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Hon. James Edward English, member of congress, governor of Connecticut, and United States senator, whose death occurred at his home in New Haven, March 2, 1890, full of years and honors, was preeminently a self-made man; more so than any other of New Haven's citizens unless it be the late Hon. Roger Sherman.

Mr. English was born March 13, 1812, in New Haven, son of James and Nancy (Griswold) English, the father a citizen highly respected for his personal worth, who intelligently discharged several public trusts with fidelity. The mother was a woman of singular sagacity; she was descended from a family greatly distinguished in the history of Connecticut, having given to it two governors. Our subject's paternal grandfather was the commander of vessels engaged in the West India trade and his great-grandfather fell pierced by a bayonet in the hands of a British soldier, at the time of the invasion of New Haven during the War of the Revolution. James E. English was a descendant in the sixth generation from Clement English, of Salem, Massachusetts, his line being through three successive Benjamins to James English, his father. The first Benjamin English, son of Clement, born in 1676, married Rebecca Brown, in 1699, and in 1700 settled in New Haven, where for two hundred years his descendants have been identified with the town.

James E. English in boyhood exhibited singular self-reliance, a trait of character that ever remained with him. At the age of sixteen he was apprenticed to the trade of a car-penter, and began his first work June 27, 1827, on the old Lancastrian schoolhouse. His apprenticeship closed on his twenty-first birthday. He never worked as a journeyman at his trade but at once became a contractor, and followed this occupation until twenty-three years of age, by which time he became the possessor of a moderate capital. Having natural architectural tastes, he designed and erected in this short experience a number of creditable buildings in New Haven; and for the next twenty years he was engaged in the lumber business, covering a period when commercial enterprises of every kind were subject to great fluctuations—a period of general financial embarrassment, when many men found it difficult and often impossible to avoid commercial disaster. Farseeing and always looking beyond the present, he avoided speculation, never being sanguine nor despondent. He branched out in his lumber business, buying and building vessels, engaged in shipping clocks to Philadelphia, and returning with coal and general merchandise to New Haven and other ports, and in this way was successful. Next he became identified with the manufacture of clocks, having successfully reorganized the former Chauncey Jerome works under the name of the New Haven Clock Company. In this enterprise he was associated with Harmanus M. Welch, afterward president of the First National Bank, and for several years a partner with him in the lumber business; also with Hiram Camp, these three purchasing the clock plant. In a few years they made this company not only a success, but one of the largest clock manufacturing concerns in existence. Mr. English, about this time, became prominently identified with the First National Bank of New Haven, and also with the Connecticut Savings Bank, having been at the head of the latter institution from its organization in 1857. He was largely interested in various manufacturing and commercial industries in this and other states, being also associated with the management of the Adams Express Company. Eminently successful in accumulating property, by judicious investments in real estate he finally became the owner of probably more business buildings than any other individual in New Haven. He was a man of the strictest integrity, taking no advantages of the great opportunities that arose during the war by changes in the financial policy of the government, which greatly affected commercial values, of which some men of high station availed themselves. Not a dollar of his large fortune came from speculation. His business sagacity made it all. "If I have been successful as a business man, it is because I have been content with reasonable profits, for I know that enormous gains soon invite ruinous competition."

Politically Mr. English was reared a democrat and "ever remained faithful to the conviction of a lifetime, that only by adherance to the principles and policy of genuine Jeffersonian Democracy could the state reach the full proportions of a free prosperous commun-ity." He held many public trusts, covering a period of forty-one years—1836-1877. He was selectman of his town from 1836 to 1848; a member of the common council in 1848-49; representative in the state legislature in 1855-56; state senator from 1856 to 1859; mem-ber of congress from 1861 to 1865; governor of Connecticut from 1867 to 1869, and again in 1870; and United States senator by appointment from 1875 to 1877. "The municipal trusts of his early manhood were those imposed upon him by the general conviction of his fellow citizens, irrespective of party, that their interests might be safely confided to his recognized integrity, capacity and public spirit."

"His services in both branches of the legislature were generally marked by attention to the business rather than to the political aspects of the legislation in which he was called to act. When, subsequently, he became governor of the state, the practical cast of his mind was conspicuously manifested in the emphasis which he gave in his messages to the cause of free public school education, and in the advocacy of which he was ultimately successful.

"But that which specially and honorably marks Mr. English's public career is the course he pursued while a representative in congress. His term of service, extending from 1861 to 1865, covered that period in our history during which slavery ceased to disgrace the Nation, and the constitutional amendment prohibiting involuntary servitude became the supreme law of the land. Mr. English went to Washington a pronounced war democrat, be-lieving that the great national exigency demanded every sacrifice to prevent our great republic from being divided into perpetually contending and contemptible fragments.
"While as a democrat he fully recognized the constitutional right of the southern states to the possession of their slaves, he also felt that slavery was a monstrous injustice, and therefore had no regret when as a war measure, he found himself at liberty to record alike his abhorrence of slavery and his sense of justice toward the owners of slaves in the District of Columbia, by voting for the bill which united the emancipation of the slave with compensation to the master.

"Long before the close of the war it became evident to all thoughtful observers that the question of general emancipation must be met sooner or later, and Mr. English made up his mind to take the hazard and incur the odium of voting with his political opponents whenever, in his view, it became a political necessity. More than a year before the final passage of the bill providing for the necessary constitutional amendment, the position of Mr. English was well understood in Washington. When the bill was first introduced in the house by Mr. Ashley, of Ohio, he was assured of Mr. English's support in case it was needed. But when it was found that the administration party were not united on the measure, Mr. Ashley advised Mr. English not to vote in its favor, as it was sure not to pass. With a very practical conviction of the folly of striking when there is a certainty that nothing will be hit, Mr. English acted upon this advice, but with the emphatic assurance to Mr. Ashley that whenever it was necessary he might rely upon his vote. When informed a year later that the bill would be put to vote the next day, Mr. English was in New Haven in attendance upon his sick wife. Traveling all night, he reached Washington in time to listen to a part of the exciting debate, and to hear his name called among the first of the ten war democrats who, as it was hoped, would vote for the bill, and whose votes were necessary for its passage. When his ringing 'Yes' was heard in the crowded gathering there was general applause. To a New Haven friend who was in Washington a day or two afterward he said, 'I suppose I am politically ruined, but that day was the happiest day of my life.'

"Mr. English's position at this time was a very exceptional one. The number of war democrats in congress was small, and most of them were very timid. But there was never any doubt from the first where Mr. English stood or how he would vote when the final crisis came.

"While thousands of men in our country have been examples of conspicuous success in business, in political life, and in generous benefactions, few have had the opportunity, and fewer still the sagacity and the courage, to appreciate a great political emergency, where duty calls for a sacrifice of the ties which ordinarily bind a man in public life to act in harmony with the party to which he is attached. It is sometimes a great thing to have the courage of one's convictions, and the favorable mention of his name at one time as » candidate for the presidency of the United States was an honorable recognition of the public appreciation of his vote, as having been dictated by conscience and a sense of duty."

Blessed with abundant means Mr. English gave liberally to many institutions and objects. Several years ago he gave ten thousand dollars to the Law School of Yale College to establish a library fund, and also twenty thousand dollars to the Sheffield Scientific School to found a chair in mathematics. He later contributed the sum of twenty-one thousand dollars to build the English Drive in East Rock Park, and also made numerous generous donations to the General Hospital and to various other charities. St. Paul's Episcopal church, where he regularly attended for over forty years, bears him in grateful remembrance.

On January 25, 1837, Mr. English was married to Caroline Augusta Fowler, of New Haven, and of their four children, the youngest, Henry F., survives. Mrs. English died October 23, 1874, at the age of sixty-two years, and on October 7, 1885, Mr. English was married to Miss Anna R. Morris, of New York, daughter of Lucius S. and Letitia C. Morris. Mr. English died March 2, 1890.

A Modern History of New Haven
Eastern New Haven County
Volume II
NewYork – Chicago
The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company
pgs 22 - 26
Return to New Haven County Page

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Elaine Kidd O'Leary & 
Anne Taylor-Czaplewski
May 2002