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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Allison, William Boyd
(March 2, 1829–August 4, 1908)

–lawyer, state Republican Party leader, U.S. representative, and longtime U.S. senator —was born near Ashland, Ohio, the second of three sons of John Allison, a farmer, and Margaret (Williams) Allison. His parents had moved to Ohio from Pennsylvania, part of a larger long-term Scots-Irish westward migration.

    Allison's youth was shaped by at least three major family commitments: Whig politics, Presbyterian religion, and the pursuit of "success."His father, a Whig stalwart, served several terms as a justice of the peace. The family regularly attended Mount Hope Presbyterian Church. Allison decided to leave Ohio for Iowa in 1857; his elder brother Matthew had preceded him and established an insurance business in Dubuque in 1855.

    While still in Ohio, the young Allison's social aspirations and political interests became apparent. He gained formal education at two different academies, enough to prepare him to teach school briefly, followed by a year of study at Western Reserve College. Probably with an eye toward establishing himself in politics, Allison then began to prepare for a career in law. After admission to the bar, he began his own law practice in Ashland. In 1854 he married Anna Carter, a member of Ashland's economic elite. As the Whig Party dissolved, Allison–firmly antislavery and probusiness–sought to be a part of which ever party would replace it. In 1855 he was secretary to the Ohio Republican Party convention, but he was also an Ohio delegate to the national Know-Nothing Party convention early in 1856. Later that summer, however, Allison left the Know-Nothings and ran as the Republican candidate for county attorney. His defeat in the fall 1856 elections was apparently a major factor in his decision to join his brother in Iowa.

    Settling in 1857 in Dubuque, a stronghold of the Democratic Party, might seem unwise for an aspiring Republican politician. It did not prove so, however. Joining a local law partnership and affiliating with a Presbyterian congregation, Allison quickly rose to leadership in Iowa's young Republican Party. In 1859 he was a delegate to the Republican State Convention; in 1860 he was a state delegate to the party's national convention. Also in 1860, he diligently and dutifully campaigned for the state and national Republican tickets. His wife's death the same year–she had not joined him in Iowa, and they had no children–did not appear to slow Allison's pace. The Republican victories of 1860 led him to seek a political appointment. Others gained the posts he wanted, but the Civil War brought new opportunities. In 1861 Governor Samuel J. Kirkwood appointed him as one of his military aides, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. Allison proved a competent manager of the transportation, billeting, and medical needs of Iowa volunteers for the Dubuque area.

    The Civil War was also a factor in opening elective office to Allison. After the 1860 U.S. Census, Iowa's congressional seats increased from two to six. The seat of the redrawn district that included Dubuque was held by William Vandever, a Republican who had been reelected for a second term in 1860. In 1862 Vandever was endeavoring to hold his congressional seat and an officer's commission in the Union army at the same time. Allison used his Iowa record and growing political connections (which included Governor Kirkwood and railroad entrepreneur Grenville M. Dodge) to win both the Republican nomination and the general election to the House seat of Iowa's Third District.

    Allison served four successive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives (1863-1871). As a representative, he soon joined the Radicals in opposing President Lincoln's Reconstruction policies. Rising quickly among congressional Radicals, during his second term he became a member of the Ways and Means Committee. He also began to gain a reputation in his party for his expertise on tariffs and railroads. Compared to other Radicals, he was for moderate tariffs that benefited agriculture. He also did much work on behalf of railroads, to the point of being accused in 1868 of obtaining a change in the route of the Sioux City & Pacific Railroad that was more for his personal benefit than that of Iowans. The evidence was circumstantial, and the charge faded.

    Still young and a widower, Allison did not purchase a house in Washington, D.C., but instead roomed at the home of Iowa's Senator James W. Grimes. The two Iowa Republicans found themselves on opposite sides during the impeachment and trial of President Andrew Johnson–Allison voted with the House Radical Republicans to impeach, while Grimesvoted with a Senate Republican minority against conviction–yet Allison never broke with Grimes.

    Allison was a party loyalist, but never an ideologue. Neither was he a compelling orator or a notable thinker. He was adept at connecting himself with the politically powerful, and he also was attuned to various intraparty factions as well as to the Iowa electorate. A colleague in the Senate later characterized Allison's political skills as "a genius for attaining the attainable."Attaining and maintaining political power–and a flexible status quo with a minimum of acrimony–became Allison's forte.

    A major way Allison learned to "attain the attainable" was through building strong personal networks and alliances. With the backing of the retiring Senator Grimesand Grenville Dodge, Allison ran for Grimes's Senate seat in 1870. However, the candidate of Senator James Harlan 's faction, James B. Howell, won. Allison thus found himself out of Congress in 1871. In 1872, though, Allison's alliances helped him attain the Republican caucus's nomination to the U.S. Senate, which guaranteed election by the Republican-dominated legislature–by one vote. He unseated his rival, Senator Harlan. Moreover, he and his ally Dodge managed to avoid any political damage from their associations with the Crédit Mobilier of America, a dummy construction company established for the financial benefit of the Union Pacific Railroad and publicized as such in 1872-1873, well after the election.

    Allison was a U.S. senator from Iowa for six terms (1873-1908); he was elected for a seventh term, but died before serving. Within Iowa, Allison's alliances and his hold on his Senate seat enabled him to be at the center of the "Des Moines Regency," the name for the small group that came to dominate the Iowa Republican Party after 1873. (Besides Allison, others included Joseph W. Blythe and Charles E. Perkins of the Burlington Railroad and James S. "Ret" Clarkson of the Iowa State Register.) Allison and the Des Moines Regency could exert a decisive influence through county, district, and state conventions on who would be the party's candidates for Iowa's other congressional offices, the governor's office, and the legislature.

    Once admitted to the Senate in 1873, Allison married Mary Nealley, adopted daughter of James and Elizabeth Grimes. She was some 20 years younger than Allison, and they had no children. Severe mental depression eventually enveloped her, and despite nursing care, she drowned herself in the Mississippi River in 1883.

    Allison became wedded to the security of his office–partly by inclination, partly by necessity. Three times he turned down offers to join presidential cabinets (of Garfield, Harrison, and McKinley). Twice he was a contender for the Republican presidential nomination (1888 and 1896). By the time of his death, he was the most senior member of the Senate. He was not only chairman of its Republican caucus, he was also a member of its Committees on Appropriations and Finance. He continued to exert influence on matters of concern to railroads, such as moderating regulation, and on tariffs, about which he became increasingly protectionist. A new area of influence that Allison developed once in the Senate was monetary policy. The Iowa electorate not only supported railroad regulation, but elements were also sympathetic to calls for monetary inflation through "greenbacks" and the "free" (unlimited) coinage of silver. Silver coinage was halted by an act of Congress in 1873, the year Allison joined the Senate. In 1875 he helped craft a compromise bill that, when enacted, authorized the federal redemption of greenbacks with gold and silver coins in 1879. That bill was followed by the Bland-Allison Silver Purchase Act, an 1878 measure modified by Allison in the Senate that allowed for the limited coinage of silver dollars. This made Allison an important "bimetallist" in a party known more for its support of the gold standard. In 1890 Allison was among the U.S. delegation to the International Monetary Conference at Brussels.

    By 1907 the nearly 80-year-old senator was in obvious decline (from prostate cancer). He nonetheless stood for renomination in Iowa's first direct primary in 1908. The contest pitted "Insurgents" (progressives) in the party, led by Governor Albert B. Cummins, against Allison and the "Standpatters" (conservatives). Allison avoided campaigning as much as possible, letting his personally loyal colleague in the Senate, Jonathan P. Dolliver, stand in for him. Victory for Allison came in June, but death came for him in August in his Dubuque home.

    "I am one of those who believe that the world is growing better and purer, as the years roll on," he had told an audience at the State University of Iowa in 1887. His was the optimism of a practical American politician who could assume Republican regimes in Iowa and the nation because he had helped construct them.
Sources Allison's papers are at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines. A well-researched and solidly written biography is Leland L. Sage, William Boyd Allison: A Study in Practical Politics (1956). Allison is concisely placed in the Iowa political context by Sage in A History of Iowa (1974).
Contributor: Douglas Firth Anderson

Cite as: Anderson, Douglas Firth. "Allison, William Boyd" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 11 July 2014