The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Kasson, John Adams
(January 11, 1822–May 18, 1910)

–the great survivor of 19th-century Iowa politics—was born in Charlotte, Vermont, the son of a prosperous farmer and devout mother. After his father's death, the family moved to the lumber port of Burlington, Vermont. In 1837 Kasson entered the town's Old Academy, where he studied classics and mathematics for a year. He was then admitted to the University of Vermont, where he excelled in German literature and shared the predominantly nationalist and conservative outlook of his middle-class peers. After graduation, he took up a series of temporary tutorial positions in Virginia. Although the young mandeveloped a liking for Southern whites and harbored no moral objections to life in a slaveholding society, he observed the thinness of the soil and the wasteful farming practices of the Virginians. The "niggers," he wrote, were kindly treated but were "as lazy as the land is lean."

    In July 1843 Kasson returned to New En gland to train as a lawyer, eventually settling in the whaling town of New Bedford. There this erstwhile Jacksoniandemocrat first became involved in politics, joining the new Free-Soil Party, which, for a brief moment in 1848, threatened to secure dominance over the nation's two main parties. Kasson's flirtation with the antislavery Free-Soilers evidenced no conversion to abolitionism but rather his desire to join a new organization that would circumvent the power of older political elites. Shortly after marrying Caroline Eliot, the daughter of his New Bedford law partner and a woman scarcely less pious than his own mother, Kasson migrated westward to St. Louis. Although he acquired a domestic slave named Lydia as well as his own law office, he quickly attached himself to the free-soil wing of the local Democratic Party led by the old Jacksonian warrior Thomas Hart Ben-ton and his chief lieutenant, Francis P. Blair. Restless, vain, and ambitious, Kasson moved on again in 1857–this time to Des Moines, the ramshackle new capital of Iowa.

    Kasson's fierce intellect, political skill, and organizing talents rendered him an influential power broker in the raw settler society taking root west of the Mississippi River. He soon garnered not only a reputation as one of Des Moines' most competent lawyers but also a growing fortune based partly on his practice of lending cash at interest rates as high as 40 percent. An ally of local businessmen and railroad promoters such as the Council Bluffs engineer Grenville M. Dodge, Kasson was appointed chairman of the new Republican Party's State Central Committee in 1858. That position gave him a strong power base within the new party, and he used it to good effect, masterminding Samuel J. Kirkwood 's gubernatorial election in 1859 and playing a leading role on the subcommittee appointed to draft the Republican Party's national platform at Chicago in 1860.

    Although his conservatism was not shared by radical antislavery Republicans, it helped to moderate the party's dangerously sectional image in the eyes of many Northern voters. At Chicago, Kasson worked closely with the influential New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley. Greeley was far more progressive than Kasson on the slavery question, but both men understood that the party's radical instincts had to be curbed if Abraham Lincoln was to be elected. Kasson's empathy for Southern whites resurfaced after Lincoln's victory in November 1860. Unlike most of his copartisans, he argued that the seceding states should be allowed to leave the Union in peace.

    During the Civil War, Kasson established himself as a staunch supporter of President Lincoln, initially in his capacity as first assistant postmaster general and then, from 1863, as an Iowa congressman. He advanced his political career in both positions in part through his continuing contacts with the conservative Blair family, whose influence in Lincoln's cabinet was regarded with suspicion by growing numbers of Republicans. No less helpful to Kasson's ambitions were his connections to Iowa's embryonic railroad ring. He pressed hard for Dodge's promotion after the Union army's impressive victory at Pea Ridge in March 1862 and urged the general to avoid the blandishments of antislavery radicals in Union-controlled Missouri. Although Kasson supported Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation as a necessary war measure, his utility to the ring declined as the temper of the country grew more extreme under the strains of war. By 1866 his political career was in trouble. He had alienated Dodge by refusing to promote the general's scheming lickspittle, George Tichenor, as federal postmaster at Des Moines and now found himself out of step with popular opinion at home because of his support for President Andrew Johnson's lenient Southern policy. Worse still, he was the subject of sensational claims that he was an adulterer. A damaging and very public lawsuit ended in divorce, and the congressman's political stock plummeted. Notwithstanding his belated efforts to pose as a radical, Kasson's opponents launched a coordinated and ultimately successful campaign to defeat his renomination in 1866.

    During the late 1860s and early 1870s, the wounded politician advanced his career by rebuilding his local base. He served three consecutive terms in the Iowa House, playing a leading role in securing appropriations for a new state capitol and cultivating a compelling image as a reform-oriented but essentially loyal Republican. His efforts paid off. In 1872 he was reelected to Congress once again; two years later he survived final attempts by the ruling machine to oust him. Although he never quite fulfilled his early potential, Kasson went on to build a solid record of partisan and diplomatic service.

    Suave, polished, and an admirer of all things German (he was an outspoken champion of Bismarck), he accepted a variety of high-profile foreign missions in the 1880s and 1890s, notably the posts of American minister to Germany and U.S. representative to the 1889 Berlin conference, which settled the two nations' differences over the Samoan islands. He was also a conservative commentator on some of the worst evils of the Gilded Age, urging a greater voice for the wealthy in municipal elections. He died at the age of 88.
Sources Edward Younger, John A. Kasson: Politics and Diplomacy from Lincoln to McKinley (1955), is a dated but still useful biography of Kasson. Kasson's writing can be sampled in "Municipal Reform," North American Review 137 (1883), 218–30; and "Otto von Bismarck, Man and Minister," North American Review 143 (1886), 105–18.
Contributor: Robert J. Cook