After seven years and nine conventions, the United States finally accepted the statehood petition of the Commonwealth of Kentucky in 1791. Before official admission on June 1, 1792, Kentucky needed a state constitution. On April 2, each of the nine counties sent five representatives to Danville for the Constitutional Convention. Samuel McDowell returned as convention president, with Thomas Todd as convention clerk. George Nicholas served as chief draftsman.
Citizens formed pre–convention committees to inform representatives of their concerns. The <i>Kentucky Gazette</i> also served as a vehicle for people’s opinions. Though these efforts influenced constitutional drafting, the privileged status of many delegates, and their interests, heavily biased the 1792 Constitution.
This constitution focused on the governmental framework of executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The governor was commander-in-chief of the Kentucky militia, filled official vacancies, and appointed numerous local officials, among other responsibilities. If necessary, the Speaker of the Senate succeeded him. The legislature consisted of the Senate and House of Representatives, which based membership on county population. Both houses chose their own speakers. The legislature established courts inferior to the statewide Court of Appeals. Judges were given immense jurisdiction and life terms, removable only through impeachment and a General Assembly vote. Balloted popular voting directly elected a few offices, but the main process was through electors.
Convention delegates debated controversial issues such as slavery. Reverend David Rice, for example, resigned his delegacy after losing a debate to exclude a proslavery clause (Article IX). The clause required humane treatment of slaves, and forbade emancipation without owner consent and full compensation. It also forbade slave importation for commercial purposes.
Over one weekend, Nicholas and a committee of ten drafted the first constitution, based on 22 resolutions. Aside from outlining governmental structure and allowing slavery, it included a 28-section Bill of Rights (Article XII). However, the final draft did not mention taxation or education. McDowell and Todd were the only ones to sign the document upon its April 19 adoption, and Kentuckians never voted on it.
May 1 marked the first popular elections, which determined electors, representatives, sheriffs, and coroners. Electors then chose senators and unanimously elected Isaac Shelby as Kentucky’s first governor. On June 6, the legislature gathered in Lexington for its first session, which lasted 23 days and addressed issues the constitution overlooked, such as state revenue and a committee to choose the government’s seat. Andrew Holmes won the state capital bid, and the next legislative session convened in Frankfort. The second session saw the adoption of the official State Seal.
Future sessions somewhat dealt with other constitutional omissions, such as education. Nonetheless, by 1795, there were calls for constitutional revisions. With no provisions for amendments, another convention assembled in 1799. Citizens again voiced their concerns through committees and newspapers. They claimed the Senate was aristocratic, electors suppressed the people’s voice, county governments were oppressive and unconstitutional, and slavery debates from the initial convention remained unresolved.
The 1799 Constitutional Convention addressed these issues by restructuring the government. The county courts absorbed some of the governor’s appointment powers. The newly created office of lieutenant governor took responsibilities from the governor and the Senate, such as gubernatorial succession. Additional restrictions, including term limits and government decentralization clauses resolved other power issues. The new constitution abolished electors and secret ballots in favor of voting by voice (or "viva voce"), due to concerns of corrupted elections. The people’s voice now determined several additional offices. Article IX remained almost unchanged even though slavery debates continued.
Convention delegates claimed this constitution was more democratic, adopted it on August 17, 1799, but never put it to a popular vote. Although lacking official public approval and still not addressing education and other important issues, the 1799 Constitution apparently satisfied the Commonwealth of Kentucky, as it was not successfully contested for 50 years.