James Proctor Knott, governor during 1883-87, was born to Joseph Percy and Maria (Irvine) Knott on August 29, 1930 in Marion County Kentucky. He received a common school education before moving in 1850 to Missouri, where he became a lawyer in 1851. Knott served in the Missouri legislature and in the offices of the circuit and county clerks. After his first wife Mary E. Forman, died in childbirth, he married a Kentucky cousin, Sarah R. McElroy in 1858. Appointed in 1858 to an unexpired term as Missouri’s attorney general, Knott was elected to a full term in 1860. A moderate secessionist, he resigned rather than swear allegiance to the United States. He returned to Kentucky, where he opened a legal practice in Lebanon.
A Democrat, Knott was elected to six terms in the U.S. House Representatives, serving from March 4, 1867, to March 3, 1871, and from March 4, 1875 to March 3, 1883. Knott opposed Radical Reconstruction and a high tariff. He won recognition for his 1871 “Duluth” speech, in which he ridiculed federal aid for a proposed railroad. Knott was rejected for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1871, but won endorsement in a party convention filled with controversy in 1883. He then won an easy victory over Republican Thomas Z. Morrow, 133, 615 to 89, 181. After he left office in 1887, Knott practiced law in Frankfort for five years. In 1887-88 he served as a special assistant to the Kentucky Attorney General and in 1890 was elected to the state’s constitutional convention. In 1894, after teaching civics and economics at Centre College in Danville, he became professor and dean of the school’s new law department. Ill health forced his retirement in 1902, and he lived in Lebanon until his death on June 18, 1911. He was buried there.
Governor Knott asked for a thorough reform of the state’s tax system, but the legislature gave him little more than a board of Equalization that was charged with making equitable assessments. The legislature also refused to give the Railroad Commission all of the powers requested by the governor. The General Assembly finally approved construction of a new penitentiary at Eddyville, a project for which Gov. Luke Pryor Blackburn (1879-83) was largely responsible. Aided by the recommendations of a blue-ribbon commission of prominent citizens, Knott secured a comprehensive overhaul of the state’s system of public education. Duties and responsibilities were spelled out, often for the first time, and a state teachers; association was authorized. A deficit of nearly $500,000 led Knott to renew his request for the transfer of a number of functions from the state to the county governments and for an end to the tax immunities that had been granted to corporations. Despite the violence in the form of feuds that was making Kentucky notorious, Knott refused to admit that crime was a serious issue, even when he failed to end a war fought for several years in Rowan County. He became know for the number of pardons he granted.
Written by Lowell H. Harrison
From: The Kentucky Encyclopedia
Author; John Kleber
Copyright year; 1992
Publisher: The University Press of Kentucky