Henry William Blair

Among the many strong and self-reliant men and women who went out from the old Scotch-Irish colony of Londonderry to establish homes in other sections of the state were the Livermores, Shepherds, Coxes, and Blairs, who were the first settlers in the Pemigewasset valley, where they and their descendants have ever since exerted a controlling influence.

The Blairs located in Campton, where the father of New Hampshire's senator of that name was born and grew to manhood. He was an excellent scholar, a talented musician, an accomplished military officer, and a man of great bodily strength and agility who was a recognized leader in the town. His wife was Lois Baker, a descendant of the Bakers of Candia, a family noted in colonial and revolutionary times, and for many years one of the most respected and influential in Campton. She was a very fine singer, and was gifted with remarkable mental endowments and rare sweetness of disposition. Both Mr. and Mrs. Blair were teachers in their youth, but after their marriage located themselves upon a farm in their native town, where they lived happily until he was fatally injured by falling timbers, while engaged upon the frame of a building. He died December 8, 1836, leaving three children: a daughter, Hannah Palmer Blair, aged six years; a son, Moses Baker Blair, aged four years; and a son, Henry William Blair, aged two years. A fourth child, Lois Esther Blair, was born soon after his death. Of these, the oldest daughter died in 1843, and the oldest son, a young man of remarkable abilities, in 1857.

The death of Mr. Blair left his widow very poor, and finding it impossible to support the children in her old home she was obliged to separate them. The two eldest were "put out" to live in the families of neighboring farmers, while she kept with her the youngest son, Henry, and the infant daughter, until he was six years of age, when she arranged with Samuel Keniston, a leading citizen of Campton, to take him for one year, and, carrying the little girl with her, journeyed by stage to Lowell in quest of work in the factories there, by which she might obtain the means to support and educate her children. This venture was not a pecuniary success, as her small earnings were nearly all absorbed in necessary expenses; and in the summer of 1842 she returned to Campton, and soon after removed with the two young children to Plymouth, where for the next year she supported them by sewing.

At this time the boy Henry W., who was born December 6, 1834, was seven years of age, bright, active, and able to make himself useful on a farm; and he attracted the attention of Richard Bartlett, one of the prosperous farmers of Campton, who offered to take him and give him a home in his house, with what small educational advantages the district school afforded, in return for such services as a boy of his build and mettle could render. Thither he went in May, 1843, to begin to earn his own living, and for several years his home was with Mr. Bartlett, who treated him kindly and generously. In 1846 Mrs. Blair died, and from that time on the boy fought the battle of life aided only by such friends as he made for himself, and inspired by a purpose to show himself a worthy son of his noble parents, whose memory he has always reverently cherished. Writing of them many years after, when the people of New Hampshire had conferred upon him the highest honor in their gift, he said: "I owe very much to my parents, who, though poor, were among the best that a child ever had; and to them I have always applied Cowper's proud tribute to his own:—

'My boast is not that I deduce my birth
From loins enthroned, and rulers of the earth,
But higher far my proud pretensions rise,
The son of parents passed into the skies.'"

Until he was seventeen he worked hard upon a farm summers, and attended the district school winters, and in the autumns of 1851 and 1852 the Holmes Academy at Plymouth, of which Rev. James H. Shepard was principal. His earnings the following winter enabled him to still further gratify his longings for an education by going to the New Hampshire Conference Seminary for one term in the spring of 1853. As this exhausted his means, in the hope of obtaining more he worked for a mechanic one year, and was expecting soon to resume his studies, when his employer failed in business and he lost his wages. Before he could secure another situation he was prostrated by a severe illness, which left him broken in health, and compelled him, after a long struggle, to abandon his purpose of obtaining a collegiate training. The next three years he worked upon a farm, taught school in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, tramped through this state selling books, and did whatever honest work his health would permit, in the hope of gaining strength and money enough to complete his academical course, studying, in the meantime, two terms at Northfield and one at Plymouth, when it became evident that his strength was unequal to the task he had set himself, and he yielded to the advice of Samuel A. Burns, an eminent scholar and teacher, who took a warm interest in him, and May 1, 1856, entered the office of William Leverett, an able Plymouth lawyer, as a student. Three years afterwards he was admitted to the bar, and, associating himself with his instructor, began practice as the junior member of the firm of Leverett & Blair; and, devoting himself to his profession with the same industry, perseverance, and ability which enabled him to enter it, he soon gained an enviable reputation as a lawyer. The next year he was appointed solicitor of Grafton county, which was his first public office.

From the first, Mr. Blair was a thorough-going Republican. An instinctive hatred of slavery and all its attendant iniquities inspired him as a boy to look eagerly forward to the time when he could join in the warfare against it, and when he reached his majority he lost no occasion to declare by voice and vote his convictions upon the subject. When the slaveholders raised the standard of revolt against the government, he had just begun to reap the fruits of his early struggles and see the realization of his boyish dreams of success in his profession; but every call for men served to render him uncomfortable at home, and while the Twelfth Regiment was being recruited he put away his books and briefs and tried to join it, but failed to pass the surgeon's examination. He then enlisted as a private in the Fifteenth Regiment, and was chosen captain of Company B. Before leaving the state he was commissioned major by Gov. Berry, in which capacity he went to Louisiana. Soon after his arrival there the disability of his superior officers left him in command of the regiment, and from that time the drill and discipline which made it one of the best in the service were his work. In the assault upon Port Hudson, in May, 1863, he was severely wounded by a minie-ball, in the right arm, and was carried to the hospital to recover; but, learning a few days later that another attack on that rebel stronghold was to be made, he insisted on disregarding the commands of the surgeons by joining his command, and, with his arm in a sling, led his men, who had the right of the column, in the ill-fated charge of June 14. Here he was shot again in the same arm by a bullet, which tore open the old wound; but he refused to leave his troops, and remained with them until he could take them from the field. About this time he was promoted to be lieutenant-colonel of the regiment, and, as such, brought it home when its term of service had expired. He reached Concord little more than a bodily wreck, and for some days his life hung by a thread; but careful nursing by his devoted wife and friends restored him to sufficient strength to warrant his removal to his old home on the banks of the Pemigewasset.

A long season of suffering and disability from wounds and disease contracted in the army followed his return; but he gradually regained his health sufficiently to resume the practice of law at Plymouth, in which the court records show him to have been remarkably successful. He had a legal mind, had fitted himself for the bar with great thoroughness, prepared his cases carefully and patiently, and managed them skillfully, seldom failing to obtain a verdict. The Grafton-county bar was at that time noted for the ability and learning of its members, and he was rapidly working his way to a prominent place among them, when he turned aside to enter political life,—a step which many of the eminent men with whom he was associated in the trial of causes regard even now as a great mistake, his brilliant success in the field of politics failing, in their estimation, to compensate for what he was capable of achieving in the law. For several years he practiced alone; but in 1878 formed a partnership with Alvin Burleigh, which continued until his election to the senate.

In 1866, Mr. Blair was elected a representative to the popular branch of the state legislature, and there began the political service which has since made him so widely known. The next year he was promoted to the state senate by the voters of the eleventh district, and in 1868 was re-elected. In 1872 the third district, composed of the counties of Coos, Grafton, Sullivan, and Cheshire, elected a Democrat to congress; and in 1874 the Republicans, looking about for a candidate under whose lead they could redeem it, found him in Mr. Blair, whose reputation as a soldier, clean record as a citizen, personal popularity, and indefatigable industry and zeal dictated his enthusiastic nomination, and after an exciting campaign secured his election to the forty-fourth congress. In 1876 he was again elected, and in 1878 declined a renomination. The next summer the term of United States Senator Wadleigh expired, and Mr. Blair came forward as a candidate for the succession. He was earnestly supported by the younger men of the party, by the temperance and soldier elements; and, though his competitors were the ablest men in the state, he bore away the great prize, and immediately entered upon the discharge of his duties at Washington, to which he has since devoted himself.

Mr. Blair's election to the national senate was largely due to the record he had made in the house, and to his remarkable faculty of winning and retaining the hearty friendship of nearly all with whom he had ever been associated. From his youth up he had held radical views upon public questions; and the persistency and zeal with which he advanced and defended these under all circumstances convinced even his opponents of his entire sincerity, and bound to him his coworkers with locks of steel. Men liked him because he was cordial, frank, and earnest, and respected him because he had ability, industry, and courage; and so they rallied around him with a devotion and faith which overcame all opposition.

During the four years he represented the third district in the house, he served upon the committees on Railroads and Accounts, and several special committees. In the senate of the forty-sixth congress, upon the committees on Education and Labor, Agriculture, Transportation, Routes to the Seaboard, Election Frauds, Pensions, and Exodus of the Colored People: and in the present congress is chairman of the senate committee on Education and Labor, and a member of those on Pensions, Public Lands, Agriculture, and Woman Suffrage.

Soon after entering the house he introduced and advocated with great ability a proposition to amend the national constitution so as to prohibit the manufacture or sale of distilled spirits in the United States after 1890, a measure which gave him a national reputation, and caused him to be recognized by the temperance people of the country as their leader and champion in the national capitol. The woman suffragists have also found in him a vigorous and unwearying defender; and his speeches in support of his bill to extend government aid to the common schools of the South are among the most carefully prepared and conclusive arguments on that subject. When the financial policy of the country became a subject of discussion, and many of its strongest minds were carried from their moorings by the Greenback cyclone, Senator Blair stood sturdily for an honest currency and strict honesty in dealing with the government creditors, and by his speeches in congress and on the stump contributed in no small degree to the triumph of those principles and the incidental success of the Republican party. The veteran soldier has always found in him a friend who lost no opportunity to speak and vote for the most liberal pension laws, and who never tired in responding to individual calls for assistance at the department. His other service as a senator has been most conspicuous in his speeches against the Texas Pacific Railroad Subsidies, upon Foreign Markets and Commerce, Election Frauds in the South, the Exodus of Colored People, the Japanese Indemnity Fund, the Public Land Bill, and the Commission of Inquiry into the Liquor Traffic; his eulogies upon Henry Wilson, Zachariah Chandler, and Evarts W. Farr; and his reports on numerous subjects which have claimed the attention of his committees. He is rarely absent from his seat, and when present never declines to vote. His first term expires March 3, 1885.

From this brief sketch it will be seen that Mr. Blair owes his exceptional success in life to no extraneous or accidental aids. His parents were poor, and their untimely death deprived him of their counsel and example. His boyhood was a struggle with poverty, of which his youth was only a continuance. All he had, he earned. What he became, he made himself. As a man, he has shown great capacity for work and a disposition to do his best in every position. He is always intensely in earnest. He has indomitable perseverance and persistency, and never allows his abilities to rust in idleness. He is an outspoken and aggressive but practical reformer; a radical but sagacious Republican. Though his early advantages were few, he has been a voracious reader and a close student, and does not lack for the help which familiarity with books gives. He is an easy writer and a fluent speaker. He is generous to a fault; and his most prominent weakness is a disposition to magnify his obligations to his friends.

Senator Blair married Eliza Nelson, the daughter of a Methodist clergyman, of Groton, and has one son,—Henry Patterson Blair,—aged fourteen years.