American Statesmen: Secretaries of State from John Jay to Colin Powell

By Edward S. Mihalkanin | Go to book overview
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ELIHU B. WASHBURNE (1816-1887)

Served 1869

Appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant

Republican

Elihu B. Washburne, the secretary of state with the shortest tenure on record, five days, was born on September 23, 1816 in Livermore, Maine, to a poor family. Washburne had intermittent schooling and a variety of jobs until he settled on the law as his career. Washburne received his law degree from Harvard Law School and was admitted to the bar in 1840, the same year he set up his practice in Galena, Illinois.

Washburne was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1853 as an antislavery Whig and joined the new Republican Party as it formed in Illinois. During his terms in the House, Washburne acquired a reputation for his knowledge of the budget and economic matters. From Fort Sumter on, Washburne was a staunch Unionist and the chief sponsor of the then unknown Ulysses S. Grant. Although some accounts differ as to the precise role Washburne played in Grant's early Civil War career, the congressman was the main sponsor of Grant, supporting the latter's succession of appointments and promotions and defending the general against his detractors, especially after the battle of Shiloh. Washburne served as chairman of the Committee of the Whole during President Andrew Johnson's impeachment proceedings and vigorously advocated Johnson's removal from office.

There has been disagreement by historians as to the reasons Grant offered Washburne the post of secretary of state. Fuller says that Grant made the offer to give Washburne prestige for a diplomatic post and as a personal compliment. McFeely, Grant's latest biographer, characterizes the prestige argument as “silly” but does support the argument that Grant offered the position in a moment of gratitude and extreme happiness as he heard the 1868 presidential election returns in Washburne's home.

The moment passed. In the face of criticism over the Washburne appointment and Washburne's advice against pushing Grant's nomination of Alexander T. Stew-art for secretary of the treasury, Washburne submitted his resignation as head of the state department. Grant promptly nominated Washburne for U.S. minister to

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American Statesmen: Secretaries of State from John Jay to Colin Powell
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