Great Leaders and National Issues of 1896/Chapter 8/Allison
William B. Allison
Iowa's Favorite for President
William B. Allison, recently re-elected United States Senator from Iowa, is a native of Ohio, the commonwealth which of late years has furnished so many statesmen to the Union. Some time ago, in a chat with the late General Sherman, he remarked to the writer: “There's something singular about Ohio; she has always a number of leading men at the front. Here at West Point she has the largest number of members in the graduating class, and it has been so for years. The infusion of New England blood into that State seems to have produced the best sort of stock. General Grant was a native of the State, and,” added the grim soldier, with a smile, “if I weren't such a modest man, I might add that I was also born there.”
First Entrance into Politics
Mr. Allison was born in 1829, and was graduated from the Western Reserve College. His first entrance into public politics, as he states, was in 1860, when he was appointed one of the tally secretaries at the convention which nominated Abraham Lincoln for the Presidency. He was then practicing law in the little town of Ashland, near the center of the State, some fifteen miles from where that other famous son of Ohio, John Sherman, was engaged in the same profession. Allison had removed to Iowa in 1857, where he found himself among many people from Ohio. It was as a delegate from Iowa that he attended the memorable convention which placed one of the greatest Americans that ever lived in nomination for the Presidency.
“I sat right in front of George Ashmun, of Massachusetts,” said Senator Allison. “He was president of the convention, and I believe that I gave him the first news of Lincoln's nomination. I kept footing up the figures as they came in, and some time before the members of the convention were aware of the fact, I saw that Lincoln would be successful, and I turned about and told Mr. Ashmun of the fact. A few minutes later the convention realized it, and then ensued one of the most wonderful scenes in our history. The convention was held in the old wigwam in Chicago, and there were about ten thousand people present. When the vote was announced a scream went up from thousands of throats, and fully one thousand hats were thrown into the air. It rained hats for several minutes after the announcement, and I can still see the hats rising and falling. The people lost control of themselves, and I have often wondered what became of those hats, for there was not much possibility of recovering your hat in a mob like that.”
Although Mr. Allison was deeply interested in politics from the first, and always inclined to the principles of the Republican party, he felt no special ambition to become a politician. Nevertheless, his neighbors appreciated his ability, and he was nominated for Congress in 1862. Samuel J. Kirkwood was then governor of Iowa and Allison was on his staff. Being directed to raise troops for the armies in the field, he organized three regiments in North Iowa in 1861, but was attacked by a serious illness which laid him up for a year. As soon as he recovered, he set to work again and raised three more regiments. He was then nominated for Congress by the conservative element of the Republican party. His opponent was a Democratic editor of so pronounced secession proclivities that he was in jail by orders of the aggressive Secretary Stanton. Thus the issue was a straight one between the friends and enemies of the Union.
Had all of Iowa's citizens been at home, Mr. Allison would not have felt the slightest misgiving as to the result, but the majority of the Iowa soldiers in the field were Republicans. In this dilemma, Allison persuaded Governor Kirkwood to call an extra session of the Legislature, which passed a law allowing the soldiers at the front to vote. Three commissioners were sent thither, the result being that Allison was triumphantly elected. The same system of soldier-voting was afterward adopted by other States in the North. Mr. Allison remained in Congress until 1871, and two years later was elected to the Senate, where he has remained ever since, being re-elected, as already stated, in 1896.
From his first entrance into politics Senator Allison has been profoundly interested in financial matters, and there is no higher authority on that question than he. He was early appointed a member of the Appropriation Committee. His seat was near that of Congressman Garfield and he became the intimate and trusted friend of him and of Blaine. Despite his friendship for Mr. Blaine, he was also the valued associate of the most bitter opponents of the Maine statesman. This was a tribute indeed to the worth and ability of Allison.
Declining the Portfolio of the Treasury
President Garfield was so impressed by Allison's attainments and complete mastery of financial questions, that, in the face of the strongest pressure from other quarters, he urged him to accept the portfolio of the Treasury. Allison would have done so, for the post would have been a congenial one to him, had it not been for the delicate state of his wife's health. She was a brilliant and accomplished woman, but was an invalid whose existence depended upon her living a quiet, restful life. Because of this, the affectionate husband declined the offer. The nervous malady of his wife became intensified, and some time later, when she had become a victim to melancholia, sad to say, she took her own life.
Mr. Allison enjoys splendid health, and is in the prime of his mental powers. His eye is bright, his complexion ruddy, and the iron-gray hair abundant. He is a handsome man, genial and fond of a good story, and he can tell one and join in the ringing laughter which greets a witticism. He is fond of books, art and travel, and is almost as familiar with the politics of Europe as with those of his own country. He is dignified and kindly without a trace of egotism or vanity. Senator Gear of Iowa said of him: “There is nothing of a coward about Allison. He is cautious, but not cowardly. He has a stiff backbone in him, and when the occasion demands, he always shows that he has convictions and the courage to support them. He has been in public life for a generation, and although he is sixty-seven years old, he looks and really is ten years younger, and in the prime of physical condition.”