John W. Stevenson, Governor, U.S. Senator

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John White Stevenson

Birthplace: Richmond, VA, USA
Death: Died in Covington, KY, USA
Immediate Family:

Son of Andrew Stevenson, 15th Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and Mary Page Stevenson

Managed by: Private User
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About John W. Stevenson, Governor, U.S. Senator

John White Stevenson (May 4, 1812 – August 10, 1886) was a U.S. Representative, the 18th Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky, the 25th Governor of Kentucky 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 Declaration of Independence.

Stevenson's political career began in 1845 with his election to the Kentucky House of Representatives. 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 Representatives, 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 blacks.

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 Democratic party.

Following 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 Covington, Kentucky on August 10, 1886 following a brief illness.

Early life

John White 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 Kenton County.

On June 15, 1843, Stevenson married Sibella Winston of Newport, Kentucky. 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.

Political career

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 James Harlan were 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 1854.

In the House of Representatives

Stevenson was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1848, 1852, and 1856, serving as a presidential elector in 1852 and 1856. He was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1857. As a representative, he supported the admission of Kansas to the Union under the Lecompton Constitution. He also endorsed the Crittenden Compromise, authored by fellow Kentuckian John J. Crittenden. He was defeated in his 1860 bid for re-election and supported John C. Breckinridge for president in that year's election. 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.

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 challenger 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 weapons. The rapidly escalating values of the fines for infractions showed that the bill was aimed primarily at repeat offenders.

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, Stevenson 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) of the Democratic Party caucus 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 from 1884 to 1885. Among those who studied law under Stevenson were future Treasury Secretary John G. Carlisle and future Kentucky governor William Goebel.

Stevenson 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.

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John W. Stevenson, Governor, U.S. Senator's Timeline

May 4, 1812
Richmond, VA, USA
August 10, 1886
Age 74
Covington, KY, USA