The History of Genesee County, MI
Chapter I
Governor Henry H. Crapo

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Clayton



Governor Crape was born at Dartmouth, near New Bedford, Massachusetts, May 24, 1804. His father was of French descent and cultivated a farm for a livelihood. The land was not very productive and the life of a farmer at that time and place meant incessant toil and many privations. The lad was early inured to these. The opportunities for education were scant. But with an active mind, energy and a determination to learn, he took advantage of the near-by town of new Bedford to pick up some knowledge of books. There being an opening for a land surveyor, he quickly made himself familiar with its duties, and requirements, and with his own hands, through the kind of a neighboring blacksmith, made a compass and began life off the farm as a surveyor. In 1832 he took up residence in new Bedford and followed his occupation as a surveyor and occasionally acted as auctioneer. He was elected town clerk, treasurer and collector of taxes, in which positions he served for about fifteen years. When New Bedford was incorporated as a city he was elected an alderman. He was appointed chairman of the committee on education and as such prepared a report upon which was based the establishment of the free public library of that city, the first of its kind in this country, ante-dating that of Boston by several years. he was a member of the first board of trustees. While a resident of New Bedford he became greatly interested in horticulture. He acquired a quite unpromising piece of land, which he subdued and improved. Upon this he planted and successfully raised a great variety of fruits, flowers and shrubbery and ornamental trees. He soon became widely known for his efforts in horticulture, was a noted exhibitor at fairs and a valued contributor to publications on that subject. The chief business of New Bedford at that period was whaling vessels and the fitting out of vessels with supplies, and the receipt and marketing of the return cargoes was the leading industry. It was very profitable. Mr. Crapo became interested in this enterprise and was part owner of a vessel which bore his name and which made successful voyages. He was also interested in fire insurance and was made an officer in two companies.

Having invested in pine lands in Michigan, he removed to the state in 1856 and settled at Flint. Here he engaged extensively in the manufacture and sale of pine lumber. Branch establishments were set up by him at Holly, Fentonville, and Detroit. Engaging in this business with his characteristic energy and shrewdness, it was not long before he was recognized as one of the most successful lumbermen in a state noted for successful lumbermen. He was mainly instrumental in the construction of a railroad from Flint to Holly, where it connected with the Detroit & Milwaukee. This road was afterward expanded to the Flint & Pere Marquette and stretched across the state to the lake Michigan shore. From this small nucleus has grown what is now an elaborate railroad system which gridirons the state in every direction. He was active in public affairs in his home city, of which he was elected mayor, after a residence of only a few years. In 1862 he was elected a state senator and proved himself to be a very practical and useful member. In 1866 he was elected to a second term as governor. This term expired on the 1st of January, 1869. His death followed about six months later from a disease which attacked him before the close of his official life and which seriously hampered him for many months previous.

The inaugural message of Governor Crapo to the Legislature of 1865 is characterized by his hard-headed good sense. He advocated the prompt payment of the state debt and the adoption of the permanent policy, "Pay as you go." This policy led to a close scrutiny of all appropriations and prevented the incurring of any indebtedness for schemes and enterprises of doubtful expediency. He urgently advocated measures to induce immigration to the state. After calling attention to the vast and varied resources of Michigan and its population so meager in proportion to its capabilities for sustaining many times more, he says, "We want settlers, Five-sixths of our entire territory remains still a wilderness. The vast tracts of woodland, however rich and fertile they may be, are of no use to us until cleared and improved; and nothing but labor can do it. Out rich mines of copper, iron, coal, gypsum, our springs of salt, our fisheries, and out forests of valuable timber, are all calling for men; we want settlers." The Legislature heeded his advice and a bill was introduced and favorably reported in the Senate, creating an immigration commission, providing for the appointment of an agent and for the systematic circulation of literature, to be distributed in Europe, inviting the attention of intending emigrants to the advantages of Michigan. This bill was not acted on at that session, but a few years later the subject was taken up persistently. It appears that other Western states notably Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota were already in the field and had agents in New York and in Europe in this own interests. It is said that these agent, not content with picturing in flowing colors the advantages of the state which they represented, sometimes went out of their way to disparage Michigan. It was charged that immigrants who were under contract and who expenses to this country had been paid by Michigan manufacturers, were tampered with on their arrival in New York by agents of rival states, and induced by representations of doubtful veracity to violate their contracts. It was this sharp practice at which one feature of the proposed legislation was aimed. Probably it was wise to avoid friction with out neighbors and in this view the bill was allowed to die. The governor called special attention to the natural resources and the situation of the state with reference to manufactures. With so many and so varied advantages, he argued that the state should be no longer dependent on Eastern manufacturers, but should make its own supply of needful articles and also meet the demands of the western market. To this end he encouraged all measures having a tendency to invite capital and labor in any and all branches of manufacture.

Another important subject of the time was the disposition of swamp lands. The general government had given to the state six million acres of what were described as swamp lands. Not that all, nor really any considerable portion, of such lands were actually in swamps. In some localities they were overflowed at certain seasons; in others, beaver dams had given them the appearance of swamps, and in almost all cases they would be drained and subdued at small cost. And possessed a very rich alluvial soil. The question was not to dispose of these lands for the best interests of the state. In 1859 the Legislature adopted the policy of appropriating such lands for the building of roads. The purpose of the general government in donating the lands to the state, as set forth in the act of congress making the cession, was to provide for this reclamation by means of levees, drains, etc. Nominally a road might be considered a levee and practically, in many instances, the building of a road was as good a way as any of reclaiming the lands and opening them up to settlement. The policy had been pursued with satisfactory results on the start, but gradually degenerated into the grabbing of valuable tracts by contractors for the building of roads which began nowhere and ended nowhere, and for roads begun but never finished, and by combinations of greedy persons who were robbing the state. The governor called an emphatic halt to the practice and urged the Legislature to take steps to rescue the remaining acres. The legislature responded by passing an act for the appointment of a swamp land commissioner to examine all roads, inquire into the facts and circumstances of the letting of contracts, and requiring of all unfinished contracts before payment should be made.

There was considerable popular prejudice against the agricultural college. Even the farmers themselves, who had decided views on the question of economy when taxpaying time came around, felt that it was an expensive luxury which had very little to show as justification for its existence. In 1862 the general government made an appropriation of two hundred and forty thousand acres of public lands for the maintenance and support of such an institution, which grant had been accepted by the state. Governor Crapo, in his message, says regarding the college: "I am aware that in consequence of the very unfavorable circumstances surrounding this institution during the first dew years of its existence, and which to a very great extent controlled its operations, many of the people of the state, who should have been deeply interested in its prosperity and success, imbibed strong prejudices against it, and were even disposed to abandon it altogether." But the governor counsels suspension of judgment and giving the institution an opportunity to do justice to itself and its friends. Of all classes, the farmer is most deeply interest, and the farmer should regard it with pride. While its demands have seemed to be large, the fact should be borne in mind that it is laying the foundations and that, large as the expenditures seem, they are really small in comparison with the magnitude of the interests involved. "Agriculture is no longer what it was once regarded by a majority of other professions, and partially admitted by the farmers themselves to be--a low, menial employment, a mere drudgery, delving in the soil--but is becoming recognized as a noble science. Formerly any man who had merely sufficient sense to do just as his father did before him and to follow his example and imitate his practice, was regarded as fully competent to become a farmer. The idea of applying science to the business was sneered at and denounced by many of the farmers themselves as 'book farming.' But the cultivation of the soil has now justly come to be regarded as one of the most noble and dignified callings in which an educated man can engage." The Legislature heeded his advice and made a liberal appropriation to set the college on its feet. this was the critical time in the infancy of the institution, when it might have been easily smothered. The earnest words o the governor, backed by his influence, encouraged the friends of the college and today the people of the state will rejoice that the strong support of Governor Crapo resulted in saving it for a noble and beneficent career.

Governor Crapo exercised the pardoning power with extreme caution, he held the view that the executive had no right to annul or make void the acts and decisions of the judicial tribunals in the trial, conviction and sentence of any person unless in the contingency of the discovery of new facts which would, it proved upon the trial, have established the innocence of the accused, or so mitigated the offense that a less penalty would have been imposed. While he admitted that extreme cases might arise under circumstances which would make an exception to the rule desirable, he held to it for the victims of the criminal law, or their families or friends. In reply to the claims that a convict having suffered for a time and the public excitement and notoriety of his offense having passed away, no possible good can be gained by keeping him longer in prison, he insisted that the principle of justice and the claims of society for self-[protection must not be lost sight of. The guilty are not punished because society wishes to inflict pain and suffering, but because its own safety requires it and because the only reparation the criminal can make is the example afforded by his endurance of the penalty. To effectually meet these ends, punishment must be made certain. There have been governors both before and since, who seemed to regard the executive prerogative as a matter of mere sentiment. There have been cases where sympathy went too far. There have been instances which were little less than unfortunate. In modern times the business of getting convicts out of our prisons and relieving them from the consequences of their crimes through the aid of a sympathetic governor has been carried to such an extent that it is refreshing to contemplate a man who, while he was not lacking the kindness of a gentle nature, still had the firmness to stand for justice and right, as he clearly saw them.

At the biennial election of 1866 Governor Crapo was elected for second term by a majority of upwards of twenty-nine thousand. Governor Crapo entered upon his new term of office in January, 1867, somewhat broken in health, but with mind as vigorous and active as ever. In spite of his impaired physical condition, he insisted upon personally looking after his extensive private interests, and kept in close touch with all public affairs. His second regular message to the Legislature was a full and lucid discussion of all the problems then before the state authorities. He again dwelt on the immigration question, but the Legislature adjourned without making effective his sensible recommendations.

Governor Crapo was very sparing with vetoes and it is notable that they were for the most part sustained. The most exciting event during this entire gubernatorial career grew out of his vetoes in the matter of municipal aid to railroads. That was the day of feverish railroad building schemes. Rural communities were exceedingly anxious for railroads, and many villages were induced to support projects which would make them railroad centers. In several instances the people did not wait for legislative authority, but went ahead and voted aid, issued and put bonds on the market and then came and asked the Legislature to validate them. With a veto message Governor Crapo called a halt tot his practice. It is interesting to observe with what neatness he riddles the sophistical arguments of those who said the thing being done should be legalized to save investors in the bonds. The schemes expanded insidiously. At first the aid voted by municipalities was limited by law to five per cent of the assessed valuation of the municipality; shortly this was increased to ten per cent, with a tendency to further increase the rate. At first he district included in the liability on the bonds was the municipality; shortly this was extended to include the entire county in which the municipality was situated.

But most important of all he vetoed the acts passed to permit localities to vote aid to railroad enterprises. The thing having previously been done and being considered so much a matter of course, he did at the outset approve such bills. But he soon saw the tendency of such legislation and when the bills came pouring in on him he waited until some fourteen had accumulated and then sent them back with a message which settled the case for all time, so far as he was concerned. He called attention to the provision of the constitution that "the credit of the sate shall not be granted to or in aid of any person, association or corporation; the state shall not subscribe to or be interested in the stock of any company, association or corporation shall not be a party to or interested in any work of internal improvement." He argued that the principle considered by the framers of the constitution so essential for the protection of the state should by implication, at least, apply to towns and counties. Clearly the policy of the state, as expressed in its constitution, was opposed to all this legislation. While refraining from discussing the judicial aspects of the question, he believed that all would agree with him that it was of doubtful constitutionality.

He went to great length in discussing the economic bearings of the question. He believed that permanent welfare of the state would be injured. While railroads were desirable and greatly beneficial tot a community, if they were secured at the cost of an accumulation of municipal debt and enormous taxation we should destroy the value of property and retard settlement. Then , instead of increased growth and resources, we should drive away population and wealth. At a time when other states were trying to extricate themselves from the burden of taxation caused by the war, and were deferring public improvements, the people of Michigan, by municipal action, were competing with each other in the creation of vast amounts of indebtedness. He showed how insidiously the idea of municipal aid had expanded. At the outset the rate was limited to five per cent and the liability was confined to a few localities. Within four years the restrictions had been swept away and there were towns which were in danger of accumulating forty per cent of such bonded indebtedness. Such a course could have but one ending--bankruptcy and repudiation.

The aggregate length of the railroads already proposed, which relied for this completion upon aid from taxes, was not less then two thousand miles. The amount of capital necessary to construct, complete and efficiently equip this extent of railroad could not be less then sixty million dollars. It was claimed that if about one-third of the cost could be obtained by taxation the balance could be procured of capitalists by the issue of stocks and mortgages. It would then be necessary for the people of the state to create an indebtedness of twenty millions in city, township and county bonds. Could such bonds be sold for cash either at home or abroad? It was not likely they could be sold outside the state. There was not surplus capital enough in the state to take them; certainly not unless they could be bought at a very small percentage of their face value. Thus the actual aid to railroads would be very small indeed, compared with the amount of municipal indebtedness. As the bonds continued to be depreciated in value, additional taxes would be called for and urged to make up the deficit, and thereby prevent the total loss of what had been already appropriated, until repudiation would inevitably follows.

The gloomy picture which the governor thus drew of the results likely to end the course which the state was pursuing in this matter , was both timely and truthful. It was clear to level-headed and unprejudiced men, but such was the popular furor that many minds were dulled to its appreciation. The bills lay on the table for a month while great excitement prevailed in the popular discussion of the subject. When the matter was finally brought to a vote, the veto of the governor was sustained by the narrow margin of a single vote. It is not often that a governor has the delicate task of saving the people from themselves, but saneness and firmness are admirable in any emergency.

After the war, an important event in Michigan's history was the movement for a revision of the constitution of 1850. In his inaugural message of 1865, Governor Crapo called the attention of the Legislature to the constitutional provision for submission of this question tot he people in the general election of 1866. The necessary steps were accordingly taken, and in due course delegates were elected to the convention. This convention was held at Lansing from may 15 to August 22, 1867. It proved harmonious and industrious. But at the election of 1868 the new constitution which was there drawn up was not adopted by the people.

1. This account of Governor Crape is quoted substantially from the excellent work entitled, "Michigan as Province, Territory and State."


History of Genesee County, Michigan, Her People, Industries and Institutions
by Edwin O. Wood, LL.D, President Michigan Historical Commission, 1916

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Deb

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