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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Mahony, Dennis A.
(January 21, 1820–November 6, 1879)

–one of the founders of the Democratic Dubuque Herald and Civil War dissenter– emerged as a noted Iowa political leader after emigrating from Ireland. A conservative Democrat in the Civil War era, Mahony's active role in politics declined as the Republican Party grew to dominance in Iowa and as his opposition to the Lincoln administration grew unpopular.

    Mahony was born in the Irish county of Cork. By 1831 his family had emigrated to Philadelphia. After serving in the law offices of prominent attorney Charles J. Ingersoll, he settled in Dubuque, Iowa, in 1843. In addition to his legal career, Mahony contributed to early education in Iowa and remained active in publishing. His significant role, however, remained as a Democratic politician with Irish roots.

    Many Irish Americans loyally supported the Democratic Party due to its liberal support for immigrant voting rights and its resistance to legal restrictions on cultural practices relating to personal behavior and religion. (Mahony was a prominent lay Catholic.) In addition, territorial Iowa politics was dominated by conservative Democratic politicos with connections to proslavery party leaders in the nation's capital. Such ties to powerful politicians gave party operatives such as Mahony numerous opportunities, but also contributed to their premature retirement from active politics as the Civil War era emerged.

    Powerful Democratic Senators Augustus C. Dodge and George Wallace Jones dominated early Iowa's state political scene. Their Southern alliances, however, proved detrimental as Northern public opinion turned against such proslavery politicians and their support of the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The new antislavery Republican Party came to control Iowa politics, and Southern-leaning politicians lost face, favor, and position in the process. Mahony in particular embraced controversial views, eventually criticizing the wartime policies of the Lincoln administration, especially the draft.

    After serving in minor appointive posts, in 1848 Mahony took a seat in the Iowa General Assembly. In 1852 he joined an enterprise that eventually published the Dubuque Herald, Iowa's first daily newspaper. After selling his interest in the paper, Mahony rejoined the state legislature in 1858 and in 1860 restored his interest in the Herald. During the Civil War (1863-1865), he also served as Dubuque County sheriff.

    By that time, however, Mahony's Democratic alliances had become more and more unpopular. Dodge and Jones lost their Senate seats as Iowa voters rebuked those who favored proslavery politics. Wartime politics exposed such outspoken critics as Mahony, as his initial defense of the Union turned to harsh editorials critical of the Lincoln administration. Such notoriety prompted his arrest in 1862 for undermining the war effort and his detention for three months in Washington's Old Capitol Prison. He was released after signing a loyalty oath, but remained bitter about his treatment.

    Mahony thus emerged as a prominent though contentious voice of the Peace Democrat movement. In 1863 he published an account of his controversial imprisonment as Prisoner of State. An ally of Ohio's famous Copperhead Democrat Clement Vallandigham, Mahony ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Congress in 1862. The Republican William B. Allison defeated him handily, although Mahony did carry Dubuque County. After serving as county sheriff, Mahony eventually retired from active politics to pursue his publishing interests in the St. Louis Star and the Dubuque Telegraph. He died in 1879 and was buried in Jackson County, Iowa.
Sources Limited information on Mahony is in The United States Biographical Dictionary and Portrait Gallery of Eminent and Self-Made Men (1878), available at www.celticcousins. net. Also helpful is the biographical entry at www.wikipedia.org. The best analysis of Iowa's early political revolution is Robert Dykstra, Bright Radical Star: Black Freedom and White Supremacy on the Hawkeye Frontier (1993). The best treatments of Civil War dissent are Frank L. Klement, The Limits of Dissent: Clement L. Vallandigham and the Civil War (1970); and, more recently, Jennifer L. Weber, Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln's Opponents in the North (2006). See also "Dennis Mahony and the Dubuque Herald, 1860–1863," Iowa Journal of History 56 (1958), 289–320; and Hubert H. Wubben, Civil War Iowa and the Copperhead Movement (1980).
Contributor: Vernon L. Volpe

Cite as: Volpe, Vernon L. "Mahony, Dennis A." The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 12 December 2017