Chief Justice John Henry Stiness

Inducted: 2008
Born: 1840
Died: 1913

John H. Stiness was born in Providence, Rhode Island on August 8, 1840, the son of Philip Bessom Stiness and Mary (Marsh) Stiness. He was descended from English ancestors who came to this country and settled in Marblehead, Massachusetts during the Revolutionary War. His father was one of the founders of the New England Screw Company in Providence. His great grandfather, Samuel Stiness, served in Colonel John Glover’s famous maritime regiment during the American Revolution, and his grandfather was sailing master aboard the schooner Growler on Lake Ontario during the War of 1812.

John received his elementary education at Hopkins Grammar School in North Providence. He entered Brown University in 1857, as a member of the class of 1861. The outbreak of the Civil War interrupted the closing months of his senior year at Brown, as he accepted a commission as Second Lieutenant in the Second Regiment, New York Artillery with which he served for eighteen months as Judge Advocate. He was mustered in at Staten Island, New York, in August 1861 and remained there until December, recruiting and drilling detachments. In December, he was sent to Warrington, Virginia, where he saw action in the second battle of Bull Run. A few months later, he given a medical discharge and returned to civil life in January 1863. After graduating from Brown, he studied law in the office of Thurston & Ripley and was admitted to the Rhode Island bar on March 31, 1863. He conducted a private law practice in Providence from 1965 to 1974. He represented the First Ward in the House of Representatives in 1874-1875. In 1868, he married Maria E. Williams, a direct descendent of Roger Williams. They had two children, Flora, and Henry.

The rise of John Stiness in the profession of law was rapid. He was appointed associate justice of the Supreme Court in 1875, only ten years after his Bar admission. In January 1873, he was admitted to practice in the Supreme Court of the United States. He eventually rose to the position of Chief Justice, remaining in office from 1900 to 1904. His Brown class (1861) gave three Chief Justices to the State of Rhode Island: Charles Matterson, William W. Douglas, and John Stiness. As Chief Justice , he championed the modernization, restructuring, and independence of the judiciary.

After his retirement from the Supreme Court, he was asked to accept a nomination as Representative in Congress from his district, the First. He was defeated in a close vote by Donald Granger. He held many positions of trust and honor. He was a commissioner for the erection of Providence County Court House. He was senior trustee of the Providence Public Library, having been one of its originators, and a member of its library committee since 1882. In 1896, he was elected President of the Rhode Island Historical Society, which office he held several years. Judge Stiness was a Fellow of Brown University, elected in 1897, and was for several years a member from Rhode Island of the conference on Commissioners of Uniform State Laws. In 1897, he was a member of a committee of fifteen appointed by Governor Dyer to revise the Constitution of Rhode Island and was named to a similar commission of nine members selected in 1912. He was also Chairman of the Commission to revise the judicial system of Rhode Island, which drafted the act passed by the General Assembly in 1905, known as the “Court and Passage Act.” He served as president of the Lake Mohonk conference on international arbitration and of the associated alumni of Brown University.

During his exemplary career, Stiness became involved in a myriad of causes and endeavors. He was elected as a Republican to the General Assembly, chaired the Providence Charter Revision Committee, chaired the special committee on locating and building the Providence County Courthouse, served as president of the Rhode Island Historical Society, chaired an international arbitration conference, was president of the Brown Alumni Association and of the Providence Humane Education Society. He was active in the Episcopal Church and promoted the cause of international peace through arbitration between nations.

Judge Stiness was a writer of distinction. He authored “Two Centuries of Liquor Legislation in Rhode Island, “Histories of Lotteries in Rhode Island, and “Civil Changes in the State.” He is best known today for his authorship of “The Struggle for Judicial Supremacy,” a lengthy history of the Rhode Island court system published in Edward Field’s cooperative history of Rhode Island (1902). Chief Justice Stiness is proudly remembered as a Rhode Islander of extraordinary achievement, versatility, and honor. He died on September 6, 1913, at the age of seventy-three in his home at 210 Grosvenor Street in Providence.

Chief Justice Stinson was inducted into The Rhode Heritage Hall of Fame in 2008.

For additional reading:
The Leaders of Rhode Island’s Golden Age, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley, History Press, Charleston, South Carolina, 2019.

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