Robert P. Letcher
American governor of Kentucky
Robert P. Letcher
Robert Perkins Letcher was a politician and lawyer from the US state of Kentucky. He served as a U.S. Representative, Minister to Mexico, and the 15th Governor of Kentucky. He also served in the Kentucky General Assembly where he was Speaker of the House in 1837 and 1838. A strong supporter of the Whig Party, he was a friend of Henry Clay and John J. Crittenden. Letcher's family came to Kentucky around 1800.
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  • 1861
    Age 73
    He died at his home in Frankfort on January 24, 1861, and was buried in Frankfort Cemetery.
    More Details Hide Details Letcher County, Kentucky is named in his honor.
  • 1860
    Age 72
    After the dissolution of the Whig Party, Letcher generally supported Know-Nothing candidates in state politics. Letcher and Crittenden both supported National Union candidate John Bell in the 1860 presidential election, believing he represented the best hope of peacefully resolving the tension between the north and south.
    More Details Hide Details By election day, his health was beginning to fail.
  • 1857
    Age 69
    In 1857 and 1858, he urged John J. Crittenden to oppose the Lecompton Constitution for Kansas.
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  • 1856
    Age 68
    During the 1856 presidential election, Letcher spoke on behalf of Millard Fillmore in Pennsylvania, New York, and Kentucky.
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  • 1853
    Age 65
    Letcher first met Breckinridge in debate at Nicholasville on April 18, 1853.
    More Details Hide Details As the incumbent, Breckinridge spoke first and focused on political issues like contrasting the higher revenue generated by the Democratic Walker tariff with that produced by the higher Tariff of 1842 favored by the Whigs. Letcher, as he did for much of the campaign, responded by appealing to party loyalty; Breckinridge would misrepresent the district, he claimed, "because he is a Democrat". While Breckinridge was typically well composed in debate, Letcher would often become angry. On one occasion, Letcher so frequently attempted to interrupt Breckinridge that John J. Crittenden grabbed him by the coat tails to restrain him. Breckinridge supporters derisively nicknamed Letcher "Coat Tails" for the remainder of the campaign. When Letcher's factional enemy, abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay, endorsed Breckinridge, Letcher charged that this, combined with the abolitionist views of Breckinridge's uncle, Reverend Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, proved that Breckinridge was secretly an abolitionist, despite his consistent denial that Congress had the power to interfere with that institution. Breckinridge responded by citing newspaper accounts of an 1848 campaign speech Letcher had made in Indiana on behalf of Zachary Taylor. In the speech, he predicted that the constitutional convention then under way in Kentucky would produce a document that contained provisions for gradual emancipation, noting "It is only the ultra men in the extreme South who desire the extension of slavery."
    The nomination was not well-received among some Whig factions; Harlan withdrew in March 1853, and Letcher was chosen to replace him.
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    Whigs were eager to avenge the loss in 1853, and Letcher wanted to be their candidate, but at their state convention, they chose Kentucky Attorney General James Harlan.
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  • 1852
    Age 64
    He returned home in August 1852.
    More Details Hide Details On returning to Kentucky, Letcher resumed his legal practice. While he was away in Mexico, the congressional seat of Kentucky's Eighth District was won by Democrat John C. Breckinridge. Known as the "Ashland district" because it contained Henry Clay's Ashland estate and much of the territory he once represented, it was a Whig bastion that hadn't been represented by a Democrat since 1828.
    Letcher attempted to negotiate a new treaty to re-acquire the rights nullified by the Mexican government, but by February 14, 1852, he reported that he did not expect to be able to reach any kind of agreement.
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  • 1851
    Age 63
    Upon learning of the strong Mexican resistance to his proposed modifications, Webster instructed Letcher to negotiate the most favorable terms to which the Mexicans would agree. On January 25, 1851, Letcher signed a second treaty that was slightly more favorable to the Americans.
    More Details Hide Details During the time it had taken both sides to negotiate the treaty, however, public sentiment in Mexico had turned decidedly against any form of treaty with the United States regarding Tehuantepec. On May 22, 1851, the Mexican government declared the agreement with the American investors null on grounds that the provisional government which granted it did not have the right to do so.
  • 1850
    Age 62
    After nearly three months of negotiation, Letcher signed a modified treaty on June 22, 1850.
    More Details Hide Details Among the modifications were a provision that tolls on Mexican-produced goods transported on the route would be twenty-percent less than those of United States goods and an increase in the authority exercised by Mexico in protecting the route. Letcher wrote to Secretary of State John M. Clayton that the treaty fell short of what he had hoped for, but that he believed that its provisions were the best that could be obtained. A month after Letcher signed the treaty, Clayton was replaced as Secretary of State by Daniel Webster. In response to concerns raised by one of the Americans hoping to construct the line of transit, Webster asked that Letcher attempt to obtain certain modifications to the treaty. Letcher brought these modifications to the Mexican diplomats, but they steadfastly refused to accept them. Letcher, speaking with the blessing of the administration, intimated that the United States would take the region by force if the requested concessions were not made. The Mexican government conceded that they would not be able to resist such action, but still refused to accept the modifications to the treaty.
    Letcher's primary responsibility was negotiating a treaty to protect the interests of some American citizens who had purchased the rights to construct a line of transit on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. He submitted a rough draft of the treaty to Mexican officials in March 1850.
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    Letcher arrived in Mexico City on February 3, 1850.
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  • 1848
    Age 60
    Letcher was a strong supporter of Whig candidate Zachary Taylor in the 1848 presidential election.
    More Details Hide Details When Taylor won the election, Letcher's friend John J. Crittenden recommended Letcher for the post of postmaster general; Taylor declined this suggestion, but instead appointed Letcher as the United States envoy and minister to Mexico.
  • 1847
    Age 59
    In 1847, he was one of four contenders for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
    More Details Hide Details The other contenders consisted of two fellow Whigs and a Democrat. After twenty-eight ballots, no winner emerged, and Letcher's supporters withdrew his name and nominated Joseph R. Underwood, who eventually won the seat.
  • 1844
    Age 56
    In one of his final acts as governor, Letcher proclaimed the first thanksgiving day in Kentucky on September 26, 1844.
    More Details Hide Details After leaving office, he resumed his law practice in Frankfort.
  • 1841
    Age 53
    However, due to Harrison's death only a month after his inauguration, Crittenden was not able to keep Letcher's timeline; he was appointed attorney general by John Tyler on March 5, 1841.
    More Details Hide Details For the first half of Letcher's term, the state was still struggling to recover from the financial Panic of 1837. Consistent with his Whig views, Letcher blamed the crisis on the federal government's failure to recharter the Second Bank of the United States. To ameliorate the state's dire financial situation, Letcher drastically cut spending, including the suspension of turnpike construction and improvements on the Green, Kentucky, and Licking rivers. These actions greatly reduced the state's deficit and improved its credit. In each of Letcher's years in office, the state showed a small but growing budget surplus. Although Letcher generally opposed debt relief measures, he did allow the passage of some minor legislation to aid those most in danger of foreclosure on their property. In 1842, legislation was passed that expanded the types of personal property that were exempted from foreclosure. The next year, the General Assembly eliminated the summer terms of the circuit courts, effectively delaying some foreclosure hearings. Letcher also encouraged banks to make new small loans, and the legislature followed suit by moderately increasing the credit extended by state banks. As the state's economy recovered, its banks resumed specie payments. State bonds increased in value. By the end of Letcher's term, Kentucky had weathered the worst of the economic crisis.
    On January 11, 1841, Crittenden replied that he expected to be named attorney general and believed he could accept the post before Letcher's preferred deadline.
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    If he (Crittenden) were going to accept a position in President Harrison's cabinet, Letcher would prefer he do it before March 4, 1841 so the General Assembly would still be in session to elect Crittenden's replacement in the Senate.
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  • 1840
    Age 52
    On December 14, 1840, Letcher wrote Crittenden to tell him that the General Assembly would shortly re-elect him to his Senate seat.
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    Just weeks after Letcher's inauguration, William Henry Harrison prevailed in the 1840 presidential election.
    More Details Hide Details Soon after, Harrison visited Letcher in Frankfort to discuss the appointment of Letcher's friend John J. Crittenden to Harrison's cabinet.
  • 1836
    Age 48
    In 1836, he was defeated by incumbent speaker John L. Helm by a vote of 45—48.
    More Details Hide Details The following year, there was a three-way contest for speaker between Letcher, Helm, and James Turner Morehead. After nine ballots, Helm withdrew from the race, and Letcher defeated Morehead 50—48. The next year, Letcher was re-elected to the post without opposition. The Whigs' state nominating convention was held in Harrodsburg on August 26, 1839. Four candidates were initially put forward for the office of governor, but two withdrew from consideration, leaving the contest between Letcher and Judge William Owsley. Letcher won the nomination by a vote of 48—26. In the general election, Letcher defeated his Democratic opponent, Judge Richard French, by a majority of over 15,000 votes (out of 95,020 cast). The Whigs also captured large majorities in both houses of the state legislature.
    In 1836, Letcher served as a presidential elector on the Whig ticket He returned to the Kentucky House later that year, and was re-elected every year until 1838.
    More Details Hide Details Each of these years, he sought to become Speaker of the House.
  • 1833
    Age 45
    In the 1833 election, Thomas P. Moore challenged Letcher for the fifth district's seat in the House of Representatives.
    More Details Hide Details Moore had previously represented the counties in the fifth district (Garrard excepted), and had just returned from a four-year stint as U.S. minister to Grenada. The vote was so close that the House refused to seat either candidate and ordered a new election. Letcher won the new election by 258 votes. During this term, he served on the Committee on Foreign Affairs. He did not seek re-election at the end of his term.
    In 1833, Clay proposed a compromise in the Senate to quell the Nullification Crisis; Letcher introduced Clay's compromise in the House.
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  • 1828
    Age 40
    Letcher supported Adams' administration, but became anti-administration when Jackson won the 1828 presidential contest.
    More Details Hide Details Consistent with his support of Clay, he promoted expansion of internal improvements, including the Maysville Road bill vetoed by Jackson.
  • 1824
    Age 36
    Letcher was a friend and ardent supporter of Henry Clay. When no candidate gained a two-thirds majority of the electoral vote in the 1824 presidential election, the outcome fell to a vote of the House of Representatives.
    More Details Hide Details In the political wrangling that followed, Letcher served as an intermediary between Clay and John Quincy Adams. Eventually, Clay's supporters threw their support behind Adams, reportedly in exchange for Clay's being named Secretary of State. Andrew Jackson called the alleged deal the "corrupt bargain".
    During the 1824 presidential election, he acted as an intermediary between John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay.
    More Details Hide Details Adams' opponent, Andrew Jackson, charged that, through these negotiations, Clay agreed to support Adams for president in exchange for being named Secretary of State. In 1840, Letcher was chosen as the Whig nominee for governor of Kentucky over William Owsley. In the general election, Letcher won by landslide over Judge Richard French. Letcher's fiscally conservative policies helped Kentucky recover from the financial Panic of 1837. By the end of his term, the state was experiencing budget surpluses and state banks had resumed specie payments. After Letcher left office, he was appointed Minister to Mexico by President Zachary Taylor. Following this, he made an attempt to return to the U.S. House, but was defeated by Democrat John C. Breckinridge. Letcher's defeat in Henry Clay's home district was a strong indication of the decline of Whig influence in Kentucky. Though he remained active in politics, Letcher never again sought public office.
  • 1823
    Age 35
    Letcher was elected as a Democratic Republican to the Eighteenth Congress in 1823.
    More Details Hide Details He represented the state's fourth district until 1833, when the General Assembly conducted a redistricting of the state. After the redistricting, Garrard County became part of the fifth district.
    In 1823, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served for more than a decade.
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  • 1815
    Age 27
    He served until 1815, and after a respite of one term, was re-elected in 1817.
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  • 1813
    Age 25
    Nicknamed "Black Bob", Letcher was known as a witty and gregarious campaigner. He was also known to distract audiences at his opponents' campaign speeches by playing a fiddle. His political career began in 1813 when he was elected to represent Garrard County in the Kentucky House of Representatives.
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  • 1812
    Age 24
    He briefly served as a judge advocate in Colonel John Allen's volunteer militia during the War of 1812.
    More Details Hide Details Letcher first married Susan Oden Epps. Epps died on March 9, 1816 and did not bear any children. Following the death of his first wife, Letcher married Charlotte Robertson, sister of George Robertson, a congressman and future chief justice of the Kentucky Court of Appeals. Historian Jennie Morton records that Letcher referred to his second wife as "the queen". No children were born as a result of this marriage, but the couple raised one of their nieces from childhood. Charlotte Letcher survived her husband, and died October 29, 1879.
    He was briefly a judge advocate in John Allen's volunteer militia during the War of 1812.
    More Details Hide Details He began his political career in 1813, representing Garrard County in the Kentucky House of Representatives.
  • 1800
    Age 12
    Letcher's family came to Kentucky around 1800.
    More Details Hide Details Letcher attended the private academy of Joshua Fry, then studied law.
  • 1788
    Age 0
    Born on February 10, 1788.
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