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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Gear, John Henry
(April 7, 1825–July 14, 1900)

–Burlington mayor, Speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives, governor, U.S. representative and senator, and assistant secretary of the treasury—was a key member of the tightly knit Republican organization that governed the state and nation during the last quarter of the 19th century. He was an original member of the Iowa Republican Party during the 1850s and chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Pacific Railroads from 1895 until his death. Throughout his political career, Gear displayed an unusual ability to make friends and avoid creating enemies, making him a natural choice to effect policy compromises and to be an "available" candidate acceptable to otherwise antagonistic factions. At the same time, Gear's credentials as a probusiness, "Standpat" Republican were remarkable, even in an era when that ideological orientation dominated the politics of the Northeast and Midwest. Gear's personal ties with big business were augmented in 1877 when his daughter married Joseph W. Blythe, general counsel of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad and a power broker who worked diligently to protect the interests of the railroads and other industries and to keep government regulation and taxation to a minimum. Nicknamed "Old Business" by friend and foe alike, Gear was a ferocious watchdog of the public treasury who, as governor, conducted frequently unannounced inspections of state institutions in order to uncover alleged waste and excessive expenditures and to reduce the state's indebtedness.

    Gear was born in Ithaca, New York, the son of Ezekiel Gilbert Gear, a clergyman of the Protestant Episcopal church, and Miranda (Cook) Gear. He attended common schools in Ithaca until age 12, when his family moved to Galena, Illinois. In 1838 his father was appointed chaplain at Fort Snelling in Minnesota Territory. They remained there for five years, with Gear helping–and being tutored by–his father. In 1843 the family moved again to Burlington in Iowa Territory, which remained Gear's home and base of operations for the remainder of his life. After working as a clerk in a wholesale grocery store for several years, he became a partner in 1853 and sole proprietor in 1855. During the next two decades, Gear emerged as a leading business figure in southeastern Iowa, playing a crucial role in several efforts to entice railroads to the Hawkeye State. In 1852 he married Harriet Foote, a union that eventually produced four children.

    Gear began his political career as a Burlington alderman from 1852 until 1863, when he was elected mayor. In 1871 he was elected to the Iowa House of Representatives, where he served for six years. In 1874 Gear was made Speaker of the House on the 137th ballot as a compromise candidate between the regular Republicans and the Anti-Monopoly Party. He was chosen for a second term as Speaker in 1876. Two years later Gear was elected to the first of two terms as governor, but his reputation as a broker was somewhat undermined by his severe cost cutting and micromanaging tendencies, especially in the prison system. As a result, the Republican legislative caucus refused to endorse his bid for the U.S. Senate, choosing instead James Falconer Wilson.

    During a four-year hiatus from office holding, Gear worked behind the scenes building a network of supporters that would help engineer his election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1886. He was appointed to the powerful House Ways and Means Committee in 1889. Defeated in his bid for a third term in 1890, during what was generally a Democratic tide in the Northeast and Midwest, he managed to secure reelection to the House in 1892. In the interim, he served as assistant secretary of the treasury under President Benjamin Harrison.

    By now almost 75 years old, Gear finally realized his ambition to become a U.S. senator in 1894, by serving as a pawn in the scheme of his son-in-law, Blythe, and the state's railroads to prevent the election of Albert B. Cummins, who was running for governor on a platform of railroad regulation. As a senator, Gear faithfully followed the lead of Iowa's powerful probusiness Senator William Boyd Allison. Gear rarely spoke on the Senate floor, introduced no legislation, and presented himself as a dutiful servant of the administration of President William McKinley. By the end of his term in 1900, Gear was suffering so seriously from heart disease that his wife accompanied him to the Senate chamber each day in order to prevent him from succumbing to overwork and stress.

    Although he was reelected to the Senate, Gear died during the summer of 1900 in Washington, D.C., and was replaced by Jonathan P. Dolliver, a candidate favored by the Insurgent wing of the GOP. That same year Theodore Roosevelt, on his way to the presidency, was elected vice president of the United States and Robert M. La Follette became governor of Wisconsin. Two years later Cummins was elected governor of Iowa. It seems especially fitting that Gear–a quintessential representative of the partisan probusiness politics of the Gilded Age–left the scene just as his brand of politics was being rendered obsolete by a new issue-oriented, candidate-centered variety calling itself "progressive."
Sources The best sources for Gear's life are an obituary in the New York Times, 7/15/1900, and a series of memorial addresses in the Congressional Record, 56th Cong., 2nd sess., 1901, vol. 34, pt. 2. See also an obituary in Annals of Iowa 4 (1900), 555–56; William H. Fleming, "Governor John Henry Gear," Annals of Iowa 5 (1903), 583–600; and Jon C. Teaford, "Gear, John Henry," American National Biography . Gear's role in 19thcentury Iowa politics is also covered in Edgar R. Harlan, A Narrative History of the People of Iowa (1931); and Thomas Richard Ross, Jonathan Prentiss Dolliver: A Study in Political Integrity and Independence (1958).
Contributor: John D. Buenker

Cite as: Buenker, John D. "Gear, John Henry" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 17 December 2017