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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Harlan, James
(August 26, 1820–October 5, 1899)

–teacher, Iowa's first Superintendent of Public Instruction, lawyer, university president, U.S. senator, and secretary of the Department of the Interior—was born in Clark County, Illinois, the second of 10 children born to pioneer farmer Silas and Mary (Connelly) Harlan. When James was three years old, the family moved to Park County, Indiana, where seven families formed a community called New Discovery in the wilderness. Harlan's boyhood was spent in that primitive setting of log cabins, living off the fruits of land and labor. Harlan credited his mother's "persistent patience" in teaching him to read, aided by the Bible, Hervey's Evening Meditations, and an almanac. His education was furthered by a Methodist circuit preacher and the schoolmaster who arrived when Harlan was seven years old. When he was 18, Harlan began to teach at the district school. He taught there until entering Asbury University (now DePauw University) in Green-castle, Indiana, at age 21. At Asbury, Harlan excelled as a debater, worked in the missionary society, participated in political debate, and served as a delegate to the Whig congressional convention. He also met Ann Eliza Peck in Greencastle, where she attended Miss Larabee's school for young women. They married in Greencastle on November 9, 1845.

    In March 1846 James and Ann Harlan journeyed to Iowa City, Iowa, where he had accepted the position of principal for the new Iowa City College. Contrary to the accepted practice of forming separate departments for boys and girls, Harlan integrated the sexes.

    In 1847 Harlan ran for the new position of State Superintendent of Public Instruction. No sooner had he been declared winner than the validity of the election was challenged. The Democratic Party declared that the law authorizing the election had not been properly published according to the state constitution, thus invalidating Harlan's election. Nevertheless, Harlan assumed the role and began the work of establishing an educational system for the state. He traveled throughout the state, interviewing and advising local school officials concerning the needs of schools. Harlan completed the first year in office, then, due to the controversy, agreed to run again. In the second election, he was defeated amid accusations that the Democratic Party had illegally discounted a portion of the votes and that those votes would have secured Harlan's successful election.

    After this defeat, Harlan studied law, opened a book and stationery store in Iowa City, spoke on religious and temperance issues, and was generally involved in the life of the community. In 1850 he was admitted to the bar.

    In 1853 Harlan accepted the position of president of Mount Pleasant Collegiate Institute, thus beginning a long association with the school and the town. Under Harlan's leadership, the school began offering college degrees, built a gold-domed educational building, and was rechartered as Iowa Wesleyan University to reflect its status as an educational institution and its affiliation with the Methodist Episcopal church.

    After two years as president of Iowa Wesleyan, the Iowa legislature, in March 1855, elected Harlan as the first Republican U.S. senator from Iowa. As a U.S. senator, Harlan earned respect as a persuasive and eloquent speaker. He lent his voice to halt the spread of slavery into new territories, to advocate freeing the slaves, and to recommend arming African Americans to fight against the Confederacy. He was influential in establishing the route for the Union Pacific Railroad, arguing that Congress should choose the location before any contracts were let and that it should be near the geographical center of the country, where it could lead out from the centers of population. Harlan's work to pass the Pacific Railroad bills and the Homestead Act, his advocacy for agricultural interests, and his work on behalf of Native Americans were his major contributions as senator.

    As Abraham Lincoln prepared to take office in March 1861, he consulted various advisers about choices for cabinet positions. One of those advisers was James Harlan. That consultation marked the beginning of a personal and political friendship between the two that extended to their children, with the president's son, Robert Todd Lincoln, marrying Harlan's daughter Mary in 1868. For his second term, Lincoln appointed Harlan secretary of the interior. Lincoln died before Harlan took office, and Harlan served under Andrew Johnson until disagreement with Johnson's philosophy on Reconstruction caused Harlan to resign after serving 14 months. As secretary, Harlan regulated the settlement and cultivation of public lands, urged forest conservation, and worked to protect American Indian tribes.

    Reelected to the Senate in 1866, Harlan served one more term, then suffered defeat in 1872, and the family returned to Mount Pleasant. After his retirement from public life, Harlan served Iowa Wesleyan as trustee and the Methodist Episcopal church as lay preacher, worked in the temperance movement, and participated in Republican Party politics in the state. Harlan's gift for oratory made him popular as a speaker at gatherings and celebrations. He was appointed one of the commissioners to erect the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument in Des Moines. On the occasion of the laying of the cornerstone, he began, "In the shadow of Iowa's state capitol, to initiate... the erection of a monument to commemorate in art, the patriotic deeds of our heroes, human language is too feeble to fitly express my emotions."

    Harlan attended his last public event on May 17, 1899, when he was speaker and "President of the Day" for the laying of the cornerstone of the State Historical Building in Des Moines. Five months later he died in his rooms at the Harlan Hotel in Mount Pleasant. He was buried in Forest Home Cemetery in Mount Pleasant. His home at 101 West Broad Street at Iowa Wesleyan College is preserved as the Harlan-Lincoln House museum.

    Harlan is honored as one of the two men chosen to represent Iowa in the Hall of Statues in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. As Iowa's first Superintendent of Public Instruction and president of Iowa Wesleyan University, he helped shape the quality of education in the state. As a representative of Iowa in the national political arena, he influenced the direction of the nation during the critical years surrounding the Civil War.
Sources A full biography is in Johnson Brigham, James Harlan (1913). In the creation of that biography, Brigham relied heavily on a partially completed autobiography and other papers "in the care and custody of his daughter, Mrs. Robert T. Lincoln of Chicago." The present location of that material is unknown. See also Louis A. Haselmayer, The Harlan-Lincoln Tradition at Iowa Wesleyan College (1977).
Contributor: Lynn Shook Ellsworth

Cite as: Ellsworth, Lynn Shook. "Harlan, James" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 12 December 2017