GOV. JOHN S. BARRY
A Yankee Governor in a Georgia Court
How could a New Hampshire born school teacher and a future Michigan governor wind up teaching public school in Irwinton, Georgia? And, how could he be a member of the bar in a small southern village, where the barristers were all Georgians? John S. Barry did it and here is his story.
John Steward Barry was born in Amherst, New Hampshire on January 29, 1802. When he was big enough to plow, John began working on the farm of his parents, John and Ellen Barry. After completing his secondary studies, John accepted a position as a principal of an academy in the strange and distant land of Middle Georgia in 1824. Barry was given the duty of supervising the academy in Irwinton, Georgia. He brought his new wife, Mary Kidder, with him to his new home in a place unlike any other he had ever lived in.
Barry grew interested in the law. He studied every law book he could get his hands on and was admitted to the bar of Wilkinson County. During his brief tenure in Georgia, John Barry's stature in the legal community rose. He was appointed the governor as a member of his staff. Barry was further honored by his fellow Wilkinson Countians when he was named captain of the local militia company.
Growing tired of the legal profession, John moved his family back to the North, settling in White Pigeon, Michigan, where he went to work in the mercantile business of I.W. Willard in 1831, six years before it became the state's first incorporated village. His legal experience led to his appointment as Justice of the Peace for a four year term. When his partnership with Isaac Willard ended, Barry moved again in 1834 just up the road in Constantine, where he built the village's first frame building and general store in hopes of capitalizing on the trade along the St. Joseph's River.
Barry, representing St. Joseph's County, attended a constitutional convention in Detroit on the second Monday in May 1835. The delegates adopted a new constitution six weeks later. Two years later, Michigan was admitted as the 26th state of the Union. And right in the forefront of the political goings on was John S. Barry, who was elected as one of the Wolverine state's first state senators, serving from 1835 to 1838 and again in 1841.
Barry's colleagues were impressed with his political abilities. But the dynamic young politician's interests were not solely confined to the science of getting votes. Barry developed a burning desire to study the planting of sugar beets. His interest was so keen that he even traveled to Europe to learn more about the sugar rich roots.
John Barry purchased stock in the Michigan Southern Railroad Company. Later he became a director of the company and became actively involved in the management of the western division of the railroad, spending much time in New York and Chicago looking after the road's business dealings.
The Democrats of Michigan gathered for the purpose of choosing a candidate to run for governor in 1841. They enthusiastically nominated the Constantine storekeeper as their man. And, he won, becoming the fourth governor of the state.
Governor Barry faced an immediate crisis when he took office. The state's financial situations were dire, but Barry's strong fiscal policies brought the state out of the economic difficulties. Two years later in 1843, Barry, riding a tidal wave of popularity among Michigan voters, became the first Michigan governor to be re-elected to office.
Among the governor's most notable accomplishments during his first terms was the establishment of the University of Michigan, along with vast improvements to the public school system, an achievement which the former teacher took great pride in.
When the Michigan constitution prohibited a third term in office, Governor Barry stepped down. In one of his last official acts during his first term, Governor Barry served as a presidential elector for fellow Michigander Lewis Cass, who lost the 1848 election to Zachary Taylor. In 1849, Barry made history again when he became the first Michigander to be elected three times as chief executive of the state. Barry continued to focus his efforts on education by establishing the Normal School in Ypsilanti. In 1852, Barry was a member of the winning slate of electors for President Franklin Pierce.
Governor Barry, a solid supporter of the Wilmot Proviso which prohibited slavery in the states acquired from Mexico, was defeated in his bid for re-election in 1853. Looking beyond the halls of state government, Barry set his sights on the tumultuous national legislature in Washington. He lost, though he did, in 1856, represent his party in the Democratic National Convention at Smith & Nixon's Hall in Cincinnati, a raucous gathering which nominated the next president James Buchanan. He returned to the convention in nearby Chicago to re-nominate Abraham Lincoln.
A litany of adjectives describing the character of the late Governor Barry include incorruptible, brilliant, and determined. Though he had little education, it was said, "He mastered both ancient and modern languages and acquired a thorough knowledge of history." Though he was a popular politician, his biographers wrote that he was less than remarkable as a speaker, stating that his speeches were cold, hard, argumentative and totally lacking in rhetorical ornament. Solid is an adjective which defines the dedicated member of the Democratic party.
After leaving the political world, Governor Barry returned home to his mercantile business in Constantine. Mary Barry died on March 30, 1869, leaving John all alone. On January 14, 1870, at the age of 67, John Barry died at his home, leaving a considerable fortune to his brother, nieces and nephews.
Barry was eulogized as "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, as one of the most efficient and popular Governors the State has ever seen. He was always approachable by the humblest citizen and never carried about him a consciousness of the high position he had occupied."