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Hon. James F. Wilson


AN able, clear-headed lawyer, of cool, calm, judicial mind and sterling patriotism, is the late Representative from the first Congressional district of Iowa.  The West has sent very few Representatives of higher talent, or greater ability and disposition for usefulness, to Congress within the last twenty years.  Although a comparatively young man, (he has not yet seen his forty-fourth birthday,) the House leaned upon him, confided in him, and placed him in its positions of great responsibility, and it never found itself disappointed.

JAMES F. WILSON was born at Newark, Ohio, October 19, 1828; received in that city, which, for years, has been famous for its good schools, a very thorough academic education, and then commenced the study of the law, and was admitted to the Licking county bar, about 1849; in 1853, he removed to Fair-field, Iowa, where he speedily took a high rank in his profession. In 1856, though but twenty-eight years old, he was chosen a member of the convention to revise the State Constitution, and acquitted himself with honor there.  In 1857, he was appointed, by the governor of the State, Assistant Commissioner of the Des Moines River Improvement. The same year he was elected to the Legislature, and became at once a leader in the House.  In 1859, he was chosen State Senator, and re-elected in 1861, when he was made President of the Senate.

In this position, at the outbreak of the war, he manifested so much patriotism, and so clear a comprehension of what was the duty of Iowa in aiding in the suppression of the rebellion, as to attract the attention of the people of that eminently loyal State, and rendered great service to the cause.  When General Samuel R. Curtis, the Representative of the first district in Congress, resigned his seat, to take command of Iowa troops for the war, Mr. Wilson was promptly chosen to serve out the remainder of his term, and has since been re-elected to the XXXVIIIth, XXXIXth and XLth Congresses, and would have been continued there had he not positively declined a re-election in 1868.

Though one of the youngest members of the House, the leading men in it were not slow in discovering his superior abilities, and, at the beginning of the XXXVIIIth Congress, he was made Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, in many respects the most important committee of the 'louse, though such men as George S. Boutwell, of Massachusetts, and Thomas Williams, of Pennsylvania, were members of the committee. The event justified Speaker Colfax's selection.

Mr. Wilson manifested rare ability in this position, and rarely reported a bill which did not pass the House. In his political views, he was radical, yet cautious, but stern and uncompromising in regard to matters which he believed to be right. He had a rare faculty of seizing on the strong points of a case. and presenting them with such clearness and force as to insure conviction. He usually did this in all the great measures he brought forward from his committee in the House.

In his argument for granting impartial suffrage in the District of Columbia, he urged, the early practice of the colonies, and most of the original States, in permitting colored suffrage, the causes which led to their apostasy from this; the low grade of Union feeling among the white inhabitants and voters of the District, and the true principle of legislation on suffrage, and closed with the following appeal to the House :

"And now, Mr. Speaker, who are the persons upon whom this bill will operate if we shall place it upon the statute-book of the nation? They are citizens of the United States and residents of the District of Columbia. It is true that many of them have black faces ; but that is God's work, and he is wiser than we. Some of them have faces marked by colors uncertain; that is not God's fault. Those who hate black men most in-tensely can tell more than all others about this mixture of colors. But, mixed or black, they are citizens of this republic, and they have been, and are to-day, true and loyal to their Government, and this is vastly more than many of their contemners can claim for themselves.

"In this district a white skin was not the badge of loyalty, while a black skin was. No traitor breathed the air of this capital wearing a black skin. Through all the gradations of traitors, from Wirz to Jeff. Davis, criminal eyes beamed from white faces. Through all phases of treason, from the bold stroke of Lee upon the battle-field to the unnatural sympathy of those who lived within this district, but hated the sight of their country's flag, runs the blood which courses only under a white surface. While white men were fleeing from this city to join their fortunes with the rebel cause, the returning wave brought black faces in their stead. White enemies went out, black friends came in. As true as truth itself were these poor men to the cause of this imperilled nation. Wherever we have trusted them they have been true. Why will we not deal justly by them?  Why shall we not, in this district, where the first effective legislative blow fell upon slavery, declare that these suffering, patient, devoted friends of the republic, shall have the power to protect their own rights by their own ballots? Is it because they are-ignorant? Sir, we are estopped from that plea. It comes too late. We did not make this inquiry in regard to the white voter. It is only when we see a man with a dark skin that we think of ignorance. Let us riot stand on this view in relation to this district. 

The fact itself is rapidly passing away, for there is no other part of the population of the district so diligent in the acquisition of knowledge as the colored portion. In spite of the difficulties placed in their pathway to knowledge by the white residents, the colored people, adults and children, are steadily pressing on." He finished by urging the passage of the bill, which he secured a few days later by a vote of more than two thirds.

On the trial of Andrew Johnson upon the articles of impeachment preferred against him by the House of Representatives, Mr. Wilson was chosen one of the managers of the trial, and in a closing argument of great force and pertinence, sought to demostrate the guilt of the President.

Mr. Wilson has been repeatedly offered Cabinet positions, and two or three of the foreign missions in Europe were tendered him, but he has declined them all. In the winter of 1872 he was elected to the United States Senate, to succeed Hon. James Harlan.

Source: Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872   

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