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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Jones, George Wallace
(April 12, 1804–July 22, 1896)

–lawyer, railroad promoter, and one of Iowa's first U.S. senators—was a controversial antebellum Iowa politician whose sympathy for Southern causes ultimately detracted from his political reputation. After serving Iowa in the U.S. Senate, he briefly won appointment as an Americandiplomat until his arrest as a Confederate sympathizer during the early days of the Civil War.

    Jones was born in Vincennes, Indiana, the son of John Rice Jones and Mary (Barger) Jones. As a young man, he spent much time in such slave states as Missouri. While attending Kentucky's Transylvania University, he became acquainted with several Southerners, including Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. Upon his graduation in 1825, he won admittance to the bar. In his early career, he lived in the Wisconsin area of Michigan Territory, developing lead mines and other business interests near Sinsinawa Mound. During the Black Hawk War of 1832, he served as an aide to General Henry Dodge, father to Augustus C. Dodge, another Iowa senator. Together, Dodge and Jones later became notorious for supporting proslavery initiatives while representing Iowa.

    Jones settled in Dubuque, Iowa, in 1836, after marrying Josephine Grégorie, from an old French family in Missouri. The couple had five children. Jones quickly became a key political power broker in predominantly Democratic Dubuque. Thanks to fortunate political connections, he won a series of advantageous government appointments, including surveyor of public lands for Wisconsin and Iowa from 1840 to 1848. From 1835 to 1839 he served as territorial delegate first for Michigan and then for Wisconsin. In that role he was instrumental in crafting territorial status for both Wisconsin and Iowa. While in Washington, he almost ended his political career in 1838 by serving as a second in the infamous duel between William J. Graves and Jonathan Cilley.

    In 1848 Iowa's Democratic legislature elected Jones one of the state's first U.S. senators. As a senator, his service to Iowa came primarily in terms of railroad development. He helped to bring the Illinois Central to Dubuque and then helped win federal land grants for several railroad lines to cross Iowa from east to west. Always interested in land development deals, Jones thus served to promote Iowa's emergence as a modern state.

    In other respects Senator Jones failed to represent Iowa's emerging politics. The state's early Southern orientation eventually gave way to a growing migration from Northern states and from Europe. As a Democratic politician with ties to Southern leaders, Jones earned the dubious status as a "doughface," a free-state leader who supported proslavery positions. Even while living in Iowa, Jones had owned several slaves. In 1850 he supported passage of the harsh new Fugitive Slave Act, which helped owners reclaim their escaped slaves. Then, in 1854, along with Senator Dodge, Jones supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which reopened the slavery controversy in the territory on Iowa's western border. Iowa's Democratic senators supported such territorial organization to promote further western development and to benefit their party, but the resulting sectional debate over slavery's expansion backfired for them. In this respect, both Jones and Dodge indirectly and inadvertently contributed to the rise of the Republican Party in their state, a development that ultimately doomed their careers.

    Jones had secured his reelection to the Senate in 1852, but was unable to withstand the growing antislavery sentiment in Iowa and failed in his bid for reelection in 1858. By that time, he had further antagonized Northern interests by supporting the notorious Lecompton Constitution, a failed proposal that would have made Kansas a slave state. Jones remained loyal to the Buchanan administration, which rewarded him with another political appointment. At that point in his career, he opposed the leadership of fellow midwestern Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois. In the heated presidential campaign of 1860, he favored the proslavery candidacy of Kentucky's John C. Breckinridge. Years later Jones would be one of the few Northerners to attend the funeral of his old friend Jefferson Davis.

    Aside from his doughface politics, Jones proved an unusual antebellum political leader in another way. He was a member of the Catholic faith. He was baptized by Bishop John Hughes of New York, who later became the first archbishop of New York. Jones's regard for the Catholic religion helped to win him an appointment in 1859 as American minister to New Granada, today's Colombia. However, during that period his letters of support for the new president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, brought an order of arrest by Secretary of State William Seward. Jones did not stand trial, and after 64 days in detention, President Abraham Lincoln ordered his release. Thus Jones exemplifies Lincoln's policy of detaining potential subversives until the initial crisis passed. Jones's unpopular stances forced him into a long political retirement. He returned to his business interests and relative obscurity until his death in Dubuque at age 92. He was buried in that city's Mount Olivet Cemetery.
Sources Jones's papers are at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City. There are biographical sketches of him in the Dictio nary of American Biography vol. 5 (1958), the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, and American National Biography . Jones provided material for a biography published in 1912, George Wallace Jones, by John Carl Parish. For his role as a power broker and booster in Dubuque, see Timothy R. Mahoney, "The Rise and Fall of the Booster Ethos in Dubuque, 1850–1861," Annals of Iowa 61 (2002), 380–406.
Contributor: Vernon L. Volpe

Cite as: Volpe, Vernon L. "Jones, George Wallace" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 26 April 2018