Berry was born in Jackson County, Alabama, on May 15, 1841. His parents, James M. and Isabelle (Orr) Berry, were farmers, and ten of their children lived to adulthood: Granville, Mary, Fannie, Dick, James, Arkansas, Willie, Sophrona, Albert, and Emma.
In 1848, his family moved to Arkansas, settling on a farm near Carrollton (Carroll County), where Berry’s father opened a store. Berry “learned to read and write a little, and something of arithmetic” during occasional school sessions, but mostly he helped on the farm. When Berry was seventeen, his father enrolled him in the Berryville Academy. Ten months later, his mother died, and Berry’s father sold the farm. Berry went to Yellville (Marion County) to work in the store of a cousin also named James H. Berry.
He was educated at a private school.
He then received higher education at Clarks Academy in Berryville.
Berry was elected to the Arkansas General Assembly from Benton County in 1872. During 1874, the Brooks-Baxter War was the focus of Arkansas politics. This conflict, contesting the governorship of the state, led Governor Elisha Baxter to call an extraordinary session of the legislature. Berry was selected speaker of the house, and he guided the legislature into calling a constitutional convention. This essentially marked the end of Reconstruction in Arkansas and the beginning of nearly a century of Democratic Party dominance.
In 1878, he was elected judge of the Fourth Judicial District, which covered eight counties. Berry was efficient, and his decisions were rarely reversed by higher courts.
Berry resigned as judge in 1882 to run as the Democratic candidate for governor against Republican W. D. Slack. The voters of Arkansas were tired of Radical Reconstruction, engineered by Republicans, and Berry won by a wide margin. He took office on January 13, 1883.
Berry’s legislative agenda included raising taxes on the railroads and passing the Fishback Amendment, which refused the payment of some questionable state bonds. He also sought a review of state officers accused of mishandling their accounts, and he wanted to cut costs by holding both federal and state elections on the same day. His efforts returned mixed results. The legislators created a railroad commission and imposed modest taxes, but they exempted several kinds of railroad property from taxation.
Berry’s social agenda was to seek equal justice for all citizens, whatever their race or color. His methods were indirect and paternalistic. He felt that progress for the African Americans of the state would come, eventually, through education and economic progress, not through political activism. His efforts were limited to ensuring that legal process and not mob rule dealt with lawbreakers, black or white.
Berry also despised the state prison system, calling the convict-lease system “uncivilized, inhumane, and wrong.” Though he advocated prison reform, he could not persuade the legislature to fund a system to work convicts under state supervision. It was simply more economical to lease convicts out to private contractors who paid for their use.
Berry chose not to run for a second term in 1884. The Arkansas state legislature chose Berry to take Garland’s place on March 25, 1885. He remained in that office until 1907.
As senator, Berry worked diligently in the background, supporting the Democratic Party and promoting the interests of Arkansas. He served on the Rivers and Harbors, Public Lands, Commerce, and Appropriations Committees. His voting record was balanced and moderate by standards of his time. He favored tariff reductions, effective regulation of business, a graduated income tax, an expansion of the money supply, the building of the Panama Canal, and direct election of U.S. senators. He opposed giving women the vote, extending the civil service, restricting adulteration of food, and annexing Hawaii. He opposed U.S. territorial expansion and imperialism, especially in the Philippines. In a speech before the U.S. Senate on June 3, 1902, he called the Philippine action “an unjust and unholy war,” brought about by greedy U.S. citizens “actuated by wild dreams of commercial prosperity and expansion” and contrary to our republican tradition.
One of the measures Berry supported, direct election of senators, played a role in his defeat during the 1906 senatorial election. His opponent was Jeff Davis, now governor of Arkansas. Berry had never campaigned statewide for office. At age sixty-five, he was slowing down. During this, his first direct election, he was ill-prepared. Berry lost the election and retired to his home in Bentonville.
Berry remained active in the Arkansas chapter of the United Confederate Veterans and served for a short time as a member of the Arkansas History Commission. In 1910, President Taft asked Berry to serve as commissioner in charge of marking the graves of Confederate soldiers who died in Union prisons.