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One decision can change someone’s life entirely. And those decisions can change the course of entire communities or even states. The life of one of Arkansas’s earliest judges is one example. Robert Letcher was one of the first government officials for what would become Arkansas. Though he helped lay the groundwork for the future state, he would end up making his mark in Kentucky instead.

Robert Perkins Letcher was born in eastern Virginia in February 1788, in the years just after the American Revolution. He was the seventh of twelve children, and his father was a bricklayer. The family moved to eastern Kentucky when Letcher still very young, just a few years after Kentucky itself was admitted to the Union.

His father insisted on the importance of educating his children and sent them all to local schools. However, Letcher was wild and mischievous as a youth and did not do well in school. His father sent him to work with him at his brickyard, but he did not appreciate that work, either. However, his father had the contract to help build the first Kentucky governor’s mansion, construction that Letcher participated in. As he matured, the family found a new school for him, and Letcher grew to appreciate his studies.

He eventually became a lawyer after studying under another local attorney. He served in the state militia during the War of 1812 and won election to the state house of representatives in 1813. He skipped re-election in 1815 and was elected for a second time in 1817. During political campaigns, he was known to play a fiddle while his opponents gave speeches. This was a light-hearted prank compared to the duels and fistfights that exploded with some campaigns of the day.

Shortly after the creation of the creation of the Arkansas Territory in March 1819, President James Monroe appointed Letcher as one of three territorial judges. He would join Charles Jouett of Michigan and Andrew Scott of the Missouri Territory in this role while Gen. James Miller of New Hampshire served as territorial governor and fellow Kentuckian Robert Crittenden served as territorial secretary.

As the steps to statehood unfolded, once Congress created a territory, the president would appoint the territorial governor as the chief executive of the territory, a territorial secretary to act as a combination treasurer and records keeper and deputy to the governor, and three judges to act as magistrates and land claims commissioners as well as help set up the initial governing procedures for the territory. When the population became large enough, a territorial legislature would be established by voters. This system would continue until the territory was large enough to apply to Congress for statehood. This is substantially the same process nearly every new state went through to join the Union after the United States won independence.

Letcher received his appointment and left for Arkansas in July. Though the Arkansas Territory was new, it was already dominated by Robert Crittenden, a fellow Kentuckian. Crittenden’s brother, John J. Crittenden, was a future Kentucky governor and U. S. Senator and a close friend and political ally of Letcher. He traveled down the Ohio River to the Mississippi River before reaching the isolated port at Arkansas Post, the territorial capital, at the edge of the Mississippi and White rivers. It was a small community of less than 500 residents in a low, marshy area subject to swarms of mosquitoes and the heat and humidity of Arkansas swamplands in summer. Letcher and his fellow judges were not impressed.

Nevertheless, he arrived in the Arkansas Territory already a political veteran at the age of 31. Miller would not arrive for months, so Letcher and the other judges worked with Crittenden to begin crafting an initial government for the Arkansas Territory. For about three weeks in July and August, a few basic laws were established such as salaries for government officials, financial plans for funding the Arkansas government were established, and a steady number of land titles were granted. He presided over very few legal cases.

Letcher’s time in Arkansas was short. He, like Judge Jouett, grew tired of Arkansas Post in summertime and left quickly. He resigned his federal appointment and returned to what he believed was the more fertile political climate of Kentucky.

Redistricting offered Letcher a valuable opportunity with an open seat in a new district, and he won election to Congress in 1823. As a congressman, he was an active supporter of road construction and the development of the nation’s infrastructure and worked to keep the peace between North and South as sectional tensions intensified. From 1840 until 1844, he served one term as Kentucky’s governor.

He would later serve as an ambassador to Mexico from 1849 until 1852. He ran for Congress again in 1852 but lost and never again sought elective office. He continued to try to keep the peace between North and South up until his death in January 1861. In part because of his work, Kentucky never seceded from the Union during the Civil War.

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