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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Kirkwood, Samuel Jordan
(December, 20, 1813–September 1, 1894)

–one of 19th-century Iowa's leading Republican politicians—was born in northern Maryland. He hailed from a Scotch-Irish family of modest standing, his father, Jabez, being a blacksmith and elder in the local Presbyterian church. After receiving a rudimentary education in country schools until the age of 10, he was enrolled in a private academy in Washington, D.C., where he studied classics, rhetoric, and literature. Although his youthful desire for self-improvement was evident in his efforts to form a debating society, Kirkwood's prospects for social advancement appeared to be poor. As a teenager, he worked as a clerk in his brother's drugstore and for a time taught school in Pennsylvania. Initially, the family's move to rural Ohio had little impact on his fortunes–indeed, his humble status rendered him sympathetic to the working-class radicalism of the English Chartists and the Jacksoniandemocrats. In March 1841, however, the plain, homespun Kirkwood began studying law in the town of Mansfield. Two years later he was admitted to the Ohio bar and soon became a prominent local Democrat. In 1853 he traveled west to visit his brother-in-law, a miller in Johnson County, Iowa. Impressed with what he saw, he became a partner in the family business and moved to Iowa in the spring of 1855.

    An enthusiastic exponent of the North's free-labor system, Kirkwood was drawn naturally to Iowa's nascent Republican Party, which positioned itself as a foe of slavery expansion and the Southern plantocracy. His clarity of expression, plain farmer's attire, and unpretentious ways gave him immediate kudos in a market-oriented white settler society that prided itself on its solid, rural values. After attending the party's first organizing convention in February 1856, he established himself as a force to be reckoned with in Johnson County politics, his influence enhanced by the Republicans' eagerness to recruit more former Democrats like himself. In January 1857 he was appointed chairman of the party's new State Central Committee, a strategically important post that brought him into close contact with Iowa's most powerful Republican, Governor James W. Grimes. Although Grimes, an ex-Whig, held stronger views on the immorality of slavery, the two men found themselves in agreement on many key issues, not only the threat to free white labor posed by slavery expansion but also the depression-era imperative to prevent too close an association in the public mind between the Republicans and increasingly unpopular railroad corporations. Kirkwood's public opposition to Governor Ralph Lowe 's politically suicidal plans for state aid to the troubled railroads made him an ideal choice to succeed Lowe as governor. Adeptly packaged by Iowa Republicans as a man of the people, Kirkwood defeated his Democratic opponent, A. C. Dodge, in October 1859 by a respectable margin of more than 3,000 votes.

    Kirkwood's eventful two terms in office were dominated by the politics of sectionalism and the exigencies of the Civil War. Shortly after taking office, he was confronted by the arrival in Iowa of the Springdale abolitionist Benjamin Coppoc, who had evaded capture after the failure of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. Although a conservative Republican, Kirkwood knew the strength of anti-Southern feeling among his copartisans. He rejected an initial requisition request from the governor of Virginia, thereby allowing the young Quaker to make good his escape. In his inaugural address on January 11, 1860, the new governor criticized Brown's invasion of Virginia as "unlawful" and "misguided" and made public his own support for the voluntary colonization of African Americans in Latin America. In the ensuing presidential contest, Kirkwood strongly supported the Republicans' nomination of Abraham Lincoln (another man expertly branded by the party). During the secession crisis that followed Lincoln's election, Kirkwood made clear his belief that the Union must not be sundered, but he countenanced a number of compromise measures to stave off civil conflict, most notably perhaps his revealing suggestion that fugitive slaves captured in the North might be taken south again before being given the opportunity to request a trial.

    Kirkwood's place in Iowa history was cemented by his actions as the state's principal Civil War governor. Given the constraints placed on him by Iowa's position as one of the poorest states in the Union, he compiled a solid record of achievement between April 1861 and January 1864. Aided by his competent adjutant general, Nathaniel Baker; by his contacts with local bankers; and by direct assistance from Washington, Kirkwood armed and equipped nearly 20,000 men by the first winter of the war. He was assiduous of the welfare of the troops, visiting them frequently in the field, overseeing the appointment of the Iowa State Army Sanitary Commission, and (admittedly in part for political reasons) insisting on their right to vote in wartime elections. He soon became a strong advocate of "hard war" policies against the Confederacy and was tough on any signs of treason at home, especially when seditious action could be connected plausibly to opposition Peace Democrats. In August 1863, for example, in the midst of a fierce election contest, he accompanied 10 companies of infantry to crush a reported outbreak of violence involving antiwar Copperheads in Keokuk County. His overriding determination to preserve the Union induced him to lobby hard during the difficult summer of 1862 for the enlistment of African American troops into the Union army. His views on that controversial policy, however, were permeated with white supremacism. "When this war is over," he wrote, "& we have summed up the entire loss of life it has imposed on the country I shall not have any regrets if it is found that a part of the dead are niggers and that all are not white men."

    After Appomattox, Kirkwood remained an important though not central figure in Iowa politics for more than two decades. When James Harlan was appointed to Andrew Johnson's cabinet in the spring of 1865, Kirkwood was an obvious choice for Harlan's vacated seat in the U.S. Senate. During his brief tenure, he supported congressional Reconstruction measures but played little part in debate. However, he courted controversy in December 1866 by angrily criticizing Radical Republican efforts to require black suffrage as a condition for Nebraska statehood. He was no match for the high-minded senator from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner, however, and even relatively cautious Republicans at home questioned his stance on this issue. Kirkwood's political career stalled in the late 1860s, and he turned to devoting much of his time to business. In 1875, however, factionalism within Iowa's ruling Republican organization prompted his nomination for governor as a candidate who could not only unite the state party but also win over voters galvanized by emotional issues such as prohibition and railroad regulation. The popular "old war governor" reluctantly accepted and was elected with a majority of more than 31,000 votes. Although his inaugural address highlighted his characteristic preference for conservative economic policies and a moderate approach to railroad regulation, his third term was cut short by acquisition of the prize for which he had long thirsted: a full term in the U.S. Senate. Unhappily, neither that office nor his brief tenure as U.S. secretary of the interior in 1881-1882 added luster to his political career. Kirkwood died in Iowa City at the age of 80.
Sources Dan Elbert Clark, Samuel Jordan Kirkwood (1917), remains the only scholarly biography. Seriously dated and lacking even the primary materials contained in many political biographies of the day, it should be supplemented by S. H. M. Byers, Iowa in War Times (1888); William B. Hesseltine, Lincoln and the War Governors (1948); Robert Cook, Baptism of Fire: The Republican Party in Iowa, 1838–1878 (1994); and Kirkwood's major state papers in Benjamin F. Shambaugh, ed., Messages and Proclamations of the Governors of Iowa (1903–1905).
Contributor: Robert J. Cook

Cite as: Cook, Robert J. "Kirkwood, Samuel Jordan" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 13 December 2017