Governor Augustus O. Bourn (1834-1925) was born in Providence in 1834 to a distinguished old-line Rhode Island family whose earliest ancestor Jared Bourn served as a Portsmouth representative to the colonial assembly in 1654-55. After graduation from Brown University in 1855, Bourn joined his father in the business of manufacturing India-rubber goods.
In 1864, Bourn founded the National Rubber Company in Bristol which had a workforce of over 1100 within twenty years of its establishment and became, by far, Bristol’s largest industry. Bourn’s economic influence in Bristol translated into political and civic leadership as well. In 1876, he was elected to the first of several terms as state senator from Bristol. In the legislature, Bourn formed a close association with Republican boss Charles R. Brayton who secured for Bourn the Republican nomination for governor.
Bourn was elected Rhode Island’s chief executive in 1883 and secured reelection in 1884. Then he returned briefly to the senate where he became principal sponsor of the Brayton-backed Bourn Amendment to the Rhode Island constitution. This measure (Article of Amendment VII) was an ostensible reform, because it removed the real estate requirement for voting in state elections imposed in 1843 against naturalized citizens. In reality, however, it was a political masterstroke because it immediately enfranchised newer immigrants like the Franco-Americans, Swedes, and British-Americans who were politically estranged from the increasingly influential Irish Catholic Democrats, and the amendment won the electoral allegiance of these groups. It has been persuasively argued that the Bourn Amendment (which also imposed a property taxpaying requirement for voting in city council elections) kept the state Republican Party in power through the first three decades of the 20th century.
Bourn’s work on behalf of his party was rewarded in 1889 when President Benjamin Harrison appointed the Bristol industrialist as United States consul general to Italy.
Until his death in Bristol in 1925 Bourn continued his civic leadership. He remained active in the militia (he had been Lt. Colonel of the First Battalion, Rhode Island Infantry), and he repeatedly used his renowned oratorical skills to stimulate audiences at public observances.