Stevenson, John White (May 4, 1812 - Aug. 10, 1886), senator, representative in Congress, and governor of Kentucky, was born in Richmond, Va., the only child of Andrew Stevenson [q.v.] and Mary Page (White) Stevenson. His mother dying at his birth, he was taken in charge and given his earliest training by his grandmother, Judith White. His first formal schooling was provided by private tutors in Virginia and also in Washington where he spent much time with his father. He attended Hampden-Sidney College, 1828-29, before entering the University of Virginia, where he graduated in 1832. He read law with Willoughby Newton, a prominent Virginia lawyer, and on the advice of James Madison decided to grow up in the West. He began the practice of law in Vicksburg, Miss., but in 1841 he settled in Covington, Ky., where he made his home throughout the rest of his life. His success as a lawyer was soon assured. In 1845 he was elected as a representative from Kenton County to the state legislature, and he was reëlected in 1846 and 1848. The next year he represented his county in the constitutional convention which met in Frankfort and remade the state constitution. With M. C. Johnson and James Harlan, he prepared for the state a Code of Practise in Civil and Criminal Cases (1854). He was a delegate to the National Democratic Conventions of 1848, 1852, and 1856, and was elected to the Thirty-fifth and Thirty-sixth congresses, serving from 1857 to 1861. He failed of reëlection to the following Congress.
On Jan. 30, 1861, he made his principal speech, regarding the perilous situation created by the secession movement. Imbued with a strong feeling for the Union, characteristic of Kentuckians, he called upon the Republicans to recede from the extreme policies of their platform and help to preserve the common country. Decrying the passions of the hour, he blamed the Republicans for the failure of the Crittenden propositions and all other compromises, and declared that "the slave states have a right to resist the execution of a policy at war with their interests, destructive of their peace, injurious to their rights, and subversive of the ends and objects for which the Union was formed" (Congressinal Globe, 36 Cong., 2 Sess., Appendix, p. 144). Though strongly sympathizing with the Confederacy, he managed to keep out of war and free from Federal prisons, and not until 1865 did his name become prominent again. This year he attended as a delegate the Union Convention in Philadelphia called to endorse President Johnson's policy of reconstruction. In August 1867 he was elected lieutenant-governor of Kentucky and the next month succeeded to the governorship, on account of the death of Gov. John L. Helm [q.v.]. The next year he was elected to this position by a majority of more than four to one over his Republican opponent. He was a constructive and sane governor, using his influence and power to break up violent gangs of "Regulators," and aiding the development of a common-school system. He became entangled in a bitter controversy with Senator Thomas C. McCreery and Thomas L. Jones over charges and countercharges relative to a recommendation for the appointment to a federal office of Stephen G. Burkridge, a Union officer violently hated by Kentuckians. This controversy seems to have been preparatory to the contest between Stevenson and McCreery for the senatorship a few months later. Stevenson won and in February 1871 he resigned the governorship to serve a term in the United States Senate. For the next six years he tenaciously upheld a political faith from which he had never swerved--a faith which he had imbibed from Jefferson and Madison, both of whom he had known in their homes. He opposed the rivers and harbors appropriations bill of 1875 and in a speech against it declared that he clung to the "doctrines of close construction and rigid adherence to all the limitations of the Constitution upon congressional or executive power with greater tenacity now than ever, as the palladium of political safety" (Congressional Record, 44 Cong., 1 Sess., p. 4836). In the disputed election of 1876, he went to New Orleans as one of the visiting statesmen and became thoroughly convinced that the election had been fair in Louisiana.
On the expiration of his term he returned to Covington to resume the practice of law, and at the same time he accepted a position in the Cincinnati Law School to teach criminal law and contracts. In 1880 he was made chairman of the National Democratic Convention in Cincinnati, and four years later he was elected president of the American Bar Association. In 1842 Stevenson had married Sibella Winston, of Newport, Ky., and to them were born five children, three daughters and two sons. He was somewhat reserved in demeanor, was a great lover of the law, and was strongly religious. He was a member of the Episcopal Church and often attended its conventions. He died in Covington, Ky., and was buried in Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati.
[Biog. Directory of the Am. Congress, 1774-1927 (1928); The Biog. Encyc. of Ky. (1878); Lewis and R. H. Collins, Hist. of Ky. (2 vols., 1874); Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, Aug. 11, 1886; memoir in Report of the Ninth Ann. Meeting of the Am. Bar Asso. . . . 1886 (1886), pp. 528-36. The principal speeches Stevenson made in Congress were reprinted as follows: Speech of Hon. J. W. Stevenson, of Kentucky, on the State of the Union (1875); Tax and Tariff (1875); River and Harbor Appropriations (1876); The Electoral Vote (1876). The Stevenson Papers, 1849-82 (9 vols.), are in the MS. Division, Lib. of Cong., and a few Stevenson letters are to be found in the Joseph Holt Papers in the same place.]