incredibly appealing.