Gov. George Herbert Utter

Inducted: 1969
Born: 1854
Died: 1912

George Utter was a U.S. Representative and the 49th Governor of Rhode Island. He served as an aide-de-camp to Governor Augustus Bourn from 1883 to 1885, following which he won election as a state Representative, serving for four years as Speaker for a time. He was Secretary of State from 1891 to 1894 and won election as Lieutenant Governor in 1903 for a single one-year term. He served two terms as governor, during which he began the custom of having the Lieutenant Governor preside over the State Senate.

George Utter was born on July 24th, 1854, in Plainfield, New Jersey, to parents George Utter and Mary Starr Maxon. His father, George Utter Sr., was a respected academic and Baptist minister who, before starting a family, had spent time in England studying the history of Sabbatical discourse in both London and Oxford. Upon his return to the U.S., George Sr. began publishing a weekly Baptist periodical entitled The Sabbath Recorder, which he continued to write after his son’s birth. Before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860, George Sr., his wife, and seven-year-old George Jr. moved to Westerly, Rhode Island. During the war years, George Jr. completed his primary and secondary education in Westerly, then moved on to Amherst University in Massachusetts, from which he graduated in 1877.

After completing college, Utter began to learn the printing business, assisting his father and uncle, John Utter, in the publication of The Narragansett Weekly. During this period, he also met his wife, Elizabeth L. Brown, whom he married in 1880. They raised four children: George III, Henry, Mary, and Wilfred. Upon George Sr.’s death in 1892, George Jr. went on an extended hiatus from politics to focus on his newly inherited printing business. He went on to found the successful newspaper The Westerly Sun. The Sun acquired the largest circulation of all the newspapers in Southern Rhode Island and Southeastern Connecticut. In 1893, The Sun began its service to Westerly, and 127 years later, it is still going strong.

Utter returned to political life in 1904 when he was elected to serve as Rhode Island’s Lieutenant Governor. The following year, he was elected as Governor of Rhode Island. A staunch Republican throughout his career, Utter was well respected by his peers and party members for his intelligence, eloquence, and leadership capabilities, earning him the nickname “Little Giant,” a play on his short stature. An ardent proponent of political and industrial reform within the Republican Party, he often butted heads with an infamous lobbyist and party boss, Charles R. Brayton of Warwick. For forty years, the Republican Party in Rhode Island was led with an iron fist by Brayton, the most successful and enduring politician in Rhode Island history. Brayton, a Brown University graduate, compiled a distinguished Civil War career, capped by his brevetting as brigadier general of volunteers. After the war ended, Brayton became the political lieutenant of U.S. Senator Henry Bowen Anthony, the principal organizer of Rhode Island’s Republican Party. For the next three decades, Brayton survived repeated political scandals, incurring some dents but no disabling damage to his political machine.

The most infamous article ever written about Rhode Island is almost certainly the article written by the legendary muckraker Lincoln Steffens, which ran in the February 1905 edition of McClure’s Magazine. Steffens found the Ocean State rotten with corruption from Providence and Pawtucket to Bristol and Block Island, with individual citizens selling their votes, U.S. Senator Nelson W. Aldrich, political boss Charles R. Brayton, and cronies manipulating the General Assembly to pad their pockets. He found that corruption at the national level started at the state and local level, using Rhode Island as the modern example.

The election of 1905 was so fraudulent and a source of embarrassment for the state that critics of machine politics, including Gov. Utter, finally rebelled. The only thing that Utter and Brayton shared was membership in the Republican Party. Utter, a man of high integrity, is credited with taking the first steps to dismantle Brayton’s powerful machine. The end came in 1907, when Brayton’s pick for U.S. Senate, Colonel Samuel Pomeroy Colt, did not receive the necessary votes in the legislature to be elected. Brayton was ousted from his command post in 1907 by James H. Higgins, the first Irish Catholic Democrat to win Rhode Island’s governorship.

After another professional respite, Utter returned to the political arena for a final time in 1911 when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Rhode Island’s second district. Unfortunately, this era of Utter’s career was short-lived, as he died of liver cancer in 1912.

George Utter was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1969.

For additional reading:
1.Charles R. Brayton: Rhode Island in Rhetoric and Reflection, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley, Rhode Island Publications Society, 2002.
2.“Rhode Island: A State for Sale,” by Lincoln Steffens, McClure’s Magazine, February 1905.

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