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Reuben E. Fenton


SENATOR FENTON is one of the few men who ___  neither to law nor politics, but occupied during early life with mercantile pursuits, have entered later in their career into the political arena, and acquitted themselves so well as to be advanced to, and continued in, high station. Though himself a native of the State of New York, his family, like many others whose record we have given in this volume, are of Connecticut origin. He claims descent from Robert Fenton, a man of note among the settlers of the eastern part of Connecticut, and who was one of the patentees of the town of Mansfield, when that town was set off from Windham, in 1703. During the Revolutionary war, the family was noted for its patriotism, and furnished its full share of soldiers for that great struggle. The grandfather of the Senator, about 1777, removed to New Hampshire, in which State his father was born. In the early part of the present century, Mr. Fenton, then an enterprising young farmer, removed to what is now the town of Carroll, Chautauqua county, New York, then a portion of the Holland land patent, where he purchased a tract of land, and by dint of constant hard work, brought this portion of "the forest primeval" into the condition of a pleasant and profitable farm.  Here—July 4, 1819—his son, REUBEN E. FENTON, was born.

Young Fenton's early years were spent upon the paternal homestead, and though an amiable, friendly and popular boy among his associates, he seems to have developed no remarkable genius or ability in his boyhood. He was somewhat fond of military studies, and in the boyish trainings was uniformly chosen captain, and it was probably owing to this taste that he was chosen colonel of the 162d regiment, New York State militia, before he was twenty-one years of age.

His opportunities for acquiring an education were very limited, but they were well improved. He was a good scholar when he was in the common-school, and when, subsequently, he passed a few terms in different academies, he made rapid progress as a student, and won the approbation of his preceptors for his manly qualities and exemplary deportment. He read law one year, not with the view of going into the profession; but to make himself familiar with the principles and forms of that science, under the impression that this knowledge would be useful to him in whatever business he might engage.

At the age of twenty, he commenced business, with very limited means and under adverse circumstances. But the fact did not discourage him, nor turn him from his purposes. The world was before him, and what others had accomplished, young Fenton resolved should be done by him. He went at his work with all the earnestness and energy of his character, and a few years saw him a successful and-prosperous merchant. While in this pursuit, he turned his attention to the lumber trade, as an auxiliary to his mercantile business. He was still a young man when he purchased his first " boards and shingles," and as he floated off upon his fragile raft, valued at less than one thousand dollars, there were not wanting those who wondered at his temerity, and the failure of his enterprise was confidently predicted. But nothing could dampen his ardor. He tied his little raft safely on the shore of the Ohio, near Cincinnati, went into the city found a customer, sold his lumber, and returned to his home with a pride and satisfaction never excelled in after years, though he went the round with profits tenfold greater. Lumbering became in a few years his principal business; and to such a man, success and competence were but a matter of time. He soon enjoyed the reputation of being the most successful lumberman on the Alleghany and Ohio rivers; but this came only because he wrought it by untiring perseverance and indefatigable energy.

In 1843, Mr. Fenton was chosen supervisor of his native town, and held the position for eight successive years. Three of these eight he was chairman of the board, though the board was two to one Whig, while he was a well-known Democrat. But he was courteous and affable, manly and upright, genial and sensible, and his opponents, by common consent, selected him to preside over their deliberations.

In 1849, his friends nominated him for the assembly, and he came within twenty-one votes of being elected, though the successful candidate was one of the oldest and most popular men in the assembly district, which was strongly Whig.

In 1852, he was put in nomination by the Democrats for Congress, and elected by fifty-two majority, though the district, from the manner in which it was accustomed to vote, should have given at least 3,000 majority against him. He took his seat, on the first Monday in December, 1853, in a House which was Democratic by about two to one. Mr. Douglas, chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, in the course of the session, was beguiled into embodying in a bill which provided for the organization as territories of Kansas and Nebraska, a re-peal of that portion of the Missouri compromise of 1820, which forbade the legalization of slavery in any territory of the United States, lying north of north latitude, thirty-six degrees and thirty minutes. Mr. Fenton, with N. P. Banks, and quite a number of the younger Democrats, with Colonel Thomas H. Benton and other seniors, steadfastly opposed this proposition, and opposed the bill because of it. The bill was nevertheless forced through the House by a vote of 113 to 100, and became a law. In the division that thereupon ensued, Mr. Fenton took Republican ground with Preston King, Ward Hunt, George Opdyke, and other conspicuous Democrats, and he has never since been other than a Republican.

In 1854, the American or Know Nothing party carried his district by a considerable majority (Mr. Fenton consenting to be a candidate on the Saturday previous to election), as they did a good many others in the State; but, in 1856, he ran on the FREMONT ticket, and was elected, and thence re-elected by large and generally increasing majorities down to 1864, when he withdrew, having been nominated for Governor, He thus served five terms in Congress, each as the representative of the strongly Whig district composed of Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties, which contains many able and worthy men who were in full accord with its by-gone politics, and to the almost unanimous acceptance of his constituents.

Immediately on entering Congress, Mr. Fenton espoused the cause of the soldiers of 1812, and shortly after introduced a bill providing for the payment of the property accounts between the United States and the State of New York, for military stores furnished in the war of 1812. This measure he continued to urge upon the attention of Congress, and finally, on the 30th May, 1860, had the satisfaction to witness its passage in the House by a vote of 98 to 80. He had a leading place on important committees, and performed the duties appertaining to these positions in a manner satisfactory to all. It is but simple truth to say that he was one of the quietly industrious and faithful members of the House. Nor was he a silent representative. He could talk when there seemed a necessity for speaking. During his Congressional career, he delivered able and effective speeches against the repeal of the Missouri Compromise act; in advocacy of a cheap postal system; the bill to ex-tend invalid pensions; for the improvement of rivers and harbors; to regulate emigration to this country; against the policy of the Democratic party with regard to Kansas; for the final settlement of the claims of the soldiers of the Revolution; in vindication of the principles and policy of the Republican party; on the Deficiency bill; the bill to facilitate the payment of bounties; on the repeal of the Fugitive Slave law; on providing for payment of losses by the rebellion, etc.

Mr. Fenton served in Congress nearly to the end of the war for the Union, of which he was one of the firmest and most efficient supporters. Believing the Union to be right and the rebellion wrong throughout, he gave his best energies to the national cause, voting steadily for taxes, loans, levies, drafts, and for the emancipation policy whereby they were rendered effectual. Men of greater pretensions were abundant in Congress, but there was none more devoted, or more ready to invoke and to make sacrifices for the triumph of the Union.

In the fall of 1862, Mr. Fenton's name was favorably mentioned in connection with the office of governor, but finding General Wadsworth was to be pressed for a nomination, Mr. Fenton promptly withdrew from the canvass, and yielded to the patriot soldier his warmest support. In 1864, Mr. Fenton was designated as the standard-bearer of the Republican party, and chosen governor by a majority considerably larger than Mr. Lincoln's; and two years later, he was unanimously re-nominated, and chosen by an increased majority.

The administration of Governor Fenton commenced at the culminating period of the war, and required the exercise of industry, method, decision, and the power or discriminating, originating, and executing. He brought to the discharge of his new position all these forces of body and mind, and proved patient amid perplexities, quick in his perceptions, safe in his judgments, mastering toilsome details, and successfully meeting difficult emergencies. His practical training, his wide experience, his luminous intellect and well-disciplined judgment, saved him from the failure that a man of less power might have encountered. His official relations with our soldiers did not weaken the attachments that had given him the honored title of the "soldier's friend." He was prompt to reward merit, and skilful to harmonize differences that often threatened demoralization and serious injury to many of the military organizations then in the field. Upon the return home of the soldiers, Governor Fenton addressed a letter to the war committees of the various districts in the State, in which he suggested the propriety of a hearty and spontaneous welcome to the heroic defenders of the country, on the part of the people of the State—an ovation to demonstrate the gratitude of those whose battles they had so bravely fought.

Governor Fenton's judicious course fully commanded the public confidence and approval, and at the close of the first year of his term, many of the most prominent and influential citizens of New York city addressed him a letter of thanks, promising him their hearty co-operation and support in his efforts to improve the condition and health of the metropolis. A few months later, when he visited New York city, thousands of the best men of New York waited upon him in person, to assure him of their respect and approval of his course.

He found it necessary to veto several bills of the first Legislature which sat after his election, in consequence of their depriving the city of New York of valuable franchises, without conferring compensating advantages. For these acts, he was thanked publicly, by a resolution of the Board of Supervisors of New York county. Governor Fenton's views upon the political issues which were involved in Mr. Johnson's attempted "policy" were ably expressed, in a letter addressed to the committee of a meeting held to ratify the action of the State Union Convention, in October, 1866, and soon after in a speech delivered at a large political gathering in Jamestown. During the canvass that followed, his opponents were unable to assail any portion of his official record, and his friends proudly pointed to it, as what a patriotic governor's should be.

When, in August, 1866, Mr. Johnson, in the course of his political tour, generally known as "swinging round the circle," visited Albany, a proper regard for the high office he held, required that the governor of the State should proffer its hospitalities to him. Governor Fenton did so in the following brief but dignified address


"With high consideration for the Chief Magistrate of the Republic, I address you words of welcome in behalf of our citizens and the people of the State whose capital you visit. We extend to you and to your suite, hospitality and greeting, and desire your safe conduct as you go hence to pay honor to the memory of the lamented Douglas,—to the State also distinguished as the home and final resting place of the patriot and martyr, Lincoln.

"I have no power to give due expression to the feelings of this assemblage of citizens, nor to express in fitting terms the respect and magnanimity of the whole people upon an occasion so marked as the coming to our capital and to our homes of the President of the United States. In their name I give assurance to your excellency of their fidelity, patriotism and jealous interest in all that relates to the good order, progress, and freedom of all the States, and of their earnest hope that peace will soon open up to the people of the whole land new fields of greater liberty, prosperity and power."

The Republican party, in 1866, saw the necessity of selecting wise men for its nominees. The more discerning politicians felt that there was reason to fear an unfavorable result of the canvass. Herculean efforts were being made to defeat the party at the polls. A division had been created among those who had heretofore professed its principles. A number of influential gentlemen openly repudiated its ideas in regard to reconstruction. The Philadelphia Convention had produced .a schism, which it was feared might prove formidable, if not disastrous. Those who were the most pronounced in favor .of the policy of President Johnson, were the most earnest in their opposition to Governor Fenton. The question naturally arose whether this marked hostility might not -prove fatal to success, by stimulating the Conservatives to greater effort, and enabling them to exert more powerful influence over the moderate and doubtful portion of the party ; and whether a man less likely to be thus assailed might not be stronger. On the other hand, there was to be considered the effect which the leading measures of his administration had produced on the popular mind. His national policy had contributed in a marked degree to the success of the war. He had entered upon his term of office as successor to one who disapproved of many of the principal features of the war policy of the Government, and who had been elected because of his decided views in relation thereto. He had stimulated volunteering, and secured for the State a more just recognition of its rights; had worked clear from the complications in which the public interest had been involved by the blundering and incompetency of the provost marshal general; and had relieved New York from a large portion of the dreaded burden of the draft. He had much, with the co-operation of the head of the State finance department, to originate a financial system which rendered the credit of the State stable and secure, and furnished the means to supply the demands of war, without being felt as oppressive. By his keen appreciation of the wants of the soldiers, his tender solicitude for their welfare, and his earnest efforts in their behalf, he had firmly attached them to himself. In his State policy, he had sought to foster all the material interests of the commonwealth; and had reluctantly interposed to the defeat of needed enterprises when their aid would render the burden of taxation onerous, and awaited a more favorable opportunity to join in giving them that aid. He was vigilant in his attention to the commercial wants of the State, both in the great metropolis and through its extensive lines of transit. This unwavering devotion to the essential prosperity of the State, elicited confidence and commendation. All the discriminating judgment and forecast of the statesman had been displayed in a marked degree. These views were impressed on the minds of the representative men of his party, and when the Convention assembled, so strongly did they prevail, and so heavily did they outweigh adverse considerations, that no other name was suggested, and he was unanimously nominated by acclamation. The Democrats entered upon the canvass full of hope. Prominent places were given by them, on the State ticket, to Republicans who dissented from the principles enunciated by the Republican party, and nominations of a like character were made for many local offices in various portions of the State. The result showed that Governor Fenton's strength had not been miscalculated. He was re-elected by a majority five thousand larger than that given him in his first canvass.

The year 1867 furnished the occasion for a continuation of a policy which had proved so acceptable, and it is not necessary that we should dwell upon its features.

The absence of all malevolence in the heart of Governor Fenton, and the broad charity of his nature, were displayed during that year. The remains of the rebel dead had been left unburied at Antietam. A letter from Governor Fenton, breathing the spirit of loyalty and humanity, decided the committee at once to an act both Christian and proper, and in accordance with the spirit of the law of Maryland, which authorized the purchase of a cemetery, and created a corporation to carry out the declared object of burying in it, all who fell on either side during the invasion of Lee at the battle of Antietam. In that letter he took the high ground that it "was a war less of sections than of systems," and that the nation could confer decent burial on the southern dead while condemning and sternly opposing the heresies for which they had sacrificed themselves; and that attachment to the Union and devotion to the most thorough measures for its preservation and restoration were not inconsistent with the broadest charity, and the observance of sacred obligations to the dead. This letter accomplished the intended purpose ; and the bones of the rebel soldiers who fell on that memorable field, were interred as befitting not only a legal obligation, but the highest demands of civilization and our common humanity.

In his message to the Legislature of 1868, Governor Fenton forcibly expressed himself in favor of materially reducing the number of items in the tax lists, and of a re-adjustment of the assessment laws—now so glaringly unequal—in order that every source of wealth might bear its just proportion of burden. He also took strong ground in defence of the inviolate' maintenance of the national faith. In his usual terse and vigorous style, he argued against the legality of the Governments instituted by President Johnson, after the cessation of active hostilities, and held that the reconstruction acts of Congress were necessary, because the Southern States had rejected, with scorn, the peace-offering of the Constitutional Amendment. He eloquently expressed himself in behalf of the rights of the freedman, in consideration of his manhood and loyalty, to protection through law, and to the elective franchise.

Governor Fenton realized that the people of New York had made him their Chief Magistrate, and that they looked to him, and to no other person, for the faithful discharge of the duties of the responsible position. lie was controlled by no clique—he was the agent of no cabal. He patiently listened to all who desired to consult him, and then followed the dictates of his own good judgment. He had no prejudice so strong, nor patiality so great, as to lead him to do an unjust act. He was a careful thinker and a hard worker. No man ever labored more hours in the executive chamber than he did. Whatever work engaged his attention, he attended to it personally, even to the minutest details.

At the State Republican Convention, in September, 1868, it being understood that Governor Fenton would not consent to be again a candidate, Hon. John A. Griswold was nominated for that office, but the Democrats being successful on the State ticket, Hon. John T. Hoffman was elected Governor.

The Legislature, in the winter of 1869, elected Reuben E. Fenton United States Senator for six years from March, 1869, and he took his place on the 4th of March following, succeeding lion. Edwin D. Morgan. In the Senate, Mr. Fenton has manifested similar traits to those which made him so acceptable as a Governor. He belongs to the liberal wing of the Republican party, favors decentralization in the National Government, universal amnesty, and impartial suffrage, and does not regard with satisfaction, the corruption which springs from a personal government, or from placing power and influence in the hands of bitter partisans who only desire it for their own private aims and emolument. Unfortunately he and President Grant differ in their views, and he has been in consequence most ruthlessly proscribed and denounced by the administration papers throughout the years 1871 and 1872. But the Senator is too fair and upright a man to be harmed by this abuse.

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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