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Civic Skinny

A history lesson as James Harlan comes home to Iowa — again


In: Borlaug

In: Borlaug

James Harlan has been evicted from the Capitol in Washington and is being sent back to Iowa. It isn’t the first time he has been sent home.

Harlan was a noted and notable — and at times notorious — politician of the 1800s. He was the third Iowan to serve in the United States Senate, was Secretary of the Interior under President Andrew Johnson, and was re-elected to the Senate after his Cabinet duty.

Then, in 1910, 38 years after he was defeated for re-election, 31 years after he lent his name to the town of Harlan, and 11 years after he died, he returned to Washington as a statue.

Every state is entitled to two statues in the Capitol, and for more than 100 years Harlan has stood in the Hall of Columns. (Samuel Kirkwood joined him at the Capitol in 1913.) But two years ago, Iowa’s legislature decided that Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Peace Prize winner from Cresco and famed father of the Green Revolution that saved millions of lives, should go to Washington. Harlan’s days were numbered.

Then, this month, the Iowa Legislature voted to bring Harlan home and permanently lend the statue to Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant, where Harlan once served as president.

As we said, it wasn’t the first time he was sent packing.

Until the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1913, Senators were chosen by state legislatures, not by popular vote. The appointments were often contentious. After Iowa became a state in 1846 the Democrats controlled the Iowa Senate and the Whigs controlled the House, with a few Locofocos added to the mix, and they couldn’t agree on whom to send to Washington. There were allegations of corruption and attempted bribery and vote-buying, and charges flew for two years, until state elections in 1848 put the Democrats in charge of both houses. Finally, on Dec. 7, the legislature picked Iowa’s first two Senators, Democrats Augustus Caesar Dodge of Burlington and George W. Jones of Dubuque.

Out: Harlan

Out: Harlan

By lot, Dodge had the shorter term, just three months, but he was sent back to a full six-year term in 1849. He came up for re-election in 1855, and by then the legislature was again divided, with Whigs controlling the House and Democrats the Iowa Senate. Combined, the Whigs — soon to be called Republicans — had the edge. It was clear to all, including Dodge, that he would not be re-elected.

“I have no more idea of being elected by the Legislature soon to convene than I have that it will choose the Czar Nicholas of Russia to represent Iowa in the Senate,” he wrote, according to a 1912 doctoral thesis at the University of Iowa.

The question was, who among the Whigs would succeed Dodge. In all, five Democrats and nine Whigs — including the niftily-named Fitz Henry Warren and Ebenezer Cook — were nominated. James Harlan, of Mount Pleasant, was clearly a dark horse, and on the first ballot he received just four votes. It took 50 to get elected. The Whigs then caucused, and on their seventh vote the majority decided to support the 35-year-old Harlan, but that was not the end of it. There were many ballots over many days, and finally on Jan. 6, 1855, the legislature elected Harlan.

But it was an illegal election because the Iowa senate was not officially in session. All hell broke loose. “The Secretary of the [Iowa] Senate raised his voice as far above the roar of the thunder as is the yell of a whipped spaniel above the bray of a hungry jackass, and pronounced the whole proceedings out of order and declared no convention in session. Loud shouts, cheers and stampings followed this decision, and all was confusion worst confounded,” a Muscatine paper reported.

Harlan went off to Washington, though, and on Dec. 3, 1855, he was sworn in.

That wasn’t the end of it. The Iowa senate protested to Washington. The protest lay around for a while, but 13 months later the Senate Judiciary committee recommended that Harlan’s seat be declared vacant. There was a nasty debate, and on Jan. 12, 1857, the Senate voted 28 to 18 to oust him. Five days later, the Iowa legislature re-elected him, and he was re-elected again in 1861. He resigned after the Civil War to join the Johnson Cabinet, but he was re-elected to the Senate in 1867.

But wait, there’s more.

The transcontinental railroad was completed on May 10, 1869, when railroad titan Leland Stanford drove the golden spike that connected the Central Pacific and Union Pacific lines at Promontory Summit in the Utah Territory. Three years later, the New York Sun uncovered a massive financial scam and scandal involving the Union Pacific and a sham company it set up to handle the construction, Credit Mobilier of America. Basically, the construction was financed by the government, and Credit Mobilier was used as a front to overbill the government so the railroad executives and major owners could get rich quick.

In effect, the railroad was billing for what today would be called cost overruns, though they were fictitious. Congress had to appropriate the extra money, though, and that’s where James Harlan comes in. A Massachusetts Congressman named Oakes Ames — he’s the man Ames, Iowa, is named for — got involved with Credit Mobilier and began bribing his colleagues by offering them valuable stock in Credit Mobilier at a great discount.

After the newspaper exposed the scandal, the Congress investigated. Ultimately, eight Senators were investigated — including both from Iowa, William B. Allison and James Harlan. Allison returned his stock, and the Iowa legislature kept returning him to Washington until his death in 1908. Investigators did not say Harlan had received stock, but they discovered that in 1865 he had received a $10,000 “campaign contribution” from the mastermind of the scandal — that’s the equivalent of $140,845.07 today — and said “the use of large sums of money to influence either popular or legislative elections strikes directly at the fundamental principle of a Republican government.” And, as if predicting events to come 140 years later, they said, “It cannot be concealed that [the use of large sums of money in campaigns] is one of the threatening dangers to the permanence of our Government, and one which calls for that popular rebuke which can come only, and should come speedily from the united voice of the virtuous citizens of the Republic…”

The committee report didn’t say Harlan was bribed, and it didn’t find that he sold his vote, but it did recommend that he be censured. Harlan himself said the money simply was a gift from an old friend.

But Harlan’s term ended in March of 1873 — the Iowa legislature had not reappointed him — before the Senate could act, and he returned to Iowa. He ran for governor in 1895, but after six ballots the Republican nomination went to Francis M. Drake of Centerville (for whom Drake University is named). Drake went on to soundly defeat Democrat Washington Irving Babb, a Mount Pleasant lawyer (and the older brother of Arabella — or Belle — Babb Mansfield, who in 1869 became the first female lawyer in America.) Two years later, Harlan died at age 80.

At his bedside were his daughter and her husband, Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of Harlan’s good friend, President Abraham Lincoln. CV

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