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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Lowe, Ralph Phillips
(November 27, 1805–December 22, 1883)

–lawyer, judge, and fourth governor of Iowa—was born in Warren County, Ohio, the fifth son of Jacob Derrick Lowe and Maria (Perlee) Lowe. As he grew up, he had to work hard on the family farm, which was also a stagecoach stop and an inn for travelers. His mother died when he was just five. His father remarried two more times, moving the family to Miami County, Ohio, then to Cincinnati, and finally to Dayton, where he died in 1839. Of Jacob's five sons, three, including Ralph, became lawyers.

    Ralph attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, graduating in 1829 at the age of 24. His father offered to give him a farm on the outskirts of Chicago, but Ralph had other plans. With two friends, he headed south to Alabama on horseback, hoping to get a job teaching while studying law. On the road, a drunken criminal threw a rock, almost hitting Ralph in the head. Ralph beat him with a cane until the man begged for his life. Ralph's father said that mishap was an indication that he should not have gone south, but Ralph replied that he questioned whether God would select a vicious ruffian to act on his behalf. From that experience, he adopted the motto "nil desperandum"–never despair.

    After passing the bar in Alabama, Lowe became a successful lawyer. He returned to Ohio in 1834 and formed a partnership in Dayton with his brother Peter. He also met Phoebe Carleton, who was attending college in Dayton, and they were married in 1837.

    In 1840 Ralph, Phoebe, and their infant son, Carleton, moved west to Iowa in a six-week trek over the prairies. They had two saddle horses, a spring bed in a covered wagon, and a chest of provisions. At first they settled in Muscatine, cleared some land, and built a small log cabin. Within a year Ralph was practicing law while enjoying farm life. Ralph and Phoebe had seven more boys and two girls. Ralph often spoke of the 10 years in Muscatine as the happiest years of his life.

    About 1850 he moved the family to Keokuk, and became district judge in the First Judicial District. In 1857 he accepted the Republican nomination for governor and became Iowa's fourth governor, serving from 1858 to 1860. His first year as governor was also the first year that the state legislature met in the "old brick capitol" in Des Moines, having moved the state offices the previous fall from Iowa City.

    After serving as governor, Lowe was elected as one of three Iowa Supreme Court judges (1860-1867) and was chief justice for two years. As a judge on the Iowa Supreme Court, associates said he considered every person to be honest and true until convinced otherwise. Honest and just, he was occasionally misled by a plausible argument. He never took much time to hear a case, but quickly decided the question and seldom ventured upon much elaboration. He felt that common sense was worth more to a judge than referring to cases or textbooks. He had a keen sense of what was right and was ready to brush aside all technicalities.

    In 1868 Lowe left the Supreme Court bench to practice law in Washington, D.C., on Iowa's behalf. He devoted his time to prosecuting Iowa's claim against the federal government for the sum of $800,000, which had accrued during his time as governor. The federal government had promised to compensate states for not taxing land purchases until five years after their sale. The states kept their promise, but the federal government did not. For nearly 15 years Lowe lived in Washington, D.C., and labored to influence Congress to pay the bill. It never did.

    Ralph Lowe died at the age of 78 and was buried in Glenwood Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Sources Lowe's papers are in the State Archives, State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines. See also vertical files of Iowa governors at the State Historical of Iowa, Des Moines; Michael Kramme, Governors of Iowa (2006); obituary in Annals of Iowa, 2nd ser., 3 (1884), 58–59; "Ralph P. Lowe," Iowa Historical Record 7 (1891), 145–58; The Golden Dome (1969); Burlington Hawk-Eye, 2/1/1959; and Iowa City Press-Citizen, 10/17/1945.
Contributor: Karon King

Cite as: King, Karon. "Lowe, Ralph Phillips" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 12 December 2017