Biography of Hon. James E. Wilson
Jefferson County, IA Biographies





HON. JAMES E WILSON.
No compendium such as this work defines in its essential limitations will serve to offer a fit memorial to the life and work of the Hon. James F. Wilson, who without invidious distinction may be termed the foremost citizen of Fairfield. He left his impress not only upon community affairs but upon the history of state and nation. As student, legislator, constitutional lawyer and statesman he aided in guiding the destinies of the commonwealth and the country through critical crises and the greatness of the man was never more potently shown than in his single-minded devotion to duty without thought of self or of the honors which he was all unconsciously winning.

The facts of his life are but the bare outline and they who would know of the real man must read between the lines to learn of the spirit which prompted him in all of his undertakings whether of an individual or public character. He was born in Newark, Ohio, October 19, 1828, his parents being David S. and Kitty Ann Wilson, who were married in Newark, the former, however, having previously been a resident of Morgantown, Virginia, and the latter of Chillicothe, Ohio. While their financial resources were limited, they were people of the utmost rectitude, of much native intelligence and of sterling worth. Their Christian faith as members of the Methodist Episcopal church was expressed in their daily lives and the high ideals with which they were imbued by their religious belief guided them in the rearing of their children, of whom James F. was the eldest of three. The father died in Newark, Ohio, in 1839, and the mother, reaching an advanced age, passed away in Fairfield, Iowa, January 28, 1875.

Owing to the straitened financial circumstances of the family at the time of the father's death James F. Wilson, then but a lad of ten years, was forced to take up life's battles. With unflinching courage he met duty and came off victor in the strife. His earnings went to the support of his widowed mother and younger brother and sister and he uncomplainingly performed the service of apprenticeship at the harness maker's trade, without useless repining over his lack of opportunities and advantages which many other boys enjoyed. The time he spent in school was exceedingly limited but as one of his biographers has said "such was the vitality of his mind and such his intuitive perception of the valley of knowledge that he bent circumstances to his will and through individual application and the timely assistance of immediate personal friends lie managed to secure a good practical education, including a knowledge of the Latin language. In this connection it is interesting to recall the great interest which he manifested in the cause of education in later years, when he had attained to distinguished position and financial independence." Facing life and its responsibilities thus early, Mr. Wilson seriously considered the question of choosing a life work and, believing that he would find the profession of law congenial and hoping that he might find it profitable, he entered upon active preparation for the bar through the assistance of William B. Woods, then a practicing lawyer of Newark, Ohio, and later an associate justice of the supreme court of the United States. Judge Woods placed his law library at the command of Mr. Wilson and directed his reading and study, giving him many kindly words of advice and useful suggestions as to making the most of his time and opportunities in the mastery of the principles of jurisprudence. In 1851 Mr. Wilson was admitted to practice before the bar of Ohio and for a year and a half thereafter followed his profession in Newark. During that period, however, he considered the advisability of establishing his home beyond the Mississippi, believing that in the then new and growing west better opportunities would be offered a young man. He brought with him as a companion and helpmate in his new home a young wife, having on the 25th of November, 1852, wedded Miss Mary A. K. Jewett, the second daughter of Alpheus and Aletha Jewett, of Newark. Ohio. Soon after their marriage they sailed down the Ohio river to St. Louis and up the Mississippi to Burlington, whence they traveled by stage to Fairfield. Throughout all the ensuing years of a happy married life they retained a residence in this city, remaining not only among its most honored and respected citizens but receiving there the affectionate regard and love which comes from close companionship and intimate acquaintance with true friends.

Mr. Wilson at once entered upon the practice of law in Jefferson county and in speaking of his professional career at the time of his death the Fairfield Ledger said: "Nor was he long in commanding recognition as an able, conscientious and successful practitioner. He rapidly acquired a remunerative practice and soon stood in the front rank of his profession; but it was not as a lawyer trying cases in state and United States courts, wherein he was destined to attain the full measure of his success and prominence. However certain or ascendant would have been the promotion accorded him in the narrower limits of his profession, they could not have been more satisfactory to himself or useful to the public than those resulting from his preeminent services in the field of state and national organic and statutory lawmaking. In his early days, amid fast accumulating professional duties, he found time to write the leading editorials of his party's local paper. The rare ability there displayed in dealing with political questions, then in a formative state, won for him an abiding confidence in the integrity of his political thought and actions that followed him closely throughout his extended public career."

It would have been impossible for a man of Mr. Wilson's marked ability and public spirit to remain in the seclusion of private life. His fitness for high offices and honors was soon recognized; the sterling worth of his manhood was evident from the time of his arrival here and both by what he said and what he did. He had been a resident of Fairfield for less than four years when he was chosen a delegate to the convention called to revise the state constitution, and of which convention there was one only younger member. His mature wisdom and judgment seemed beyond his years and he was also fertile and expedient in hours of required resource. He left his impress indelibly upon the organic law of the state, aiding in formulating many important passages and with remarkable sagacity safeguarding the state in the future as well as in the hour in which the constitution was formed and adopted. The following year there came to him additional honors through public service, the governor appointing him assistant commissioner of the Des Moines river improvement, then a matter of much concern to the people of the state. His next public office was an elective one, his county sending him as a republican member to the general assembly. He was soon recognized as one of the most earnest and capable working members of that body and especially did important service as chairman of the committee on ways and means. His next step in advance came to him in his election to the state senate in 1859 and during the first year of his connection with the upper house he was made a member of the judiciary committee, through whose hands passed for final inspection a recent recompilation of the laws of the state, since known as the revision of 1860. He was chosen president of the senate during the second year of his service and then passed on to the national halls of legislation. In this connection the Fairfield Ledger wrote: "Possessed of great natural ability as a writer and speaker, well disciplined in the law, familiar with parliamentary rules and usages, painstaking to a degree, unsurpassed in every undertaking, and patriotic to the core, Mr. Wilson was elected as a republican representative in congress for the unexpired term of General Samuel R. Curtis. He was reelected without opposition in nominating convention to the thirty eighth and thirty ninth and fortieth congresses, serving from December 2, 1861, to March 3, 1869, his retirement in the latter year being made possible only through his positive and repeated declination of further renomination. On his entrance into congress he divided with one other the sole responsibility of representing the state of Iowa in the house of representatives. The labor performed in committee work is recognized as 'a fair test of any man's zeal, industry and influence in any legislative body. Without regard, then, to Mr. Wilson's conceded power as an advocate, his logic and eloquence in the arena of debate and simply applying to him this fair test of legislative usefulness and fidelity, it will be found that, while he may have had equals, he had no superiors in this particular among all his able contemporaries. A hard worker at a mechanical trade at twenty one, chairman of the judiciary committee of the American house of representatives at thirty five and a member of which he was at thirty-three, is tribute enough to the man of talents and equally splendid to the absolute freedom of aspiration and achievement accorded the single individual under our matchless republican institutions. Mr. Wilson was, perhaps, the youngest man ever assigned to this important committee, yet he served thereon throughout his entire service in the house and during the last six years, as already indicated, was its honored chairman. This committee, on account of prevailing Civil war, the consequent conflicts arising between constitution and statutes, intensified by the repression of the rebellion, and intrusion upon congressional action of a perfect multitude of perplexing legal questions attendant upon the reconstruction of erring states, was forced into the controlling rank and a conspicuous responsibility unknown before or since. It was a severe test to any man, however ripe in years or special acquirements, but when applied it found in Mr. Wilson an all sufficient conscience and capacity. 'That he remained uninterruptedly at its head and that no measure favorably reported upon by him in this committee failed in the house is the best assurance of the confidence placed by congress in his work.' "

The congressional records attest the worth of Mr. Wilson's service in Washington. In December, 1861, he introduced a resolution to instruct the committee on military affairs to report an additional article of war, prohibiting the use of United States forces to return fugitive slaves. On March 19, 1864, being the 1st day of the first session of the 38th Congress, Mr. Wilson gave notice of his intention and on the following day there was his fulfillment by introduction of a joint resolution looking to the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution, and he has been accorded the credit of being the first man of national legislation acting in this respect. It was Mr. Wilson who reported from the judiciary committee a joint resolution proposing an amendment to the constitution to forbid the payment of any portion of the Confederate debt and materially aided in its passage in the house though- the measure was defeated in the senate. However, the object and purport of this measure became subsequently a part of the fourteenth constitutional amendment. Mr. Wilson also reported from the judiciary committee a bill providing for the enfranchisement of the colored people of the District of Columbia, another giving freedom to the wives and children of the colored Union soldiers, and the great civil rights bill.

Mr. Wilson stood as a sturdy opponent to the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, president of the United States, when that subject came before the fortieth congress, and the fact that after a most exciting debate he carried his minority report through the house is indicative of his personal influence and of the confidence reposed in his judgment by his associates. He declined high honors when General Grant, following his first election, tendered him the portfolio of the secretary of state and later the choice of two other cabinet appointments, but he felt at that time that his attention was needed by his private affairs. Accordingly, he returned home and through the succeeding twelve years gave his undivided time and energies to the management of private and professional interests, serving only during that period as a government director of the Union Pacific Railroad, which position he filled for eight years.

When his private interests were in such a condition that he felt he might again devote much time to public service, he reentered public life and following the announcement of his candidacy for the United States senate was unanimously elected by the legislature. Reelection continued him in that office from March 4. 1883, until the expiration of his second term on the 3d of March, 1895. In the senate as in the house his record was characterized by strict adherence to the highest ideals of citizenship, based upon a comprehensive understanding of vital and significant questions, combined with practical measures for the attainment of the ends most to be desired. He was made a member of a number of the most important committees, including those on revision of laws, foreign relations, postoffice, pensions, educational, labor, census, inter-state commerce and the judiciary, being chairman of the first mentioned committee and second in rank on the judiciary. Of this period of his life a contemporary biographer has said: "His service in the great national deliberative body was marked by that same broad wisdom, fidelity and industry which had characterized him as a public official throughout his previous service and he thus added to his reputation as a broad and liberal-minded statesman. He was the author of the 'original package act,' passed by the fifty-first congress, its purpose being to give force and effectiveness to the enactments of the several states regulative or prohibitive of the traffic in intoxicating liquors."

While his attention was largely on the questions and affairs of national moment, Mr. Wilson never forgot the city and county of his adoption and felt the deepest concern for the welfare and improvement of his home district. He never regarded its interests as too small and unimportant to claim his time and attention. He labored untiringly in behalf of the Jefferson County Library Association with the result that largely through his efforts a fine library building with exceptional equipment was secured. From the time the association was organized he contributed generously to its maintenance, increasing his benefactions in due proportion as his financial resources permitted. He regarded this as one of the sources of general education and each year gave to the library many volumes, while his influence was the potent force in securing the cooperation of Andrew Carnegie in a gift that enabled the association to erect its present magnificent building, the quarter of a block upon which the building stands being the gift of Mr. and M- Wilson. This was but one of many ways in which Mr. Wilson manifested his deep interest in the city which he always regarded as his home. It was there many of his warmest friends lived and no matter how exalted the station in which he found himself he never forgot the associates of his earlier manhood, ever keeping for them a warm place in his heart.

The home life of James F. Wilson was largely ideal. As the years passed three children came to bless the household, of whom Rollin J., the eldest son, is now a lawyer of Fairfield. The daughter, Mary B., remains with her mother at the old family residence and James F. is an enterprising young business man of Fairfield. A short time after his retirement from the United States senate Mr. Wilson passed away, on the 22d of April, 1895, being in the sixty-seventh year of his age. His remains were laid to rest in Evergreen cemetery, his name is engraven high on the list of America's most honored men, and his memory is sacredly cherished by all who knew him. Of him it was written: "Endowed with a rugged honesty of purpose, a man of independent thought and action, one whose integrity and honor were so absolute as to compel the respect and confidence of his fellowmen, one whose life was filled with 'ceaseless toil and endeavor' and whose strength was as the number of his days, one whose motives were of that ideal order that practically made his life a consecration to duty and to the measure of his possibilities for accomplishing good-it is not strange that the biographer should hesitate when he attempts to render the lines which shall pay a fitting memoir to such a good man and true as was United States Senator James F. Wilson."

Certainly one of the most impartial estimates of his life character and ability was given in the Burlington Gazette, a democratic paper, in commenting upon Mr. Wilson's address before a meeting called for congratulation over the recovery of the president, a meeting non-partisan in character. The Gazette wrote: "Separating, as must sometimes be done, the orator from the man and candidate, it is but just to recognize the many sided ability of Mr. James F. Wilson. His address at Logan at the recent meeting of rejoicing over the prospective recovery of the president is the latest case in point. It is really admirable in every respect. Its sentiment is not the commonplace which floats in the air after a great event and is absorbed in the expression of everyday life, but is the result of a deep, well contained and thoroughly disciplined mind given to the higher forms of thinking. The style of composition, too, is no less admirable. Clear, crisp and clean cut, with none of the faults of verbiage, every sentence expresses in the best words of our vigorous language the thought its writer intended. It is a style utterly devoid of metaphor or figure of speech, with nothing of imagination, none of that warm glowing of fervor which disfigures the efforts of all but the very smallest number of political orators. Mr. Wilson has evidently drank long and deep at the well of pure English undefiled. He has studied the masters of language. If he has not read with care the great Scotch theologians and philosophers then his style carries with it those surprises, and has that natural force which is always a marvel in the vigorous but untrained thinker. From whatever source they have come this power of expression has come. Mr. Wilson has it in a degree surpassed by no man in Iowa or scarcely in the country. Then, think of the number of addresses and the variety of subjects they have treated in the last three months. Not all of them can secure that acceptation of their ideas which distinguishes this Logan speech, but all have shown the same virility and strength and the same wonderful power of expression. An address on transportation questions, the boldest of many a year, a lecture on the Bible before a college society, this oration at Logan on the inner conditions of American public life, besides others not now easily recalled, demonstrate the possession of a versatility seldom seen in public men. We have no personal acquaintance with Mr. Wilson or sympathy with his ambitions, but his great ability cannot with propriety be questioned. In this respect no man that Iowa in all its thirty-six years of history has sent to the senate has had anything like his power."

Perhaps after all the best estimate of his character is to be found in opinions of those among whom he lived, who had a chance to study him in every relation of life, to note his greatness and also to see his weaknesses, if there were such, in his character. Therefore, the life history of James F. Wilson cannot be more fittingly ended than by quoting from the Fairfield Ledger of April 26, 1895, which pays tribute to his memory in these words: "Fairfield is in deepest mourning. Her most eminent and most highly honored citizen is gone. The earthly career of James F. Wilson, student, legislator, constitutional lawyer and statesman is closed. He has crossed to the great beyond just at the end of a long and useful public life, and his last moments were passed just as he might have wished them-amid the surroundings he loved so well, in the peace and quiet of his own home, surrounded by those who loved him and whom he loved. As no resident of Fairfield, in her history of half a century, had risen to the heights which James F. Wilson attained, so no man so generally commanded the respect, the admiration, the love of her people. Strong as his convictions were, partisan as he may have been in his political beliefs, there was a rugged honesty about the man, a candor in his treatment of public questions, a freedom from guile in his methods which early won and ever retained to him the confidence of his fellow citizens and led them to seek opportunities to do him honor. An impartial history of state and nation will show that James F. Wilson was a great man. It will give him a high rank with the legislators, the lawyers, the statesmen of his time. It will show the impress of his wisdom on the affairs of his commonwealth and his country. It will concede the keenness of foresight, shrewdness of judgment, the honesty of the motives which governed the man, the ability and capability with which he dealt with great questions through a long and eventful public career. It will show that the people of Jefferson county did not err when they sent the young lawyer to represent them at the state capital; that the first district of Iowa passed righteous judgment upon the abilities of the man when it promoted him to the halls of congress; that the management of affairs of great moment, as entrusted to him, could not have gone to a small man nor one of mediocre ability; that the friendship of a Sumner, and a Blaine, that the trust and confidence of a Grant, were not misplaced."

From:
History of Jefferson County, Iowa
A Record of Settlement, Organizatin,
Progress and Achievement Vol II
BY: Charles J. Fulton
The S. J. Clarke Publishing Co.
Chiago 1914


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