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John W. Kern

Updated: 2017-08-21T20:23Z
John W. Kern
United States Senator
from Indiana
In office
March 4, 1911 – March 3, 1917
Preceded byAlbert J. Beveridge
Succeeded byHarry S. New
Chairman of Democratic Caucus of the United States Senate
In office
March 4, 1913 – March 3, 1917
DeputyJ. Hamilton Lewis (Whip)
Preceded byThomas S. Martin
Succeeded byThomas S. Martin
Member of the Indiana Senate
In office
Personal details
BornJohn Worth Kern
December 20, 1849
Alto, Indiana
DiedAugust 17, 1917 (aged 67)
Asheville, North Carolina
Political partyDemocratic
Alma materUniversity of Michigan

John Worth Kern (December 20, 1849 – August 17, 1917) was a Democratic United States Senator from Indiana. While the title was not official, he is considered to be the first Senate majority leader (and in turn, the first Senate Democratic Leader), while serving concurrently as chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus. He was also the Democratic vice presidential nominee in the 1908 presidential election.

Born in Alto, Indiana, Kern practiced law in Kokomo, Indiana after graduating from the University of Michigan Law School. He won election to the Indiana Senate in before serving as the city solicitor of Indianapolis. After running unsuccessfully for the position of Governor of Indiana, Kern was selected as the vice presidential nominee at the 1908 Democratic National Convention. The Democratic ticket of William Jennings Bryan and Kern was defeated by the Republican ticket of William Howard Taft and James S. Sherman.

Kern won election to the United States Senate in 1910, becoming a progressive ally of President Woodrow Wilson. He was elected Chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus and helped pass several major pieces of legislation, including the Clayton Antitrust Act, the Revenue Act of 1913, and the Federal Reserve Act. He also introduced the Kern Resolution, which led to the investigation of conditions in coal mines, and supported passage of the Seventeenth Amendment. He was defeated for re-election in 1916, losing to Republican Harry Stewart New, and Kern died the following year.

Early life

He was born in Alto, Indiana, the eldest of eight boys.[1] Kern studied at the University of Michigan Law School, and began the practice of law in Kokomo, Indiana.

Early career

He served as Kokomo's city attorney from 1871 to 1884. Kern was elected to the Indiana Senate in 1893, serving for four years, serving at the same time as assistant U.S. Attorney for Indiana.

From 1897 to 1901 he was city solicitor of Indianapolis. He was the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Governor of Indiana in 1900 and 1904. After these defeats, he returned to his law practice, traveled to Europe, and spent six months at a sanatorium in Asheville, North Carolina, for reasons of health.

In the 1908 election, he was the Democratic candidate for Vice President, running mate to third-time Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan as a Midwestern compromise. Bryan was defeated by Taft. Kern then sought election to the United States Senate from Indiana (the legislature then being Democratic-controlled), but was outmaneuvered by fellow Democrat Benjamin F. Shively.

United States Senate

Indiana's other Senate seat came up for election in 1910, and this time the legislature elected Kern. He entered the Senate in 1911, one of ten new Democrats—most of them progressives. Joining Shively, Kern became a progressive Democrat and an opponent of monopolistic corporate power. He quickly became involved in an effort to shake up his party's conservative leadership. In 1912, he helped write the Democratic platform, which had progressive planks in favor of banking and tariff reform, and direct popular election of Senators.

In the election of 1912, Woodrow Wilson was elected president, Democrats gained a majority in the House, and eleven more progressive Democrats entered the Senate. Kern's national stature as a progressive, his skill at conciliation, and his personal popularity resulted in his unanimous election as Chairman of the Democratic Caucus and de facto majority leader. He worked closely with President Wilson and often met with him privately. He kept the peace and promoted unity that helped propel Wilson's initiatives through the Senate. These included tariff reform, the nation's first income tax (as permitted by the 16th Amendment), the Federal Reserve Act, antitrust laws, and the Federal Trade Commission.

In 1913, Kern was contacted by labor activist Mary Harris Jones ("Mother Jones"), who had been imprisoned by a military court in West Virginia during the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike of 1912. In response, Kern introduced the Kern Resolution, adopted by the Senate on May 27. The resolution led to the Senate Committee on Education and Labor investigation into conditions in West Virginia coal mines. Congress almost immediately authorized two similar investigations: into conditions in copper mining in Michigan and coal mining in Colorado.[2]

Kern had advocated direct popular election of Senators, and helped enact the 17th Amendment to establish it in 1913. However, when Kern sought re-election in 1916 under the new system, he was defeated by Republican Harry S. New, narrowly losing the popular vote (47.8% to 46.1%).[3]

Retirement and death

At Bryan's urging, Wilson considered Kern for appointment to various offices, but Kern was in poor health and unable to serve. He died on August 17, 1917, in Asheville, five months after leaving the Senate. He was originally interred at his summer home near Hollins, Virginia, and re-interred in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis twelve years later. He was survived by his wife Araminta C. Kern, who died at age 85 in 1951, and his son John W. Kern Jr., a future judge and mayor of Indianapolis.[4]


  1. ^ "Time Line of Howard County, 1844-". Kokomo-Howard County Public Library. Archived from the original on 12 November 2013. Retrieved 2 June 2014. 
  2. ^ Steel, Edward M.The court-martial of Mother Jones, page 61
  4. ^ "Mrs. John W. Kern". New York Times. March 5, 1951. p. 21. 

External links


  • Walter J. Oleszek, "John Worth Kern: Portrait of a Floor Leader," in First Among Equals: Outstanding Senate Leaders of the Twentieth Century, Richard A. Baker & Roger H. Davidson, eds., Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1991, 7–37.
Party political offices
Preceded by
Henry G. Davis
Democratic nominee for
Vice President of the United States

Succeeded by
Thomas R. Marshall
Preceded by
Thomas S. Martin
Chairman of the Democratic Caucus of the United States Senate
Succeeded by
Thomas S. Martin
U.S. Senate
Preceded by
Albert J. Beveridge
United States Senator (Class 1) from Indiana
Succeeded by
Harry S. New
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