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About Henry Gardner, Governor
Henry Joseph Gardner (June 14, 1819 – July 21, 1892) was the 23rd Governor of Massachusetts, serving from 1855 to 1858. Gardner, a Know Nothing, and was elected governor as part of the sweeping victory of Know Nothing candidates in the Massachusetts elections of 1854.
Born in Dorchester, Gardner was a dry goods merchant from Boston active in the local Whig Party in the early 1850s. With the sudden and secretive rise of the nativist Know Nothings in 1854, Gardner opportunistically repudiated previously-held positions, and joined the movement, winning a landslide victory over Whig Emory Washburn. During his three terms in office the Know Nothing legislatures enacted legislation on a wide-ranging reform agenda, and made several significant changes to the state constitution, including important electoral reforms such as the replacement of majority voting with plurality voting.
The Know Nothing movement began to disintegrate not long after its 1854 victory, dividing over slavery. Gardner won reelection in 1856 only with Republican support, given in exchange for Know Nothing support for the Republican presidential candidate, John Frémont. Republican Nathaniel Prentice Banks easily defeated Gardner in 1857, and the Know Nothing movement effectively dissolved. By 1860 Gardner had left politics and returned to his business interests; he died in relative obscurity.
Henry Gardner was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts (then a community separate from Boston) on June 14, 1819, to Henry Gardner and Clarissa Holbrook Gardner. He was educated in private schools in the Boston area, and then attended Phillips Exeter Academy. After graduating in 1831, he studied at Bowdoin College, where he graduated in 1838. He then embarked on a career as a dry goods merchant, acting as a principal partner for many years. In 1844 he married Helen Cobb of Portland, Maine.
In 1850 Gardner, politically a Whig, was elected to the Boston City Council, serving until 1853. He then became involved with the Know Nothing movement, winning election as governor of Massachusetts by a wide margin. In line with the nativist and anti-Catholic politics of the movement, Gardner proposed an amendment to the Massachusetts state constitution banning appropriations of tax funds to Catholic schools, which was passed by the state legislature and ratified after it was approved by referendum.
Before Gardner's election, on May 24, 1854 Anthony Burns was arrested in Boston under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Edward G. Loring, a Suffolk County probate judge who also as served U.S. commissioner of the Circuit Court in Massachusetts, ordered that Burns be forced back into slavery in Virginia, outraging abolitionists and the increasingly antislavery public in Massachusetts. Under the pressure of a public petition campaign spearheaded by William Lloyd Garrison, the legislature passed two Bills of Address calling for Judge Loring to be removed from his state office, in 1855 and 1856, but in both cases Gardner declined to remove Loring. (A third Bill of Address to remove Loring from office was later approved by Gardner's Republican successor, Nathaniel Prentice Banks.) The Know-Nothing legislature also passed, over Gardner's veto, one of the most stringent personal liberty laws, designed to make enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 as difficult for slave claimants as possible. Gardner claimed that the law would exacerbate relations between North and South, and called for its repeal. Minority parties in the legislature sought to weaken the bill, but its major provisions, including rights of habeas corpus, jury trial, and state-funded defense, survived.
Gardner continued in his dry goods business until 1876, and became an insurance agent in 1887. He died in Milton, Massachusetts on July 21, 1892. In the 1850s he was recognized by Harvard University with honorary degrees, and he was made a member of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company in 1855.