John Judson Bagley, Governor of Michigan from 1873 to 1877, was born in Medina, Orleans Co., N. Y., July 24, 1832. His father, John Bagley, was a native of New Hampshire, his mother, Mary M. Bagley, of Connecticut. He attended the district schools of Lockport, N.Y., until he was eight years old, at which time his father moved to Constantine, Mich., and he attended the common schools of that village. His early experience was like that of many country boys whose parents removed from Eastern States to the newer portion of the West. His father being in very poor circumstances, John Judson Bagley was obliged to work as soon as he was able to do so. Leaving school when 13 years of age, he entered a country store in Constantine as clerk. His father then removed to Owosso, Mich., and he again engaged as clerk in a store. From early youth Mr. B. was extravagantly fond of reading and devoted every leisure moment to the perusal of such books, papers and periodicals as came within his reach. In 1847, he removed to Detroit, where he secured employment in a tobacco manufactory and remained in this position for about five years. Governor of Michigan from 1873 to 1877, was born in Medina, Orleans Co., N.Y., July 24, 1832. His father, John Bagley, was a native of New Hampshire, his mother, Mary M. Bagley, of Connecticut. He attended the district schools of Lockport, N.Y., until he was eight years old, at which time his father moved to Constantine, Mich., and he attended the common schools of that village. His early experience was like that of many country boys whose parents removed from Eastern States to the newer portion of the West. His father being in very poor circumstances, Mr. B. was obliged to work as soon as he was able to do so. Leaving school when 13 years of age, he entered a country store in Constantine as clerk. His father then removed to Owosso, Mich., and he again engaged as clerk in a store. From early youth Mr. Bagley was extravagantly fond of reading and devoted every leisure moment to the perusal of such books, papers and periodicals as came within his reach. In 1847, he removed to Detroit, where he secured employment in a tobacco manufactory and remained in this position for about five years.
In 1853, he began business for himself in the manufacturing of tobacco. His establishment has become one of the largest of the kind in the West. John Judson Bagley has also been greatly interested in other manufacturing enterprises, as well as in mining, banking, and insurance corporations. He was President of the Detroit Safe Company for several years. He was one of the organizers of the Michigan Mutual Life Insurance Company of Detroit, and was its President from 1867 to 1872. He was a director of the American National Bank for many years, and a stockholder and director in various other corporations. Mr. Bagley was a member of the Board of Education two years, and of the Detroit Common Council the same length of time. In 1865 he was appointed by Governor Crapo one of the first commissioners of the Metropolitan police force of the city of Detroit, serving six years. In November, 1872, he was elected Governor of Michigan, and two years later re-elected to the same office, retiring in January, 1877. He was an active worker in the Republican party, and for many years was Chairman of the Republican State Central committee.
Governor John Judson Bagley was quite liberal in his religious views and was an attendant of the Unitarian Church. He aimed to be able to hear and consider any new thought, from whatever source it may come, but was not bound by any religious creed or formula. He held in respect all religious opinions, believing that no one can be injured by a firm adherence to a faith or denomination. He was married at Dubuque, Iowa, Jan. 16, 1855, to Frances E. Newberry, daughter of Rev. Samuel Newberry, a pioneer missionary in Michigan, who took an active part in the early educational matters of the State and in the establishment of its excellent system of education. It was principally through his exertions that the State University was founded. Mr. Bagley’s family consists of seven children.
As Governor his administration was characterized by several important features, chief among which were his efforts to improve and make popular the educational agencies of the State by increasing the faculty of the University for more thorough instruction in technical studies, by strengthening the hold of the Agricultural College upon the public good will and making the general change which as manifested itself in many scattered primary districts. Among others were an almost complete revolution in the management of the penal and charitable institutions of the State; the passage of the liquor-tax law, taking the place of the dead letter of prohibition; the establishing of the system of dealing with juvenile offenders through county agents, which as proved of great good in turning the young back from crime and placing the State in the attitude of a moral agent; in securing for the militia the first time in the history of Michigan a systematized organization upon a serviceable footing. It was upon the suggestion of Governor Bagley in the earlier part of his administration that the law creating the State Board of Health, and also the law creating a fish commission in the inland waters of the State, were passed, both of which have proved of great benefit to the State. The successful representation of Michigan at the Centennial Exhibition is also an honorable part of the record of Governor Bagley’s administration.
As Governor, John Judson Bagley felt that he represented the State – not in a narrow, egotistical way, but in the same sense that a faithful, trusted, confidential agent represented his employer, and as the Executive of the State he was her “attorney in fact.” And his intelligent, thoughtful care will long continue the pride of the people he so much loved. He was ambitious – ambitious for place and power, as every noble mind is ambitious, because these give opportunity. However strong the mind and powerful the will, if there be no ambition, life is a failure. He was not blind to the fact that the more we have the more is required of us. He accepted it in its fullest meaning. He had great hopes for his State and country. He had his ideas of what they should be. With a heart as broad as humanity itself, with an intelligent, able and cultured brain, the will and the power to do, he asked his fellow citizen to give him the opportunity to labor for them. Self entered not into the calculation. His whole life was a battle for others; and he entered the conflict eagerly and hopefully.
His State papers were models of compact, business-like statements, bold, original, and brimful of practical suggestions, and his administrations will long be considered as among the ablest in this or any other State.
His noble, generous nature made his innumerable benefactors a source of continuous pleasure. Literally, to him it was “more blessed to give than to receive.”
His greatest enjoyment was in witnessing the comfort and happiness of others. Not a tithe of his charities were known to his most intimate friends, or even to his family. Many a needy one has been the recipient of aid at an opportune moment, who never knew the hand that gave.
At one time a friend had witnessed his ready response to some charitable request, and said to him; “Governor, you give away a large sum of money; about how much does your charities amount to in a year?” He turned at once and said: “I do not know, sir; I do not allow myself to know. I hope I gave more this year than I did last, and I hope I shall give more next year than I have this.” This expressed his idea of charity, that the giving should at all times be free and spontaneous.
During his leisure hours from early life, and especially during the last few years, he devoted much time ot becoming acquainted with the best authors. Biography was his delight; the last he read was the “Life and Work of John Adams,” in ten volumes.
In all questions of business or public affairs he seemed to have the power of getting at the kernel of the nut in the least possible time. In reading he would spend scarcely more time with a volume that most persons would devote to a chapter. After what seemed a cursory glance, he would have all of value the book contained. Rarely do we see a business man so familiar with the best English authors. He was a generous and intelligent patron of the arts, and his elegant home was a study and a pleasure to his many friends, who always found there a hearty welcome. At Christmas time he would spend days doing the work of Santa Claus. Every Christmas eve he gathered his children about him and, taking the youngest on his lap, told some Christmas story, closing the entertainment with “The Night Before Christmas,” of Dickens “Christmas Carol.”
Source: Chapman Brothers. Portrait and biographical record of Genesee, Lapeer and Tuscola counties, Michigan. Chicago: Chapman brothers, 1892.