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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Weaver, James Baird
(June 12, 1833–February 6, 1912)

–three-term member of Congress, two-time presidential candidate, and Iowa's most prominent Greenback and Populist politician—was born near Dayton, Ohio, to Abram and Susan Weaver. In 1835 the Weavers migrated to Cass County, Michigan, but moved west again less than a decade later, settling in 1842 outside Keosauqua, Iowa. The next year they moved farther west, to territory once reserved for the Sauk and Meskwaki Indians but recently opened up by treaty to white settlement.

    Weaver's formative childhood experiences occurred on the family homestead in what became Davis County. He discovered his facility with the English language in the county's schoolhouses. Frontier circuit riders and the ardent Christianity practiced on the frontier shaped his spiritual development. Most significant, perhaps, his family's involvement in politics guided him toward his career. Abram Weaver was elected to the county's first board of commissioners and became a frequent, if not always successful, candidate for local office in the 1840s and 1850s.

    Abram was a Democrat, but the extended family included a prominent Iowa Whig, Hosea B. Horn, who married Abram's daughter Margaret, and ran as the Whig candidate for state treasurer in 1852. When James Weaver returned to Iowa from an expedition to California in search of gold, he embraced his father's partisan affiliation, but his outlook changed after studying law in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1855-1856 under the tutelage of well-known Whig Bellamy Storer.

    Soon after returning to Iowa, Weaver enlisted in Iowa's burgeoning antislavery movement. In 1858 he married Keosauqua schoolteacher Clara Vinson, who shared his religious faith and would develop in later years into an advocate for woman suffrage. The young couple settled in Bloomfield, where Weaver practiced law, became an active Methodist layman, and put his talent for oratory at the service of the new Republican Party. In 1860 Weaver numbered among the Iowa Republicans who attended the Chicago convention at which Abraham Lincoln was nominated for president.

    After the fall of Fort Sumter in 1861, Weaver, along with thousands of other Iowans, answered Lincoln's call for volunteers. He was elected second lieutenant in Company G of the Second Iowa Infantry and saw service at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and Corinth. Prior to the Battle of Corinth, he was promoted to the rank of major. When the unit's commanding officer and second-in-command were mortally wounded during battle, Weaver found himself in command. When he left the army in 1864, he held the rank of colonel. In 1866 he received a brevet appointment as brigadier general, reflecting the Republican leadership's high regard for Weaver.

    Over the next several years, however, his standing declined precipitously. His advocacy of prohibition made party leaders uncomfortable, and his alliance with fellow Methodist James Harlan of Mount Pleasant put him on the losing side in Harlan's power struggle with William Boyd Allison of Dubuque for control of the state party apparatus. In 1874 Weaver lost by a single vote the Republican nomination for Congress from the south-central Sixth District. In 1875 a last-minute stampede on the convention floor in favor of former governor Samuel Kirkwood deprived Weaver of the Republican gubernatorial nomination. A final blow came in the fall of that year, when Davis County voters defeated Weaver's bid for the state senate. By then, the once coming man of Iowa Republican politics looked like a failed office-seeker with little future.

    At that time, the emergence of the Greenback Party, opposed to currency contraction that contributed to the deflationary pressures of the post-Civil War economy, attracted Weaver's attention. He attended the party's 1876 convention in Indianapolis but supported the Republican ticket that year. In 1877, however, Weaver formally broke with the Republican Party and enlisted in the ranks of the Greenbacks, whose economic reform program appealed to his crusading temperament. In 1878, working skillfully to attract Democratic support, Weaver was elected to Congress, where he immediately emerged as the most energetic and articulate champion of the Greenback agenda. In 1880 he won the party's presidential nomination and embarked on an unprecedented nationwide campaign speaking tour. Weaver received 306,000 votes, almost four times as many as the party's presidential candidate in 1876, but only 3.3 percent of the ballots cast. As the decade continued, Weaver attempted to wean the Greenbacks from their emphasis on monetary issues to become a broader reform party that championed other reform causes, such as the antimonopoly movement, voting rights for women, and protection of labor. Nonetheless, the party's strength continued to fade.

    After suffering defeats in races for Congress in 1882 and Iowa governor in 1883, Weaver returned to Congress with Democratic support in 1884 and 1886. His proven ability to attract votes prompted an offer from Iowa Republicans of any office he wanted if he would return to the party, but Weaver declined the invitation. As the 1880s closed, he remained a leading national figure in agrarian reform politics, but the Greenback Party ceased to exist.

    Weaver gravitated to Populism as it emerged from the farmer Alliance movement that had begun in Texas and spread quickly throughout the South and the plains states in the late 1880s and early 1890s. In 1892 Weaver won the party's presidential nomination at the Populist convention in Omaha, where delegates adopted a sweeping platform that called for unlimited coinage of silver, an income tax, and government ownership of railroads. Once again, Weaver campaigned across the country, this time accompanied by his wife, Clara, and Kansas Populist Mary Elizabeth Lease. As in 1880, Weaver took his campaign into the South, where he received a hostile reception from Democrats who feared the threat the Populists posed to their regional dominance. In the end, Bourbon Democrats secured the South for Grover Cleveland, but Weaver succeeded in carrying Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, and Nevada and winning additional electoral votes from Oregon and North Dakota. In doing so, he became the first third-party presidential candidate to earn electoral votes since 1860.

    In 1896 Weaver supported William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic and Populist candidate for president whose views and political style Weaver had presaged in 1880 and 1892. As the 20th century dawned, Weaver eased into the role of elder statesman. The voters of Colfax, Iowa, honored him by electing him mayor in 1901. Long active in journalism as the editor of the Des Moines-based Populist farmer's Tribune and copublisher of its predecessor publication, Weaver took up historical writing in his final years. He penned articles for the Des Moines Register and Leader and the Chicago-based World Review magazine about his frontier childhood, his Civil War experiences, and the men he came to know over the course of a political career that spanned the second half of the 19th century.
Sources The most extensive, but sadly incomplete, collection of Weaver Papers is at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines. The only full biographies are Fred Emory Haynes, James Baird Weaver (1919); and Robert B. Mitchell, Skirmisher: The Life, Times, and Political Career of James B. Weaver . Other secondary sources include Thomas B. Colbert, "Disgruntled 'Chronic Office Seeker' or Man of Political Integrity: James Baird Weaver and the Republican Party in Iowa, 1857–1877," Annals of Iowa 49 (1988), 187– 207; Thomas B. Colbert, "Political Fusion in Iowa: The Election of James B. Weaver to Congress in 1878," Arizona and the West 20 (1978), 25–40; Mark Lause, The Civil War's Last Campaign: James B. Weaver, the Greenback-Labor Party and the Politics of Race and Section (2001); Robert B. Mitchell, "The Untamed Greenbacker," Iowa Heritage Illustrated 81 (2006), 106–19; and Leland L. Sage, "Weaver in Allison's Way," Annals of Iowa 31 (1953), 485–507.
Contributor: Robert B. Mitchell

Cite as: Mitchell, Robert B. "Weaver, James Baird" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 13 December 2017