John Daugherty White of Clay County and Louisville, advocate for woman suffrage during the Gilded Age

Randolph Hollingsworth's picture

John Daugherty White (1849-1920) was a politician from Goose Creek near Manchester in Clay County; and, he also lived in Louisville. He supported the woman suffrage movement in Congress during the Gilded Age when business and industry trusts and political party machines battled over issues such as prohibition, education, racial segregation, currency and tariffs. His wife, Alice Harris White (1856-1935) was the secretary and treasurer of the Louisville Equal Rights Association. John's sister, Laura R. White, was trained as an architect and she was also an ardent suffrage supporter, serving as an active member in the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA) for many years. The three of them attended the 1908 KERA state convention together in Richmond.

John D. White was born on January 16, 1849, to a wealthy Whig family in Clay County, Ky. He was the second (and only son) of the six children of Daugherty (1812-1875) and Sarah A. Watts White (1824-1905). Daugherty White was the son of Hugh White (who by 1840 was the wealthiest in the county, due to his large landholdings, mills, saltworks and slave labor) and brother to John White, a lawyer and U.S. Representative who served as Speaker of the House during the Twenty-Seventh Congress. John D. White, as Hugh's grandson, was born into a very large family of entrepreneurs and politicians who wielded great power in Clay County throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Whites also played a major part in Kentucky's longest feud: the Baker-Howard Feud which lasted from 1844 until a truce was called in 1901.

John D. attended a private school until 1865 when he enrolled at the co-educational Eminence College then he attended the male-only Kentucky University at Lexington until 1870. He transferred to the Michigan University and graduated from the Law School in 1872; meanwhile he was also attending classes in the medical department studying chemistry and anatomy. After he graduated he spent a year traveling the U.S., following the proposed route of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and he explored along the west coast from Seattle to San Diego.

Upon returning home in Kentucky he was admitted to the bar by the Kentucky Court of Appeals in 1875 and started practicing law. Meanwhile he successfully ran as a Republican for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives to the Forty-fourth Congress (March 4, 1875-March 3, 1877); and was the youngest member seated. He chose not to run for reelection, and instead won a seat in the Kentucky House of Representatives 1877-78 then again in 1879. He served as chairman of the Kentucky Republican State convention at Louisville in 1879, and then served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1880. He resigned from his Kentucky seat in 1880 though he was endorsed and reelected without opposition during the sitting of that legislature. He made an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1881 while two strong Kentucky Democrats remained incumbant. But then White was elected from Manchester over Democratic contenders to the House of Representatives in the Forty-seventh and Forty-eighth Congresses (March 4, 1881-March 3, 1885). During his first seating he made the motion to create a H.of R. Select Committee on Woman Suffrage, which after some debate over why it was needed, was created on February 25, 1882.

Meanwhile, his younger sister Laura R. White (1852-1929) studied at M.I.T. and the Sorbonne to become an architect, and she also served as an active member in the Kentucky Equal Rights Association. Perhaps it was through Laura or from a fellow Republican Congressman Benjamin W. Harris of East Bridgewater Massachusetts that John met his wife, Alice Mitchell Harris (Dec 5, 1856-Dec 30, 1935). Their only child, a daughter Mary K. White, was born on Dec. 11, 1885 - she eventually married W.H. Peterson of Wisconsin where she became a member of the American Association of University Women; she is listed in the AAUW's 1917 register as residing still in Madison.

Many of White's political activities in Congress during this time period included support for developing new waterways, the tobacco trade and timber industry as well as speaking against the whiskey interests. He introduced a joint resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution -  which was referred to the newly created Select Committee on Woman Suffrage (report no. 1997 and see H.R. 7127 - for the votes see the Congressional Record, 47th Cong., Vol 13 Part 5, 1st session, 9 January 1882, p. 267-8 and also 25 February 1882, p. 1448). The woman suffrage bill the Representative White introduced on July 10th was referred to the Select Committee, and it was received on March 1st back to the House with a favorable majority committee report. However, no action was taken. In December 1883 he tried again. This time he brought again the joint resolution for the woman suffrage amendment (H. Res. 25) along with a bill (H.R. 596) to "restrict the use of distilled spirts to scientific, mechanical, and medicinal purposes" and also a bill (H.R. 601) "providing for the payment of bounties and pensions to the heirs of colored troops serving in the late war." (Congressional Record, 48th Cong., Vol XVI Part 1, 2nd session, 10 December 1883, p. 78).

His family who had a longtime saltworks, timber and agricultural businesses back in Clay County benefited when he brought $75,000 in federal funding to eastern Kentucky as part of the 1882 River and Harbor Act to construct a lock and movable dam for the Kentucky River in Beattyville. Senator James Beck, a Democrat from Lexington, served on the Committee for Woman Suffrage when it was created in the Senate in January 1882.

White declined to be a candidate for renomination in 1884 and resumed his practice of law in Louisville. He ran unsuccessfully on the Prohibition Party ticket for Governor of Kentucky in 1903; and, again he was an unsuccessful candidate of the Progressive Party for a judgeship on the Kentucky Court of Appeals in 1912.

He eventually returned to Clay County where his sister Laura was running the family businesses. He died there on January 5, 1920, leaving behind his daughter (married by then) and his wife who was a widow for another fifteen years. He was buried in the White family burying ground near Manchester.

*** Resources ***

Billings, Dwight B., and Blee, Kathleen M. The Road to Poverty: The Making of Wealth and Hardship in Appalachia. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Jeydel, Alana S. Political Women: The Women's Movement, Political Institutions, the Battle for Women's Suffrage and the ERA (New York: Routledge, 2004): 58-60.

"Laura R. White: Teacher, Scholar, Architect." Laurel County History Museum and Genealogy Center. 11 February 2016. http://laurelcokyhistorymuseum.org/2016/02/11/laura-r-white-teacher-scholar-architect/.

Walker, Thomas. "White, John D." Our Campaigns. Last modified 6 September 2015. http://www.ourcampaigns.com/CandidateDetail.html?CandidateID=237448 (see also Race Details at http://www.ourcampaigns.com/RaceDetail.html?RaceID=638115 and http://www.ourcampaigns.com/RaceDetail.html?RaceID=637480).

"White, John Daugherty (1849-1920)." Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-Present. Washington D.C.: Library of Congress. http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=W000381


NOTE: This biographical sketch is to support the development of the Kentucky Woman Suffrage Project. Additional contributions from H-Kentucky subscribers are heartily encouraged.