James F. Wilson

James Falconer "Jefferson Jim" Wilson (October 19, 1828 – April 22, 1895) was an American lawyer and politician. He served as a Republican U.S. Congressman from Iowa's 1st congressional district during the American Civil War, and later as a two-term U.S. Senator from Iowa. He was a pioneer in the advancement of federal protection for civil rights.

James Falconer Wilson
Hon. James F. Wilson, Iowa - NARA - 526815 (1).jpg
United States Senator
from Iowa
In office
March 4, 1883 – March 3, 1895
Preceded byJames W. McDill
Succeeded byJohn H. Gear
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Iowa's 1st district
In office
October 8, 1861 – March 3, 1869
Preceded bySamuel Ryan Curtis
Succeeded byGeorge W. McCrary
Member of the Iowa House of Representatives
In office
Member of the Iowa Senate
In office
Personal details
Born(1828-10-19)October 19, 1828
Newark, Ohio, U.S.
DiedApril 22, 1895(1895-04-22) (aged 66)
Fairfield, Iowa, U.S.
Political partyWhig; Free Soil; Republican
Spouse(s)Mary A. K. Jewett Wilson
ProfessionPolitician, attorney

While in the United States House of Representatives, he served as a manager in the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson.

In the last half of the nineteenth century, two unrelated Iowans named James Wilson achieved high office, necessitating an early form of disambiguation. Representative and Senator James F. Wilson (of Jefferson County, Iowa) became known as "Jefferson Jim" Wilson,[1] while Representative and Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson (of Tama County, Iowa) became known as "Tama Jim" Wilson.[1]

Personal backgroundEdit

Wilson was born in Newark, Ohio. After his father died when James was eleven, James needed to work from an early age, and attended school when work permitted.[2] After serving as a harnessmaker's apprentice, he studied law in Newark alongside future U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Burnham Woods.[2] He was admitted to the bar in 1851 and practiced in Newark until 1853.

In 1853, he moved to Fairfield, Iowa, where he resumed the practice of law. Three years later in 1856 amidst the 1856 United States presidential election, Wilson ran for and was elected to serve as a delegate to the Convention for the Revision of the Constitution of Iowa.[3][2] The following year he was elected to the Iowa House of Representatives, where he served in the Ways and Means Committee.

During his early career, Wilson's opposition towards slavery led him to join the Free Soil Party.[4]

Wilson played an important role in the formation of the Iowa Republican Party, and antebellum Iowa government. In 1857, he was a delegate to Iowa's constitutional convention, and served as a Republican in the Iowa House of Representatives that year and in 1859, when he was elected to the Iowa Senate. He served on the Committee of the Judiciary,[2] and later served as a delegate to the 1860 Republican National Convention[3] which nominated Abraham Lincoln of Illinois and Hannibal Hamlin of Maine to head the party ticket for the presidential election.

U.S. House of RepresentativesEdit

In 1860, Wilson and three others, including incumbent Samuel R. Curtis, vied for the Republican nomination to represent Iowa's 1st congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives.[5] Curtis won the nomination, then the general election. After the outbreak of the Civil War, however, Curtis resigned to accept appointment as an officer of the Union Army. At the convention called to choose the Republican nominee to succeed Curtis, "it was a foregone conclusion that James F. Wilson would be the unanimous choice."[5] In October 1861 Wilson was elected to fill the vacancy, easily defeating Democrat Jairus E. Neal.

Rep. Wilson's first action in Congress was introducing a resolution prohibiting fugitive slaves from being returned to the South and ordering the dismissal of any military officer that instructs troops to do such, which was enacted.[2] He in addition reported legislation which enfranchised blacks in Washington, D.C., as well as shepherding a bill that granted freedom to the family of black soldiers.

After completing Curtis's term in the 37th Congress, he was re-elected three times, serving in the 38th, 39th, and 40th Congresses. He was chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary during the tumultuous periods during the War and Reconstruction.[2]

A business lawyer, Wilson advocated moderating the income tax among lower brackets and "reasonable" levels of protectionism.[4] He also backed railroad grants and the Homestead Act, though opposed the Morrill College Land-Grant Act. Along with other Radical Republicans, Wilson adamantly supported a military occupation of the South during Reconstruction on the grounds that it was the only effective means of ensuring security.[4]

Wilson was aligned with the faction of his Party known at the time as the "Radical Republicans." He supported civil rights moves and objected to President Andrew Johnson's attempts to veto the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Reconstruction Acts. His speech refuting arguments that lamented of the 1866 bill's alleged unconstitutionality were remarked by James G. Blaine as having:

...great strength and legal research.

— James Gillespie Blaine
Johnson impeachment managers
Seated L-R: Benjamin Butler, Thaddeus Stevens, Thomas Williams, John Bingham;
Standing L-R: James F. Wilson, George S. Boutwell, John A. Logan

Wilson voted in support of launching the 1867 impeachment inquiry against Andrew Johnson.[6] When the full House of Representatives subsequently voted on whether to impeach President Johnson, on December 7, 1867, he voted against impeaching the president. The House voted strongly against impeachment at that time.[7] On January 27, 1868, he voted in support of launching the second impeachment inquiry against Andrew Johnson.[8] Despite his initial misgivings,[1] he voted to impeach President Johnson on February 24, 1868, when the House successfully voted to impeach him, and was one of the House managers in the resulting impeachment trial. Wilson sparred with Maine senator William P. Fessenden, who claimed that he broke from "his usual discretion."[4]

He supported the first bill in Congress to provide voting rights to black citizens of the District of Columbia.[2] He was not a candidate for renomination in 1868, explaining prior to the district convention that with the election of an acceptable Republican president guaranteed and a change in administration inevitable, a change in representation of the First District was also timely.[9] In all, Wilson served in the House from October 8, 1861, to March 4, 1869.

President Ulysses S. Grant offered Wilson the post of Secretary of State, but Wilson declined it, serving instead as government director of the Pacific Railroad for eight years.

U.S. SenateEdit

In 1882, the Iowa General Assembly elected Wilson to the U.S. Senate. His first initiative as a U.S. Senator was to propose an unsuccessful constitutional amendment to more explicitly authorize the federal government to adopt laws that protect civil rights from violations by private citizens, to nullify the Supreme Court's ruling two months earlier in the Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883).[10] The General Assembly re-elected him in 1888 to a second six-year term.[11] In the Senate, Wilson served as chairman of the Committee of Mines and Mining (in the Forty-eighth Congress) Committee on Expenditures of Public Money (in the Forty-eighth Congress), Committee on Revision of the Laws of the United States (in the Forty-ninth through Fifty-second Congresses), and the Committee on Education and Labor (in the Fifty-second Congress).

In the Senate, Wilson was known as a staunch supporter of the Prohibition cause, being a member of the Sons of Temperance.[4] He was particularly outspoken on the issue, advocating in 1883 to commit the GOP state convention in Iowa to the issue.

In 1890, Wilson was one of three Senators mentioned as potential nominees to fill the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court created by the death of Justice Samuel F. Miller of Iowa.[12] President Benjamin Harrison instead picked Michigan judge Henry Billings Brown, who would later write the Supreme Court's opinion upholding "separate but equal" racial segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).


Wilson died in Fairfield shortly after his second Senate term ended. In its obituary, the New York Times attributed his death to "paralysis of the brain", and stated that his death had been expected.[2] He was interred in Fairfield-Evergreen Cemetery.[13]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c David Hudson, Marvin Bergman, & Loren Horton, "The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa," pp. 560–563 (Iowa City: U of Iowa Press 2008).
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h "Death of the Slave's Friend", New York Times, 1895-04-24 at p. 16.
  3. ^ a b Wilson, J. The Political Graveyard. Retrieved March 9, 2022.
  4. ^ a b c d e Ross, Earle D. James F. Wilson, Legalistic Free-Soiler. The Annals of Iowa. Retrieved March 9, 2022.
  5. ^ a b Olynthus B. Clark, "The Politics of Iowa During the Civil War and Reconstruction," p. 32-33, 125 (Iowa City: Clio Press 1911).
  6. ^ "TO PASS A RESOLUTION TO IMPEACH THE PRESIDENT. (P. 320-2, … -- House Vote #418 -- Jan 7, 1867". GovTrack.us. Retrieved March 15, 2022.
  7. ^ "TO PASS THE IMPEACHMENT OF PRESIDENT RESOLUTION. -- House Vote #119 -- Dec 7, 1867". GovTrack.us.
  8. ^ "Journal of the United States House of Representatives (40th Congress, second session) pages 259–262". voteview.com. United States House of Representatives. 1868. Retrieved March 16, 2022.
  9. ^ Waterloo Courier, 1868-04-30 at p. 2 (reprinting excerpts of Wilson's letter to O.W. Slagle).
  10. ^ Editorial, "An Unnecessary Move", New York Times, 1883-12-14 at p. 4.
  11. ^ "Senator Wilson Re-elected", New York Times, 1889-01-26 at p. 4.
  12. ^ "The Vacant Justiceship", New York Times, 1890-10-25 at p. 1.
  13. ^ Where No Man Has Gone Before

External linksEdit

U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Iowa's 1st congressional district

October 8, 1861 – March 4, 1869
Succeeded by
U.S. Senate
Preceded by U.S. senator (Class 2) from Iowa
March 4, 1883 – March 4, 1895
Served alongside: William B. Allison
Succeeded by