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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Dolliver, Jonathan Prentiss
(February 6, 1858–October 15, 1910)

–attorney, political activist, and U.S. congressman and senator from Iowa—was renowned as a gifted orator, skilled mediator, and model of integrity. So spellbinding was his oratory and so spotless his reputation that he was chosen by the Republican National Committee to stump the nation for every Republican presidential candidate from James G. Blaine in 1884 to William Howard Taft in 1908. In 1910 he was chosen by political opponent William Jennings Bryan to give the dedication speech at the Abraham Lincoln Memorial in Springfield, Illinois. Strongly urged to run for vice president in both 1900 and 1908, Dolliver refused because of his distaste for the position and his lack of financial resources. Although initially an orthodox Republican who favored the gold standard, a high protective tariff, and overseas expansion, Dolliver grew to become one of the leading lights in the Insurgent Republican movement, led by Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin, Albert B. Cummins of Iowa, and Albert Beveridge of Indiana, who challenged the policies and leadership of President Taft and the GOP's probusiness "Standpat" Eastern establishment. Upon Dolliver's premature death at age 52, Beveridge eulogized him as "our best, our most gifted man, our only genius."

    Born near Kingwood, Preston County, Virginia, on the eve of the Civil War, Dolliver was the son of James Jones Dolliver, a Methodist circuit rider of Welsh descent, and Eliza Jane (Brown) Dolliver, whose Scottish American father, Robert, and uncle William were among the founders of the Republican Party and instrumental in the formation of the state of West Virginia in 1863. William Brown was among the first congressmen from the new state. From both parents and their respective families, young Jonathan imbibed a lifelong devotion to the Union, the Republican Party, and evangelical Protestantism. During the Civil War, he and his older brother Robert served as lookouts and scavengers who disrupted the activities of occupying Confederate soldiers. In 1868 the Dollivers and their five children moved to Granville, West Virginia, on the outskirts of Morgantown, where Jonathan entered the preparatory department of West Virginia University at age 10. Three years later, at the age of 13, he began his collegiate studies at the university, where he concentrated on literary studies, taking his B.A. in 1875. His major extracurricular activity was in the Columbian Literary Society, which met each week to conduct oratorical contests and debates and listen to student essays. Upon graduation, he was chosen as the "philosophical orator" of his class. While teaching school in Iowa and Illinois from 1875 to 1878, he studied law under the direction of his uncle, a West Virginia state senator. Although he attended the 1876 Republican National Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, in support of James G. Blaine, Dolliver enthusiastically switched his allegiance to Rutherford B. Hayes, for whom he campaigned vigorously. Like most Republican speakers of the day, Dolliver delivered scathing attacks on the Democrats as the party of secession, treason, and violence against African Americans.

    In the spring of 1878 he obtained his law license and moved to Fort Dodge, Iowa, with his brother Robert. Just two years later he was elected city solicitor, a position that gave him visibility, political contacts, and a reliable supplemental income. At the same time, his growing reputation as a public speaker attracted the attention of northwestern Iowa politicians, including former governor Cyrus C. Carpenter. In part through Carpenter's influence, Dolliver was chosen as the keynote speaker for the 1884 Iowa Republican Convention, where he delivered a rousing political address. Because of that oratorical success, he was chosen to stump the eastern United States for Blaine.

    After failing to secure the Republican nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1886, Dolliver won the endorsement in 1888. Defeating his Democratic opponent, Dolliver entered the House in 1889 and remained there for the next 11 years. There he earned a reputation as an orthodox Republican who favored high protective tariffs, the gold standard, and colonial expansion. He was unusually close to Iowa's preeminent legislator, Senator William Boyd Allison, who nurtured the younger man's political career. Dolliver, however, maintained harmonious relations with all factions of Iowa Republicans. He was a good friend of sometime Allison critic Governor William Larrabee, a leading proponent of railroad regulation. (Dolliver's younger brother married Larrabee's daughter.) In 1895 Congressmandolliver married Louise Pearsons. They had three children.

    In 1900 Dolliver benefited from the death of Iowa Senator John Henry Gear. Iowa's governor appointed Dolliver to succeed Gear in the Senate; the 1902 session of the Iowa legislature seconded the governor's choice, electing Dolliver to fill out the remainder of the term. In January 1907 the legislature elected him to a full six-year term.

    As senator, Dolliver remained unswerving in his loyalty to the conservative Allison, but he also became a staunch supporter of Theodore Roosevelt's reform agenda. He was the principal figure in guiding the Roosevelt endorsed Hepburn Act of 1906 through the Senate. That act empowered the Interstate Commerce Commission to fix maximum rail rates and was especially popular among Dolliver's midwestern constituents, who had long chafed under discriminatory railroad rates. As late as 1908, however, Dolliver fought a bitter battle against Iowa's leading progressive reformer, Albert Cummins, when the latter sought unsuccessfully to defeat the dying Allison in the state's first senatorial primary election.

    In 1908 Republican William Howard Taft won the presidency after a campaign in which he promised to lower tariff rates. During the first decade of the 20th century, many midwesterners and westerners, who had previously accepted Republican protectionism, grew increasingly critical of high duties, believing that the tariff protected monopolistic eastern manufacturers while raising the cost of living for heartland consumers. Dolliver's belief in the necessity of a high tariff also waned as he became increasingly concerned about the privileged status of big business. When Nelson Aldrich, the Standpat Republican leader of the Senate, proposed a tariff that did not sufficiently decrease many rates, a number of midwestern lawmakers, including Dolliver, were outraged. Even more infuriating was the apparent complicity of President Taft in this plot to maintain high duties. Together with Robert La Follette and Beveridge, Dolliver led the fight against Aldrich and Representative Sereno Payne on the tariff schedules, earning themselves reputations as "Insurgents."Unleashing his ample speaking skills, Dolliver berated Aldrich and his supporters, presenting a series of widely acclaimed speeches against what eventually became the Payne-Aldrich Tariff. "I do not propose now to become a party to a petty swindle of the American people," Dolliver told his fellow senators. He also spoke of his "indignation" at being "duped with humbug and misrepresentation" by the regular Republican leadership.

    Despite Dolliver's dramatic attack, the Payne-Aldrich Tariff passed both houses of Congress and was signed by the pliant President Taft. Thoroughly disillusioned with his party's Standpat leadership, Dolliver moved decidedly into the Insurgent camp, caustically observing that Taft "is an amiable man, completely surrounded by men who know exactly what they want."Dolliver and the other Insurgents sided with Gifford Pinchot, chief of the U.S. Bureau of Forestry, who charged that Taft's secretary of the interior, Richard Ballinger, allowed private exploitation of government-owned natural resources. At the same time, Dolliver and his allies opposed the Mann-Elkins Bill as originally proposed by the Taft administration, claiming that it would weaken the Interstate Commerce Commission.

    Exhausted by his battles against Aldrich and Taft, Dolliver returned to Fort Dodge, where he died of a heart attack on October 15, 1910. By that time, he had broken completely with the GOP establishment and won a reputation as the most powerful and persuasive speaker among the Insurgents. Even Taft acknowledged that "the Senate has lost one of its ablest and most brilliant statesmen, the country has lost a faithful public servant."Thousands stood in the rain outside "the jam-packed armory building" in Fort Dodge during the funeral ceremony. Famous journalist Mark Sullivan proclaimed Dolliver "the greatest Senator of his time."
Sources Dolliver's papers are housed at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City. The definitive biography is Thomas Richard Ross, Jonathan Prentiss Dolliver: A Study in Political Integrity and Independence (1958). For the early development of Dolliver's speaking skills, see Gordon E. Hostettler, "Jonathan Prentiss Dolliver: The Formative Years," Iowa Journal of History 49 (1951), 23–50. An entire issue of the Palimpsest 5 (February 1924) is devoted to Dolliver. Another useful source is a series of sketches devoted to Dolliver in Annals of Iowa 29 (1948), 335–65. For memorial addresses on Dolliver, see Congressional Record 46 (1911), 2832–43. An obituary is in the New York Times, 10/16/1910.
Contributor: John D. Buenker

Cite as: Buenker, John D. "Dolliver, Jonathan Prentiss" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 21 September 2018