Congressman Elisha Reynolds Potter, Jr. (1811-1882) of South Kingstown was the son and namesake of a U.S. congressman, Elisha Reynolds Potter, Sr. (1764-1835) and Mary (Mawney) Potter. The remarkably varied career of this Harvard graduate included such occupations and positions as attorney, historian, adjutant general, state legislator, congressman, state commissioner of public schools (succeeding Henry Barnard), and associate justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court (1868-1882).
Potter was born in the South Kingstown village of Little Rest (now Kingston) and resided there, unmarried, for his entire life. After study at Kingston Academy, he entered Harvard College and graduated in 1830. In 1832, he was admitted to the Rhode Island bar. His powerful and influential father, a four-term congressman and member of the state legislature for over three decades, gave young Elisha an entrance into the arena of Rhode Island politics.
In 1842 Potter was a leading spokesman for the Law and Order party and wrote the most reasoned and balanced statement in opposition to the Dorrite movement. After serving one term (1843-45) as a U.S. representative, Potter focused on educational reform and succeeded Henry Barnard as state commissioner of public schools from 1849 to 1853. In that capacity he resisted the extreme nativism of the era to write a fair and judicious analysis of Bible reading in the public schools in response to those who insisted that the Protestant Bible he exclusively utilized.
In 1861, as a state senator, Potter unsuccessfully sponsored a bill to give equal voting rights to naturalized citizens who fought for the Union cause. From 1868 until his death in 1882, Potter served with learning and distinction as associate justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court.
History was yet another talent of this versatile scholar-politician. In 1835, he wrote The Early History of Narragansett, an in-depth look at South County’s early development; and in 1879 he penned his Memoir Concerning the French Settlements and French Settlers in the Colony of Rhode Island, a book inspired by his mother’s Huguenot ancestors who established an outpost (Frenchtown) in East Greenwich in 1686.