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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
McCrary, George Washington
(August 29, 1835–June 23, 1890)

–U.S. congressman and secretary of war—was born near Evansville, Indiana, to James McCrary, a farmer, and Matilda Forest McCrary. In 1837 the family moved to a new home in Van Buren County, Iowa, where George grew up working on the farm and attending the local rural schools. At the age of 18, George was sufficiently educated to obtain employment as a schoolteacher, but he showed a strong aptitude for legal studies and soon found a position as a clerk in the Keokuk law offices of John W. Rankin and Samuel F. Miller (the latter would later become an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court). In 1856 McCrary passed the bar exam without an error, was admitted to the Iowa bar, and established a practice in Keokuk with Rankin as partner. On March 11, 1857, he married Helen A. Gelatt, and they had five children.

    McCrary, a lifelong Republican (he voted for Frémont in 1856), became interested in politics early in his legal career. Beginning in 1857, when he was elected to the Iowa House of Representatives as its youngest member, McCrary would hold elected office for the next 20 years and never lost an election. After two terms in the Iowa House, he was elected to the Iowa Senate, where he served from 1861 to 1865 and chaired the Indian Affairs and Judiciary committees. In 1868 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served until 1877. During his time in Congress, McCary served on the Naval Affairs, Railroads and Canals, Judiciary, and Revision of Laws and Elections committees. He never lost touch with his first love—the law—and became an expert on contested elections and election law. In 1875 he published what is considered the standard work on that topic, A Treatise on the American Law of Elections, which eventually went through four editions. His Committee on Railroads and Canals issued a report that laid the groundwork for later legislation that would regulate commerce.

    During the contested 1876 presidential election, McCrary helped devise the plan for the creation of the Electoral Commission and later served as Republican counsel during its deliberations. McCrary's active assistance to the Hayes forces made him a popular choice for a cabinet position, and, with the vigorous support of Iowa Senator William Boyd Allison (who would benefit by having the widely admired McCrary out of the state), Hayes chose the young (41-year-old) Iowan as his secretary of war. As such, McCrary carried out Hayes's executive order to dispatch troops during the 1877 railroad strike, and also sent forces to the Mexican border to quell a local disturbance. He also removed the last of the occupying forces in the South, thus officially concluding Reconstruction. Stretching his legal authority, McCrary ordered that tents, blankets, and rations be supplied to destitute Americans suffering from the ravages of the yellow fever epidemic that struck the South in 1878. He also supported the initial work on publishing the Civil War records of Union and Confederate forces.

    McCrary was the first member to resign from Hayes's original cabinet; he departed in December 1879 to accept Hayes's appointment as U.S. judge of the Eighth Circuit. He served in that capacity from 1880 to 1884, and then took a well-paid position that required less travel as general counsel for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad and moved to Kansas City. Poor health forced him to retire from active practice in 1889, and he died while visiting his daughter in St. Joseph, Missouri.

    He was a lifelong member of the Unitarian church and enjoyed camping and fishing and telling stories. Despite his active political career, McCrary never lost his love for the study and practice of law, and maintained his legal practice throughout his life.
Sources George Washington McCrary's personal papers are held primarily by the Jackson County Historical Society, Independence, Missouri, but some of his correspondence is also available at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio. Biographical accounts include Dictio nary of American Biography vol. 6 (1958); National Cyclopaedia of American Biography (1893); Edward H. Stiles, Recollections and Sketches of Notable Lawyers and Public Men of Early Iowa (1916); and Pioneer Law-Makers Association of Iowa, Reunion of 1892 (1893). Another brief, but useful, biographical sketch is found in Kenneth E. Davison, The Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes (1972).
Contributor: Edward A. Goedeken

Cite as: Goedeken, Edward A. "McCrary, George Washington" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 11 December 2017