Distinguished alike in the practice of law and in the sphere of public service, George Francis O’Shaunessy in his long career has won important success and wide reputation. Both Rhode Island and New York have benefited by his services in public office. His several terms in the United States Congress were of great value to the Nation.
Mr. O’Shaunessy was born in Galway, Ireland, on May 1, 1868, a son of Stephen and Margaret (Flynn) O’Shaunessy. When he was only four years old he came to the United States with his parents, settling in New York City. From 1875 to 1881 he attended St. Theresa’s Parochial School, while for three years following he studied at the De La Salle Institute. The funds for his education he himself provided by working during vacations as a messenger and errand boy, and later, when his determination to take up the study of the law brought about his enrollment in the Law School of Columbia University, he worked as a night clerk in the New York post office, attending lectures by day. Mr. O’Shaunessy was graduated with the Bachelor of Laws degree in 1889, and in the same year was admitted to practice at the New York bar. For a period of eighteen years he continued his professional activities in and about New York, and during this time his career of public service was well begun. As a previous biographer has well written, the ambition and determination that held him to his chosen course in the face of such obstacles as confronted him when he was working night and day to prepare himself for his career, have sustained him in his public service and private work, and during a public and political career, long and active, he has stood faithfully and unswervingly for high standards and ideals. Mr. O’Shaunessy has been a consistent Democrat, and a firm believer in the principles of his party. He has loyally supported its cause and spared no effort to promote its welfare. When he was a young man in Brooklyn, he was a member of the group organized by Edward M. Shepard, noted student and leader of reform, known as the Shepard Democracy, and in the deliberations and activities of this organization he took an important part. In 1893 he worked in support of the Citizens’ Union ticket, a fusion of Democrats and Republicans headed by Charles A. Shieren, who was elected mayor of Brooklyn, and by William J. Gaynor, afterwards mayor of New York City, who was then a candidate for justice of the Supreme Court.
During this period Mr. O’Shaunessy had risen to a place of importance among practitioners of the law in Brooklyn, and after moving to New York City in 1898 he continued active, both professionally, and in political affairs. While a strong Democrat, he has never blindly followed party leaders, making his own decisions in matters of consequence to the party, and courageously following the principles which he felt to be right. As a young lawyer he gained a notable decision over Richard Croker, Tammany leader, in the Court of Appeals, in a case concerning the interpretation of laws governing the contest for State Senator from the Twenty-first Senatorial District, and subsequently as attorney for Perry Belmont, congressional candidate, he was again successful in a similar case. In these matters Mr. O Shaunessy helped materially to purify politics and break the unhealthy influence of a too-powerful boss.
In the year 1904 Mr. O’Shaunessy became deputy attorney-general of the State of New York, filling that responsible position throughout the following year. During 1906 he served as assistant corporation counsel of New York City. His New York residence and public service were terminated in 1907 when he removed to Providence, Rhode Island, where he has since made his home. His reputation had preceded him here, and progressive leaders of Democracy, as well as members of the bar were glad to welcome him to this city. In the year following his arrival, Mr. O’Shaunessy became a candidate for alderman from the Ninth Ward of Providence, being defeated in the subsequent campaign. In 1909, however, he was elected to”the Legislature of the State as one of the nine Democrats to hold seats in that session. During his membership in the Legislature, he actively sponsored or supported much important legislation. He introduced the bill to make Columbus Day a legal holiday in Rhode Island, and before the expiration of his term of office he was chosen as the Democratic candidate from the First District of Rhode Island for representative in the United States Congress. In the election of November, 1910, Mr. O’Shaunessy received a plurality of seventeen hundred and fifty-one, taking his seat at the opening of the Sixty-second Congress. In successive elections he was returned to the House for three additional terms by pluralities of thirty-five hundred, nine hundred, and twenty-nine hundred. The latter period of this term of service included the most trying days of United States participation in the World War and the months preceding, days which magnified the weakness or strength of men in public life. Mr. O’Shaunessy was an advocate of the staunchest Americanism, and stood with the most loyal patriotism in support of the administration. During the Sixty-fifth Congress he served as a member of the committee on ways and means, and in that capacity, as in all others of his public career, he gave his important duties his best time and effort. He never neglected the needs of his constituency, and he worked to secure governmental interest in numerous projects of benefit to his State, in connection with coast and river work, public buildings, and service training stations. He was a constant friend of the naval stations in Narragansett Bay, and the port of Providence also benefited by his active interest. Mr. O’Shaunessy having been at one time a post office clerk under civil service rules and regulations, he was always concerned with this branch of the service, finding time to champion the cause of those employed under civil service direction and working with the greatest zeal in their behalf.
In 1918 Mr. O’Shaunessy was the Democratic candidate for the seat held by United States Senator LeBaron B. Colt, and although defeated in a very close contest, he brought new honor to himself in the campaign. Soon afterwards he was appointed collector of internal revenue for Rhode Island by President Wilson, filling this position with distinction and success until his resignation in 1921 to resume the private practice of his profession. At that time he organized the firm of O’Shaunessy and Cannon in Providence, of which he is now senior member, and which has become under his guidance, one of the leading law firms of the State.
Mr. O’Shaunessy is a member of the Roman Catholic Church, a communicant of St. John’s • Congregation at Providence, and a member of several clubs, including the University Club of Washington, District of Columbia, the Columbus Club, and the Catholic Club of this city. For more than a quarter of a century, he has been an active member of the Royal Arcanum, which honored him in the State of Rhode Island by electing him Grand Regent.
On June 24, 1902, George Francis O’Shaunessy married Julien M. Keily, of Providence, and they now maintain their residence in this city at No. 215 Broadway.
For many years Mr. O’Shaunessy has made the welfare of State and Nation his chief concern, and although the people of Rhode Island were loathe to part with so able a public servant, they recognized that he had served them faithfully and well, and witnessed his retirement to private life with every wish for the success which he has fully attained.
Source: Carroll, Charles. Rhode Island: Three Centuries of Democracy, vol 3 of 4. New York: Lewis historical Pub. Co., 1932.