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About James F. Wilson, U.S. Senator
James Falconer "Jefferson Jim" Wilson (October 19, 1828 – April 22, 1895) was a lawyer, Republican U.S. Congressman from Iowa's 1st congressional district during the American Civil War, and a two-term U.S. Senator from Iowa. He was a pioneer in the advancement of federal protection for civil rights.
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, while Representative and Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson (of Tama County, Iowa) became known as "Tama Jim" Wilson.
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. After serving as a harnessmaker's apprentice, he studied law in Newark alongside future U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Burnham Woods. He was admitted to the bar in 1851 and practiced in Newark from until 1853.
In 1853, he moved to Fairfield, Iowa, where he resumed the practice of law.
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. Elected next to the Iowa Senate, he served in that house until 1861, when he was its president.
U.S. House of Representatives
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. 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." In October 1861 Wilson was elected to fill the vacancy, easily defeating Democrat Jairus E. Neal.
After completing Curtis's term in the Thirty-seventh Congress, he was re-elected three times, serving in the Thirty-eighth, Thirty-ninth, and Fortieth Congresses. He was chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary during the tumultuous periods during the War and Reconstruction.
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. Despite his initial misgivings, he ultimately voted to impeach President Johnson and was a member of the prosecution in his impeachment trials in 1868. He supported the first bill in Congress to provide voting rights to black citizens of the District of Columbia. 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. 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.
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). The General Assembly re-elected him in 1888 to a second six-year term. 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 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. 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. He was interred in Fairfield-Evergreen Cemetery.