The Secretary of State’s role as State Librarian has rarely been regarded by the Illinois Legislature as worthy of much attention. But Edward Barrett, a Democrat who served as Secretary of State from 1945 to 1953, proved to be an exception to that rule.
Barrett survived a 1947 attempt by the Republican-controlled General Assembly to remove the State Library from his jurisdiction. A Senate bill to do so passed 35-12 along party lines, but was tabled in the House. This marked the first time ever that the legislature proposed a measure to strip the Secretary of State of his duties as State Librarian. 1
But Barrett was capable of the political maneuvering needed to survive. Born March 10, 1900, in Chicago, an underage Barrett fought in World War I. He was both wounded and gassed in combat, earning a Purple Heart and a Presidential citation. Following the war, Barrett received a B.S. degree from the now-defunct Mayo College in Chicago and worked in advertising and public relations. His political career began with a stint as precinct captain in Chicago’s 15th Ward. In 1930, he entered the primary for State Treasurer and won by over 55,000 votes, the youngest man ever elected to the office. 2
In 1932, Barrett was elected to the first of two terms as State Auditor of Public Accounts, where he dealt with a major banking crisis during the Great Depression. His work with banks in receivership earned him the praise of the Illinois Bankers Association. Despite his successes, Barrett was defeated in the 1940 primary, failing in a bid for a third term. Out of office, Barrett enlisted in the Marines despite now being overage. While a patient at the Pearl Harbor Naval Hospital in 1944 associates entered Barrett’s name in the race for Secretary of State. He was transferred to the Great Lakes Naval Hospital, where he was a patient at the time of his successful election. 3
During his time as Secretary Barrett handled a dramatic increase in registration of passenger car registration, which jumped 66 percent between 1945 and 1952. He lost an important political battle in an effort to centralize driver’s license examinations. Barrett’s office handled only driver exams in Chicago while State Police administered the downstate program. Barrett sought to handle all exams statewide. Governor Adlai Stevenson disagreed with Barrett, and the media covered the issue as a patronage battle. Barrett failed to gain enough support, but his successor, Charles Carpentier, succeeded. 4
Barrett’s wife of 17 years, Lucille, died during his first term in office in 1947. He subsequently married Jeanne Payne on Dec. 29, 1948, shortly after his re-election. That same year, Barrett spearheaded an effort to keep the Progressive Party off the Illinois ballot. As a result, Democrats held control over most state offices. In 1952, Adlai Stevenson was nominated by the Democrats for President of the United States, and Barrett asked to fill the impending gubernatorial vacancy. But Stevenson favored his Lieutenant Governor, Sherwood Dixon, and the Democratic Central Committee agreed. Barrett eventually lost a close race for a third term as Secretary. 5
But Barrett’s political life was far from over. In 1955, he was appointed Cook County Clerk to fill a vacancy left by newly elected mayor Richard J. Daley. Barrett was re-elected in 1958, 1962, 1966, and 1970. His successful political career came to a dark end with a Sept. 28, 1972, bribery indictment. He was accused of accepting $180,000 in bribes between 1967 and 1970 from a company that sold voting machines to Cook County. 6
Barrett was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison in April 1973. Subsequent appeals reached the U.S. Supreme Court in May 1975 before Barrett was paroled on Jan. 22, 1976, due to failing health. Suffering from a variety of ailments, including an infection from an old World War I wound, Barrett was allowed to serve his sentence “in his apartment” and died on April 4, 1977. 7
- Chicago Tribune April 18, 1947, May 16, 1947; Illinois Libraries May 1947, 206-208.
- Howlett 135-136; State Journal-Register April 5, 1977; Chicago Tribune April 5, 1977.
- Howlett 136-137; State Journal-Register April 5, 1977; Chicago Tribune April 5, 1977.
- Howlett 137.
- Howlett 138-139.
- Howlett 138-139; Chicago Tribune April 5, 1977.