James Mitchell Ashley

  (Redirected from James M. Ashley)

James Mitchell Ashley (November 14, 1824 – September 16, 1896) was an American politician and abolitionist. A member of the Republican Party, Ashley served as a member of the United States House of Representatives from Ohio during the American Civil War, where he became a leader of the Radical Republicans and pushed for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, ending slavery in the United States. After the war, he served as Governor of the Montana Territory and president of the Ann Arbor Railroad.[1]

James Mitchell Ashley
James Mitchell Ashley - Brady-Handy.jpg
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Ohio's 5th district
In office
March 4, 1859 – March 3, 1863
Preceded byRichard Mott
Succeeded byFrancis Celeste Le Blond
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Ohio's 10th district
In office
March 4, 1863 – March 3, 1869
Preceded byCarey A. Trimble
Succeeded byTruman H. Hoag
3rd Governor of the Montana Territory
In office
April 9, 1869 – July 12, 1870
Preceded byGreen Clay Smith
Succeeded byBenjamin Franklin Potts
Personal details
Born(1824-11-14)November 14, 1824
Allegheny County, Pennsylvania
DiedSeptember 16, 1896(1896-09-16) (aged 71)
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Resting placeWoodlawn Cemetery (Toledo, Ohio)
Political partyRepublican
Spouse(s)Emma Smith

Early and family lifeEdit

Ashley was born in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, to John Ashley, a bookbinder and Campbellite preacher who evangelized in Kentucky and West Virginia, and his wife Mary A. (Kilpatrick) Ashley of Kentucky. As a boy in the Ohio River valley, Ashley saw coffles of chained slaves being walked to the Deep South, boys his own age being sold, and even white men who refused to let their cattle drink from a stream in which his father had baptized slaves. He grew to hate the "peculiar institution" (which he considered a violation of Christian principles) and the oligarchy that supported it.[2]

Ashley was mostly self-taught in elementary subjects, although his father wanted him to follow family tradition and become a Baptist minister. Rather than attend a seminary, the 14 year old ran away to become a cabin boy on Ohio and Mississippi River boats, and later worked as a clerk on those boats. He had begun helping slaves to escape as early as 1839,[2] and late in his life Ashley relished telling stories of the families he had saved as a 17 year old.[3]He told the story later in life, which came down through the family that, when he left the home at 14, the last words his father said to him as he went off was: "You're on the straight road to Hell, boy!" Twenty years later, when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, his first act, when he sat down in his office in Washington, D.C., was to pen his father, to whom he had not spoken in twenty years, a letter on the Congressional stationary: "Dear Father, I have just arrived!"

He married Emma Jane Smith in 1851 and together they had four children. He is the great-grandfather of U.S. Representative Thomas W. L. Ashley and a number of other descendants, including James Ashley IV, a portraitist living in Chicago.

Political careerEdit

In 1848, the burly six-foot tall youth settled in Portsmouth, Ohio, where he became a journalist—first at the Portsmouth Dispatch and later editor of the Portsmouth Democrat.[4] The following year, 1849, he was admitted to the Ohio Bar but did not practice. Instead, by 1851, abolitionist activities caused Ashley and his wife to flee north to Toledo, Ohio to avoid prosecution under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. There, Ashley opened a drug store (which was soon burned down) and also became involved in the new Republican Party, campaigning for its presidential candidate John C. Fremont and congressman Richard Mott.

James Ashley was an active abolitionist who traveled with John Brown's wife to Brown's execution in December, 1859, and reported the event in the still-extant local newspaper, the Toledo Blade. In 1858, he led the Ohio Republican Party. As the year ended, Ashley was elected to U.S. House of Representatives of the 36th United States Congress, and took office the following year.

While in Congress (the 37th through 40th sessions), Ashley served as the Chairman of the Committee on Territories, and was instrumental to the creation (naming and borders) of the territories of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Washington. He also authored the Arizona Organic Act. However, he opposed The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and especially polygamy, and limited Utah's boundaries to reduce Mormon influence.[1]

During the American Civil War, Ashley took an active role in supporting the recruitment of troops for the Union Army. He also became a leader among the Radical Republicans, writing a bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia in 1862. In 1863 he introduced the first bill which ultimately (with Ashley as House Majority floor manager) became the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution by a 2/3 margin of 2 votes on January 31, 1865, formally abolishing slavery.

Ashley suspected President Andrew Johnson of complicity in President Lincoln's assassination, and criticized the successor president for attempting to veto extensions of the Freedmen's Bureau, the Civil Rights Bill and the Reconstruction Acts. He suspected Johnson's ties with southern oligarchs. In January 1867, Ashley initiated impeachment proceedings against Johnson, and the following February the House formally charged Johnson with "usurpation of power and violation of law by corruptly using the appointing, pardoning, and veto powers, by disposing corruptly of the property of the United States, and by interfering in elections."[5] However, Johnson was acquitted by the Senate in May 1868.

Ashley's radical views, particularly on race, as well as his support for educational qualifications, did not endear him to voters. Democrat Truman Hoag defeated him by less than 1000 votes in the 1868 election, which nearly bankrupted Ashley. However, President Grant appointed Ashley Territorial Governor of Democratic-leaning Montana Territory, where he served fifteen months until 1870, when he was removed by President Grant. His political appointments, and support for public education, including of Chinese immigrants, proved unpopular in the Democratic-leaning territory.[3]

Ashley then returned to Toledo and became involved in the railroad business, linking that city with northern Michigan as well as the Ann Arbor/Detroit area. Ashley helped build the Ann Arbor Railroad and served as its president from 1877 (when he moved to Ann Arbor while two of his sons were enrolled at the University of Michigan Law School) until 1890, when his sons took over. However, the railroad went bankrupt in the financial crisis of 1893.[3]

He also ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1890 and 1892.[1]

Death and legacyEdit

Ashley suffered from diabetes since at least 1863. He died of heart failure after a fishing trip on September 16, 1896, in Alma, Michigan (known for its sanitoriums), and was interred in Woodlawn Cemetery (Toledo, Ohio). A eulogy at the Unitarian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan mentioned his large size, "intellectually, physically and morally. There was nothing petty, small or mean about him."[6] Three years before his death, his efforts on behalf of racial equality were recognized by the Afro-American League of Tennessee, and he donated the proceeds of a book of his speeches to build schools.[3] His great-great grandson Thomas William Ludlow Ashley, was later elected a U.S. Representative from Ohio.

Ann Arbor, Michigan named a street leading to its railroad depot after Ashley. His descendant James Ashley IV recently completed a portrait of his great-grandfather, which is installed in the LaValley Law Library at the University of Toledo College of Law. In early 2010, the Ohio Historical Society proposed Ashley as a finalist in a statewide vote for inclusion in Statuary Hall at the United States Capitol.

In popular cultureEdit


  1. ^ a b c Ohio History Central.
  2. ^ a b Richards, p. 4.
  3. ^ a b c d Ingram.
  4. ^ Biography, p. Early Life.
  5. ^ Biography, p. Political Career.
  6. ^ Biography, p. Personal Life.


  • Ohio History Central. "James Ashley". Ohio History Central.
  • Richards, Leonard L. (2015). Who Freed the Slaves?: The Fight over the Thirteenth Amendment. ISBN 978-0226178202.
  • Ingram, Raelin. "The Life and Times of James M. Ashley" (PDF). Cincinnati Civil War Round Table.
  • Biography.com. "James Mitchell Ashley". biography.com.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit

U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Ohio's 5th congressional district

Succeeded by
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Ohio's 10th congressional district

Succeeded by