Ashland County WIGenWeb: James Sutherland Biography


James Sutherland


Men of Progress. Wisconsin. (pages 486-520) A selected list of biographical sketches and portraits of the leaders in business, professional and official life. Together with short notes on the history and character of Wisconsin.

SUTHERLAND, James.--Among the oldest and most successful business men of Janesville, is James Sutherland, who has contributed much toward the development of his city and state. He settled in Wisconsin before its admission as a state, and ever since has been active in advancing her interests. He is pre-eminently a man of the people, and originated some of the most beneficent laws of the state. He was born in the town of Smithfield, Jefferson county, Ohio, March 20, 1820. His grandfather, John Sutherland, was a native of the Scotch Highlands, and came to this country at the age of eighteen years, and served as a soldier throughout the Revolutionary war under General Washington. He settled in Washington county, Pennsylvania, where he lived to the age of nearly 100 years. John Sutherland, father of our subject, served as a soldier in the war of 1812. In 1814 he married his betrothed, Elizabeth Smith, whom he had left to serve his country. She was a native of York county, Pennsylvania, of Scotch-Irish descent. Soon after their marriage they settled in Jefferson county, Ohio, and reared a family of six sons and four daughters, James being the fourth in order of birth. He passed his boyhood on his father's farm and acquired a good education at Ashland Academy and Norwalk Seminary, Ohio. He was ambitious to complete a college course, but his health failing he was compelled to change his plans. While a student he taught several winter terms in order to get money to pay his school expenses in the summer, his last teaching being in the Ashland Academy. For the benefit of his impaired health he spent a portion of the years 1845-6 in the southern states, and in the spring of 1847 removed from Ohio to Wisconsin, and settled in Rock county. In the fall of that year he settled at Janesville, and the next spring opened a book and stationery store, beginning in a small way, a business which has continued ever since and is now one of the most extensive in its line in Wisconsin. It may be said to his credit that during his business career of forty-five years he has never had a law suit or a controversy on money matters. He has reposed great confidence in his fellow men, and it has rarely been betrayed. He acts upon the principle that it is both better and cheaper to suffer an occasional loss than to lose confidence in mankind. While he has resigned to his sons much of the details of his large business interests, he still retains general supervision. He has always been a careful reader, and has given much study and thought to public questions, and foremost among those who have sought to use their means and influence for the uplifting of humanity and the advancement of the state and nation. For the material welfare of his town and county, he has aided in securing railroads and manufacturing industries. He has also shown a deep interest in the moral welfare of the people, and was made treasurer of the Rock County Bible society on its organization in 1848, and has filled that office most of the time since; having also served the society as secretary and director, and being now, 1897, its president. As a layman he has long been a bible teacher, and has often addressed public meetings to promote bible knowledge and advance the cause of Christianity. He is a life member of the American Bible society, and vice-president of the Wisconsin State Historical society, which he has generously supported, and also a member of the American Historical association, having been elected to membership on its organization without his knowledge.

Mr. Sutherland had the honor of delivering before the State Historical society of Wisconsin an address on the antiquities and early explorations of the territory now known as Wisconsin, the substance of which appears in the tenth volume of the reports of the society. On the admission of the state into the Union, in 1848, he was elected the first superintendent of schools in the town of Janesville, and was also the first superintendent of schools for the incorporated city, and organized its union school system. When a board of education was formed to control the schools, he was elected a member of that body for several years. He was twice elected mayor of the city by large majorities, in 1872 and again in 1873. He served two terms, of two years each, in the state senate, and took an active part in its proceedings. For three years he was chairman of the committee on education, school and university lands.

To Mr. Sutherland, more than any other, belongs the credit of establishing the present beneficent state normal school system of Wisconsin, he having introduced the first bill to create a fund for this purpose; it was a substitute bill prepared by him, which became a law at the following session. He championed this measure in the senate and it passed that body with only one dissenting vote; after some modification it passed the assembly, the senate concurring with the amendments there made. By the provisions of the act an ample fund has been provided for the endowment of these schools, without any direct cost to the people, from a portion of the sales of the swamps and overflowed lands which had been donated to the state by act of congress of 1850. From this fund seven normal schools are maintained, affording a permanent means of educating teachers for the public schools.

It was during Mr. Sutherland's service in the senate that the scandalous extra session was held which turned over a vast amount of state property to the railroads in the form of a land grant. He opposed the measure which made a disposition of the grant, it being apparent to him that corrupt means were being used to secure it, and spurned every offer of advantage or consideration for his vote. He took an active part in exposing this fraud at a subsequent session of the legislature, being chairman of the committee of investigation in the senate.

During his residence in the south, Mr. Sutherland had an opportunity to observe the practical workings of the slave system and became its uncompromising opponent; hence we find him a delegate from the state of Wisconsin to the national Free Soil convention held in Pittsburg in 1852, which put John P. Hale in nomination for president of the United States. He was present at the organization of the Republican party for this state, at Madison in 1854, and from its organization he has been prominent in its councils. In nearly every political contest since that time, either at the call of the central committee or by invitation of the people, he has addressed public meetings in the city of Janesville and throughout the county, and is still supporting and promulgating the principles of his party. While he has never been a third-party prohibitionist, he has always been a friend and advocate of the cause of temperance, believing that, while moral means must be used mainly, in maintaining good order, yet, it is the duty of the state to enact the best temperance measures which the people will enforce. He was among the first to espouse the cause of the Republican anti-saloon movement, and was a member of the first national conference called to consider this measure, which met in September, 1886, at Chicago, and served as one of the committee on resolutions. He believes that the life and success of the political party to which he belongs depend upon an advanced position on this important question, as upon other living issues.

By invitation of the editor, Mr. Sutherland was for some years a contributor to the New York Mail and Express, and his articles published in that and other papers were characteristic in their sound logic and earnestness and in their practical suggestions of reform. In November, 1886, F. H. Revell of New York an Chicago, published a neat volume prepared by Mr. Sutherland, entitled "Talks of Living Subjects," in which he not only presents his views of the best methods of promoting the cause of temperance, but also points out the harmony existing between the sciences and the Mosaic account of the creation, and also shows the bible to have been the great civilizing and Christianizing influence in the world. This work has been heartily commended by the press and the public generally, and should be in the hands of both young and old, as the questions there discussed greatly concern our country as well as ourselves.

Some seven years ago, Mr. Sutherland made a tour to the Yellowstone National park and wrote several newspaper articles in relation to that most wonderful place. One of these was devoted to its fauna, flora and the cause of the geysers. For this article President Langley of the Smithsonian Institute, has made him due acknowledgments. His reading, of late years, has been confined mainly to history, the earth and the heavens.

In December, 1846, he married Miss Elizabeth Withington. She is a native of Akron, Ohio, and a daughter of Danieland Temperance (Gray) Withington, of early English ancestry. Of seven children born to them, Le Verrier, the fourth in order of birth, died in California, December 30, 1892; Charles Linnaeus, the sixth, is a physician in Rockton, Illinois; the others, James A., Orion, Arcturus, Araby and Lily Imogen, reside in Janesville. The two eldest are associated with their father in business.

Mr. Sutherland became a Christian in early life, and is a member of the First Congregational church of Janesville. He believes that, while there are other systems of religion in the world which inculcate much that is moral and good, the bible alone contains a full and complete revelation to mankind, and that the plan of salvation there unfolded is that which is to compass and save the world. While, at the age of seventy-seen years, bodily infirmities are beginning to encroach upon him, and the things of this life, with all their beauties and charms, begin to fade, his faith and hope reach forward to a higher life where brighter scenes, new joys and more extended field of knowledge will open to view, and where there shall be perpetual growth both in knowledge and goodness.--the Columbian Biographical Dictionary.


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