Governors of Connecticut

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James Edward English

From: The Governers of Connecticut
By: Frederick Calvin Norton
Published: 1905


JAMES Edward English, one of the most distinguished men that New Haven ever produced, should be classed with Roger Wolcott, Samuel Huntington and M atthew Griswold, governors of Connecticut, who were entirely self-made. Probably 110 resident of New Haven, with the possible exception of Roger Sherman and ex-Governor Baldwin, ever attained greater honors in his state and the nation than did James E. English.

Every success in his life was the product of his own self- exertion, and his life furnishes a brilliant example to any boy who is born without wealth or influence to help him in his career.

The ancestors of Governor English were thrifty people. His great-grandfather lost his life during General Tryon’s invasion of the city on July 5, 1779, when so many citizens were murdered and others made homeless. His grandfather engaged in the West India trade and was captain of a vessel sailing out of New Haven.

The father of Governor English was a man of intelligence, and his mother a member of the Griswold family which has furnished two governors to the commonwealth.

James E. English was born at New Haven, on March 13, 1812, and his boyhood was uneventful. At the age of eleven years he was “bound out” to a farmer. During the two and a half years he spent on the farm the boy only attended the district school for eight months, and his father awakened to the fact that his son should have more of an opportunity for obtaining an education. Returning to his home the young man attended school for the next two years, and he made rapid progress in his studies.

When sixteen years of age, the future statesman was apprenticed to Atwater Treat, a prominent builder of New Haven to learn the carpenter trade. The latent ability of the young man soon manifested itself and before he reached his majority he had become a master builder.

His first work of a public character was in the old Lancasterian school in New Haven, built on the site of the present Hillhouse High School. The establishment of this latter school was one of the philanthropic acts of Governor English when he had reached years of prosperity. When twenty-one years of age English went into business for himself, and began the erection of various buildings. The historian of New Haven, Atwater, remarks that “several houses designed and erected by him (English), in a style more elaborate than was common in New Haven, bear creditable testimony to his architectural taste.”

English prospered in business and made money very rapidly. Engaging in the lumber business later on he was so successful that after following it twenty years he was able, with two other gentlemen, to purchase the manufacturing business of the Jerome Clock Company. After a few years this company, originally started in Bristol, became one of the largest of its kind in the world. The business was afterwards merged with the New Haven Clock Company. During this period he was interested in various real estate deals, banking, and other enterprises, so that by the time English had reached the middle life he was one of the richest men in Connecticut.

It is said of him that not a dollar of his vast fortune was made by speculation, and it was all the product of his uncommon business ability. His wonderful success in business made him conspicuous in public life, and the people of his native city began to look to him for important trusts.

In 1848 he was elected a member of the New Haven Cornmon Council, and in 1855 he served as representative from the city in the General Assembly.

He was elected a state senator in 1 1856, re-eledted in 1858.

In 1861 English was elected a member of Congress as a “war democrat,” and he served as a representative four years. During the years of the Civil War his course was eminently honorable. While in Congress he voted with the Republicans on all important questions although a Democrat all his life.

English supported the war and the administration and voted for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia.

He was a member of the committee on naval affairs, opposed the legal tender bill and national banking system.

At the time when almost every state was in the hands of the Republican party, English, solely on account of his great popularity, was nominated and elected by the Democrats in 1867 as governor.

He was re-elected in 1868, and his term in offlce was very satisfactory. Re-nominated in 1869 he was defeated at the following election by Marshall Jewell of Hartford.

Governor English was re-elected again in 1870, and served one more year as chief magistrate of the commonwealth.

In national politics Governor English was also an important factor. He was a presidential elector at large in the election of 1868, and at the Democratic National Convention which met in Tammany Hall, New York, July 4, of the same year, he received nineteen votes on the fifth ballot for president of the United States.

In 1875, Governor English was appointed United States senator by Governor Ingersoll to fill the vacancy caused by the death of the Hon. Orris S. Ferry. He served in this capacity until the spring of 1876.

During the later years of his life lie did not hold any public office, but spent his time in attending to the various manufacturing and other enterprises in which he was interested.

Among other things he was president of the New Haven Savings Bank and a manager of the Adams Express Company.

Governor English gave freely to various worthy objects, and among his many acts of philanthropic character may be mentioned his gift of $10,000 to the Yale Law School, and $20,000 for the improvement of East Rock.

Governor English died at his home in New Haven on March 2, 1890, aged seventy-eight years.

His son, Henry F. English, is one of the most prominent residents of New Haven and inherits the liberal spirit of his distinguished father. He has presented a handsome building on Grove Street to the New Haven Colony Historical Society, as a memorial to his father and mother.

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