The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Wilson, James Falconer
(October 19, 1828–April 22, 1895)

–one of 19th-century Iowa's most able and influential politicians—was born in Newark, Ohio. The son of Methodist parents, he was a strong-willed and largely self-educated youth in the same mold as Abraham Lincoln. After his father's untimely death, Wilson was apprenticed to a local saddler at the age of 10. However, his innate ambition and considerable intellect eventually led him to study law in his spare time, and in 1852 he was admitted to the state bar. The following year he migrated westward with his new wife, Mary Jewett, settling in the small town of Fairfield, Iowa, where he began practicing as an attorney and taking an active role in politics. A former free-soil Whig, he was elected as a Republicandelegate to the 1857 state constitutional convention. His political expertise was evident throughout the debates in Iowa City, notably in his successful attempts to broker a compromise between antislavery Republicans and their more conservative counterparts over the controversial issue of black suffrage. His efforts more than justified the opinion of Burlington's powerful U.S. Senator James W. Grimesthat Wilson was a man for the future: "prudent, cautious, [and] sagacious."

    The young Fairfield lawyer honed his political skills during two terms in the Iowa General Assembly in 1858 and 1860, when he established himself not only as a staunch ally of Senator Grimesbut also as an effective speaker and accomplished legislator. In 1861 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. During three consecutive terms, he emerged as Iowa's most effective delegate 563 in the lower chamber. In common with the majority of his copartisans, he supported a raft of bills designed to energize the Union cause during the Civil War. However, as chair of the Judiciary Committee from December 1863, he was better placed than most of them to advance hard-war measures. At the beginning of 1864 he played a major role in formulating a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery, and in the winter of 1865- 1866 he displayed his radical credentials by supporting the enfranchisement of African Americans in Washington, D.C., and a civil rights bill to protect African Americans.

    Although Wilson was sincere in his desire to protect the rights of loyal African Americans during the early years of congressional Reconstruction, his political instincts were basically centrist, bordering on the conservative. This was revealed by his support for contractionist monetary policies, but even more so when he refused to join the radical clamor to impeach President Andrew Johnson for obstructing Congress's Southern policy. Only when Johnson rashly appeared to violate the Tenure of Office Act by dismissing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in February 1868 did the cautious Iowan reluctantly agree to become one of the House's impeachment managers. "Guided by a sincere desire to pass this cup from our lips," he told the House, "determined not to drink it if escape were not cut off by the presence of a palpable duty, we at last find ourselves compelled to take its very dregs."

    The failure of impeachment three months later did nothing to stall the advance of the congressman's career. Owing partly to heavy speculation in railroad stock–he was thick with Iowa's Republican railroad ring, the so-called Des Moines Regency, headed by the Union Pacific engineer and successful Union general Grenville M. Dodge –Wilson was a relatively wealthy man, the proud owner of a 41-acre farmstead in Fairfield equipped with its own artificial ponds, steam furnace, and gasoline manufactory. In addition, he was one of the few Iowa politicians to possess a genuinely national reputation. In 1869 the strength of that reputation was confirmed when President Ulysses S. Grant offered him the post of secretary of state in his first cabinet. But irked by the appointment of an interim foreign minister and under fire from Horace White's reform-oriented Chicago Tribune for his stance on a putatively corrupt claim before Congress, Wilson declined the offer–avowedly because he had developed a taste for "the independence of private life."

    During the 1870s, notwithstanding embroilment in the notorious Crédit Mobilier scandal, Wilson continued to prosper, pursuing his lucrative legal practice, serving as president of the First National Bank of Fairfield and the Jefferson County Coal Company, and retaining political influence through his close links to the Des Moines Regency. Although he winced at Grant's lack of political common sense, he adhered to the Republican standard during the Liberal and Granger revolts of that turbulent decade. He also maintained his close connections to the embattled railroads, bravely putting their case against state regulation before a group of legislators in February 1876. "Capital is prudent, conservative and timid," he told the people's representatives. "It will not voluntarily submit itself to the control of those who do not own it."

    When Samuel J. Kirkwood left the U.S. Senate for Garfield's cabinet, Wilson agreed to stand as the Regency's candidate for the vacant long-term position. He was elected to the Senate by the Iowa legislature in January 1882 and returned by the same body six years later. Wilson's senatorial career was marked by the same loyalty to party that had characterized his time in the House, but, lacking the national connections and political influence of his powerful colleague William B. Allison, he did little to advance his reputation as the Gilded Age drew to a close. Yet imbued with a strong civic spirit (evidenced by his support for a new public library in Fairfield), Wilson remained a popular figure at home. Hopes of a happy and comfortable retirement, however, were dashed by his death on April 22, 1895, at the age of 66.
Sources The paucity of personal papers renders James F. Wilson an understudied and frustratingly elusive figure for students of Iowa and, indeed, American history. Among the scattered accounts of his career, see especially Edward H. Stiles, Recollections and Sketches of Notable Lawyers and Public Men of Early Iowa (1916), 112–15; Earle D. Ross, "James F. Wilson, Legalistic Free-Soiler," Annals of Iowa 32 (1954), 365–75; and Leonard Schlup, "Republican Loyalist: James F. Wilson and Party Politics, 1855–1895," Annals of Iowa 52 (1993), 123–49.
Contributor: Robert J. Cook