William B. Allison, US Senate & Congress

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William Boyd Allison

Birthdate: (79)
Birthplace: Perry, Lake County, Ohio, United States
Death: 1908 (79)
Dubuque, Dubuque County, Iowa, United States
Place of Burial: Linwood Cemetery Dubuque Dubuque County Iowa
Immediate Family:

Son of John Allison and Margaret Allison
Husband of Mary Allison and Anna Allison
Brother of James Harrison Allison and Matthew Allison

Managed by: Private User
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Immediate Family

About William B. Allison, US Senate & Congress


William Boyd Allison (March 2, 1829 — August 4, 1908) was an early leader of the Iowa Republican Party, who represented northeastern Iowa for four consecutive terms in the U.S. House before representing his state for six consecutive terms in the U.S. Senate. He died soon after overcoming his principal hurdle to election for a record seventh term in the Senate.

Early life and career

Born in Perry, Ohio, Allison was educated at Wooster Academy. Afterward, he spent a year at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, then graduated from Western Reserve College (then located in Hudson, Ohio) in 1849. He then studied law and began practicing in Ashland, Ohio. While practicing law there from 1852 until 1857, he was a delegate to the 1855 Ohio Republican Convention and an unsuccessful candidate for district attorney in 1856. In 1857, he moved to Dubuque, Iowa, which would serve as his hometown for the last fifty years of his life.

Civil War

After his arrival in Dubuque, Allison took a prominent part in the politics of the nascent Republican Party. Allison was a delegate to the 1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago, which nominated Abraham Lincoln for President of the United States.

During the subsequent Civil War, he was on the staff of Iowa Governor Samuel J. Kirkwood, who ordered him to help the state raise regiments for the war. He personally helped raise four regiments. He was given the rank of lieutenant colonel during the war, although it was unlikely he actually served in uniform.

In 1862, in the midst of the war, Allison was elected to the United States House of Representatives as the representative of Iowa's newly-created 3rd congressional district. As a congressman and member of the House Ways and Means Committee, he pushed for higher tariffs.

Post-war political career

Following the war, Allison continued to serve in the House after winning re-election in 1866 and 1868. In January 1870, he was an unsuccessful candidate for election by the Iowa General Assembly to the United States Senate seat for 1871–1877, losing to Iowa Supreme Court Justice George G. Wright. Allison declined to be a candidate for renomination to his own House seat later that year, but instead focused on laying the groundwork to run for Iowa's other Senate seat (then held by James Harlan), which was up in January 1872, following November 1871 state legislative races. In the 1871 state legislative races, candidates were nominated and elected on the direct issue of whether they would vote for Harlan, Allison or James F. Wilson for senator. Enough legislators who favored Allison were nominated and elected in 1871 that in January 1872 he won the required number of votes to take Harlan's U.S. Senate seat, effective March 4, 1873.

Allison was reelected to six-year terms in the U.S. Senate six times — in 1878, 1884, 1890, 1896, and 1902. He was a cosponsor of the Bland-Allison Act of 1878, which was intended to buy a certain amount of silver and put it into circulation as silver dollars. The Act passed over the veto of President Rutherford B. Hayes. It remained unchanged until the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890.

Allison chaired the 1884–1886 Allison Commission, a bipartisan joint congressional committee "among the first to explore the question of whether federal intervention politicizes scientific research." It considered the charge that parts of the government were engaged in research for theoretical, not practical, purposes. The majority report favored the status quo, and Congress upheld it. In 1885, the Commission's finding of misuse of funds at the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey led to the dismissal of several officials but exonerated Charles Sanders Peirce.

As Allison earned seniority, he also earned one of the most powerful committee positions. From 1881–93 and again from 1895 to 1908, he was chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where he had great influence. Allison's combined years as chairman of the committee make him the longest-serving chairman to date. He was also a member of the Senate Committee of Indian Affairs (and its chairman from 1875 to 1881), the Senate Finance Committee, and the Committee on Engrossed Bills. He became chairman of the Senate Republican Conference in 1897.

He was twice asked to serve as the Secretary of the Treasury, first by President Chester Arthur (to which Allison agreed but then the next day declined), then by President Benjamin Harrison. In 1897, President William McKinley offered him the position of U.S. Secretary of State. Again, Allison declined.

In 1896, he became a dark-horse candidate for the presidency. However, support for his candidacy faded when it became clear that McKinley would be nominated on the first ballot.

Allison was married twice. The first marriage was to Anna Carter, who died in 1859, four years after the marriage. His second marriage was to Mary Neally, who died in 1883, ten years after their marriage. Although Allison was a rich man, he did not spend much time thinking about money-making; rather, he was very focused on public and political affairs.

The 1908 Senate race

In 1908, as Allison neared his 44th year in Congress, and his 80th birthday, he sought a record seventh term in the Senate. However, Iowa's Republican Governor at the time, Albert B. Cummins, had aspired to become a U.S. Senator for several years, and as leader of Republican progressives had targeted his party's "old guard" for retirement or (if necessary) defeat. After seeming to promise that he would not challenge Allison in 1908, Cummins ran against Allison for the Republican nomination in the state's first-ever congressional primary on June 2, 1908. Much like Allison's 1873 race for the Senate against incumbent Harlan, Cummins' 1908 race for the Senate against incumbent Allison was very acrimonious. However, this time the incumbent prevailed; Allison won a clear victory over Cummins by over ten thousand votes. As a reflection of the nature of its preference for Allison over Cummins, the Ames Times reported the primary results under a two-level banner headline simply stating "GLORY TO GOD!"

Death and his legacy

Allison did not live to see the 1908 general election or a seventh term. Two months after his primary win, he died in Dubuque. While many were surprised by his death, news reports soon indicated that he had been under constant medical care for more than two years, and that those familiar with his condition had expected his death. He was interred in Linwood Cemetery in Dubuque.

Governor Cummins was elected by the Legislature to fill the unexpired term of Senator Allison and for the term beginning Mar 4. 1909, and was re-elected in 1914 and 1920, but in 1926 he lost in the Republican primary to Smith W. Brookhart. Senator Cummins died shortly after his loss in the June 1926 primary.

Senator Allison was the namesake of Allison, Iowa, the county seat of Butler County.

The Allison-Henderson Park in Dubuque was named in honor of Allison and fellow Dubuque icon, U.S. Speaker of the House David B. Henderson.

There is an imposing memorial to Allison by sculptor Evelyn Longman on the grounds of the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines.

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William B. Allison, US Senate & Congress's Timeline

Perry, Lake County, Ohio, United States
Age 79
Dubuque, Dubuque County, Iowa, United States
Linwood Cemetery Dubuque Dubuque County Iowa