Northern Kentuckians tend to associate the name John Griffin Carlisle with the elementary school in Covington’s westside neighborhood. The naming of the school was the culmination to a fascinating life of public service. During his life, Carlisle held positions in the Kentucky House of Representatives and Senate and the United States House of Representatives and Senate, and was lieutenant governor of Kentucky, speaker of the United States House and United States secretary of the treasury. He was a man of great ambition who played a major role in American politics.

Carlisle was born Sept. 5, 1834, in a log cabin on a farm about 15 miles south of Covington in present-day Kenton County. Little is known about his early life and education. He was the eldest of the 11 children of Lilborn Carlisle and Mary Reynolds Griffin. Newspaper accounts indicate he acquired an education, most likely in the county school system. One of his acquaintances described his work on the family farm: “He disliked manual labor… and was a devoted reader, being accustomed to desert his team, when supposed to be plowing, to lay under a tree and read a treasured book.”

At the age of 15 he was hired by the Covington School Board as a teacher. He was one of the youngest educators to ever teach in the Covington Public School system. Five years later his father died leaving John as the primary source of income for his family. As a way to earn more money and increase his position in the community, Carlisle began studying the law under the direction of Covington attorneys John White Stephenson, who would later serve as governor of Kentucky (1867-1871), and William B. Kinkead. This apprentice system for studying the law was quite common during this era.

John G. Carlisle was admitted to the bar and joined the law firm of W. B. Kinkead in 1857, the same year he married his wife, Mary Jane Goodson. The couple had met when they were both teaching in Covington. During his early career, Carlisle quickly became popular in the Covington community. These connections led to a successful run for a seat in the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1859. He served for one term as a Democratic member from 1859-1861. During these pivotal years, the General Assembly was faced with growing concerns about the impending Civil War. Carlisle tried to straddle the line between North and South. In the legislature he consistently supported Kentucky remaining in the Union. Personally, he remained neutral. This neutral stance damaged his reputation in Northern Kentucky, which had predominantly Northern leanings.

Carlisle was appointed to a seat in the Kentucky Senate in 1866 and remained until 1871 when he successfully ran for the position of lieutenant governor (1871-1875). He served In the United States House of Representatives from March 4, 1877, until May 26, 1890. During this time period he was a member of the Democratic caucus, which championed low tariffs. He served as speaker of the United States House from 1883 to 1889 during a period of tremendous national growth. Carlisle then served in the United States Senate from 1890 until 1893 when President Grover Cleveland appointed him the secretary of the treasury.

As secretary of the treasury, Carlisle was in the unenviable position of coping with the crippling financial crash of 1893. He received considerable blame for the financial panic that followed. Back at home, there was a movement in Northern Kentucky to construct a second vehicular bridge over the Ohio River at Covington. The bridge proposal received strong support of regional leaders. Carlisle was the attorney for the bridge company in Covington, which owned and operated the Roebling Suspension Bridge—a toll bridge. The new bridge would be in direct competition. Carlisle openly opposed the project in Washington. This opposition further alienated him from his Kentucky roots. The Kentucky Post referred to him in an editorial as Judas G. Carlisle as a result.

In 1896, Carlisle gave a speech at the Covington’s Odd Fellow’s Hall. Northern Kentuckians, still stinging from the 1893 financial collapse and bridge affair, pelted him onstage with rotten eggs and cigars. Carlisle was ultimately forced from the platform and never addressed an audience in Covington again.

Following his term as secretary of the treasury, Carlisle joined the prestigious law firm of Curtis, Mallatt, Proust & Cott in New York City. He sold his last home in Covington in 1902. Perhaps Carlisle’s last high-profile case in Kentucky involved Berea College. Berea trustees acquired the services of Carlisle to defend them in a fight against the Day Law passed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, which barred African-American students from attending schools in which Caucasian students were enrolled. The Day Law would ultimately not be overturned until 1954.

On Aug. 10, 1905, Carlisle’s wife Mary Jane died in New York City. John G. Carlisle died on July 31, 1910 in the same city. All four of his children preceded him in death. Funeral services were conducted at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. Ironically, the Covington city fathers passed a resolution to have the flag on city hall placed at half mast, only to discover that the order could not be carried out since the flag pole was being repaired.

Curiously, Carlisle chose to be buried in his hometown of Covington at Linden Grove Cemetery. His wife’s remains were exhumed in New York and laid to rest later that year in Covington. The Covington Board of Education honored John G. Carlisle by naming one of its schools in his memory in 1921. The school and a modest headstone in Linden Grove Cemetery are the only physical reminders of one of Covington’s most prominent sons. 

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