ohn Carlisle was a U.S. representative, speaker of the house, senator, and
secretary of the treasury. He was born in Campbell (now Kenton) County,
Kentucky, to Mary Reynold Carlisle and Lilbon Hardin Carlisle, farmers. He
attended local academies, then worked as a schoolteacher before studying law
under John White Stevenson, a prominent attorney. In 1857, Carlisle married Mary
Jane Goodson; they had two sons who survived to adulthood. In 1858, he passed
the state bar and joined the law firm of Judge William Kinkead in Covington,
Kentucky. Over the next two years, he won consecutive terms in the lower house
of the state legislature (1859-1861).
Carlisle supported sectional compromise to keep the slave states from seceding
in the winter of 1860-1861. After the Civil War began, he voted for the Kentucky
legislature's proclamation of neutrality, and did not join either side's
military. Since the majority of his constituents favored the Union cause, he
lost a reelection bid in September 1861. He aligned himself with the Peace
Democrats, who sought a negotiated settlement and restoration of the Union
status quo antebellum (i.e., with slavery intact). In 1866 and again in 1869,
Carlisle was elected to the state senate, where he spoke out against Radical
Reconstruction. In 1871, he was elected Kentucky's lieutenant governor, allowing
him to gain parliamentary experience while presiding over the state senate.
In 1876, Carlisle won election to the first of seven consecutive terms in the
U.S. House of Representatives (1876-1890). He lobbied unsuccessfully for the
repeal of the Specie Resumption Act of 1875, which was scheduled to return the
U.S. to the gold standard in January 1879. He took a moderate bimetallist
position, endorsing the use of silver as well as gold, but opposing the
inflationist policy of the unlimited coinage of silver (free silver). When the
Democrats won control of the House in 1878, Carlisle's outspoken support of the
Democratic attempt to roll back the civil rights legislation of Reconstruction
earned him respect among his partisan colleagues, although Republican president
Rutherford B. Hayes vetoed the bills.
As a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, Carlisle pushed for
tariff reduction, arguing that high tariffs helped only special business
interests to the detriment of farmers, workers, and consumers. During the
acrimonious debate in Congress which resulted in passage of the Mongrel Tariff
of 1883 (so named because it was a compromise which did not satisfy either
side), Carlisle emerged as a leader of the low-tariff/free trade Democrats. In
December 1883, he won the House speakership over trade-protectionist and former
speaker Samuel J. Randall of Pennsylvania, and was reelected in 1885 and 1887.
In 1884, Carlisle was Kentucky's favorite-son candidate for president, but lost
the nomination to Grover Cleveland of New York. After President Cleveland
appealed for lower tariffs in his annual message of December 1887, Speaker
Carlisle redoubled his efforts to pass the reform. The result was the Mills Bill
of 1888, which failed in the Republican-controlled Senate. When the Republican
won the White House and both houses of Congress in the 1888 elections, tariff
reformers were in the minority on Capitol Hill.
As minority leader, Carlisle vigorously opposed the rules imposed by the new,
Republican speaker of the house, Thomas B. Reed of Maine, which enhanced the
speaker's authority to halt dilatory practices. The timing of his election to
the U.S. Senate in May 1890 to fill a seat vacated by the death of Senator James
Beck, allowed Carlisle to vote against the protectionist McKinley Tariff in both
houses (the bill passed both). He also voted against Lodge Federal Elections
Bill and the expansion of veterans' pensions.
When Cleveland was reelected in 1892, he appointed Carlisle as treasury
secretary. The slowing economy of 1892, under the watch of President Benjamin
Harrison, grew into a full-fledged depression shortly after the Cleveland
administration took office. Carlisle and Cleveland lobbied for Congress to
repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 during a special session in 1893.
It passed, but the debate further divided the hard money (gold standard) and
soft money (free silver) wings of the Democratic party. The Treasury Departments
sale of bonds to J. P. Morgan's banking syndicate provoked heated criticism.
When the Democrats nominated free-silver champion William Jennings Bryan of
Nebraska for president in 1896, Carlisle backed the ticket of the remnant Gold
At the close of the second Cleveland administration in March 1897, Carlisle
largely retired from public life and practiced law in New York City, where he
died in 1910.