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Hepburn, William Peters
(November 3, 1833–February 7, 1916)

–lawyer and U.S. representative—was born in Wellsville, Ohio. His father, John S. Hepburn, a West Point-educated artillery officer, died in New Orleans of cholera nearly six months before his son's birth. His mother, Ann Fairfax (Catlett) Hepburn, a schoolteacher, married George S. Hampton, who moved the family to Iowa in 1841 after his shipping business failed. After attempting to farm for two years, the family moved to Iowa City in 1843. There William entered school for the first time, attending irregularly for five years while working at a variety of jobs. He credited his apprenticeship at the Iowa City Republican, a Whig newspaper, as his greatest education. His fascination with politics inspired him to study law under William Penn Clarke in 1853. After passing the Illinois bar in 1854, he began practicing law in Chicago. The following year he married Melvina A. Morsman, and the couple eventually had five children. Shortly after their marriage, the couple moved to Marshalltown, Iowa, where William started his own law firm.

    Hepburn began his political career by attending the first Iowa Republican convention in 1856. He gained political influence and was elected prosecuting attorney of Marshall County. When the Republican Party took control of Iowa's Sixth General Assembly in 1856, Hepburn's loyalty was rewarded with an appointment to the office of assistant clerk, and he served as chief clerk in 1858. Later that year Hepburn was elected district attorney of the Eleventh District. He remained active in the Republican Party, serving as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1860.

    The outbreak of the Civil War left Hepburn torn between remaining at home and joining the war effort. After the Union's defeat at Bull Run, he helped organize Company B of the Second Iowa Volunteer Cavalry, which elected him as captain. He advanced to the ranks of major and eventually lieutenant colonel, and gained recognition for his valiant service at the Battle of Corinth. Following the war, Hepburn moved to Memphis and opened a law firm, but the effort was short-lived. In 1867 he moved to Clarinda, Iowa, to serve as editor and partial owner of the Page County Herald. He later opened a law office, which handled cases for the Burlington Railroad after it extended its line through Council Bluffs.

    Politically, in the 1870s Hepburn backed the progressive wing of the Republican Party, supporting Horace Greeley for president. In 1880 he moved into the national political arena when he won the Republican nomination for the Eighth District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He defeated the incumbent William Sapp on the 385th ballot of the state Republican convention.

    During his first six years in Washington, Hepburn supported the payment of veterans' pensions, criticized pork projects of the River and Harbor Bill, and lobbied for temperance reform. In 1886 Albert R. Anderson defeated Hepburn for reelection by focusing on the tariff and railroad regulation. Hepburn returned to his law practice in Clarinda, but remained politically active. In the Harrison administration, he served on the Pacific Railroad Commission and as solicitor of the treasury.

    In 1892 Hepburn was reelected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Iowa's Eighth District and gradually rose to national political prominence. In 1895 he was appointed to chair the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce. His work with President Theodore Roosevelt on the Hepburn Act was the culmination of his work on transportation issues. The Hepburn Act was also a centerpiece of President Roosevelt's public policies, which fostered social change and progressive reforms. When the law passed, it broadened the power of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to set maximum rates for shippers, increased the size of the ICC, outlawed pooling and rebates, set standardized accounting practices for all common carriers, and broadened the definition of common carriers to include pipelines, bridges, and terminals, bringing them under the control of the ICC.

    Hepburn was involved in and outspoken on other progressive legislation. He coauthored the Pure Food and Drug Act. Its passage in 1906 inspired Roosevelt to declare that this would be one of the most productive Congresses in history. Hepburn also fought to reduce the power of the Speaker of the House and pushed for the annexation of Hawaii and the construction of the Panama Canal. He concurred with the Republican Party's opposition to the expansion of trade unions. As a reward for his partisanship, he chaired the Republican caucus from 1903 to 1909.

    In 1908 Hepburn lost his bid for reelection, ending his political career. He remained in Washington for a couple of years, opening another law office, but he eventually returned to Clarinda, where he died in 1916. The Republican Party enjoyed the support of an impressive debater, speaker, and politician who was a leader in Iowa politics and a loyal Republican for 60 years. Newspapers across the country ran obituaries for the great Republican from Iowa.
Sources Hepburn left no collection of papers, but his correspondence can be found in the collections of some of his contemporaries. There is a single biography by John Ely Briggs, William Peters Hepburn (1919). An obituary appeared in the New York Times, 2/8/1916.
Contributor: Jason Williamson