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ALLISON, William Boyd

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Family History: http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=jkhouser84&id=I58262

William Allison (photo: Library of Congress)
Image courtesy: Kendall C. Day Family Collection

ALLISON, William Boyd. (Perry, Wayne County, OH, Mar. 2, 1829-Dubuque, IA, Aug. 4, 1908). Despite helping to establish the Ohio Republican Party, Allison lost a campaign for prosecuting attorney for Ashland County in 1856. (1) He moved to Dubuque in 1857, joined a local law partnership, and with membership in a Presbyterian church, Allison rose to leadership in the young Republican Party in the state. In 1859 he was chosen a delegate to the Republican State Convention. (2)

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. (3) 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. (4)

The 1860 Census led Iowa's congressional delegation to increase from two to six. Allison used his political connection including Governor Kirkwood and railroad builder Grenville M. Dodge to win both the Republican nomination. Dennis MAHONY was his opponent in 1862 during a campaign in which Allison declared Mahony to be a traitor to the republic. (5) Allison left Democratic Dubuque in that election but won the general election to the United States House from Iowa's Third District. (6) He went on to serve four terms from 1863-1871. (7)

Allison quickly joined the ranks of the Radical Republicans and opposed Lincoln's plans for Reconstruction. (8) 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 the 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. (9)

In his second term, Allison became a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. He also 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. (10) For example, he assisted Charles Aldrich in obtaining 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. (11) He had the political backing of Iowa Senator Grimes who was retiring, but unfortunately did not, in this case, have the backing of Senator James Harlan's supporters who backed James B. Howell in the election. In 1871, Allison lost his campaign to become an Iowa senator.

Image courtesy: Kendall C. Day Family Collection

Allison returned briefly to his legal practice in Dubuque. In 1872, his political alliances, however, led to him getting the Republican caucus nomination to the United States Senate. This guaranteed his election in the Republican-controlled Iowa Legislature--by one vote. (12) He went on to serve as a U. S. senator from Iowa for six terms (1873-1908) and as the Senate majority leader in 1897, 1904, 1906, and 1907-1908. Allison's political alliances and his position in the United States Senate also led him to be the center of the "Des Moines Regency." This small group including James Clarkson of the Iowa State Register, Charles E. Perkins and Joseph W. Blythe of the Burlington Railroad had tremendous influence in the state on country, district, and state conventions after 1873. (13)

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 Four" (with Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, John C. Spooner of Wisconsin, and Orville H. Platt of Connecticut), all members of the Committee on Finance who dominated the Congress. (14) Allison was also a member of the Committee on Committees, chairman of the Republican caucus, and chairman of the steering committee.

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 which was intended to buy a certain amount of silver and put it into circulation as silver dollars. (15) Two other highly important pieces of legislation to which he made vital 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. (16)

In 1888 Allison launched an unsuccessful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. He was nominated in 1896, but lost to the man who became President of the United States, William McKinley. Allison's long record of political service was brought out during his 1908 campaign when it was discovered that not one member of Congress from 1863, when Allison entered the House of Representatives, was still serving.

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. (17) In 1896 President McKinley asked him to be secretary of state. Allison declined believing he could do more for the country as chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. 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. He won the campaign in June but died at his Dubuque home in August. (18)

In 1917, friends of Senator William B. Allison, citizens and school children of Iowa, and the state legislature raised this memorial 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, "The Republic." (19)

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. (21)

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 three clubs from Illinois, Davenport, Omaha and Rockford, and Dubuque, Iowa. It was the first so called minor league formed outside the east coast. Sullivan took steps to set a salary structure for the Northwest League and clearly subordinated the league to the National League, which to some establishes it as the first legitimate minor league. Sullivan ran the Dubuque team which was financed by Allison and future congressman and Speaker of the House David B. HENDERSON. (22)

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



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

2. Ibid.

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

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

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

6. Ibid.

7. Hudson, p. 14

8. Ibid.

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

10. Hudson, p. 15

11. Hudson, p. 7

12. Hudson, p. 15

13. Ibid.

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

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

16. Hudson, p. 15

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

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

19. United States Senate, "William Boyd Allison: A Featured Biography,"http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/Featured_Bio_Allison.htm

20. Donovan, Frank P. Jr. Iowa Railroads. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000, p. 211

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

Linwood Legacies Self-Guided Tour. Online: http://www.linwoodcemetery.us/about/history/