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


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Kenyon, William Squire
(June 10, 1869–September 9, 1933)

–attorney, judge, and U.S. senator—was born in Elyria, Ohio, one of four children of Fergus L. and Hattie A. (Squire) Kenyon. Of Scottish birth, his father was a Princeton-educated professor of Greek, a Presbyterian minister who became a Congregationalist, and a college president. The family moved to Iowa when Kenyon was a child, and he would claim Fort Dodge as his lifelong home.

    Kenyon attended Iowa College (now Grinnell College) for two years before transferring in 1888 to the Law Department at the State University of Iowa, where he received a law degree in 1890. He was admitted to the bar the next year and began to practice law in Fort Dodge. Law was Kenyon's love, and he rose rapidly in the profession. In 1892 he was elected prosecuting attorney of Webster County and held that position for five years. He was elected judge of the Eleventh Judicial District of Iowa in 1900, but the low salary caused him to resign and resume private practice after two years.

    On May 11, 1893, he married Mary Duncombe, whose maternal grandfather, Major William Williams, was a founder of Fort Dodge and whose father, John F. Duncombe, was an attorney for the Illinois Central Railroad Company. Kenyon formed a partnership with his father-in-law and, after John Duncombe's death, became general counsel for the Illinois Central during the first decade of the 20th century. President Taft appointed him assistant to U.S. Attorney General George W. Wickersham in March 1910. His antitrust suits against packinghouses, railroad rebates, the Southern Wholesale Grocers' Association, the Chicago butter and eggs trust, and a harvester trust won him the political spotlight.

    That step in his career was cut short when Jonathan P. Dolliver, U.S. senator from Iowa, died in October 1910. After 67 ballots during a three-month deadlock in the state legislature, Kenyon, on the day of adjournment, April 12, 1911, was elected to fill the unexpired term. Thus Kenyon, a proponent of direct election of senators, was the last Iowa senator to be elected by the state legislature. The 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution providing for direct election was adopted on May 31, 1913, just after he was elected to his first full term, and he was reelected without opposition by direct ballot in 1918.

    Kenyon, a progressive Republican, was a popular senator known for his hard work, integrity, moral courage, and sympathy for the common person, and his independent views sometimes engendered the labels "Insurgent" and "nonconformist."His legislative list is long and varied: support for revision of tariffs downward, an income tax, a federal corporation tax, increase of soldiers' pensions, regulation of interstate liquor traffic and the coal industry, a federal tribunal to settle employee-employer disputes, prohibition of using patents to create monopolies, and opposition to wasteful expenditures. Three bills bear his name: an amendment to the Sherman Antitrust Act allowing jail sentences for trust offenders, a freight bill, and the Webb-Kenyon law preventing shipment of liquor to dry territories. He was opposed to World War I but became an ardent supporter of the effort once the United States entered the conflict. In 1918 the republic of Czechoslovakia decorated him for assisting its liberation. Although he supported Taft in 1912, he opposed some of the roughshod tactics used against the progressives.

    Some of Kenyon's most outstanding work was related to agriculture. When Warren G. Harding became president in 1921, Kenyon supported the appointment of fellow Iowan Henry C. Wallace as secretary of agriculture and worked closely with him to enact a spate of legislation in the early 1920s. Following World War I, depression came early to the nation's farmer Kenyon led a bipartisan effort to enact relief for farmer The legislators involved in that effort became known as the Farm Bloc, which grew into a powerful force that produced landmark legislation: the regulatory Packers and Stockyards Act and Grain Futures Act, the Emergency Agricultural Credits Act, two amendments to the Federal Farm Loan Act, the Capper-Volstead Cooperative Marketing Act, and the Intermediate Credits Act. Despite these accomplishments, dissension emerged after several years regarding the dumping of agricultural commodities, tariffs, and credit policy, and the Farm Bloc disintegrated.

    Two additional factors contributed to the bloc's decline: Henry C. Wallace's death in 1924 and Kenyon's resignation from the Senate to accept appointment to the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals on February 24, 1922. Kenyon's lifelong ambition was thus fulfilled, and he remained in that position until his death. Two offers by President Calvin Coolidge to accept cabinet posts and urgings to run for another Senate term, the vice presidency, and the presidency were all rejected. While on the bench, he did accept appointment by President Herbert Hoover to the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, better known as the Wickersham Commission. Kenyon's most noted contribution, which showed his dispassionate posture, was an individual report in which he stated that Prohibition was a failure, despite his strong advocacy of Prohibition.

    As a judge, Kenyon was lauded for his rectitude, intellectual acuity, fearlessness, and sense of justice. A scandal at the Wyoming naval oil reserve, Teapot Dome, led to his most famous ruling. During the Harding administration, Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall improperly leased the site to the private Mammoth Oil Company. Kenyon, using strong words, overturned the Cheyenne District Court's ruling that there had been no fraud.

    Kenyon's lifestyle was simple and unassuming. His passion for good causes and philanthropy for the unfortunate was carried out unostentatiously, and he was active in local organizations such as the Congregational church and Masons. In his later years, he spent summers in Sebasco, Maine, where he acquired a taste for golf. While playing on a course near his home with his friend, former Iowa Governor Nathan E. Kendall, he had a heart attack. Six weeks later he died. Governor Kendall delivered the eulogy at Kenyon's funeral in Fort Dodge, immortalizing him as "a noble personality–the noblest I ever encountered in private life or public station."
Sources Kenyon's papers are in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. See also microfilm and scrapbook clippings from the Des Moines Register, Des Moines Tribune, and Iowa Bystander at the Des Moines Public Library; Edgar R. Harlan, A Narrative History of the People of Iowa (1931); Donald L. Winters, Henry Cantwell Wallace as Secretary of Agriculture, 1921–1924 (1970); Don Muhm and Virginia Wadsley, Iowans Who Made a Difference (1996); and Eli Daniel Potts, "William Squire Kenyon and the Iowa Senatorial Election of 1911," Annals of Iowa 38 (1966), 206–22.
Contributor: Virginia Wadsley