HON. THEODORE ELIJAH BURTON. Among the great public men of Ohio the distinction accorded to Theodore Elijah
Burton, of Cleveland, is derived from his record in that exceptionally difficult field of statesmanship pertaining
to finance and economics. In business circles as well as in politics, during the last fifteen or twenty years,
he has carried an authority amounting to virtual leadership as an expert in finance as applied to the problems
of Government and national administration. It was the good foftune of the nation that his home district in Cleveland
returned him, after an absence of half a dozen years, to Congress in 1920 just when the country was going through
a great business depression and needed most his experience and wisdom.
Theodore Elijah Burton was born at Jefferson, Ohio, December 20, 1851. Jefferson was the old home of Joshua R.
Giddings and Senator Ben Wade, while other men of national stature and fame came from the same section. It was
a community well calculated to inspire high ideals in a boy. But Theodore Burton did not need to look outside his
own family for such inspiration. He was of New England stock. His father, Rev. William Burton, was a highminded
minister of the Presbyterian Church and held many pastorates in Southern and Eastern Ohio. In Southern Ohio, Rev.
Mr. Burton was intimately associated with Rev. Thomas Woodrow and Rev. Joseph R. Wilson, grandfather and father,
respectively, of Woodrow Wilson. Senator Burton's mother was Elizabeth Grant, a distant cousin of the father of
Gen. Ulysses Grant.
Senator Burton's people were in moderate circumstances. They could give him just enough advantages away from home
to inspire his zeal and ambition to acquire more. As a boy he attended Grand River Institute at Austinburg, Ohio.
When he was still only a boy he moved to Grinnell, Iowa, lived on a farm, and from the farm entered Grinnell College.
Returning to Ohio, he graduated from Oberlin College in 1872, and owing to his special proficiency in the classics
he remained as a tutor at Oberlin. While there he acquired a considerable knowledge of the Hebrew language and
afterwards he familiarized himself with the French language. It is said that Senator Burton even to this day can
quote entire pages from some the Latin authors.
He studied law at Chicago with Lyman Trumbull, a contemporary and friend of Lincoln and for eighteen years United
States Senator from Illinois. Mr. Burton was admitted to the bar at Mount Gilead, Ohio, July 1, 1875, and at once
began practice at Cleveland with his cash capital of $150, which he had borrowed.
Mr. Burton's first public service was as a member of the city council of Cleveland. An associate in the council
was Myron T. Herrick, later governor of Ohio and ambassador to France. It was characteristic of Mr. Burton that
he did not accept the duties of city councilor lightly. In fact, he gained considerable distinction by his diligent
study of municipal problems and a thorough mastery of the question of city finance.
It was some years later, and after he had acquired a secure position at the Cleveland bar that Mr. Burton was first
elected to Congress. He was elected in 1888, and was associated with William McKinley in framing the McKinley Tariff
Act of 1890. In the latter year he was defeated for reelection. He then resumed practice but in 1894 again became
a candidate for Congress and defeated the late Tom L. Johnson. From 1895 until March 4, 1909, a period of fourteen
years, Theodore E. Burton was continuously a member of the House of Representatives. Frequently no candidate was
nominated in opposition to him. During much of this service he was a member and for ten years the chairman of the
committee on rivers and harbors. He brought all the resources of a trained legal mind to the study of the vast
and intricate problems that came before this committee for solution. From that study and work was evolved his reputation
as the leading authority in the United States on waterways and river and harbor development. President Roosevelt
appointed him first chairman of the Inland Waterways Commission and subsequently he was chairman of the National
Waterways Commission. These commissions under the direction of Mr. Burton published a series of reports which have
become the standard library of waterway problems.
Another subject to which Mr. Burton gave special attention while in the House was monetary and banking legislation.
He was prominent in framing the Aldrich Vreeland Emergency Currency Act, and was a member of the Monetary Commission
and author of much of its exhaustive report on the subject of financial legislation and conditions throughout the
world. His was one of the strongest influences, both in the House and later in the Senate, in shaping and strengthening
the Federal Reserve Law.
It would be impossible to describe in detail all his work while in the House of Representatives. But at least another
point should be mentioned. One of the chief questions before the country at that time was the construction of a
canal linking the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It will be recalled that a powerful contingent, headed by the late
Senator Morgan, favored the construction along the Nicaragua route. Mr. Burton had made an exhaustive study of
both routes, and his presentation of data on the subject proved such a forceful argument for the Panama route that
the House supported his contention by a large majority. In a single speech he afterwards changed the opinion of
the House from favoring a sea level canal to one of lock type.
On March 4, 1909, Mr. Burton took his seat in the United States Senate. He was elected a member of that body after
a spectacular contest with ex Senator Joseph Foraker and Charles P. Taft. The reputation for sound wisdom he had
made in the House preceded him into the Senate, and he at once became a leader in the debates and deliberations
of that body. One measure championed by him in Congress, if none other, would make him a proper object of gratitude
on the part of the American people. This was the Burton Law, the enactment of which prevents the spoliation of
the beauty of Niagara Falls by private corporations. His support to other matters of the conservation of natural
resources was always consistently and forcefully given. He fought against the ship purchase program of the democratic
administration, and was especially powerful during the consideration of the tariff bills submitted while he was
a member of the Senate.
But more than all else he gained the approbation of right thinking citizens by his work in connection with waterways
and other internal improvements. He took a firm stand for the application of business standards to the treatment
of rivers and harbors and fought, both in committee and on the floor of the Senate, against the waste of public
money by lavish appropriations for streams which by nature or experience were found unfitted for practical use.
Those who have followed the work of recent congresses will recall how by a singlehanded filibuster Senator Burton
defeated the River and Harbor Bill of 1914. By that act he was credited with saving the Government the sum of more
than $30,000,000. It required a speech seventeen hours long, during which he exposed the indefensible items contained
in the measure. When, in the course of this speech, he said, "We must test Government projects by the same
economic rules as a successful business concern would apply to its enterprise and investments," Senator Burton
foreshadowed the introduction of the budget system which has become a leacher of national administration under
the Presidency of Mr. Harding.
Declining to become a candidate for reelection Senator Burton retired from the Senate March 4, 1915. In 1916 the
Ohio Republicans gave him their endorsement as a candidate for the republican nomination for president and he polled
a substantial vote in the convention. On January 19, 1917, he accepted the post of president of the Merchants National
Bank of New York City, though he did not change his legal residence from Cleveland. This bank was founded in 1803,
and is the third oldest banking institution in the country. One of its founders was Alexander Hamilton with whom
a student of history might link the political ideals of Theodore Burton in an interesting way. At an early date
John Jacob Astor was a director of the bank, and Hamilton, Aaron Burr and A. T. Stewart were depositors. The New
York Clearing House was organized in its directors' room in 1853. Mr. Burton remained president of the bank until
January, 1919, and for a time afterwards was chairman of its board of directors.
Mr. Burton was appointed a member of the executive Council of the Interparliamentary Union in 1904 and served the
term allowed a member from the United States, to 1914. He was made a member of the executive committee in 1921.
He has participated in meetings at St. Louis, London, Geneva, Paris, The Hague, Copenhagen and Berne.
He was a delegate to the Republican National conventions of 1904, 1908, 1912 and 1924, making the nominating speech
for Mr. Taft in 1908 and delivering the key note speech for the Convention of 1924.
Shortly after. Mr. Burton became head of this bank the United States declared war against Germany and he immediately
interested himself in a heavy patriotic program, involving work as an adviser of the Government and the making
of many addresses throughout the New York City Metropolitan District and in numerous military training camps. In
July, 1919, Mr. Burton began a long trip abroad, lasting for seven months, in the course of which he was an interested
student of conditions and affairs in Japan, China, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. Especially marked
was his reception as an eminent American political leader and financier in China and Japan. He met many prominent
men in those countries, including Premier Hara of Japan, and Hsu-Shi'h-Chang, then president of China, and his
immediate successor Li Yuan Hung, who became president of the republic in 1922. At Canton and Shanghai Mr. Burton
was in close touch with Sun Yet Sen, the leader of the Southern faction of China, and was invited to address the
Southern Parliament at Canton, an honor seldom bestowed upon foreigners.
Soon after his return to Cleveland, Mr. Burton was made aware of the strong sentiment among citizens in favor of
his returning to Congress. Yielding to this feeling he became a candidate and in November, 1920, was chosen by
the Twenty second District a member of the Sixty seventh Congress by a majority of 60,000, and in November, 1922,
was reelected for the Sixty eighth Congress.
Soon after returning to Congress Mr. Burton was appointed by President Harding a member of the Debt Funding Commission,
on which he is still serving. The other members of this commission are Secretary of State Hughes, Secretary of
the Treasury Mellon, Secretary of Commerce Hoover and Senator Smoot of Utah.
In the Sixty seventh Congress as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Mr. Burton took an active part
in the resolutions for peace with Germany and to tender aid to the starving Russians. In the discussion of every
financial question arising for the House his opinions were given great weight. In February, 1923, at the close
of the Sixty seventh Congress Mr. Burton brought forward in the House the bill providing the plan for the settlements
of the debt of Great Britain, involving the war loans of America to that country amounting to $4,600,000,000, and
his bill was passed by the House by a majority of 291 to 44 votes.
Mr. Burton has for many years, whether in public life or as a lawyer, been a student of business and monetary affairs.
These studies have found expression in several books, including: "The Life of John Sherman," "Financial
Crisis and Depressions," "Corporations and the State," and some "Political Tendencies of the
Times and the Effect of the War Thereon." In 1919 Mr. Burton was Stafford Little lecturer at Princeton University.
He is a member of a number of social, civic and business clubs and organizations both in Cleveland and in the East.
A History of Cuyahoga County
and the City of Cleveland
By: William R. Coates
The American Historical Society
Chicago and New York, 1924
Cuyahoga County, Ohio Biographies
Names A to G
Names H to P
Names Q to Z
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