Monday, December 19, 2011

Elihu Washburne, the Radical Republican

This post is centered on yet another man in which many posts following will be centered around, Elihu B. Washburne.  Below is a biographical sketch of this man who was the Representative for NW Illinois for many years.

Elihu Washburne was a member of the first family of Republicans, his brothers Cadwallader, Israel Jr., and William were also politicians, making them the original Kennedys in a way.  Elihu was born on September 23, 1816 in Livermore, Maine.  Washburne studied law at Kent's Hill Seminary in 1836 and Harvard Law School in 1839. After being admitting to the bar in 1840 Washburne he worked as a lawyer in Galena, Illinois. He married Adele Gratiot, noted as the first white child born in Galena.  A member of the Whig Party he failed in his attempt to be elected to the 31st Congress in 1848. However, he was successful in the 33rd Congress and took his seat in March, 1853.

An early member of the the Republican Party, and served as chairman of the Committee on Commerce and Committee on Appropriations. In 1860 Washburne played an important role in persuading radicals such as Joshua Giddings to support the nomination of Abraham Lincoln. He also persuaded Lincoln to appoint Salmon P. Chase as Secretary of the Treasury. However, he failed to stop William Seward (Secretary of State) and Simon Cameron (Secretary of War), entering the Cabinet.

He was known for his courage, and met President-elect Abraham Lincoln upon his arrival in Washington, D.C. on February 23, 1861. An assassination attempt was feared, and other Republican Party leaders were afraid to take on this duty. Washburne and his brothers had hidden the whereabouts of President-elect Lincoln by personally cutting telegraph wires in key locations.  Washburne had been the president-elect's confidential informant in the Capital, keeping him informed of developments in Washington and in Illinois when he was there. Shortly after Mr. Lincoln received the Republican nomination for President, he wrote Washburne: "I hope you will write often; and as you write more rapidly than I do, don't make your letters so short as mine."

Unlike Illinois Congressman William Kellogg, Washburne was a strong opponent of any compromise with the seceding states about slavery. Washburne wrote President-elect Lincoln on January 7: "Great commotion and excitement exist to-day in our ranks in regard to a compromise that is supposed to be hatching by the Weed-Seward dynasty. Weed is here and one great object now is to obtain your acquiescence in the scheme to sell out and degrade the republicans. Leonard Swett is the agent to be employed to get you into it. He is acting under the direction of Weed, and it is said writes a letter to you dictated by Weed. No word of caution from me to you can be necessary. If you waver, our party has gone."

Washburne also acted to secure lodging in Washington for the Lincoln family before the inauguration. With the approval of other Illinois Republicans, he arranged for President-elect Lincoln to stay in a private home rather than at a hotel. But on the way to Washington, other Republicans argued that such a residence might compromise Mr. Lincoln and he was better off staying in a hotel. Washburne's views actually proved prophetic: "At the hotel, you would be literally run over, but in your own house these things can be much better controlled."

In Congress, Washburne's strong personality interfered with his ambitions and deprived him of a chance to be speaker. Journalist Noah Brooks described Washburne as "one of the abler men in the House, of indomitable and imperious will; a governing mind, he leads men captive at his will by sheer semibrute force and not by force of logic or sweet persuasion. There is no softness of sentiment about that hard, iron-gray head." But Washburne himself was a controversial figure - often at odds with other Republican members of the House. Brooks wrote that one of Washburne's legislative maneuvers at the end of the 1864 session "was floored once more. Some men never will learn anything."

Elihu Washburne House
Even without such honors Washburne had developed a trump card in his career - he was the primary political sponsor for General Ulysses Grant, who had lived in Washburne's home town of Galena before rejoining the army at the outbreak of the Civil War. In early 1864 Washburne was the sponsor of legislation making Grant a lieutenant general. "Washburne had the pleasure of delivering Grant's commission as Lieutenant General into the hero's own hand; but he might have saved the journey which he took for that purpose, as Grant arrived in this city last evening about dusk," wrote Brooks of Grant's arrival in the nation's capital in March. But Washburne was primarily a Lincoln loyalist, noted Grant's top aide, General John A. Rawlins. About the time Grant was promoted, Rawlins wrote another military officer: "The Honorable E.B. Washburne I am sure is not in favor of Grant for the Presidency. He is for Mr. Lincoln." At one point before the capture of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863 even Washburne had wavered on Grant. President Lincoln told Ward Hill Lamon that 'even Washburne, who has always claimed Grant as his by right of discovery, had deserted him and demands his removal."

He was among the original proponents of legal racial equality. As a congressman, he served on the Joint Committee on Reconstruction which drafted the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. After the Civil War, Washburne advocated that large plantations be divided up to provide compensatory property for freed slaves. He may be best known for as a leader of the Radical Republicans.
Washburne served as President Ulysses S. Grant's Secretary of State, replacing William H. Seward, for twelve days in March 1869; it remains the shortest term of any Secretary of State. He then became minister -- head of the U.S. diplomatic mission -- to France, where he was influential in negotiating the armistice for the Franco-Prussian War.
Washburne retired from government in 1876, although he was mentioned as a presidential candidate at the Republican conventions in 1880 and 1884. He moved to Chicago, Illinois, and served as president of the Chicago Historical Society from 1884 to 1887. Washburne's son Hempstead (named after his law partner in Galena) served as mayor of Chicago from 1891 to 1893.  Elihu died on October 23, 1887 at the age of 71 in Chicago.  Washburne is buried in Galena at Greenwood Cemetery.

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