John Edward Kenna
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John Edward Kenna

At the opening of the extra session of the Forty-fifth Congress, October 10, 1877, a broad shouldered young man, six feet tall and well proportioned, with a good-humored but resolute countenance and a wide-awake, determined expression on his face, took a seat on the Democratic side of the House of Representatives.

He had an easy, off-hand way about him that captured the attention of the reporters at first sight, and his youthful appearance, in comparison with the grave and reverend seniors who sat around him, at once had the effect of making him an object of interest to the galleries and floors as "Representative Kenna, of West Virginia, the youngest member of the House."

There was a considerable eruption of young men in public life about that time, the adage of old men for counsel and young men for action, having apparently taken hold vigorously on the body politic.

John E. Kenna was born in Kanawha county, Virginia, April 10, 1848. His father, Edward Kenna, came from Ireland to American when fourteen years of age, and was employed at Natchez, Mississippi, by an extensive firm, of which the venerable Felix La Coste, now of St. Louis county, Missouri, was the chief member, when the great tornado of 1840 swept over the town, almost entirely destroying it, killing several hundred residents and leaving many of its inhabitants to escape barely with their lives. Among the latter was Edward Kenna, who wrote a description of the great hurricane, which has been preserved and republished on several recurring anniversaries of the dread event.

From Natchez, Edward Kenna made his way to Cincinnati, where he took such employment as he could command. He was thus engaged when some providential circumstance brought him in contact with Charles Fox, a respectable lawyer, who kindly tendered him the use of his library and advised him to study law. This advice was readily accepted, and Mr. Kenna began the study of law with Mr. Fox, finding among his associates in his early career at the Cincinnati Bar, George Hoadly, Wm. S. Groesbeck, George H. Pendleton, and others who have since risen to National distinction.

In 1847 Mr. Kenna married Margery, the only daughter of John Lewis, of Kanawha county, Virginia, a grandson of General Andrew Lewis, and soon afterward settled in that county. Here for eight years he successfully practiced his profession, devoting a large part of his time also to enterprises connected with the development of the Kanawha and Coal river valleys. In 1855 he earned a State reputation by a speech in the Staunton Convention, seconding the nomination of Henry A. Wise for Governor. He was absolutely a self-made man and is remembered as being of indomitable will, extraordinary energy, brilliant mind and public spirit. He was one of the largest and finest specimens of physican manhood the writer ever saw.

This much is here said of him, because it is known that his own struggles, single-handed and alone in life, had inspired him with the hope that he would live to see an only son armed and equipped by his aid and encouragement for a successful career. Among his intimate friends he often gave expression to this deep desire. Little did he then realize that his boy had the same difficulties before him which he himself had confronted, and would conquer them as well. In 1856, in the prime and vigor of a splendid manhood, at the age of only thirty-nine years, with so much of life and promise before him, he met an untimely death. He left two little girls, aged respectively four and six years, and John Edward Kenna, the subject of this sketch, an orphan boy at eight years of age.

In 1858, Mrs. Kenna, with her three children, removed to Missouri where her brother resided, and where she remained until the breaking out of war. She had a governess for awhile, under whose tutelage her children were trained in the branches of an English education; but the failure of her husband's estate, which largely consisted of unmarketable lands, in the absence of judicious management, to realize funds, took away this advantage and her son began active employment. He continued his labor to the opening of a new farm, and often Senator Kenna now refers with pride to the fact, that he can look upon one of the finest plantations in Missouri, and remember that he redeemed it from its natural state with a prairie plow and four yoke of oxen, when he was but eleven years of age. While so engaged he became an expert teamster and did much of the heavy hauling and opening up of new habitations on the then Western prairie.

The fact that he was an only son led his mother, during her widowhood, to rely greatly upon him, notwithstanding his youth; and this dependence had a tendency to give self-reliance and fit him, more rapidly than is usual, for the sterner duties of life. A gentleman who was acquainted with him in those days tells me that he was a brave, manly boy, and shirked no responsibility in any form. Indeed, this may be said of his entire career.

In early life Mr. Kenna exhibited a special liking for field sports - especially hunting. Game was plentiful in Missouri when he resided there, and nearly always, when the weather was unfit for farm work, he was most sure to be in the field with his dog and gun. In this way he acquired skill in handling the rifle, which has given him a State reputation in West Virginia as an expert marksman, and has afforded him rare opportunites for sport in the mountains adjacent to the Great Kanawha Valley, where he has for many years resided. Every fall he spends several weeks in the hill country in search of game, and it is well known that he is not excelled in such sports by the old resident hunters in the district that he so often frequents.

At sixteen years of age Mr. Kenna enlisted in the Confederate army, and followed its fortunes to the end of the war. In an engagement in which he was on detached service from Gen. Shelby's brigade, he was badly wounded in the shoulder and arm, but declined to be retired on account of his wounds, and therefore remained with his comrades in active service in the field. The retreat of General Price from Missouri, in 1864, has gone into history. It was a series of skirmishes and battles with both the main army and its detachments from the Missouri river to the Kansas line. In all this constant and pressing march, though but sixteen years of age, and suffering from his wounds, he never failed of a task that any other soldier performed, and never lost a day from active service. From Missouri the command to which he belonged retreated into Arkansas, endured hardships that are indescribable. The severe exposures of the hurried march caused a serious illness which drove him to the hospital at Washington, Arkansas, where he lay in a dangerous condition for six weeks. Careful nursing, however, brought him through. He rejoined his command, and in June, 1865, was surrendered to the Federal forces at Shreveport, Louisiana; and in August of that year he returned to his native Kanawha, where his mother, stepfather and sisters then resided, and where he has since remained.

He secured employment at the salt-making firm of Thayer & Chappell, soon after his return to West Virginia, and remained with them until February, 1866. Realizing the incompleteness of his education, and possessing a strong desire to rise in the world, through the assistance of kind friends, notably the Rt. Rev. Bishop R.V. Whelan, Mr. Kenna entered St. Vincent's Academy, at Wheeling, and there earnestly took up a course of study, running through two and a half years, that gave him such an insight into books as to enable him to successfully pursue his studies alone at home. Many young men of Wheeling were his schoolmates at St. Vincent's, who have watched with interest his successful career.

After leaving school in 1868, Mr. Kenna studied law at Charleston, in the office of Miller & Quarrier, and was admitted to the Bar, June 20, 1870. In the practice of law he seemed to have discovered his calling. From the beginning he rose rapidly in the profession. In 1872, he was nominated by the Democratic party and elected to the office of Prosecuting Attorney of Kanawha county. In that capacity he rendered acceptable and efficient service. In 1874, he came within a few votes of being nominated to Congress. His practice extended into all the counties surrounding Kanawha; and in 1875, in the absence of the Circuit Judge, Mr. Kenna was elected by the members of the Bar to fill the position of Judge of the Circuit, pro tempore. This was a marked compliment to the ability of one of his years, and was made the more so by the acceptable manner in which he discharged the important obligations of the Bench.

In 1876, Mr. Kenna was nominated by the Democrats as their candidate for Congress by the Third District of West Virginia. His competitors were Hon. Frank Hereford, who had represented the district for three successive terms, and Hon. Henry S. Walker, a man of great brilliancy as a writer and public speaker. The only objection urged against Mr. Kenna was his lack of age and experience in public affairs. He had courage, and, though young in years, he had learned much of the world from associations with men. A number of leading members of his party in his native county issued a circular letter in favor of the re-nomination of Major Hereford. While this did not daunt Mr. Kenna, it greatly wounded his pride. He announced a series of public meetings and addressed the people in behalf of his own candidacy. At one of these meetings in Charleston, at which a number of the signers of the circular letter were present, Mr. Kenner, in the course of his speech, said: "I have no word of unkindness for these distinguished men {referring to the signers of the circular}. But you will pardon me when I say that if I could exchange places with any one of them; if I could stand, a matured, successful, established man, in all that the terms imply, and look upon a boy left in orphanage at eight years; if I could watch the pathway of his childhood, with the obstructions confronting it, and witness his struggles, his hardships, his labors and his prayers; if I could see him marching on through adversity until kinder stars seemed to shine upon him, and he was about to attain through trial and vicissitude a position of honor to himself and of usefulness to his fellow men - before I would sign a paper whose only effect would be to break down and ruin that young man, I would be carried to one of your lonely hillsides and there laid to rest forever." The effect of this speech was seen and felt. A primary election was ordered in Kanawha county, and Mr. Kenna carried the county, on a full Democratic vote, against both of his competitors. This led to his triumphant nomination August 10, 1876. He was elected by a splended majority, and accordingly took his seat as stated in the beginning paragraph of this brief biography.

In Congress, Mr. Kenna rapidly developed peculiar faculties for legislative duties. He was appointed to a conspicuous place on the Committee of Commerce, in which position he served four years, suceeding in a most satisfactory manner in securing appropriations for the improvement and development of the commercial arteries of his District and State, and rendering valuable service to the country at large. December 5th, he delivered his maiden speech in the House of Representatives; and the 29th of January, following, he presented to the House from his Committee, the first bill under his charge. His management of this measure attracted general attention and resulted in its passage. He, therefore, developed at the very threshold of legislative life an aptness for it, and a coolness of judgment meriting the testimonials he received from other members, and from many of his constituents. He never spoke except when he had something to say. His splended physique - standing full six feet - his smooth diction and clear enunciation, and his self-poise, never failed to attract attention and command respect. He was re-elected in 1878, '80 and '82 - four times in all. His growth, during the six full terms he served in the House of Representatives, was continuous and steady. But few who served contemporaneously with him developed as rapidly. He always represented the progressive, liberal and vigorous elements of his party, and consequently holds the respect of those agressive, working members of his own party and the esteem of his political opponents in legislative councils.

Mr. Kenna is a natural leader of men. He possesses wonderful power over his associates, especially in political campaigns. Because of this fact, he was made Chairman of the Democratic National Congressional Executive Committee in 1886, and was re-elected to the same important position in 1888.

The legislative session of West Virginia in 1883, was the theater of a great conflict in the choosing of a Senator to succeed the Hon. H.G. Davis, who declined a re-election. Mr. Kenna, who had but a few months before been elected a fourth time to the House of Representatives, announced his desire to become a Senator to Congress. The contest was a vigorous one, and although several able members of his party were competing with him for this exalted prize in politics, Congressman Kenna, with apparent ease, carried off the caucus nomination, and was thereupon duly elected by the Legislature to that honorable position.

He promptly resigned his seat in the House, and, March 4, of that year, took his seat in the highest legislative chamber of the land. His long experience in the lower House qualified him for great efficiency in the Senate, and from the very beginning he took a leading rank among the able members of that distinguished tribunal. Ready and foreful in debate, he found no trouble in sustaining himself upon any question he undertook to discuss.

He was re-elected to the Senate in 1889. There was but one of a Democratic majority in the Legislature on joint ballot, and one member, the Hon. C.P. Dorr, announced at the opening of the session that he would not support Senator Kenna for re-election. This made the contest interesting, especially to Senator Kenna's political opponents; but the well known qualities of leadership which were known to be possessed by the Senator served him well in that historic campaign, and after a month's balloting, his friends remaining true to the last, Delegate Dorr came to his resuce, and his election was accordingly secured. It was a great triumph, and could only have been won by one who possessed the ability to hold to him, with hooks of steel, his party leaders.

Senator Kenna is six feet tall; weighs one hundred and eighty-five pounds; is light complected; naturally social and genial; has a large following of personal friends; is industrious and energetic. In politics his success is almost phenomenal. He has been twice married. His first wife was Miss Rose A. Quigg, of Wheeling, whom he married September 27, 1870, and his second was Miss Anna Benninghaus, also of Wheeling, whom he married November 21, 1876.

Taken from Prominent Men of West Virginia, Geo. W Atkinson and Alvaro F Gibbens, W.L. Callin Publishing, Wheeling, WV, 1890.

© 1996 Becky Falin
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