John Steward Barry

Biography of Governor John Steward Barry

John Steward Barry
John Steward Barry

John Steward Barry, Governor of Michigan from Jan. 3, 1842 to Jan. 5, 1846, and from Jan. 7, 1850, to Jan. 1, 1852, was born in Amherst, N. H., Jan. 29, 1802. His parents, John and Ellen (Steward) Barry, early removed to Rockingham, Vt., where he remained until he became of age, working on his father’s farm, and pursuing his studies at the same time. He married Mary Kidder, of Grafton, Vt., and in 1824 went to Georgia, Vt., where he had charge of an academy for two years, meanwhile studying law. He afterward practiced law in that State. While in Georgia he was for some time a member of the Governor’s staff, with the title of Governor’s Aid, and at a somewhat earlier period was Captain of a company of State militia. In 1831, he removed to Michigan, and settled at White Pigeon, where he engaged in mercantile business with I. W. Willard.

Four years after, 1834, Mr. Barry removed to Constantine and continued his mercantile pursuits. He became Justice of the Peace at White Pigeon, Mich. in 1831, and held the office until the year 1835. Mr. Barry’s first public office was that of a member of the first constitutional convention, which assembled and framed the constitution upon which Michigan was admitted into the Union. He took an important and prominent part in the proceedings of that body, and showed himself to be a man of far more than ordinary ability.

Upon Michigan being admitted into the Union, Mr. Barry was chosen State Senator, and so favorably were his associates impressed with his abilities at the first session of the Legislature that they looked to him as a party leader, and that he should head the State ticket at the following election. Accordingly he received the nomination for Governor at the hands of his party assembled in convention. He was elected, and so popular was his administration that, in 1842, he was again elected. During these years Michigan was embarrassed by great financial difficulties, and it was through his wisdom and sound judgement that the State was finally placed upon a solid financial basis.

During the first years of Governor Barry’s first term, the University at Ann Arbor was opened for the reception of students. The Michigan Central and Michigan Southern railroads were being rapidly constructed, and general purpose was everywhere noticeable. In 1842, the number of pupils reported as attending the public schools was nearly fifty-eight thousand. In 1843, a State land office was established at Marshall, which was invested with the charge and disposition of all the lands belonging to the State. In 1844, the taxable property of the State was found to be over twenty-eight millions dollars, the tax being at the rate of two mills on the dollar. The expenses of the State were only seventy thousand dollars, while the income from the railroads was nearly three hundred thousand dollars. At this time the University of Michigan had become so prosperous that its income was ample to pay the interest on the University debt; and the amount of money which the State was able to loan the several progressing railroads was one hundred and twenty thousand dollars. Efforts were made to increase the efficiency of the common schools with good results. In 1845, when Governor Barry’s second term expired, the population of the State was more than three hundred thousand.

The constitution of the State forbade more than two consecutive terms, but he was called upon to fill the position again in 1850 – the only instance of the kind in the history of the United State. He was a member of the Territorial Legislature, of the Constitutional Convention, and afterward of the State House of Representatives.

During Mr. Barry’s third term as Governor the Normal School was established at Ypsilanti, which was endowed with lands and placed in charge of a board of education consisting of six persons. A new constitution for the government of the State was also adopted and the “Great Railway Conspiracy Case’ was tried. This grew out of a series of lawless acts which had been committed upon the property of the Michigan Central Railroad Company, along the line of their road, and finally the burning of the depot at Detroit, in 1850.

At a setting of the grand jury of Wayne County, April 24, 1851, 37 men of the 50 under arrest for this crime was indicted. May 20, following, the accused parties appeared at the Circuit Court of Wayne, of which Warner Wing was resident judge. The Railroad Company employed ten eminent lawyers, including David Stuart, John Van Arman, James A. Van Dyke, Jacob M. Howard, Alex D. Fraser, Daniel Goodwin, and William Gray. The defendants were represented by six members of the State bar, led by William H. Seward, of New York. The trial occupied four months, during which time the plaintiffs examined 246 witnesses in 27 days, and the defendants 249 in 40 days. Mr. Van Dyke addressed the jury for the prosecution; William H. Seward for the defense.

The great lawyer was convinced of the innocence of his clients, nor did the verdict of that jury and the sentence of that judge remove his firm belief that his clients were the victims of purchased treachery, rather than so many sacrifices to justice.

The verdict of “guilty” was rendered at 9 o’clock P.M., Sept. 25, 1851. On the 26th the prisoners were put forward to receive sentence, when many of them protested their entire innocence, after which the presiding judge condemned 12 of the number to the following terms of imprisonment, with hard labor, within the State’s prison, situate in their county: Ammi Filley, ten years; Orlando L. Williams, ten years; Aaron Mount, eight years; Andrew J. Freeland, eight years; Richard Price, eight years; William Corvin, eight years; Richard Price, eight years; Evan Price, eight years; Lyman Champlin, five years; Willard W. Champlin, five years; Erastus Champlin, five years; Erastus Smith, five years.

In 1840, Governor Barry became deeply interested in the cultivation of the sugar beet, and visited Europe to obtain information in reference to its culture.

He was twice Presidential Elector, and his last public service was that of a delegate to the National Democratic Convention held in Chicago in 1864.

He was a a man who, throughout life, maintained a high character for integrity and fidelity to the trusts bestowed upon him, whether of a public or a private nature, and he is acknowledged by all to have been one of the most efficient and popular Governors the State has ever had.

Governor Barry was a man of incorruptible integrity. His opinions, which he reached by the most thorough investigations, he held tenaciously. His strong convictions and outspoken honesty made it impossible for him to take an undefined position when a principle was involved. His attachments and prejudices were strong, yet he was never accused of favoritism in his administration of public affairs. As a speaker he was not remarkable. Solidity, rather than brilliancy, characterized his oratory, which is described as argumentative and instructive, but cold, hard, and entirely wanting in rhetorical ornament. He was never eloquent, seldom humorous or sarcastic, and in manner rather awkward.

Although Mr. Barry’s educational advantages were so limited, he was a life-long student. He mastered both ancient and modern languages, and acquired a thorough knowledge of history. No man owed less to political intrigue as a means of gaining public esteem by his solid worth. His political connections were always with the Democratic party, and his opinions were usually extreme.

Mr. Barry retired to private life after the beginning of the ascendancy of the Republican party, and carried on his mercantile business at Constantine. He died Jan. 24, 1870, his wife’s death having occurred a year previous, March 30, 1869. They left no children.

Source: Chapman Brothers. Portrait and biographical record of Genesee, Lapeer and Tuscola counties, Michigan. Chicago: Chapman brothers, 1892.

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