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ALLISON, William Boyd

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William Allison (photo: Library of Congress)
HARGER AND BLISH manufactured these buttons and claimed "300,000 Iowa men will be wearing them before the month is out." (February, 1896) Dubuque Daily Herald. Image courtesy: Kendall C. Day Family Collection

ALLISON, William Boyd. (Perry, Wayne County, OH, Mar. 2, 1829--Dubuque, IA, Aug. 4, 1908). Little is known of Allison's early life. He was the second son of John and Margaret (Williams) Allison who owned a farm. (1) One of his boyhood friends was Clement Studebaker, a man of later automobile fame. (2) After attending country school, Allison went to Wooster to attend Professor Parrot's Academy where his appearance led to him being called "Big-Eyed Bill." (3)

This education must have been somewhat lacking because he entered a preparatory academy attached to Allegheny College at Meadville, Pennsylvania. Such schools were intended to raise the level of student work to 'college level.' There he met Cyrus K. Holliday, later the founder of Topeka, Kansas; organizer of the Republican Party in Kansas; and first president of the Santa Fe Railroad. (4)

After Allison graduated, he taught school and then attended Western Reserve College. His academic credentials had obviously improved because he was elected to Alpha Delta Phi, a group known for its scholarship. (5) In 1850 or 1851 he returned to Wooster to study law. (6)

Allison began practicing law in Ashland, Ohio where he acquired property and became a member and officer in the Masonic Lodge. In 1854 he married the daughter of one of the area's most influential families. His law practice, however, failed to grow. (7) Despite helping to establish the Ohio Republican Party, Allison lost a campaign for prosecuting attorney for Ashland County in 1856. (8)

He moved to Dubuque in 1857, joined a local law partnership, and with membership in a Presbyterian church rose to leadership in the young Republican Party in the state. In 1859 he was chosen a delegate to the Republican State Convention. (9)

In 1860 at the Republican National Convention, Allison, a young delegate and state convention secretary from Iowa, was the first to tabulate the roll and inform the convention president that Abraham Lincoln had obtained enough votes to secure his party's nomination for President of the United States. (10)

The 1860 Census led Iowa's congressional delegation to increase from two to six. Allison used his political and business connections including Governor Kirkwood and railroad builder Grenville M. Dodge to win the Republican nomination. Although Allison did not receive the political appointments he desired, Governor Samuel J. Kirkwood in 1861 appointed him to be one of his military aides during the CIVIL WAR. In this role, Allison proved to be a good manager of the transportation, organization, and medical needs of Iowa volunteers enlisting in the Dubuque area. (11)

Dennis MAHONY was his opponent in 1862 during a campaign in which Allison declared Mahony to be a traitor to the republic. (12) Allison lost Democratic Dubuque in that election but won the general election to the United States House from Iowa's Third District. (13) He went on to serve four terms from 1863-1871. (14)

In 1868 Andrew Carnegie visited Dubuque in hopes of winning the contract to build a bridge across the Mississippi River. Allison was serving as the president of bridge company and the two forged a friendship that lasted for years. (15)

Allison quickly joined the ranks of the Radical Republicans and opposed Lincoln's plans for Reconstruction. (15) During the first two years he was a member of Congress, Allison introduced a bill for improving the navigation of the MISSISSIPPI RIVER. It was through his influence that a land grant was secured for the railroad leading westward to McGregor, Iowa. While in Congress, Allison supported every Republican measure including the Civil Rights Bill and the Freedman's Bureau Bill. (16)

In his second term, Allison became a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. He gained a reputation for his knowledge of tariffs and railroads and as a supporter of moderate tariffs that benefited agriculture. While not known as a great orator or thinker, he was considered a party loyalist who was also sensitive to party leaders, party factions and the electorate in Iowa. (17) For example, he assisted Charles Aldrich obtain specimens of birds, Native American artifacts, and an important collection of southwestern American Indian pottery from the Smithsonian Institution and the Bureau of Ethnology for the Iowa museum collections in the 1890s. He also helped obtain collections of guns from the Rock Island Arsenal. (18)

In 1870 Allison with a high reputation for his four terms as a United States Representative chose to campaign to become a United States Senator. Coming from northern Iowa, he had support from Republicans who had found the Senate positions always going to residents of southern half of Iowa. He also had the political backing of retiring Iowa Senator Grimes. He did not, unfortunately, have the backing of Senator James Harlan's supporters who supported James B. Howell as the party nominee. (19) The nomination, however, was won by Judge George W. Wright, a former president of the American Bar Association and well-known judge of the United States circuit court of appeals. (20)

Image courtesy: Kendall C. Day Family Collection

Allison returned briefly to his legal practice in Dubuque. In 1872, however, he chose to campaign for the Republican caucus nomination to the United States Senate. His opponent was James Harlan, a man of great political power. Harlan had been elected to the Senate in 1855 as a Whig, helped organize the Republican Party, was re-elected as a senator as a Republican and had resigned to serve in President Lincoln's cabinet as secretary of the interior. This and the marriage of his daughter to Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of the martyred president, gave Harlan national stature. (21) Allison's election in the Republican-controlled Iowa Legislature was won by one vote. (22)

Allison went on to serve as a U. S. senator from Iowa for six terms (1873-1908) and as the Senate majority leader in 1897 and 1904 until his death. Allison's political alliances and his position in the United States Senate led him to be the center of the "Des Moines Regency." This small group including James Clarkson of the Iowa State Register and Charles E. Perkins and Joseph W. Blythe of the Burlington Railroad had tremendous influence in the state on county, district, and state conventions after 1873. (23)

Logan Circle is part of a walking trail in the nation's capital.

Allison played a small role in preserving the nation's capital in Washington, D.C. The war years had left the city in terrible condition and political leaders seriously considered moving business to another city. Prominent business people raced to repair and renovate the city. With the improvement in STREETS and installation of new water lines, gas lines, and more street lights, new residential areas developed. Mansions were constructed where Vermont and Rhode Island avenues converged and a large park was named "Iowa Circle" by Senator Allison. The site was renamed Logan Circle in 1930 in memory of John Logan, a founder of Memorial Day. (24)

Famous photo of Allison with David B. HENDERSON. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding

Known as the "Gibraltar of Iowa Democracy" and "Mr. Republican" for nearly two decades, Allison, the senior Republican member on the Committee on Appropriations, was the single most powerful Congressional voice on all decisions involving finances. He gained less obvious power from his membership in "The Senate Four" (with Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, John C. Spooner of Wisconsin, and Orville H. Platt of Connecticut), who were all members of the powerful Committee on Finance. (25) Senator Albert Beveridge described the four as a “marvelous combination” of Aldrich as manager, Allison as conciliator, Spooner as debater, and Platt as builder. (26) Allison was also a member of the Committee on Committees, chairman of the Republican caucus, and chairman of the steering committee.

In 1906 a reporter wrote:

             Allison is the man of experience, "the sage old pilot" of the Senate. 
             They say that no man who has ever been in the Senate knew so much about 
             it as he does. He is the political forecaster, the compromiser, the 
             weather prophet, the man who brings irreconcilable things together. It 
             is said that the oldest inhabitant cannot recall having heard Allison 
             give utterance to an opinion on any subject whatever. Doubtless he does 
             give utterance to them, but never except in the inner councils of the 
             Caesars. Sagacious to the point of craft, it does not annoy him to know 
             that the epithet most frequently applied to him is 'the Old Fox.'...When 
             he rises in his place in the Senate, he disdains to talk as if he were 
             making a speech; he leaves all that to the youngsters, whose sum of 
             knowledge does not equal all that he has forgotten. He never rises except 
             to shed light on some knotty point, and when he does it is always as 
             briefly as possible, and in a conversational voice that is almost an 
             undertone. Then he drops back into his seat and, with sublime indifference, 
             lets the talk go on. (27)

In 1874 Allison worked with local supporters to convince the War Department to give the city of Dubuque a 25-pound parrot gun with carriage. The Dubuque Herald editorial staff commented that now the city could properly salute patriotic events. (28)

In 1875 Allison was one of the commissioners appointed to negotiate with the SIOUX for the sale of the Black Hills. The unsuccessful venture failed to stop white trespassing on sacred Native American land and led to the massacre of General Custer at Little Big Horn.

Allison found in the Senate nearly his only pleasure in life. Yet after 43 years in Congress only one piece of legislation bears his name. The Bland-Allison Act of 1878 was intended to buy a certain amount of silver and put it into circulation as silver dollars. (29) Allison believed gold and silver, with free and unrestricted coinage of both, would circulate together upon a common ratio with each exchangeable for the other. (30) Two other highly important pieces of legislation to which he made important contributions were the Senate Report advocating a commission form of government for the District of Columbia, containing the idea for the now-familiar commission type of municipal government, and the Railroad Rate Act of 1906. (31) A prominent advocate of higher tariffs, Allison played a major role in the passage of the McKinley Tariff. He also helped pass the Hepburn Act by offering the Allison amendment, which granted courts the power to review the Interstate Commerce Commission's railroad rate-setting.

Photo courtesy: Kelly Roth

Allison was twice (1888, 1896) a contender for the Republican presidential nomination. (32) In 1888 the Republican convention in Chicago had a slate of eighteen candidates for its nomination and it took eight ballots to decide. Allison peaked on the sixth ballot with 99 votes, but then tapered off with 73-76 and 0; the winner was Benjamin Harrison who went on to win the election. (33)

On November 12, 1895 Allison was accompanied on a campaign trip to Chicago by powerful David B. HENDERSON. Efforts were being made at the time to convince General McAlpin of New York and newly elected president of the National League of Republican Clubs to run under Allison as vice-president. (32) The nomination eventually went to William McKinley who won the election against William Jennings Bryan.

Allison's gravestone in Linwood Cemetery

Held in high esteem by others in governmental service, Allison was offered cabinet positions by presidents Garfield, Harrison and McKinley. (34) In 1892 he was appointed chairman of the International Monetary Conference at Brussels, Belgium. (35)

In 1896 an issue of the Des Moines Leader stated that the "opinion of Iowa people is fast settling on the belief that Senator Allison will be the next Secretary of State." (36) The paper went on to state that "those who know Senator Allison best are most convinced that he is planning to accept the place." (37)

Allison declined the position, when it was offered, believing he could do more for the country as chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. (38) President McKinley again asked Allison to join his cabinet in 1900 upon the death of Vice President Garret Hobart. Allison again declined for the same reason. McKinley then chose Theodore Roosevelt who assumed the presidency after McKinley was assassinated on September 9, 1901.

Allison's tomb in Linwood Cemetery. Photo courtesy:dubuquepostcards.com
Allison's grave marker in Linwood Cemetery.

By 1907 the eighty-year-old senator was suffering from cancer and left the campaigning for renomination to his friend and colleague, Senator Jonathan P. Dolliver. Allison won the campaign in June, but died at his Dubuque home in August. (39) President Theodore Roosevelt sent Vice-President Fairbanks as his representative to the funeral. (40)

In 1917, friends of Senator William B. Allison, citizens and school children of Iowa, and the state legislature raised funds for a memorial to Allison in Des Moines. The monument was designed by Evelyn B. Longman of New York. A central plaque picturing Allison is flanked by symbols of "Knowledge" on the left and "Peace" on the right. The former is followed by "Legislature" and "Financial Prosperity," the latter by "Humanity" and "Agricultural Prosperity." The topmost figure is "The Republic." (41)

In 1895 an article about Allison described him in the following manner:

                    Representing a state that has long ceased to be on the frontier, but 
                    which retains much of the noble spirit of the pioneers combined with 
                    the culture of the older communities, Senator Allison is neither a 
                    cowboy nor a dude, but an American statesman of the broadest as well 
                    as highest type. (42) 

Said to be so cautious as a politician "that he could walk on eggs from Des Moines to Washington without breaking one of them," Allison will be remembered as strongly supporting business, industrial, and railroad interests, promoting a "hard-money" currency program, and crafting high protective tariffs. (43) In 2016 Allison's record of chairing the Senate Appropriations Committee for twenty-five years stood as the record for longest-serving chairman of a standing committee. (44)

A little known feature of Allison's life was his role in local baseball. Ted Sullivan, one of the game’s foremost organizers, formed and ran the Northwest League which consisted of clubs from Illinois, Davenport, Omaha, and Rockford, and Dubuque, Iowa. It was the first so-called minor league formed outside the east coast. Sullivan ran the Dubuque team which was financed by Allison and future congressman and Speaker of the House David B. Henderson. (45)

See: Roswell B. MASON

1863 franked letter from Allison.
Burial ceremony pin.
Allison's home in Dubuque.



1. Sage, Leland, William Boyd Allison, State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City, 1956, p. 3

2. Ibid. p. 4

3. Ibid. p. 5

4. Ibid. p. 6

5. Ibid. p. 7

6. Ibid. p. 8

7. Ibid. p. 17

8. Hudson, David; Bergman, Marvin; Horton, Loren. The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008 p. 14

9. Ibid.

10. Pregler, John T. "Area's Political History Star-Crossed," Telegraph Herald, Oct. 28, 2012, p. 11A

11. Tigges, John. They Came From Dubuque, Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, "Allison and Henderson" by Rose M. Onufrak, 1983, p. 45

12. Meyer, Jeffrey L. "A Presidential Future That Never Was," Julien's Journal, February 2011, p. 45.

13. Ibid.

14. Hudson, p. 14

15. "How Carnegie Got Contract for Rail Bridge in Dubuque," Telegraph-Herald, March 26, 1922, p. 15

16. Hudson, p. 14

17. Oldt, Franklin T. History of Dubuque County, Iowa. Chicago: Western Historical Company, 1880, p. 761

18. Hudson, p. 15

19. Hudson, p. 7

20. "Judge George G. Wright," Gue, B. F. Annals of Iowa, Vol. IV, No. 7, Des Moines, Iowa, October, 1900, p. 486

21. Ibid. p. 487

22. "Dubuque Candidate," Dubuque Daily Herald, November 17, 1895, p. 3

23. Ibid.

24. Sign outside the Mary McLeod Bethune National Historic Site in Washington, D. C.

25. Sage, Leland. Two Gentlemen of Dubuque.Online: http://www.lib.uiowa.edu/spec-coll/Bai/sage.htm

26. "The Senate Four," The United States Senate. Online: https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/People_SenateFour.htm

27. Thompson. Charles Willis Thompson, Party Leaders of the Time New York: G. W. Dillingham Co., 1906, 32-33.

28. "Now We Can Salute," Dubuque Herald, July 23, 1874, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18740723&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

29. Bland-Allison Act. http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h718.html

30. "Dubuque Candidate,"

31. Hudson, p. 15

32. "William Boyd Allison," The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, Online: http://uipress.lib.uiowa.edu/bdi/DetailsPage.aspx?id=11

33. "The Republican Convention of 1888," Wipipedia. Online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1888_Republican_National_Convention

34. "Boom for Allison," Dubuque Daily Herald, November 13, 1895, p. 4

35. William Boyd Allison. Online: bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=a000160

36. Meyer, p. 46

37. "About Allison," Dubuque Herald, December 14, 1896, p. 4

38. Ibid.

39. "Has Declined," Dubuque Herald, January 7, 1897, p. 4

40. Hudson, p. 16

41. Meyer, p. 47

42. William Boyd Allison Monument. Online:http://dsmpublicartfoundation.org/public-art/us-senator- william-boyd-allison-monument/

43. "Dubuque Candidate,"

44. Linwood Legacies: A Historical Series. Online: http://www.linwoodlegacies.org/william-boyd-allison.html

45. McKenna, Brian. "Old Hoss" Radbourne. Society for American Baseball Research. SABR Baseball Biography Project, Online: http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/83bf739e