This Day in History — February 5

In the spirit of Lexington 1810, today’s This Day in History features someone who would have seen Lexington as it was 200 years ago.

William Taylor Barry was born in Virginia on February 5, 1784. As a child, William moved with his family to the young Fayette County. He attended Pisgah Academy, the Kentucky Academy in neighboring Woodford County, and Transylvania University, a college that was in its infancy. Barry was admitted to the Fayette County bar following his graduation from William and Mary College and legal studies with Judge John Rowan, one of Kentucky’s finest legal minds. Rigorous studies of the law paid off, as he was appointed Commonwealth Attorney shortly after he began practicing law in Kentucky.

His career in law and politics wouldn’t end there. Barry was elected to the Kentucky house in 1807 and he went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives from August 8, 1810, to March 3, 1811. William served in the War of 1812, when military service demanded that he turn his attention away from politics. For a small man, the Jeffersonian Republican was a powerful speaker and was known for his political know-how and way with words. Following his brief military service, Barry was reelected to the Kentucky house. Confident in his abilities, the members of the house sent him to the U.S. Senate, but he resigned and returned to Kentucky in 1816 after one session.

As a powerful voice in Kentucky politics and great legal mind in his own right, William Barry worked with Judge Jesse Bledsoe to develop a first-rate law curriculum at Transylvania University, his alma mater. From 1817 to 1821, he served in the Kentucky Senate and during his tenure Kentucky was faced with a bank panic, major financial crisis,  in which both prominent Kentuckians and ordinary citizens alike were losing their wealth and possessions. Following the panic, Barry spoke out for the Relief party which called for bank reform and debtor relief legislation. He was elected Lieutenant Governor in 1820 and served until 1824 alongside Governor John Adair. During their administration the Bank of the Commonwealth was founded, in part because of Barry’s “fiery stump speeches.” As Lieutenant Governor, Barry was involved in a committee which examined the public school systems of the other states. His committee’s Barry Report recommended that Kentucky establish a free public school system for all children.

Barry’s diverse political career would end with his appointment as ambassador to Spain. However, this would come following political scandal. He was a staunch supporter of Andrew Jackson (political rival of Henry Clay) and in 1829, Jackson appointed him as postmaster general. Within two years, however, accusations of corruption and favoritism within the Jackson administration led to congressional investigations in 1834-36. Such political calamity would ruin his physical and mental well-being and he died suddenly on August 30, 1835 in Liverpool, England as he was traveling to his new assignment. He was buried in the Frankfort Cemetery.


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