walk of fame recipient Plaque 3

James Bennett McCreary

  • Born July 8, 1838, in Madison County, Kentucky, to Dr. Edmund R. McCreary and Sabrina Bennett McCreary.
  • Earned a bachelor’s degree from Centre College in Danville in 1857 and a law degree in 1859 from Cumberland University in Tennessee.
  • Joined Confederacy in the Civil War and fought in the 11th Kentucky Cavalry, earning the rank of lieutenant colonel.
  • Captured on John Hunt Morgan’s raid into Ohio and held prisoner at Columbus for two months before being exchanged and returning to the battlefield.
  • Married Katherine Hughes in 1867 and had one son.
  • Served 1869-75 in the Kentucky House and as Speaker during his last two terms.
  • Nominated for governor in 1875 by the Democratic Party and defeated Republican John M. Harlan.
  • Served in U.S. House of Representative, 1885-97.
  • Served in U.S. Senate, 1903-9.
  • Elected to second term as governor of Kentucky in 1911, defeating Republican Judge Edward C. O’Rear.
  • Established a progressive record for his second term with reforms such as school suffrage for women, education improvements, and mandatory primary elections.
  • Practiced law in Richmond, Kentucky, until his death on October 18, 1918.
  • Had the last county created in Kentucky—McCreary County—named for him in 1912.

James Bennett McCreary Biography

James Bennett McCreary was born on July 8, 1838, in Madison County, Kentucky, to Dr. Edmund R. McCreary and Sabrina Bennett McCreary. His grandfather, James McCreary, fought in the War of 1812, and his great-grandfather, Robert McCreary, fought in the Revolutionary War.

James earned a degree from Centre College in Danville in 1857. He went on to earn a law degree in Tennessee at Cumberland University, becoming the valedictorian of his class in 1859. James contracted typhoid fever while in Tennessee and nearly died. After attaining his education he set up a law practice in Richmond, Kentucky. When the Civil War began he closed up his practice and joined the Confederate army, serving in the 11th Kentucky Calvary. His family was divided in their loyalties, and his parents did not condone his commitment to the Confederate cause. However, he felt that supporting the South’s interest would be best for his family despite their political views. The Battle of Richmond was his first engagement, where he fought as a private. He later earned the rank of Confederate lieutenant colonel. He was instrumental in recruiting soldiers in Kentucky. During John Hunt Morgan’s raid into Ohio, McCreary was captured and held prisoner for two months and then released in a prisoner exchange, afterwards returning to the battlefield. His slave, Ruben, served with him up until his own capture only hours before McCreary surrendered his command in Ohio. After McCreary’s surrender he was imprisoned at Columbus, Ohio, and emerged so weakened that he could not stand and had to be helped to walk out.  

In 1867 McCreary married Katherine Hughes, the only child of a wealthy farmer from Fayette County, Kentucky. The marriage produced one son. James’s first term as governor made his wife, Katherine, the youngest-ever first lady of the Commonwealth. During his second term as governor his granddaughter served as hostess at the governor’s mansion as Katherine had died three years before his term began.

From 1869 to 1875 McCreary served in the Kentucky House and was Speaker during his last two terms. McCreary was nominated for governor in 1875 by the Democratic Party and won, defeating Republican John M. Harlan and attacking the Reconstruction policies of President Ulysses S. Grant.  As governor he tried to put Reconstruction aside and promote sectional reconciliation.  His term followed Democratic southern conservatism and reflected the Kentucky tradition of weak executive leadership; hence, legislative achievements were minimal. Rather, McCreary devoted much of his efforts to suppressing violence, such as feuds in the eastern mountains. From 1885 to 1897 he served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and as a member of the U.S. Senate from 1903 to 1909. Despite his age, in 1911 McCreary was again elected governor of Kentucky, defeating Republican Judge Edward C. O’Rear.  He ran this time on a progressive platform in contrast to his earlier conservatism.  It has been noted by historians that in both instances he mirrored prevailing public opinion.

In his second inaugural address McCreary called for revision of the state’s tax system, approval of woman suffrage in school elections, and other progressive measures.   During this term he set up departments for banking and state highways, a state textbook commission, and a Board of Assessments and Valuation to make more accurate assessments of corporate property.  The school suffrage bill for women passed, as did bills providing for mandatory primary elections and compulsory school attendance.   Some of his progressive bills did not pass, such as a workman’s compensation bill and a public utilities commission. Of the changes that were made, the advancements in education had the most impact, producing an increase of 25 percent per pupil in education expenditures.

After McCreary’s last term as governor he returned to practicing law in Richmond, Kentucky, where he died on October 18, 1918. He was buried in Richmond Cemetery beside his parrot “Polly.” McCreary County, the last county formed in Kentucky, was named for him in 1912.

James Bennett McCreary Links


James Bennett McCreary Suggested Reading

Chenault, John Cabell. Revised and Supplemented by Jonathan Truman Dorris. Introduction by Ivan E. McDougle. Old Cane Springs: A Story of the War Between the States in Madison County, Kentucky. Standard Printing Co.: Louisville, Kentucky, 1937.

Harrison, Lowell H., editor. Kentucky’s Governors. Second Edition. University Press of Kentucky: Lexington, 2004.

Kleber, John E., editor. The Kentucky Encyclopedia. 2d ed. University Press of Kentucky: Lexington, 1992.

Powell, Robert A. Kentucky Governors: 1792-2000. Silverhawke Publications: Tampa, Florida, 2001.