John White Stevenson
(May 4 1812 August 10 1886)
was a U.S.
Lieutenant Governor of
, Governor of
and U.S. Senator
. His father, Andrew Stevenson, had served as Speaker of
the House and minister to Great Britain.
His cousin, Willoughby Newton
, also served in
Congress, and his great-grandfather, Carter Braxton
, was one of the signers of the
Stevenson's political career began in 1845 with his election to the
Kentucky House of
. During his tenure, he helped revise the
state's code of laws and was a delegate to the constitutional
convention of 1849. He was then elected to the United States House of
, but became identified with states' rightists
and failed to win
re-election in 1860
. To avoid arrest by
federal forces, he kept a low profile throughout the Civil War
Following the war, Stevenson was elected Lieutenant Governor under
Governor John L. Helm
, who was serving in that capacity for the
second time. Helm died only five days into his term, and Stevenson
ascended to the governorship, a post he retained in a special
gubernatorial election the following year. As governor, Stevenson
advocated the restoration of rights to ex-Confederates
, and resisted the
interference of the federal government in what he considered to be
states' rights issues, such as the expansion of the rights of
Near the end of his term as governor, Stevenson trumpeted Senator
Thomas C. McCreery
's support of the appointment of
Stephen G. Burbridge
to a federal post. McCreery's
support of the man nicknamed "The Butcher of Kentucky" didn't play
well with the state's voters, and helped Stevenson unseat the
senator in 1871. Stevenson served in the Senate
until 1877. While there, he
became the first person designated "caucus chairman" for the
his Senate service, Stevenson became a professor at the University of
Cincinnati College of Law, and served as president of the American Bar Association.
He died in
Kentucky on August 10 1886 following a brief
Stevenson was born May 4 1812 in Richmond, Virginia, the son of Andrew
and Mary Page (White) Stevenson.
His mother died during his
birth, and he was raised by his maternal grandparents, John and
Judith White until his father's remarriage in 1817.
Stevenson's early education was provided by
private tutors in Virginia and Washington,
D.C. He attended Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia in
1828 and 1829, and graduated from the University of
Virginia at Charlottesville in 1832.
Following his graduation, he
studied law under his cousin, Willoughby Newton. He was admitted to the
bar and commenced practice in Vicksburg,
Mississippi. He relocated to Covington, Kentucky in 1841,
and became the county attorney of
On June 15
1843, Stevenson married Sibella Winston of Newport,
The couple had three daughters Sally, Mary,
and Judith and two sons Samuel and John. On November 24 1842,
Stevenson was elected to the vestry of the
Trinity Episcopal Church in Covington.
Stevenson began his political career in 1845, representing Kenton
County in the Kentucky House of Representatives. He was chosen as a
delegate to Kentucky's 1849 constitutional convention, which
eventually produced the Kentucky
Constitution of 1850
. Stevenson, Madison C. Johnson, and
appointed as commissioners to revise the civic and criminal code of
the state in 1850. They completed their work entitled Code of
Practise in Civil and Criminal Cases
In the House of Representatives
Stevenson was a delegate to the Democratic National
in 1848, 1852, and 1856, serving as a presidential elector
was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1857.
representative, he supported the admission of Kansas to the Union
under the Lecompton
He also endorsed the Crittenden Compromise
, authored by
fellow Kentuckian John J.
. He was defeated in
his 1860 bid for re-election and supported John C. Breckinridge
for president in that year's
. A known Confederate sympathizer, Stevenson kept a low
profile throughout the Civil War, and was able to avoid the fate of
imprisonment that befell many of his peers.
As governor of Kentucky
Following the war, Stevenson served as a delegate to the National Union Party
convention in 1866. He was elected Lieutenant Governor in 1867 and
succeeded John L. Helm as governor upon the latter's death five
days later. Due to the brevity of Helm's term, a special election
was held in August 1867 to determine who would serve the remainder
of the term. Stevenson won this vote over Republican
Richard Tarvin Baker by greater than a four-to-one margin.
Stevenson resented federal involvement in state political matters,
and supported the immediate restoration of the rights of
ex-Confederates. When Congress refused to seat some members of the
1868 Kentucky delegation on the grounds that they had Confederate
sympathies, he urged the General Assembly
to lodge a formal
protest. He also saw the federal expansion of the rights of blacks
as a violation of states' rights.
A major issue for Stevenson during his term as governor was the
quelling of post-war mob violence in the Commonwealth. In October 1867, He
dispatched the state militia to Mercer
County to suppress renegades that were running
amok. In 1869, he again dispatched the militia to
central Kentucky, this time to the counties of Boyle, Garrard, and Lincoln.
The governor declared that he would never
hesitate to send troops "whenever it becomes necessary for the
arrest and bringing to justice of all those who combine together,
no matter under what pretense, to trample the law under their feet
by acts of personal violence."
In 1870, the first year blacks were allowed to vote, Stevenson
warned that violence against the freedmen would not be tolerated,
but left the problem of preserving order in this instance to the
local authorities. He did, however, offer rewards to those who
arrested perpetrators of violence against black voters.
On March 22 1871 the General Assembly passed a bill, recommended by
Stevenson, that outlawed the carrying of concealed
. The rapidly escalating values of the fines for
infractions showed that the bill was aimed primarily at repeat
Stevenson sanctioned many public school advancements during his
administration. At his request, the General Assembly passed an
additional tax to raise funds for education. The fund-raising was
racially disproportionate, however, as most blacks possessed few
taxable assets and consequently generated little revenue for their
education. The General Assembly also established the state bureau
of education in 1870, a proposal which Stevenson supported.
A fiscal conservative
ordered a study of the state's financial system. He recommended
that the state no longer cover its short-term debt with bonds. He
had some success in collecting Kentucky's Civil War claims against
the federal government. He was unsuccessful in persuading the
General Assembly to create a bureau of immigration to spur interest
in the Commonwealth
but did manage to reorganize the state's prison system.
As early as 1869, Stevenson began laying the groundwork for a bid
for a U.S. Senate seat by trumpeting the fact that current senator
Thomas C. McCreery
and Representative Thomas L. Jones
had supported President Ulysses S. Grant
's appointment of Stephen G. Burbridge
to a federal post.
Burbridge's heavy-handed and often violent actions in Kentucky
during the closing months of the Civil War had vilified him to many
Kentuckians and earned him the nickname "The Butcher of Kentucky."
Stevenson's tactic worked, and he unseated McCreary in 1871,
resigning as governor to accept his position in the Senate.
Stevenson continued his conservative ways in the Senate. He opposed
spending on internal improvements and advocated a strict
interpretation of the U.S. Constitution
. At the Democratic
National Convention of 1872, Stevenson received the votes of
Delaware's six electors for the office of Vice President.
He was the first senator generally recognized as chairman
(later known as the floor leader
the Democratic Party
in the Senate. The first known record of his service in
this capacity was December 1873, and he served until he left the
Senate in 1877.
Later life and legacy
Following his service in the Senate, Stevenson became a professor
at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. He also served as
chairman of the 1880
Democratic National Convention
and as president of the American Bar Association
to 1885. Among those who studied law under Stevenson were future
Secretary John G. Carlisle
and future Kentucky governor
died in 1886 in Covington, Kentucky, and is buried at the Spring Grove
Cemetery in Cincinnati, Ohio.
His home in Covington at Fourth and Garrard
Streets was torn down to build a state office building.