Reuben Fenton, Governor, U.S. Senator

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Reuben Eaton Fenton, Governor, U.S. Senator

Birthdate: (66)
Birthplace: Carroll, Cattaraugus County, New York
Death: August 25, 1885 (66)
Jamestown, Chatauqua County, NY
Immediate Family:

Son of George Fenton and Elsie Fenton
Husband of Elizabeth Scudder
Father of Reuben Eaton Fenton; Josephine Fenton and Jeannette Fenton
Brother of George W Fenton

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Reuben Fenton, Governor, U.S. Senator

Reuben Eaton Fenton (4 July 1819–15 August 1885) was an American politician from New York. He was a Democrat from the beginning of his political career until about 1854, when he became a Republican. In 1872 he was among the Republicans opposed to President Ulysses S. Grant who joined the short-lived Liberal Republican Party.

Fenton was born in Cattaraugus County, New York and later became a resident of Jamestown in Chautauqua County, New York. Fenton was governor of New York from 1865 to 1868. He also served in the state assembly (1850), the United States Senate (1869–1875) and the United States House of Representatives (1853 to 1855 and 1857 to 1865). In 1868 he was named as a candidate to be Vice President but was eventually replaced as the Republican vice presidential candidate by Schuyler Colfax. He died in Jamestown, New York. Fenton was one of the founders of the Republican Party and was an advocate against slavery. He was a friend of Abraham Lincoln. Fenton was known as "the soldiers' friend" for his efforts to help returning Civil War veterans. Fenton worked to remove tuition charges for public education, helped to establish six schools for training teachers, and signed the charter for Cornell University. As a first-term congressman, Fenton strongly opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and unsuccessfully tried to persuade President Franklin Pierce and secretary of state William Marcy to oppose the bill. He was defeated for reelection that year. In 1878 he represented the United States at the international monetary conference in Paris, France.

His former home in Jamestown is the site of the Fenton Historical Society.


Though himself a native of the State of New York, his family was of Connecticut origin. He was descended from Robert Fenton, a man of note among the settlers of the eastern part of Connecticut, and who was one of the patentees of the town of Mansfield, when that town was set off from Windham, in 1703. During the Revolutionary war, the family was noted for its patriotism, and furnished its full share of soldiers for that great struggle. The grandfather of the Senator, about 1777, removed to New Hampshire, in which State his father was born. In the early part of the present century, Mr. Fenton, then an enterprising young farmer, removed to what is now the town of Carroll, Chautauqua county, New York, then a portion of the Holland land patent, where he purchased a tract of land, and by dint of constant hard work, brought this portion of "the forest primeval" into the condition of a pleasant and profitable farm. Here—July 4, 1819—his son, REUBEN E. FENTON, was born.

Young Fenton's early years were spent upon the paternal homestead, and though an amiable, friendly and popular boy among his associates, he seems to have developed no remarkable genius or ability in his boyhood. He was somewhat fond of military studies, and in the boyish trainings was uniformly chosen captain, and it was probably owing to this taste that he was chosen colonel of the 162d regiment, New York State militia, before he was twenty-one years of age. His opportunities for acquiring an education were very limited, but they were well improved. He was a good scholar when he was in the common-school, and when, subsequently, he passed a few terms in different academies, he made rapid progress as a student, and won the approbation of his preceptors for his manly qualities and exemplary deportment. He read law one year, not with the view of going into the profession; but to make himself familiar with the principles and forms of that science, under the impression that this knowledge would be useful to him in whatever business he might engage.

At the age of twenty, he commenced business, with very limited means and under adverse circumstances. But the fact did not discourage him, nor turn him from his purposes. The world was before him, and what others had accomplished, young Fenton resolved should be done by him. He went at his work with all the earnestness and energy of his character, and a few years saw him a successful and-prosperous merchant. While in this pursuit, he turned his attention to the lumber trade, as an auxiliary to his mercantile business. He was still a young man when he purchased his first " boards and shingles," and as he floated off upon his fragile raft, valued at less than one thousand dollars, there were not wanting those who wondered at his temerity, and the failure of his enterprise was confidently predicted. But nothing could dampen his ardor. He tied his little raft safely on the shore of the Ohio, near Cincinnati, went into the city found a customer, sold his lumber, and returned to his home with a pride and satisfaction never excelled in after years, though he went the round with profits tenfold greater. Lumbering became in a few years his principal business; and to such a man, success and competence were but a matter of time. He soon enjoyed the reputation of being the most successful lumberman on the Alleghany and Ohio rivers; but this came only because he wrought it by untiring perseverance and indefatigable energy.

In 1843, Mr. Fenton was chosen supervisor of his native town, and held the position for eight successive years. Three of these eight he was chairman of the board, though the board was two to one Whig, while he was a well-known Democrat. But he was courteous and affable, manly and upright, genial and sensible, and his opponents, by common consent, selected him to preside over their deliberations.

In 1849, his friends nominated him for the assembly, and he came within twenty-one votes of being elected, though the successful candidate was one of the oldest and most popular men in the assembly district, which was strongly Whig.

In 1852, he was put in nomination by the Democrats for Congress, and elected by fifty-two majority, though the district, from the manner in which it was accustomed to vote, should have given at least 3,000 majority against him. He took his seat, on the first Monday in December, 1853, in a House which was Democratic by about two to one. Mr. Douglas, chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, in the course of the session, was beguiled into embodying in a bill which provided for the organization as territories of Kansas and Nebraska, a re-peal of that portion of the Missouri compromise of 1820, which forbade the legalization of slavery in any territory of the United States, lying north of north latitude, thirty-six degrees and thirty minutes. Mr. Fenton, with N. P. Banks, and quite a number of the younger Democrats, with Colonel Thomas H. Benton and other seniors, steadfastly opposed this proposition, and opposed the bill because of it. The bill was nevertheless forced through the House by a vote of 113 to 100, and became a law. In the division that thereupon ensued, Mr. Fenton took Republican ground with Preston King, Ward Hunt, George Opdyke, and other conspicuous Democrats, and he has never since been other than a Republican.

In 1854, the American or Know Nothing party carried his district by a considerable majority (Mr. Fenton consenting to be a candidate on the Saturday previous to election), as they did a good many others in the State; but, in 1856, he ran on the FREMONT ticket, and was elected, and thence re-elected by large and generally increasing majorities down to 1864, when he withdrew, having been nominated for Governor, He thus served five terms in Congress, each as the representative of the strongly Whig district composed of Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties, which contains many able and worthy men who were in full accord with its by-gone politics, and to the almost unanimous acceptance of his constituents.

Immediately on entering Congress, Mr. Fenton espoused the cause of the soldiers of 1812, and shortly after introduced a bill providing for the payment of the property accounts between the United States and the State of New York, for military stores furnished in the war of 1812. This measure he continued to urge upon the attention of Congress, and finally, on the 30th May, 1860, had the satisfaction to witness its passage in the House by a vote of 98 to 80. He had a leading place on important committees, and performed the duties appertaining to these positions in a manner satisfactory to all. It is but simple truth to say that he was one of the quietly industrious and faithful members of the House. Nor was he a silent representative. He could talk when there seemed a necessity for speaking. During his Congressional career, he delivered able and effective speeches against the repeal of the Missouri Compromise act; in advocacy of a cheap postal system; the bill to ex-tend invalid pensions; for the improvement of rivers and harbors; to regulate emigration to this country; against the policy of the Democratic party with regard to Kansas; for the final settlement of the claims of the soldiers of the Revolution; in vindication of the principles and policy of the Republican party; on the Deficiency bill; the bill to facilitate the payment of bounties; on the repeal of the Fugitive Slave law; on providing for payment of losses by the rebellion, etc.

Mr. Fenton served in Congress nearly to the end of the war for the Union, of which he was one of the firmest and most efficient supporters. Believing the Union to be right and the rebellion wrong throughout, he gave his best energies to the national cause, voting steadily for taxes, loans, levies, drafts, and for the emancipation policy whereby they were rendered effectual. Men of greater pretensions were abundant in Congress, but there was none more devoted, or more ready to invoke and to make sacrifices for the triumph of the Union.

In the fall of 1862, Mr. Fenton's name was favorably mentioned in connection with the office of governor, but finding General Wadsworth was to be pressed for a nomination, Mr. Fenton promptly withdrew from the canvass, and yielded to the patriot soldier his warmest support. In 1864, Mr. Fenton was designated as the standard-bearer of the Republican party, and chosen governor by a majority considerably larger than Mr. Lincoln's; and two years later, he was unanimously re-nominated, and chosen by an increased majority.

The administration of Governor Fenton commenced at the culminating period of the war, and required the exercise of industry, method, decision, and the power or discriminating, originating, and executing. He brought to the discharge of his new position all these forces of body and mind, and proved patient amid perplexities, quick in his perceptions, safe in his judgments, mastering toilsome details, and successfully meeting difficult emergencies. His practical training, his wide experience, his luminous intellect and well-disciplined judgment, saved him from the failure that a man of less power might have encountered. His official relations with our soldiers did not weaken the attachments that had given him the honored title of the "soldier's friend." He was prompt to reward merit, and skilful to harmonize differences that often threatened demoralization and serious injury to many of the military organizations then in the field. Upon the return home of the soldiers, Governor Fenton addressed a letter to the war committees of the various districts in the State, in which he suggested the propriety of a hearty and spontaneous welcome to the heroic defenders of the country, on the part of the people of the State—an ovation to demonstrate the gratitude of those whose battles they had so bravely fought.

Governor Fenton's judicious course fully commanded the public confidence and approval, and at the close of the first year of his term, many of the most prominent and influential citizens of New York city addressed him a letter of thanks, promising him their hearty co-operation and support in his efforts to improve the condition and health of the metropolis. A few months later, when he visited New York city, thousands of the best men of New York waited upon him in person, to assure him of their respect and approval of his course.

He found it necessary to veto several bills of the first Legislature which sat after his election, in consequence of their depriving the city of New York of valuable franchises, without conferring compensating advantages. For these acts, he was thanked publicly, by a resolution of the Board of Supervisors of New York county. Governor Fenton's views upon the political issues which were involved in Mr. Johnson's attempted "policy" were ably expressed, in a letter addressed to the committee of a meeting held to ratify the action of the State Union Convention, in October, 1866, and soon after in a speech delivered at a large political gathering in Jamestown. During the canvass that followed, his opponents were unable to assail any portion of his official record, and his friends proudly pointed to it, as what a patriotic governor's should be.

When, in August, 1866, Mr. Johnson, in the course of his political tour, generally known as "swinging round the circle," visited Albany, a proper regard for the high office he held, required that the governor of the State should proffer its hospitalities to him. Governor Fenton did so in the following brief but dignified address


"With high consideration for the Chief Magistrate of the Republic, I address you words of welcome in behalf of our citizens and the people of the State whose capital you visit. We extend to you and to your suite, hospitality and greeting, and desire your safe conduct as you go hence to pay honor to the memory of the lamented Douglas,—to the State also distinguished as the home and final resting place of the patriot and martyr, Lincoln.

"I have no power to give due expression to the feelings of this assemblage of citizens, nor to express in fitting terms the respect and magnanimity of the whole people upon an occasion so marked as the coming to our capital and to our homes of the President of the United States. In their name I give assurance to your excellency of their fidelity, patriotism and jealous interest in all that relates to the good order, progress, and freedom of all the States, and of their earnest hope that peace will soon open up to the people of the whole land new fields of greater liberty, prosperity and power."

The Republican party, in 1866, saw the necessity of selecting wise men for its nominees. The more discerning politicians felt that there was reason to fear an unfavorable result of the canvass. Herculean efforts were being made to defeat the party at the polls. A division had been created among those who had heretofore professed its principles. A number of influential gentlemen openly repudiated its ideas in regard to reconstruction. The Philadelphia Convention had produced .a schism, which it was feared might prove formidable, if not disastrous. Those who were the most pronounced in favor .of the policy of President Johnson, were the most earnest in their opposition to Governor Fenton. The question naturally arose whether this marked hostility might not -prove fatal to success, by stimulating the Conservatives to greater effort, and enabling them to exert more powerful influence over the moderate and doubtful portion of the party ; and whether a man less likely to be thus assailed might not be stronger. On the other hand, there was to be considered the effect which the leading measures of his administration had produced on the popular mind. His national policy had contributed in a marked degree to the success of the war. He had entered upon his term of office as successor to one who disapproved of many of the principal features of the war policy of the Government, and who had been elected because of his decided views in relation thereto. He had stimulated volunteering, and secured for the State a more just recognition of its rights; had worked clear from the complications in which the public interest had been involved by the blundering and incompetency of the provost marshal general; and had relieved New York from a large portion of the dreaded burden of the draft. He had much, with the co-operation of the head of the State finance department, to originate a financial system which rendered the credit of the State stable and secure, and furnished the means to supply the demands of war, without being felt as oppressive. By his keen appreciation of the wants of the soldiers, his tender solicitude for their welfare, and his earnest efforts in their behalf, he had firmly attached them to himself. In his State policy, he had sought to foster all the material interests of the commonwealth; and had reluctantly interposed to the defeat of needed enterprises when their aid would render the burden of taxation onerous, and awaited a more favorable opportunity to join in giving them that aid. He was vigilant in his attention to the commercial wants of the State, both in the great metropolis and through its extensive lines of transit. This unwavering devotion to the essential prosperity of the State, elicited confidence and commendation. All the discriminating judgment and forecast of the statesman had been displayed in a marked degree. These views were impressed on the minds of the representative men of his party, and when the Convention assembled, so strongly did they prevail, and so heavily did they outweigh adverse considerations, that no other name was suggested, and he was unanimously nominated by acclamation. The Democrats entered upon the canvass full of hope. Prominent places were given by them, on the State ticket, to Republicans who dissented from the principles enunciated by the Republican party, and nominations of a like character were made for many local offices in various portions of the State. The result showed that Governor Fenton's strength had not been miscalculated. He was re-elected by a majority five thousand larger than that given him in his first canvass.

The year 1867 furnished the occasion for a continuation of a policy which had proved so acceptable, and it is not necessary that we should dwell upon its features.

The absence of all malevolence in the heart of Governor Fenton, and the broad charity of his nature, were displayed during that year. The remains of the rebel dead had been left unburied at Antietam. A letter from Governor Fenton, breathing the spirit of loyalty and humanity, decided the committee at once to an act both Christian and proper, and in accordance with the spirit of the law of Maryland, which authorized the purchase of a cemetery, and created a corporation to carry out the declared object of burying in it, all who fell on either side during the invasion of Lee at the battle of Antietam. In that letter he took the high ground that it "was a war less of sections than of systems," and that the nation could confer decent burial on the southern dead while condemning and sternly opposing the heresies for which they had sacrificed themselves; and that attachment to the Union and devotion to the most thorough measures for its preservation and restoration were not inconsistent with the broadest charity, and the observance of sacred obligations to the dead. This letter accomplished the intended purpose ; and the bones of the rebel soldiers who fell on that memorable field, were interred as befitting not only a legal obligation, but the highest demands of civilization and our common humanity.

In his message to the Legislature of 1868, Governor Fenton forcibly expressed himself in favor of materially reducing the number of items in the tax lists, and of a re-adjustment of the assessment laws—now so glaringly unequal—in order that every source of wealth might bear its just proportion of burden. He also took strong ground in defence of the inviolate' maintenance of the national faith. In his usual terse and vigorous style, he argued against the legality of the Governments instituted by President Johnson, after the cessation of active hostilities, and held that the reconstruction acts of Congress were necessary, because the Southern States had rejected, with scorn, the peace-offering of the Constitutional Amendment. He eloquently expressed himself in behalf of the rights of the freedman, in consideration of his manhood and loyalty, to protection through law, and to the elective franchise.


Governor Fenton realized that the people of New York had made him their Chief Magistrate, and that they looked to him, and to no other person, for the faithful discharge of the duties of the responsible position. lie was controlled by no clique—he was the agent of no cabal. He patiently listened to all who desired to consult him, and then followed the dictates of his own good judgment. He had no prejudice so strong, nor patiality so great, as to lead him to do an unjust act. He was a careful thinker and a hard worker. No man ever labored more hours in the executive chamber than he did. Whatever work engaged his attention, he attended to it personally, even to the minutest details.


At the State Republican Convention, in September, 1868, it being understood that Governor Fenton would not consent to be again a candidate, Hon. John A. Griswold was nominated for that office, but the Democrats being successful on the State ticket, Hon. John T. Hoffman was elected Governor.

The Legislature, in the winter of 1869, elected Reuben E. Fenton United States Senator for six years from March, 1869, and he took his place on the 4th of March following, succeeding lion. Edwin D. Morgan. In the Senate, Mr. Fenton has manifested similar traits to those which made him so acceptable as a Governor. He belongs to the liberal wing of the Republican party, favors decentralization in the National Government, universal amnesty, and impartial suffrage, and does not regard with satisfaction, the corruption which springs from a personal government, or from placing power and influence in the hands of bitter partisans who only desire it for their own private aims and emolument. Unfortunately he and President Grant differ in their views, and he has been in consequence most ruthlessly proscribed and denounced by the administration papers throughout the years 1871 and 1872. But the Senator is too fair and upright a man to be harmed by this abuse.


Reuben E. Fenton was "a suave and able businessman and politician of Old Democratic vintage, who came from western New York," wrote historian Glyndon Van Deusen."1 "Fenton was a man without antipathies. He was a practical man, with an eye to material results. He wanted the crops to grow, the sun and rain in their seasons, and had about as much sentiment over political relations as a farmer over his barnyard," wrote journalist John Russell Young. Republican political rival Roscoe Conkling said Fenton could "go around in his stockings during a heavy shower and dodge among the drops without wetting his feet".

Conkling biographer David M. Jordan was also deprecatory: "Fenton was a strange mixture of serious deficiencies and useful abilities. Men differed about him, to say the least. Consider these two statements, both by Republicans of similar political hue, both considered to be men of good will. Chauncey M. Depew of the New York Central Railroad: 'He had every quality for political leadership, was a shrewd judge of character, and rarely made mistakes in the selection of his lieutenants.' President Andrew D. White of Cornell: 'There stood Fenton, marking the lowest point of the choice of State executive ever reached in our Commonwealth by the Republican party.'" It is worth remembering, however, that Fenton was only the fourth Republican to run for Governor of New York and only the third to occupy the position so there wasn't much basis for comparison.

Fenton's political career was reaching its political zenith at the end of Mr. Lincoln's life. Biographer Jordan wrote: "Even his closest friends never claimed that Fenton possessed any qualifications of the first order. What he did have was a will to political power, a winning personality which enabled him to recruit and hold followers, a crafty but clever political instinct which usually kept him from making serious mistakes, and the good fortune to be elected governor of New York at about the same time that [Thurlow] Weed and [William H.] Seward sank into oblivion. The New York World called him 'a weak man'; others said he was without 'statesmanlike qualities'; the reality of the situation in 1867, however, was that Reuben E. Fenton was, regardless of merits or demerits, the number one leader of the New York Republican party."

He was a "suave and able businessman and politician of Old Democratic vintage, who came from western New York," wrote historian Glyndon Van Deusen. "He had constantly courted the favor of Horace Greeley and, once he had been elected chief executive, proceeded to build up one of the smoothest political machines the state of New York has seen. He made a respectable governor and an acceptable senator, but he never enjoyed a personal or political popularity comparable to that of Horatio Seymour," wrote Seymour's biographer Stewart Mitchell.

"Fenton was so adept at avoiding commitments that people were able to see what they wanted to see and in consequence he was cordially admired and vehemently despised. No one really knew him," wrote biographer Helen Grace McMahon. "All sorts of stories were told about him by the hostile press — charges of arson, bribery, and embezzlement were printed — and yet no proof exists for any of these."

Fenton's personality proved a useful asset in negotiating political problems with Mr. Lincoln. "My relations with President Lincoln were cordial. I was a member of the House of Representatives when he entered upon the duties of President and remained in the House until December, 1864, when I resigned my seat for the office of Governor of New York," wrote Fenton in a memoir of his relations with Mr. Lincoln.8 Fenton, a strong supporter of President Lincoln's war policies, served in House (Republican, 1857-64) during the Civil War and in the Senate (1869-75) after the Civil War. His political career came into conflict with those of Roscoe Conkling and Edwin D. Morgan, and he failed to win the Republican nomination for Vice President in 1868. Although Fenton controlled the New York Republican Party during his gubernatorial terms, he lost that control in 1870 to fellow Senator Conkling.

Fenton recalled visiting President Lincoln with Indiana Congressman Schuyler Colfax in mid-December 1861 "to plan with him if need be, or better to say, to have his judgment as to a way of escape from the danger of an aroused hostile public sentiment which then seemed imminent." Fenton later wrote:

Mr. Lincoln was keenly alive to the situation. The character and opinions of this rugged-featured and intellectually great man always enforced respect and confidence whatever the pleasantry of his manner. He said Providence, with favoring sky and earth, seemed to beckon the army on, but General [George B.] McClellan, he supposed, knew his business and had his reasons for disregarding these hints of Providence. "And," said Mr. Lincoln, "as we have got to stand by the General, I think a good way to do it may be for Congress to take a recess for several weeks, and by the time you get together again, if McClellan is not off with the army, Providence is very likely to step in with hard roads and force us to say, the army can't move." He continued: "You know Dickens said of a certain man that if he would always follow his nose he would never stick fast in the mud. Well, when the rains set in it will be impossible for ever our eager and gallant soldiers to keep their noses so high that their feet will not stick in the clay mud of Old Virginia." I have given very nearly the words of Mr. Lincoln. His felicity in stating a case and his good sense always impressed me, and my memory loses nothing in vividness with the lapse of years.

"Much of Mr. Fenton's time during the 37th Congress was spent in investigating frauds in the letting of contracts for war materials," wrote Helen Grace McMahon. "Congress had passed a law a few months before the outbreak of the war requiring that all purchases of supplies and services except personal ones, in any department be made by advertising for bids unless there were a 'public exigency.' The investigating committee reported that in practice contracts were commonly let to favorites without bids, on the grounds of public exigency. The worst condition were in the Navy department and in the War department under secretary [Simon] Cameron." Fenton's concerns extended beyond Army contracts to Army soldiers and their welfare. According to Helen Grace McMahon, "In 1862 the New Yorkers in Washington formed the New York Soldiers' Relief Association. Colonel Fenton was chairman of the preliminary meeting and was made president of the organization."

Fenton was an early convert to the Republican Party — and chaired its organizing convention in Syracuse in 1855. He also played an important role in 1864 in helping to sort out the factionalism of New York Republicans and to prepare for a Republican victory. Many more conservative Republicans were resigned to his nomination but unenthusiastic about it. In May 1864, Morgan wrote Thurlow Weed: "Fenton hopes to get the nomination for Governor, says their wing (the radicals!) will have it at any rate, claiming 9 out of 14 members of Congress for him. Let him have it — and any thing else he wants if thereby the public will be promoted."

"On the 22d day of August, I received a telegram from Mr. John G. Nicolay, Private Secretary, saying that the President desired to see me. I arrived in Washington next day. The President, speaking to me said, in language as nearly as I can remember: 'You are to be nominated by our folks for Governor of your State. Seymour of course will be the Democratic nominee. You will have a hard fight. I am very desirous that you should win the battle. New York should be on our side by honest possession. There is some trouble among our folks over there, which we must try and manage. Or rather, there is one man who may give us trouble, because of his indifference, if in no other way. He has great influence, and his feelings may be reflected in many of his friends. We must have his counsel and cooperation if possible. This, in one sense, is more important to you than to me, I think, for I should rather expect to get on without New York, but you can't. But in a larger sense than what is merely personal to myself, I am anxious for New York, and we must put our heads together and see if the matter can't be fixed." Fenton had not yet been nominated. He had been considered as a Republican candidate for governor in 1862, but the nomination had instead gone to a fellow Upstate radical, James S. Wadsworth.

The person about which Mr. Lincoln was worried was apparently New York political boss Thurlow Weed. New York Republican politics at that point in turmoil. Mr. Lincoln's doubters — led by editors like William Cullen Bryant and Horace Greeley — were plotting to replace him. His supporters — led by the New York Times Henry J. Raymond — were convinced he was headed for defeat and urging him to begin peace negotiations with the Confederacy. In the midst of this crisis, Fenton said he was asked to sort out patronage problems in the New York Customs Office which another editor, the Albany Evening Journal's Weed, was upset about. Weed fellow that the top officials "were unfriendly to him, and that he had no voice in those places of influence and power. Patronage had a welcome in the public service then. Removals and appointments were made upon the judgment or caprice of those at the head. The Republican convention in New York to place a candidate for Governor before the people was to come off early in September."

Fenton wrote: "As a result of this consultation with Mr. Lincoln, in the evening of the day after my arrival in Washington, Mr. Nicolay and I left for New York, and in Room No. 11, Astor House, next forenoon, I had a talk with Mr. Weed. I need not speak of the particulars of that conference. It is enough to say that Mr. Nicolay returned to Washington with the resignation of Mr. Rufus F. Andrews, and that Mr. Abram Wakeman — zealous friend of Mr. Weed — at once became his successor as Surveyor. From that time forward Mr. Weed was earnest and helpful in the canvass. The small majority in New York in November — less than 7,000 for the Republican electoral ticket — justified the anxiety of Mr. Lincoln, and serves to illustrate his political sagacity and tact. He was always politician as well as statesman."

Nicolay had arrived in New York on August 29 and wrote President Lincoln after meeting with Henry J. Raymond and Thurlow Weed and "several influential men from the country, who were in Mr. Raymond's office when I went there. Raymond is still of opinion that the change contemplated should be made at once, although he does not seem to have conferred with any one, except Weed, who joins him very decidedly in the same belief. I myself asked Mr. Weed the distinct question whether the change ought to be made now, or after the election, and he answered, now by all means." He concluded his letter: "I hope Fenton may come on tonight, as he thought he would, so that I may have his advice in the matter tomorrow."

The next day, Nicolay again wrote President Lincoln: "Mr Fenton arrived here this morning and had a conversation with Weed, in which he urged upon Weed his reasons in detail against any changes in the Custom House at this time. Mr. Weed heard him through, admitted there was much force in what he said; but was not convinced. In a conversation with me afterwards, Mr. Weed repeated what he said to me yesterday, that changes were absolutely necessary and would be productive of much good." The changes that were made to placate Weed and unify the party for the benefit of Fenton and President Lincoln — even thought the persons nominated were not Fenton's political allies.

In November 1864, Fenton defeated Governor Horatio Seymour by less than 8,000 votes. Fenton had received the Republican nomination despite the opposition of New York Republican boss Weed, who favored Union General John A . Dix, who commanded the Eastern District, headquartered in New York City. According to Weed biographer Glyndon Van Deusen, "Fenton seemed so strong that the Dictator did not even trouble to obtain a statement from the General that he would be willing to run. Weed later asserted that he had gone to Syracuse prepared to bow to the popular will, only to discover that the had been roasted a rich, dark brown, that Fenton had no popular backing, and that Dix could have the nomination if he wanted it. Realizing that he had been 'wooled,' the old leader tried desperately to get in touch with Dix. At length word came back to see the latter's note to Ward Hunt, a member of the convention. This note, in Weed's judgment, would have ensured the General's nomination, but before it could be obtained Fenton had captured the prize."

As Governor, Fenton came into conflict with the Lincoln Administration. "A few days after I succeeded to the office of Governor I was led to an investigation in regard to the quota of men for New York for the field, under the President's call for 300,000 of December 19th just previous. My search led me to doubt the correctness of the assignment of quotas to several localities, and, as between several localities or districts, it was, to my mind, unequal and unjust. I do not mean it was so intended. It was a difficult and perplexing matter; differences in respect to methods were liable to arise and errors were likely to creep in. And, moreover, the total number, 61,000, for the State seemed to me clearly excessive. Thus impressed, accompanied by General George W. Palmer of my military staff, I went to Washington on the 21st of January." The controversy had actually begun before Fenton took office, according to Seymour biographer Stewart Mitchell:

On December 1, 1864, after having sent over 156,000 soldiers and sailors into the army and navy during the year, the state over which a so-called 'Copperhead' governor had presided since January 1, 1863, had an excess on credits with the federal government of 5,301 men, according to the report of the Republican who followed him in office. On December 19, 18164, Lincoln called for 300,000 troops, and about January 7, 1865, it was learned that the quota of New York would be 46,861. As soon as he had looked over the list of the men required of the thirty-one congressional districts Fenton found the assignments so unequal that he sent two of his aides to Washington to protest. One of these, Colonel George W. Palmer, left with Fry a careful explanation of the governor's plan for the complicated business of crediting one and three-year enlistments properly to the several districts.

General Fry's answer was a bombshell. On January 20 he telegraphed that revised quotas would be sent forward in a day or two, but that the quota of New York would be increased by the revision from 46,000 to over 60,000. Fenton took the first train to Washington in order to argue or wheedle a reduction out of Fry or Stanton. Not only was he unable to understand the war department's use of figures, but the 'large increase' of the quotas in New York City seemed to him 'extraordinary.' When Fry sent on the corrected lists for the congressional districts on January 24, it was found that the six districts in New York and Brooklyn were called on for three and often four times as many men as the outlying districts. In talking with Fenton, General Fry laid the confusing inequalities and revisions to the carelessness of mustering officers and ignorance of the law on the part of the local officials.

On January 26th 1865, Fenton wrote President Lincoln: "Honorable James A. Bell, George H. Andrews, Thomas B. Van Buren, and E. C. Topliff, Members of the Legislature, visit you in regard to filling the quotas for our State. They will represent to you the public feeling, and what we deem just cause for complaint. I beg you consider favorably what they may say; and allow me again to earnestly renew my recommendations as to the mode of filling the present quota".

Fenton himself met with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Provost Marshal General James B. Fry, but they were adamant about New York's draft allocation. "Not doubting the right and justice of my claim for reduction and re-assignment as to the districts, I called on Mr. Lincoln. He gave me time and listened attentively and patiently to all I had to say. At the close he remarked, 'I guess you have the best of it, and I must advise Stanton and Fry to ease up a little.' He wrote upon a card to Mr. Stanton, and gave it to me to carry to him, as follows: "The Governor has a pretty good case. I feel sure he is more than half right. We don't want him to feel cross and we in the wrong. Try and fix it with him."

Eventually, Fenton got the State's quota reduced by 9,000 men. In the meantime, Fenton urged the postponed of the draft's enforcement: "Do not press the draft. Think postponement three 3 or four 4 weeks would enable us to fill the quota. Give all the time that can possibly be allowed without detriment to the public service". New York filled 34,000 of its quota with volunteers and 3,300 with conscripts.

Fenton's frequent visits to the White House led him to be called on to open a White House serenade in November 1864. "After the [1864] election...just before I resigned my seat in Congress to enter upon my official duties as Governor at Albany, New Yorkers and others in Washington thought to honor me with a serenade. I was the guest of ex-Mayor Bowen. After the music and speaking usual upon such occasions, it was proposed to call on the President. I accompanied the committee in charge of the proceedings, followed by bands and a thousand people. It was full nine o'clock when we reached the Mansion. The President was taken by surprise, and said he 'didn't know just what he could say to satisfy the crowd and himself.' Going from the library room down the stairs to portico front, he asked me to say a few words first, and give him if I could 'a peg to hang on.' It was just when General Sherman was en route from Atlanta to the sea, and we had no definite news as to his safety or whereabouts. After one or two sentences, rather commonplace, the President farther said he had no war news other than was known to all, and he supposed his ignorance in regard to General Sherman was the ignorance of all; that 'we all knew where Sherman went in, but none of us knew where Sherman went in, but none of us knew where he would come out.' This last remark was in the peculiarly quaint, happy manner of Mr. Lincoln, and created great applause. He immediately withdrew, saying he 'had raised a good laugh and it was a good time for him to quit.' In all he did not speak more than two minutes, and, as he afterward told me, because he had no time to think of much to say."

Greeley never came to Washington but the message about a potential Cabinet appointment was delivered by Hoskins. Fenton "had constantly courted the favor of Horace Greeley and, once he had been elected chief executive, proceeded to build up one of the smoothest political machines the state of New York has seen," wrote historian Stewart Mitchell. In 1865, Horace Greeley "allied himself with Reuben E. Fenton of Chautauqua County, an anti-Weed Republican. Lincoln, disturbed by Greeley's lack of support and even outright enmity, sought a way to lead Greeley back into the paths of righteousness, using Fenton as a contact," wrote James M. Trietsch. President Lincoln suggested through an emissary that Greeley would be appointed Postmaster General after the 1864 election. Triestch wrote: "Fenton had for an active agent George G. Hoskins of Wyoming County, who kept in touch with Greeley. Finding the editor chilly, Hoskins so reported to Fenton, who was then in Congress, and Fenton advised the President. The outcome was a direct invitation asking for a meeting. Lincoln with his usual meekness, offering to make the trip to New York. In order to clarify matters, Lincoln wrote thus to Greeley

Dear Mr. Greeley:

I have been wanting to see you for several weeks, and if I could spare the time I should call upon you in New York. Perhaps you may be able to visit me. I shall be very glad to see you.

Fenton was reelected Governor in 1866. Although he studied to be a lawyer, he instead started his professional life as a merchant and logger and ended it as a banker. Biographer David M. Jordan wrote: "Fenton's two terms as governor were marked by several major reforms in education and in the administration of state hospitals and similar facilities. But Fenton was not an outstanding speaker in a day when oratorical ability was considered one of the highest qualities in a public figure; he was a trimmer, who endeavored constantly to catch the drift of public feeling and adapt to it."

Wikipedia Biographical Summary:

"...Reuben Eaton Fenton (July 4, 1819 – August 25, 1885) was an American merchant and politician from New York..."

"...He was the son of a farmer. He was elected a colonel of the New York State Militia in 1840. He became a lumber merchant, and entered politics as a Democrat. He was Supervisor of the Town of Carroll from 1843 to 1850..."

"...He was elected as a Democrat to the 33rd United States Congress, and served from March 4, 1853, to March 4, 1855..."

"...He was Governor of New York from 1865 to 1868..."

"...In January 1869, he was elected a U.S. Senator from New York and served from 1869 to 1875..."

SOURCE: Wikipedia contributors, 'Reuben Fenton', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 7 May 2011, 00:58 UTC, <> [accessed 22 June 2011]

Biographical Summary #2:

FENTON, Reuben Eaton, a Representative and a Senator from New York; born in Carroll, Chautauqua County, N.Y., on July 4, 1819; completed preparatory studies; studied law; engaged in mercantile pursuits; supervisor of Carroll 1846-1852; elected as a Democrat to the Thirty-third Congress (March 4, 1853-March 3, 1855); unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1854; elected to the Thirty-fifth and to the three succeeding Congresses and served from March 4, 1857, until his resignation, effective December 20, 1864, having been elected Governor of New York; Governor of New York 1865-1868; elected as a Republican to the United States Senate and served from March 4, 1869, to March 3, 1875; chairman, Committee to Audit and Control the Contingent Expenses (Forty-second Congress), Committee on Manufactures (Forty-second Congress), Committee on Territories (Forty-second Congress); appointed chairman of the United States commission to the International Monetary Conference held at Paris in 1878; engaged in banking; died in Jamestown, N.Y., on August 25, 1885; interment in Lakeview Cemetery.


SOURCE: American National Biography; Dictionary of American Biography; McMahon, Helen. “Reuben Eaton Fenton.” Masters’ thesis, Cornell University, 1939. Retrieved from

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Reuben Fenton, Governor, U.S. Senator's Timeline

July 4, 1819
Carroll, Cattaraugus County, New York
Age 25
Age 25
New York
Age 29
New York
August 25, 1885
Age 66
Jamestown, Chatauqua County, NY