Is Kentucky a “Southern” state?

This is the first question I got when I told people that I would be moving to Kentucky from the Midwest. Admittedly, classifying a state as “Southern” carries with it certain ideas about the culture of an area, for good or ill.

When I interviewed for my academic position at Centre College, however, I was told the following: “Midwesterners consider us to be a Southern state, but Southerners consider us to be a Midwestern state. We’re kind of in-between.” Another native Kentuckian I met recently put it this way: “Kentuckians have the hospitality of Southerners, but are direct and straight-forward like Midwesterners.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Kentucky is technically considered a Southern state. Professor Penny Miller’s Kentucky Politics and Government explains that “Kentucky is and always will be a southern state, tempered by a more moderate politics and a slightly cooler climate” (pg 4).

If the “South” is defined as any former Confederacy state, then Kentucky does not qualify because it did not officially secede from the Union during the Civil War. (There was a “shadow” Confederacy government in the state, though.) Despite not joining the Confederacy, Kentucky’s “heart” was certainly sympathetic. Professor Miller writes: “although Kentucky officially supported the Union, it found its heroes and postwar character in the Confederate cause. One historian noted (if not with scrupulous accuracy) that Kentucky’s was ‘the only government in history to join the loser after the loss'” (pg 25).

Although Kentucky’s “heart” is with the South, with its skepticism and suspicion toward the federal government, Professor Miller argues that Kentucky’s “mind” is usually a little more practical. Given that Kentucky is a comparatively poor state, Kentucky lawmakers see the value of state aid from the federal government. Thus, “Kentucky has long maintained an ambivalent relationship with the federal government, both depending on the national government and resisting its influence” (pg. 35).

This might help explain the findings in previous posts that Kentucky voters are some of the most socially conservative in the U.S., but very middle-of-the-road on economic issues.

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