Marcellus Lovejoy Stearns was born on April 29, 1839, in Center Lovell, Maine, to Caleb and Eliza Russell Stearns. His mother was a descendant of the Revolutionary War patriot, Major Benjamin Russell, whose portrait hangs in Faneuil Hall. He also published The Columbian Sentinel, often called Boston’s first newspaper.
He attended Waterville College in Waterville, Maine (now Colby College). After college, he joined the Union Army and lost an arm during the Battle of Opequon in Winchester, Virginia. After losing his arm, the Army sent him to study law. Once he finished law school, he was assigned to Quincy in Gadsden County in the Florida Panhandle, where he remained until his discharge from the military.
Marcellus became involved in the Florida Republican Party, and while most around the nation were demanding immediate, full political and civil rights for freedmen, he believed they should be accorded civil rights, but education was more important. Black voters helped move Stearns from an appointed Federal position into the heart of Florida politics.
While serving as a delegate to Florida’s Constitutional Convention, and working with other moderates, crafted the rules that limited the number of Assemblymen to four from each county. This weakened the power of the former plantation owners in Florida politics and minimized the impact on the black voters. Under the new Constitution in 1868, with the help of the newly enfranchised black voters, he was elected Assemblyman from Gadsden County.
A strong and effective legislator, in 1869 at the age of 29, he was elected Speaker of the House. As Speaker, he was instrumental in moving the Legislature to ratify the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery), the 14thAmendment (providing equal protection of the laws of the United States to all citizens), and the 15thAmendment (the right to vote regardless of race or color).
In 1872, he was elected as Florida’s fifth Lieutenant Governor. After the death of Ossian Hart in 1874, he became the Governor at the age of 34 and remains the youngest to have served. He attempted to force Jonathan Clarkson Gibbs, to resign as Superintendent of Public Instruction but failed, due to Gibbs’s popularity. Gibbs was the first and only black to serve as Secretary of State and Superintendent of Public Instruction.
He ran for reelection in 1876 but was defeated by Democrat George Drew by 195 votes out of nearly 50,000 cast. He did secure Florida’s four electoral votes for Republican Presidential candidate Rutherford B. Hayes, and Hayes won by a single electoral vote.
Stearns left the Governor’s office on January 2, 1877, and was immediately appointed as U. S. Commissioner on the Hot Springs Arkansas Reservation and held the position until 1880. This was Federal land that had been set aside by Andrew Jackson in 1832 but never developed. It was known as a “no-mans” land with a frontier mentality. Disputes were often settled by a gunfight.
While vacationing in Lovell, he was introduced to Ellen Austin Walker, a distant relative from Bridgewater, Massachusetts. A year after his appointment as Commissioner, they married. By the age of 38, he was now contemplating retirement from active public life, and after completing his Commission work, he and Ellen moved back to Quincy where he practiced law.
Accepting a position as President of the Atlantic National Bank, in 1887, Marcellus and Ellen moved to Atlantic, Iowa. Suffering a stroke on January 4, 1890, that left him paralyzed on his left side, he retired from the bank. They spent his final summer at his childhood home in Center Lovell, and while traveling back to Quincy, he died in New York on December 8, 1881, at the age of 52.
Stearns was the last Reconstruction Governor for Florida and the last Republican for the next ninety years.