The Rise of the New Elite
: the Evolution of Leadership in Kentucky, c.1770-1800

  • Blair M. Smith

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    Utilising Max Weber's categorisations for legitimate authority, this thesis investigates how Kentucky society was organised from first settlement, through to the end of the eighteenth century, and how this society evolved. Weber’s categorisations are used to investigate who assumed authority at each stage of development, what made this authority legitimate, and how understandings of legitimacy evolved over time. Central to this investigation are two competing authority figures, that of the frontier ‘Big Man’ and the more traditional ‘elite settler.’ This thesis focusses on the efforts of elite settlers to reinstate an acceptance of their leadership as a traditionally-established norm among the community, and the role of the charismatic frontier Big Man. While gentlemen based their authority on landholding and a freedom from manual labour, the frontier Big Man legitimised authority through demonstrations of ability and a capacity for dramatic action. Both methods however, could only gain legitimacy if they reflected the collective approval of the local community. Legitimate authority reflected the issues and concerns of settlers at a particular time. This thesis will demonstrate how different concepts of authority vied for legitimacy in Kentucky by investigating what the basis of traditionally-established norms were among elite society, the influence of a hunting culture throughout the backcountry, the role of the militia as a force for social organisation, the importance of land and property ownership, and the role of the landscape and architecture. Through this investigation, this thesis will not only account for the presence of men such as Daniel Boone in positions of social authority, but also explain why charismatic Big Men were unable to maintain prominence. Big Men were unable to maintain authority because the collective approval which provided legitimacy was constantly in flux. The local concerns which secured charismatic authority in the 1770s and 1780s, did not apply to the Kentucky of the 1790s. Ultimately, as Kentucky evolved the nature of authority evolved with it to reflect the needs of the wider community. That authority was only legitimate, so long as leaders maintained the collective approval of those they held authority over.
    Date of Award2013
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorMatthew Ward (Supervisor)

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