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COLUMN: Sen. Francis Kernan earned reputation as honest politician from Utica

Lou Parrotta
Sentinel columnist
Posted 7/30/22

The impact of three politicians from Utica in the 1870s was commonly referred to as the “Utica Trio.”

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COLUMN: Sen. Francis Kernan earned reputation as honest politician from Utica


The impact of three politicians from Utica in the 1870s was commonly referred to as the “Utica Trio.” It included luminaries Horatio Seymour, who was mayor, governor and candidate for United States president in 1868, and Roscoe Conkling, who was mayor, congressman and powerful U.S. senator.

While Seymour and Conkling attained national prominence as influential leaders of their respective political parties, less is known of third member of the trio, Francis Kernan.

Kernan was the son of Irish immigrants William Kernan, who hailed from Ireland’s County Cavan, and Rosanna Stubbs, who was born in Dublin. William, known as “The General,” was militarily and civically involved. From his time as an ensign in the state militia to his appointment as a delegate to the State Constitutional Convention of 1846, William was probably where Francis learned to give of himself to serving the public.

“The General” earned his nickname after his service in the War of 1812. Though not seeing any battles, he did serve, and after the war was appointed by Gov. DeWitt Clinton to the post of Brigadier General of the First Brigade of Infantry of the State in 1825.

Rosanna was very well-off as her family was among the more prominent merchants in Dublin. Well-educated, she and her family became friends with Elizabeth Ann Seton while they were living in New York City. Seton, America’s first native-born Saint, urged Rosanna to join her in the founding of the Sisters of Charity. Obviously this persuasion did not take hold.

William and Rosanna resided in Tyrone, in the western part of the state in today’s Schuyler County. Francis was born in 1816. He attended public school in New York, but little is known about how much he learned. At 17, Francis entered Georgetown College. In those days, the college admitted two types of students – those receiving higher education and those prepping for it. All information available indicates that he was an industrious and able student.

Kernan did not finish his collegiate career. Instead, he returned home to study law. There were three ways in those days to attain a law degree: 1) studying on one’s own; 2) working in the office of a clerk of the court of record; or 3) serving in the office of a reputable lawyer as an apprentice. The third option was the most common path chosen by aspiring lawyers, and the one Kernan chose, studying under brother-in-law Edward Quin in today’s Watkins Glen for three years before relocating to Utica where he would form a working relationship with noted lawyer Joshua A. Spencer.

There is no record of Francis’ admission to the bar other than that it occurred around 1837, and Spencer offered Kernan a partnership in the law firm if he would remain in Utica. He accepted.

Kernan was united in marriage to Hannah Avery Devereux of the well-known and highly respected Devereux family on May 23, 1843. It was truly a gala affair in which nearly 1,500 guests attended. The wedding reception lasted two days, and the guests consumed a 170-pound cake, 30 gallons of ice cream and tub after tub of lemonade.

The Kernans lived up to their Roman Catholic upbringing, and followed the Bible’s passage of be fruitful and multiply as they produced 10 children – seven boys and three girls. Their first home was located on Kent Street.

Kernan’s career took off shortly after his marriage. Between 1843 and 1853, the Spencer-Kernan law firm dissolved its partnership and Francis formed a new one with his sister’s husband, George Edward Quin, who ironically possessed the same last name of the brother-in-law he originally read law under.

Kernan’s public service career began in 1854 when the governor of New York appointed him as state reporter for the Court of Appeals – the court of last resort. He was now a constitutional officer of the state and his reports have been cited hundreds of times over the years, including one in some 480 cases.

Kernan’s reputation in the legal world was growing by leaps and bounds. He earned press coverage as the lawyer for Rhoda Loomis, the matriarch of the notorious Loomis Gang that ran roughshod over the Mohawk Valley, and by defending Cornelius Vanderbilt’s New York Central Railroad in a crash lawsuit. He was asked to run for a position on the New York State Court of Appeals but declined, and in August 1878, he joined Utica lawyers Ward Hunt, Jr., William J. Bacon and Roscoe Conkling in Saratoga Springs with other lawyers around the country to form the American Bar Association. He served as president of the New York Branch in 1882.

A lifelong Democrat, Kernan was a member of the Barnburners – a branch of the Democratic Party loyal to Martin Van Buren, a lieutenant of former President Andrew Jackson. According to the Kernan biography, written wonderfully by Karen Clemens Kernan and John Devereux Kernan, “Barnburners earned respect for their philosophy of living within one’s means,” and have a desire to “rid (the government) of some financial abuses.” As he was entering party politics, Kernan held his first elected position, that of school commissioner. His career in politics was off and running.

In 1860, Kernan declined a nomination to challenge Roscoe Conkling, the incumbent, for a seat in the House of Representatives. Instead he decided to take on former Utica Mayor Gen. James McQuade in a race for the State Assembly. He defeated McQuade by a mere 200 votes. When the 1862 election rolled around, Kernan changed his position and sought the area’s seat in Congress. He defeated the incumbent Conkling, his former law student, by about 3,000 votes. Despite losing re-election two years later, he was not done in elective politics.

In 1872, Kernan was the Democratic and Liberal Party’s candidate for governor. While he lost to John A. Dix, he secured more votes than his opponent in all areas but New York City and Brooklyn.

In March 1875, Kernan was elected to the U.S. Senate. (At that time, the citizens of a state did not vote on their US Senators; the state legislatures did.) During his six-year term, he served on the famed 1877 Electoral Commission who had the unenviable task of selecting the winner of the 1876 presidential election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden, neither of whom had secured enough Electoral College votes to secure the presidency. He also was a member of the powerful judiciary committee during his tenure.

New York’s two senators at that time were from Utica, the other being Roscoe Conkling who won his seat in 1867. An interesting fact, too, is that while Kernan served in the Senate, he was reunited with five men who at one time all worked with him toiling on his father’s farm well before the Civil War. These Senators included Chafee and Teller of Colorado, Beck of Kentucky, Cameron of Wisconsin, and McPherson of New Jersey.

Other positions held by Kernan included serving as a Regent on the New York State Board of Regents; a manager of the state’s Lunatic Asylum; a director and eventual president of the Oneida County Bank; and the aforementioned school commissioner position in the Utica City School System along with Edmund A. Wetmore and J. Watson Williams. He was a parishioner of Historic Old St. John’s Church (then just known as St. John’s) and he served that congregation as a church trustee.

Kernan passed away on Sept. 7, 1892, at his home on Chancellor Square.

As one of the country’s most prominent Roman Catholic politicians who “never shrank from the defense of Catholic rights and prerogatives,” his funeral became an august requiem befitting a man whose devout faith guided him throughout his life.

The funeral was held in St. John’s Church and presided over by the first Bishop of the Syracuse Diocese, Bishop Patrick Anthony Ludden. Also on the altar to concelebrate the Mass was Bishop Bernard John McQuaid, the Rochester Diocese’s first Bishop. The prelates were joined on the altar by 22 priests from across the state and five deacons. Kernan is entombed in St. Agnes Cemetery on Mohawk Street in Utica. The marble altar at St. John’s was given in Francis’ memory by his son Nicholas.

According to one of the numerous obituaries published throughout the state remembering his long life of service, Francis Kernan’s “democracy was pure, his devotion unswerving and he always championed a cause he thought just.” Furthermore, “(h)is advice was always welcome and he was often called to participate in the councils of his party. … No taint or breath of suspicion ever rested upon (him) … in his political life. …” A truly good man indeed!


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