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James Falconer Wilson
(October 19, 1828ĖApril 22, 1895)

 

James Wilson was a Republican congressman and senator from Iowa.  In December 1863, he introduced a bill into the U.S. House of Representatives for a constitutional amendment to ban slavery in the entire United States.  It was an essential part of the foundation for what became the Thirteenth Amendment (ratified in December 1865). 

James Wilson was born in Newark, Ohio, on October 19, 1828, to Kitty Ann Bramble Wilson and Davis S. Wilson, a carpenter.  After the death of his father, young Wilson worked as an apprentice harness-maker to his uncle and attended school intermittently.  He read law and was admitted to the state bar in 1851.  The next year, he married Mary Jewett; they later had three children.  In 1853, the Wilsons moved to Fairfield, Iowa, where he practiced law.

In 1854, passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened the Western territories to slavery, prodded Wilson to act as one of the founders of the Republican Party in Iowa.  In 1857, he was a delegate to the state constitutional convention and was elected to the Iowa General Assembly.  Two years later, he won a seat in the Iowa State Senate.  In 1860, he was a delegate to the Republican National Convention, where he supported the successful presidential candidacy of Abraham Lincoln.  In early 1861, Wilson was elected president of the state senate, but resigned that October after winning a special election to fill a congressional vacancy.  He became a member and later chairman (1863-1869) of the influential House Judiciary Committee.   

During the Civil War, Wilson strongly supported the Union war effort and advocated emancipation measures for the District of Columbia and the Western territories (both passed in 1862).  In December 1863, he became the second House member to introduce a bill for a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery in the entire United States.  It formed an essential element in the drafting of the Thirteenth Amendment, which the House passed in January 1865 and the states ratified in December 1865.  He also endorsed citizenship, voting rights, and other civil rights for blacks.  

After the war, Wilson supported congressional Reconstruction over President Andrew Johnsonís more lenient policies.  The Iowan initially opposed impeaching the president until Johnson removed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (who was cooperating with Congress on Reconstruction) in violation of the Tenure of Office Act.  After the House impeached Johnson in February 1868, Wilson served as one of the House managers (prosecutors) at the presidentís trial in the Senate.  The Senate failed to convict Johnson by one vote, so he completed the presidential term.  Wilson decided not to run for reelection to Congress in 1868.  The next year, he declined President Ulysses S. Grantís offer to become secretary of state, but accepted a position as a representative of the federal government on the board of directors of the Union Pacific Railroad.  He invested money in Credit Mobilier, the holding company of the Union Pacific, but no evidence linked him to the subsequent scandal involving bribes from the Credit Mobilier managers to politicians. 

In 1882, Wilson emerged from political retirement to win a seat in the U.S. Senate, and was reelected six years later.  In the Senate, he helped draft the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, which created the first federal regulatory agency (the Interstate Commerce Commission), and supported high tariffs, bimetallism, and federal supervision of elections (to help protect black voting rights in the South).  He also endorsed prohibition laws for Iowa.  Wilson decided not to seek reelection in 1894, but retired at the end of his second term in early March 1895.  He returned to Fairfield, Iowa, where he died six weeks later on April 22, 1895.


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