James F. Briggs by Henry M. Putney

John and Nancy (Franklin) Briggs were of that class of working Englishmen who had the courage to flee from hard surroundings which no strength could overcome, and seek in a new world, among strangers, a chance to improve their condition. They were factory operatives at Bury, Lancashire county, England, where their son James F. was born, October 23, 1827. When he was fourteen months old they took passage on an emigrant ship for America, and after a rough voyage of more than seven weeks landed in Boston, March 4, 1829. Going direct to Andover, Mass., the father found employment in a woolen-factory there. From that place he removed to Saugus, where he worked a short time, and from thence to Amesbury, which was the family home until 1836. In the fall of that year the father, in company with two brothers, bought a small woolen-factory at Holderness, now Ashland, N. H., and, having established his home near by, commenced business on his own account, in manufacturing woolen cloths. But few operatives were needed to run this mill, and they were mainly the three proprietors and their children, among whom was the boy James, then a lad nine years old, who had begun to earn his living in a factory before the removal from Massachusetts, the family circumstances being such that all had to contribute to its support as soon as they were able. He was continuously employed in the mill for the next five years; but during this time he had learned enough of books to make him ambitious to know more; and, as the affairs of the family were fairly prosperous, at the age of fourteen he was sent to the academy at Newbury, Vt., and afterwards to the one at Tilton. Being an expert operative, able to take the wool from the fleece and convert it into cloth, by working in the factory a part of each year he earned the money to pay his expenses at these institutions one or more terms every year until 1848, when he arranged to commence the study of law with Hon. William C. Thompson, at Plymouth; but in February of that year his father died leaving a family of eight children, six of whom were younger than James, in destitute circumstances. This affliction, which threw the care of the family largely upon the young man, compelled him to change somewhat his plans; but he did not for a moment lose sight of the object he had in view, and, as he could not enter the law office at Plymouth, he borrowed books from it and pursued his studies during such time as he could get at home, for a year, when he entered the office of Hon. Joseph Burrows, then a practicing lawyer at Holderness.

In 1849 the family removed to Fisherville, in order that the younger children might obtain employment in the factory there, and he completed his studies in the office of Judge Butler, from which he was admitted to the bar in 1851. A few months later he commenced the practice of law at Hillsborough Bridge, whither he went a perfect stranger, without money or reputation. But he had ability and energy, was willing to work, knew how to live within a small income until he could make it larger, and little by little he gained clients and friends, who gave him a lucrative practice, accepted his counsel, followed his leadership, and established his reputation as the most popular and influential man of the town. In 1856, 1857, and 1858, he was sent by a nearly unanimous vote to represent Hillsborough in the legislature, where he was at once accorded a prominent position as a member of the judiciary committee, and the third year was honored by the nomination of his party for the speakership. At this time he acted with the Democratic party, and continued to do so until the war of the rebellion, when he felt that all loyal men should unite to save the Union and maintain the national authority, and, having been nominated by the Democracy of his district for councilor upon a platform which enunciated peace-at-any-price doctrines, to which he could not assent, he declined the nomination, and from that day has been an ardent, active, and enthusiastic Republican.

While the Eleventh Regiment was being recruited, he tendered his services to the governor of the state and was appointed quartermaster on the staff of Col. Harriman. In this capacity he served through the battles of Fredericksburg, the military operations in Kentucky, and the Mississippi-river expeditions which resulted in the capture of Vicksburg and Jackson, for about a year, when he was prostrated by the malaria of the southern swamps, and compelled to resign and return to his home in Hillsborough.

During his absence in the field, and the illness which succeeded his return, his legal business had become somewhat demoralized, and on the recovery of his health he concluded to start anew in a wider field of action in Manchester, to which city he removed in 1871, forming a partnership with Hon. Henry H. Huse, which still exists. Manchester gave him a cordial welcome. Her mill operatives and other mechanics greeted him as an honored graduate of their school, who in his after triumphs had never forgotten the hard road by which he had journeyed to success; her lawyers and clients were already well acquainted with his professional abilities; her soldiers recognized him as an old companion in arms, and her politicians as an earnest Republican who could and would be a tower of strength in every campaign. Under these circumstances he did not have to wait for business or political preferment. Soon after opening his office he was appointed city solicitor, and in 1874 he was elected to the legislature from ward three. Two years later he was chosen senator from the Manchester district, and in the same year was sent to the constitutional convention.

In all these positions he won reputation and friends to such an extent that in 1877 he was nominated for congress without substantial opposition, and elected by a large majority. At the expiration of his first term he was unanimously renominated, and after an exciting campaign was re-elected by a majority of eight hundred and forty-nine over the combined Democratic and Greenback vote. Two years afterwards it became a question whether he should be returned. The traditions and prejudices of the district were strongly against a third term. Four other able and deserving men were ambitious to succeed him, and he declined to push for the nomination, but accepted a call to take the stump in Maine, leaving it for his friends to determine whether his name should be used in the convention. To one of these, who wrote him that he ought to return from Maine and attend to his canvass, he replied: "I am assured that I can be of considerable service here, and, as it is of vastly more importance that the cause shall triumph in this state next Monday than that I shall be renominated, I must remain and trust to you and others to decide whether it is best to send me back to Washington. Whatever that decision may be, I shall be satisfied." The convention met just after the disastrous defeat of the party in Maine, and when it appeared that there was only a desperate chance for its nominee to be elected. It decided that if any man could succeed he could, and a few days after he took the stump. Manchester, which was counted a doubtful city when the convention assembled, gave him more than eight hundred majority, and the rest of the district swelled this to fourteen hundred and eighty.

In congress, Mr. Briggs has been from the first a faithful, hard-working member, always in his seat, tireless in serving his constituents, especially the veteran soldiers, and conscientiously devoted to the discharge of all his duties. In the forty-fifth congress he was a member of the committee on Patents; in the forty-sixth, of the committee on Naval Affairs; and in the present, the forty-seventh, is chairman of the committee on Expenditures in the War Department, and a member of the Judiciary and Reform in the Civil Service. No member of the house commands a more perfect confidence in his associates, and few, if any, are able to accomplish so much. He succeeds at Washington as he did at home, by quiet, patient, persistent work, and is satisfied with results rather than with brilliant outbursts and noisy exhibitions of his rhetorical powers.

Mr. Briggs married Roxana Smith, the daughter of Obadiah and Eliza M. Smith, of New Hampton, and has had three children, all of whom are living. The oldest, a son, was educated at West Point, and served four years in the army, when he resigned, and is now engaged in the manufacturing business in Trenton, N. J. Two daughters reside with their parents in Manchester.

In concluding this brief sketch, written without the knowledge of its subject, the author feels that it will fail to satisfy those who have known Mr. Briggs intimately without some direct reference to the qualities which characterize him in all positions in life. Prominent among these are his perfect fidelity, industry, steady courage, and thoroughness. It is natural for him to be true, impossible for him to be false. He is ambitious, and few prize more highly the honors they win; but he is incapable of the duplicity, demagogy, and all the cheap artifices by which some men succeed. His faithfulness to his convictions does not count cost or query about consequences to himself. He is as stanch and true a friend as ever lived, and he never cheats those whom he dislikes or despises. His generosity and devotion to his family are far-reaching and untiring. He is a public-spirited citizen, a kind neighbor, and a pleasant companion. He is always approachable, patient, and considerate. In every cause in which he enlists he is a hard worker and a free giver. He knows how to wait, and how to look beyond temporary reverses to the complete triumph which he always believes will crown and establish the right. He never frets, and never rests until the result is secure. His private life is without a stain, and the fierce light of the hottest campaign has disclosed no shadow of a blot upon his public record. His sympathies are with the people, and his head and hands are controlled by his heart. These qualities have made James F. Briggs what he is. They have supplied the place of early advantages, influential friends, and fortune. They have carried him from the woolen-mill, working for a few cents a day, to the national house of representatives, commissioned to speak and act for the largest and richest district in New Hampshire. They have made him strong at the bar, popular at the polls, and influential in congress.