U.S. Rep. Ambrose Kennedy

Inducted: 2015
Born: 1875 - Died:

Ambrose Kennedy was a rarity in early twentieth century Rhode Island politics—a devout Irish Catholic Republican politician of high standing. Kennedy was not only a five-term Republican congressman, but he was also a lawyer, an educator, an accomplished orator, speaker of the Rhode Island House, and a biographer. He became one of the most prominent men in the Republican party in the state.

Kennedy, a true son of the Blackstone Valley—was born on December 1, 1875, in Blackstone, Massachusetts to Patrick and Mary (McCormick) Kennedy. He attended public schools in Blackstone, received his secondary education at St. Hyacinthe College in Quebec, Canada, where he mastered the French language. He then earned a bachelor’s degree from Holy Cross College in Worcester. In 1900, while principal of Blackstone High School, where he taught Latin, Greek, French, and English, he received his master’s degree from Holy Cross. Then Kennedy left his school post to enroll at Boston University Law School and graduated with the Class of 1906. At the time of his graduation from Holy Cross and Boston University Law School, he was chosen orator of his class. After his admission to the Rhode Island bar in 1906, he practiced for a short time in both Providence and Woonsocket. After 1908, he concentrated his efforts in Woonsocket. A senior member of the firm of Kennedy & Greene, his associate was James T. Greene, North Smithfield town solicitor. Kennedy was admitted to practice in the Supreme Court of the United States on March 15, 1918.

 Kennedy served on the personal staff of Governor Aram Pothier as aide-de-camp with the rank of colonel in 1909. His first venture into politics came in 1911 when he was elected to the General Assembly as a Republican representative from Woonsocket. Kennedy spoke French fluently, an asset that aided him when he entered politics in a district with a large Franco-American population. His combination of brilliance and ethno-religious background won him the post of House Speaker in 1912. Within a year Kennedy had vacated that powerful office to run for Congress in the newly created Third Congressional District. He won handily and was sworn into his congressional office on April 7, 1913, along with Sam Rayburn of Texas, who presided for many years as Speaker of the House. Kennedy’s colleagues in the House included Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts and two famed orators, W. Burke Cochran of New York, and James Clark of Missouri. As a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Kennedy was credited with helping shape and pass some of the most important legislation enacted by Congress during World War I. He gained the respect of his colleagues for his oratorical ability, a skill he had exhibited both in college and Congress.

Kennedy was an advocate of the then current issue of Irish independence. He was among those distinguished Rhode Islanders who welcomed Eamon De Valera, president of Ireland, to Providence and Newport in September 1919. In 1920, he sought the GOP nomination for governor, then withdrew his candidacy, leaving the field open to Lt. Gov. Emery J. San Souci, who was elected. In 1922, Kennedy carried his gubernatorial aspirations to the floor of the Republican state convention. A deadlock developed on the first ballot, and Governor San Souci threw his support to Harold J. Cross, who was nominated. The entire GOP slate was defeated by a Democratic ticket headed by William S. Flynn for governor and Felix A. Toupin for lieutenant governor. Two years later, Kennedy sought the gubernatorial nomination again, but he lost the nomination to former Governor Pothier. In 1932, Kennedy was nominated as lieutenant governor on a ticket headed by former Governor Norman A. Case. The ticket was buried in the first Franklin D. Roosevelt landslide. Kennedy retired from Congress at the close of his fifth term on March 3, 1923, and returned to the practice of law in Rhode Island.

During his career, he addressed many audiences here in Rhode Island on political, economic, social, and educational questions. As a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Chicago in June 1932, he delivered a speech favoring the repeal of the 18th amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited alcohol in the United States. He was the author of a resolution passed by Congress on March 18, 1918, which provided for the erection of a memorial to the Catholic Sisters who served as nurses during the American Civil War. He delivered the principal address at the unveiling of a stately monument erected in their honor in Washington on September 20, 1924.

The only blemish on Kennedy’s Congressional record was his high rate of absenteeism in roll calls. From April of 1913 to March of 1923, Kennedy missed 809 of 1405 roll calls, which was 57.6%. This was much worse than the median of 27.3% of other Congressmen serving in that same period.

Kennedy retired as a congressman on March 3, 1923, after declining to run for a sixth term. He had his sights on the governorship but failed three times to gain the GOP nomination. He also engaged in the craft of biography writing books on the lives of famed Irish American Congressman W. Bourke Cochran of New York, a fellow orator, and Monsignor Charles Dauray, Rhode Island’s preeminent Franco-American cleric. This volume, entitled Quebec to New England was an intensive study of the Franco-American religious experience in Rhode Island between 1872 and 1931.

Kennedy married Anastacia G. Leahy and the couple had four sons, all of whom moved beyond the borders of Rhode Island. Kennedy’s son, Ambrose J. Kennedy, Jr. (1918–1989) followed his father into politics after helping with his father’s Congressional campaigns. In 1946, Kennedy, Jr. joined the Baltimore City Council representing an area of midtown Baltimore. During his two terms in office, Kennedy, Jr. chaired the Highway and Franchise Committee.

Ambrose Kennedy died in Woonsocket on March 10, 1967, at the age of ninety-one. He was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2015.

For additional reading:

  • American Orator: Bourne Cochran; his life and politics, Ambrose Kennedy, 1919.
  • Quebec to New England; the life of Monsignor Charles Dauray, Ambrose Kennedy, Houghton Mifflin, 1948.
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