Released 21 June 2003
Biographies of Addison County, Vermont
STEWART, JOHN WOLCOTT, of Middlebury, ex-governor of Vermont, and member of Congress from the First Congressional District of Vermont. Born in Middlebury, Vt., November 24, 1825.
The first ancestor of Governor Stewart’s family on the paternal side whose record has been preserved, was Robert Stuart, of Edinburgh, Scotland. Samuel, son of Robert Stuart, emigrated first to Londonderry, Ireland, and secondly from thence with the historical Scotch-Irish colony which crossed the Atlantic and settled in Londonderry, N. H., in the early part of the eighteenth century. Samuel Stuart was the father of five sons and five daughters, of whom John was the eldest. Leaving Londonderry, he finally fixed his residence at Coleraine, Mass., and died there. The orthography of patronymics was exceedingly uncertain in that era, as town and family records amply attest. For some unexplained reason the spelling of the family name was altered about the death of Samuel Stuart from Stuart to “Stewart,” in which form it has been preserved to the present day.
John Stewart, familiarly known as Captain John, was born in Londonderry, N. H., in 1745. He was a man of marked characteristics, full of martial energy, and took an active part in the French and Revolutionary wars. At the early age of fifteen he first killed an Indian in a notable fight in the forest. Subsequently he became a member of the famous band of courageous frontiersmen, know as Rogers’ Rangers. He accompanied the ill-fated expedition of General Montgomery against Quebec, and was in the immediate neighborhood of that gallant officer at the time of his death. After that he happened to be in Bennington paying his addresses to the lady who afterwards became his wife, at the epoch of the battle in that place, and led a company of patriot soldiers in that decisive conflict. In 1777 he married Huldah Hubbell, by whom he became the father of five children.
Ira Stewart, the second son of Captain John, was born July 15, 1779. He settled first in New Haven, Vt., and in 1810 removed to Middlebury, Vt., of which in following years he was one of the leading citizens. He entered immediately into the general mercantile business in association with his brother Noble. The latter died in 1814, and Ira conducted the business thence forward on individual account until his death in 1855. He served his fellow-citizens in both branches of the Legislature; was a member of Middlebury College corporation, and was actively interested in everything pertaining to the welfare of the village. On the 29th of October, 1814, he was married to Elizabeth, daughter of Wolcott Hubbell, of Lanesborough, Mass. Three children were born to them; one of these, a daughter, died in infancy; the others, who were sons, named Dugald and John Wolcott, survived. John W., son of Ira and Elizabeth (Stewart) Stewart, prepared for matriculation in the Middlebury Academy, entered Middlebury College, and graduated with honor from that institution in 1846. Adopting the legal profession, he began to qualify himself for practice by reading law in the office of Hon. Horatio Seymour in Vermont, and remained therein until January, 1850, when he was admitted to the bar of Addison County. Commencing practice at Middlebury he conducted it alone until 1854, when he formed a co-partnership with ex-United States Senator Phelps, and maintained the connection until the death of the latter, in 1855. His association with Senator Phelps proved to be very valuable in many respects.
Early in his professional career Mr. Stewart identified himself with the political affairs of his native State. Honors have been showered upon him thick and fast by his fellow-citizens, who in this way practically acknowledged his many sterling intellectual and moral qualifications, and particularly his patriotic public spirit. In the years 1852, ’53, and ’54 he held the office of State’s attorney for Addison county. In 1856 he was elected to the Lower House of the Vermont Legislature as the representative of Middlebury, and served therein as chairman of the committee on railroads. The matters affecting the consolidation of Vermont Central Railroad interests came before his committee, and attracted much and close public attention in view of the importance of the questions involved. His services proved to be so acceptable to his constituents that he was again elected in the following year, and was also appointed to his former position on the railroad committee. During the year 1855 the State house at Montpelier was destroyed by fire and a strong movement was set on foot to make Burlington the capital of the State. This movement Mr. Stewart resisted. Although one of the members from the “west side” of Vermont, he was influentially active in the legislative debates on the question of removal, and favored the retention of Montpelier as the capital. His logic was weighty and powerful and largely instrumental in carrying the point in favor of the old location.
In 1861 Mr. Stewart was returned to the State Senate from Addison county, and served on the judiciary committee, of which United States Senator Edmunds was chairman. Elected to the Senate of 1862, Mr. Stewart again served on the judiciary committee, and as chairman of the committee on rules. In 1865 he was returned to the Lower House from Middlebury, and served in the committees on joint rules and judiciary. In 1865, ’66, and ’67 he was a member of the House, and at each session was elected presiding officer of the body. As incumbent of the speaker’s chair his rulings were received with great favor. The reputation for ability, faithfulness and impartiality then established, was such that on his election to the House, in 1876 , he received the singular compliment of unanimous election to the old post — the speakership.
One of the changes in the organic law of the State effected by the Constitutional Convention of 1870 was that by which the sessions of the Legislature were made biennial, instead of annual, as before. Mr. Stewart was the first governor of Vermont elected under the new order of things, and filled the chief magistracy with great honor and acceptability from 1870 to 1872. His inaugural address was brief, business-like and statesmanly. Delivered nine years before the resumption of specie payments, it contained the following just and sagacious recommendation: “It is held by a recent decision of the Supreme Court of the United States that the provisions of the legal tender act are not retroactive, and that debts contracted prior to its passage are payable in coin . . . . . . . I respectfully recommend to prompt recognition of the supreme judicial authority of the country, by an enactment authorizing our treasurer to pay in coin that portion of our debt falling within the decision referred to.”
This decision was promptly acted upon by Vermont, to her great honor. Governor Stewart’s recommendations in respect to public education, and also in reference to the jails of the State, exhibited keen foresight, and were adopted by the Legislature. Indeed, his whole career as governor was one of honor to himself and credit to the State.
Governor Stewart has not devoted his whole time to his profession. He was chosen a director of the Middlebury Bank in 1858, and for several years prior to 1881 served as president with great acceptance, and gave much evidence of his entire fitness for the position. In 1881 his other numerous engagements forced him to decline further reelection.
The re-distribution of seats in Congress, according to the population of each State, following the census of 1880, occasioned a loss to Vermont of one member. Governor Stewart was elected by the Republicans of the new First Congressional District to the Forty-eighth Congress, receiving 15,638 votes, against 6,009 for his opponent. His lengthened legislative service in both branches of the Vermont Legislature, his excellent gubernatorial administration, and his intimate knowledge of the needs of the State, justify the expectation that in his present wider sphere of personal influence and usefulness Governor Stewart will beneficently and ably represent the dignity and interest of his constituency and the State at large.
It has been written of Governor Stewart that “he is a typical Vermonter of the best quality. Like most noble and excellent men, he is most highly appreciated where he is best known. Middlebury certainly knows of no official honor that she would not bestow, nor of any official duty that she would not entrust, to her ‘favorite son.’ His position in the foremost rank of citizens and professional men is unchallenged. The State is honored by the nurture and services of such sons as he.”
John Wolcott Stewart was married on the 21st of November, 1860, to Emma, daughter of Philip Battell, of Middlebury; she was born September 5, 1837. They have had five children, as follows: Emma Battell, born March 20, 1863, now living at home with her parents; Philip Battell Stewart, now in his senior year at Yale College; Robert Forsyth and Anna Jessica, born September 17, 1871 — the former died in January, 1881; John Wolcott, born December 5, 1872 — died in infancy.