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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Grimes, James Wilson
(October 20, 1816–February, 7, 1872)

–Iowa's leading Civil War-era politician—was born in Deering, New Hampshire. The scion of a prosperous yeoman farming family, he was relatively well educated at Hampton Academy and prestigious Dartmouth College. Despite his sharp intellect, a penchant for works of fiction and history, and a youthful embrace of evangelical Protestantism, he was not a diligent student and left Dartmouth in 1835 without graduating. Confronted with limited career prospects at home, he joined the Yankee diaspora in the West. By the spring of 1836 he had taken up residence in Burlington, Iowa, a small but typically ambitious settlement on the Mississippi River that would be his home for the rest of his life. Equipped with a critical mind, a retentive memory, and an innate self-confidence, he established a reputation for himself as a talented and sagacious lawyer, entering into partnership with Henry W. Starr in 1841. As the local economy began to expand, the practice proved to be a lucrative one. Along with heavy speculative investments in land and tax liens, it provided the imposing young man with a sound financial base on which to build a successful political career in the new state of Iowa.

    Grimes's chosen vehicle for political advancement was the Whig Party of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. Its dominant ethos of self-improvement, positive government, and moral rectitude rendered it a logical base for a young man like Grimes, whose drive for wealth and fame was tempered by a genuine religious sensibility that, though it shaded steadily from devout Congregationalism into liberal Unitarianism, was bolstered by his wife, Elizabeth (Nealley) Grimes, whom he described feelingly as "a sort of moral thermometer for my guidance."His pronounced enthusiasm for the burgeoning market revolution was evident not only during his political apprenticeship in the Iowa legislature (where he was a leading Whig supporter of government-backed economic development) but also in his zealous efforts to promote the material fortunes of both himself and his hometown. While market involvement and economic growth were the goals of most of his fellow settlers, Grimes's political progress was hampered by the Democratic Party's solid grip on Iowa politics in the 1840s. At the beginning of 1854, however, he found his career prospects transformed by the introduction into Congress of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, a deeply controversial measure that threatened to spread slavery into new territories on Iowa's western border.

    Grimes's supreme achievement in the 1850s was to fashion an effective political coalition capable of destroying the power of the local Democratic Party. He accomplished this objective in two stages. First, he engineered a remarkable political coup. Emphasizing his stalwart opposition to slavery, he closed the Whigs' existing election gap with the Democrats by persuading Iowa's small band of inde pendent political abolitionists to support his candidacy in the 1854 gubernatorial contest. In the ensuing campaign, he issued a potent rallying call, "To the People of Iowa," in which he outlined the paralyzing consequences of having slave states to the west as well as south and underscored his determination to prevent further expansion of the South's peculiar institution. A combination of antislavery Whigs, Free-Soilers, and new voters mobilized by the Kansas-Nebraska Act voted him into office by a majority of 2,500. The new governor's second contribution to the ongoing process of political realignment in Iowa was to help convert the Whig-led anti-Nebraska coalition into a state Republican organization. Although that process was no smoother than it was in other Northern states, Grimesacted on the same belief as other Republican Party builders (notably Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, with whom he was in close contact during the mid 1850s), that "fusion" could best be accomplished on the basis of unalloyed opposition to the South's aggressive planter class–"the Slave Power" in contemporary parlance. He therefore resisted the temptation to court the support of anti-immigrant nativists and committed himself and his embryonic party to the defense of "freedom."His efforts to solidify the anti-Democratic forces in Iowa were aided by an outbreak of guerrilla warfare in neighboring Kansas during the winter of 1855-1856. Grimesused his office to harangue the federal government for its failure to protect free-state settlers from proslavery violence. He gave succor to armed abolitionists bound for Kansas, and at one stage informed President Franklin Pierce that a situation might arise when Northern states would have to "interpose" their power to defend the rights of free-staters. He was not present at the founding convention of Iowa's Republican Party in February 1856, but the new organization was spawned by a sectional conflict that Grimeshad done nothing to discourage.

    In addition to helping to forge a new political party, Grimesdeployed his executive powers positively to promote Iowa's development along discernibly Whiggish lines. Government, he announced tellingly in his inaugural address on December 9, 1854, was designed not only to protect the governed but also "to foster the instincts of truth, justice and philanthropy, that are implanted in our very natures."Sensing that the state's outmoded Jacksonian constitution was an obstacle to healthy economic growth, he was a strong advocate of fundamental legal reform and welcomed the advent in 1857 of a new constitution, one that made the state a more attractive place for investors. He also backed the development of certain public institutions– among them public schools, an insane asylum, and a state university–that he believed were essential to the general welfare. But while these policies were clearly those of a New England-born Whig, Grimeswas too shrewd a politician to antagonize antislavery Democrats sympathetic to Republicanism. Despite close personal ties with railroad officials–his former Dartmouth tutor, prominent developer of western railroads James F. Joy, helped alleviate the governor's business debts with payments totaling $20,000–he posed as an outspoken critic of monopolistic corporations during the severe economic downturn of 1857-1858, when public hostility to railroads reached an antebellum peak.

    After stepping down as governor, Grimesrepresented Iowa in the U.S. Senate between 1859 and 1869. Refusing to yield to what most Republicans saw as proslavery blustering, he opposed any compromise likely to satisfy secessionists in the wake of his party's fateful election victory in November 1860, and during the ensuing Civil War he cooperated with fellow Republican senators to fashion a systematic attack on slavery as part of a broad-based effort to crush Confederate resistance. As the North's military situation began to improve, he and other moderate Republicans, including his close friend Senator William P. Fessenden of Maine, began to question the radicals' endorsement of centralizing measures and preoccupation with the rights of African Americans. In 1865 he opposed the creation of the Freedmen's Bureau (on the grounds that the freed slaves were best left to fend for themselves rather than become dependent wards of the United States) and tried in vain to resist a growing movement within Republican ranks at home to enfranchise Iowa blacks. Although the necessity of preserving the fruits of Northern victory impelled him to support most landmark Reconstruction measures, he controversially voted with the Democratic minority to defeat the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in May 1868. Widely denigrated for that action and burdened with deteriorating health, Grimesresigned his Senate seat in August 1869 while touring Europe. Visibly aged and increasingly irritable, he was cooperating with dissident Liberal Republicans at the time of his death from heart disease at the beginning of 1872.
Sources William Salter, The Life of James W. Grimes: Governor of Iowa, 1854–1858; A Senator of the United States, 1859–1869 (1876), remains the only full-length biography of Grimes. It is dated but contains a wealth of useful documentary material. Cyrus C. Carpenter, "James W. Grimes: Governor and Senator," Annals of Iowa 1 (1894), 505–25, is an insightful short sketch by an admiring fellow Republican and former Iowa governor. Robert Cook, Baptism of Fire: The Republican Party in Iowa, 1838–1877 (1994), provides political context for evaluating Grimes's actions. Fred B. Lewellen, "Political Ideas of James W. Grimes," Iowa Journal of History and Politics 42 (1944), 339–404, contains important insights into the progressive nature of Grimes's Whiggery but slights his growing commitment to financial conservatism and laissez-faire. Grimes's major gubernatorial pronouncements can be found in Benjamin F. Shambaugh, ed., Messages and Proclamations of the Governors of Iowa (1903–1905). His role in Andrew Johnson's impeachment was one of John F. Kennedy's subjects in Profiles in Courage (1956).
Contributor: Robert J. Cook

Cite as: Cook, Robert J. "Grimes, James Wilson" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 13 December 2017