News and Tribune

June 11, 2013

NEW ALBANY BICENTENNIAL: Michael C. Kerr

By AMANDA BEAM
newsroom@newsandtribune.com

NEW ALBANY —

Drapery was hung and flags lowered as life in New Albany came to a standstill on a Friday afternoon in August of 1876. Michael C. Kerr, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and resident of the river town, had died only days before of tuberculosis at a spa in West Virginia, a place he had traveled to recuperate from his lengthy illness. He was only 49. 

So esteemed was he in government that the acting vice president at the time, Thomas White Ferry, accompanied Kerr’s remains on the long trip back to Indiana. Kerr had been second in line to the presidency behind Ferry, partially due to the death of the previous vice president and the unfilled vacancy. Many of his contemporaries, as well as subsequent historians, have speculated that had he lived longer, Kerr very well could have one day reached the Oval Office.

According to a newspaper report, more than 25,000 citizens of Indiana and Kentucky lined up along Main Street to see the funeral caravan. Local government, in fact, asked for shops and other businesses to be closed for the solemn showing and subsequent burial in Fairview Cemetery.

“The anvil became voiceless, offices were deserted, the whir of the engines was still, and for the time all commercial life was suspended. About the city, flags displayed at half mast,” reported an August, 1876 edition of The Daily Ledger. 

Even though New Albany embraced the speaker as a native son, Kerr hadn’t always been a Hoosier. Born on March 15, 1827, in Titusville, Pa., to parents of modest means, the young student journeyed to Kentucky to study law. In 1851, Kerr graduated from the University of Louisville School of Law and promptly moved to New Albany the following year. 

Known for his keen intellect, Kerr ran as a Democrat for city attorney and then Floyd County prosecutor, winning both. In 1856 he served in the state legislature, followed by the distinguished and lucrative position of recorder to the Indiana Supreme Court. With this added income and new prosperity, he and his wife built a Gothic Revival-Italiante style home in New Albany in 1864 now affectionately known as the Kerr House. 

Of course, Kerr’s political ascension wasn’t without conflict. In the same year he built his beautiful new house, friends had convinced the lawyer to seek the Democratic nomination for his Congressional district. But trouble was brewing. 

According to a presentation by Elizabeth “Bebe” Cody to the Floyd County Historical Society in 1992, Kerr had become privy to some information about a group of local Southern sympathizers called the Knights of the Golden Circle. In a 1919 book called “Indiana and Indianans,” author Jacob Dunn asserts that Kerr may have at one time been a member of the political arm of the group. 

It seems that upon finding out about plans for a military revolution in Indiana, including an attempt to “subdue” the governor and wage an attack against Louisville, the young statesman reconsidered his allegiance and divulged the information to Republican leader and Indiana Gov. Oliver Morton. The suspects were rounded up and no military coup ensued. After Kerr’s death, Morton honored his Hoosier colleague.

“His name will be remembered with pride and with affection in Indiana. He was one of her most highly favored and gifted sons, and it gives me satisfaction to bear testimony to his patriotism,” Morton said. “He was regarded by men of all parties in Indiana as an honest man, an able man, a patriotic man, and that his death was mourned by all his neighbors, and by all who knew him, without distinction of party.”

Kerr ended up being elected to Congress by a slim margin the same year of the would-be revolt, and served almost continuously from 1865 to 1873, the exception of which was the year 1872 when he lost an at-large congressional seat by fewer than 200 votes. 

While in Congress, Kerr gained a reputation for being an educated partisan among his peers. Those who knew him attested that despite not being the most eloquent of speakers, his rational, well-researched arguments contributed greatly to floor discussions. A Constitutionalist, avid state’s rights advocate and opponent of a “greenback” economy, Kerr remained true to his beliefs and could not be easily swayed from his deep convictions, so his colleagues said in a book published by Congress called “Memorial Addresses on the Life and Character of Michael C. Kerr.” 

Coming from Southern Indiana during the time immediately following the Civil War, Kerr did display an intense racial bias. Against black suffrage and the amendments granting such rights, the Indiana congressman made inflammatory statements against people of color, warning against “mongrel schools” and forced association. In his 1998 book “The Smart Culture: Society, Intelligence and Law,” Robert L. Hayman quoted Kerr as having said, “Is it statesmanship to introduce into the body of electors, the governing and law making classes, the most inferior, ignorant, and corruptible races on earth?”

Despite his racial intolerance, Kerr continued to advance his career in politics through hard work, honesty and trust. In 1874, his congressional allies elected him U.S. Speaker of the House. Undertaking the requirements of the new role weighed on the New Albanian. His health had begun to decline during this time, as evident by reports from his peers. Throughout the legislative session, Kerr visibly deteriorated to the point he needed to take some time to recuperate. After only serving one term as speaker, he died shortly after the session ended. 

During the memorial addresses on Capitol Hill, fellow Indiana Congressman William Holman eulogized Kerr and noted his achievements as well as his legacy. 

“Michael C. Kerr is dead. The record of a good life is complete,” Holman said. “May that record perpetuate his virtues and services he has rendered to his country as long as time shall endure.”