Washburne, Elihu B.

Born: 1816-09-23 Livermore, Maine

Died: 1887-10-23 Chicago, Illinois

Alternate name: Washburn

Elihu B. Washburne was a lawyer, U.S. representative, secretary of state, and diplomat. One of eleven children, Elihu spent his early years on the family farm. He received his education at area public schools. When the farm proved unable to support the family after the failure of his father's store in 1829, Elihu became a farm laborer, printer's apprentice, and later a teacher. Unhappy in these occupations, he entered Maine Wesleyan Seminary to prepare for a career in law. Washburne apprenticed at a Boston law firm and matriculated to Harvard Law School. Admitted to the bar in 1840, he moved to Galena, Illinois, where he eventually partnered with Charles S. Hempstead. He married Hempstead's niece, Adèle Gratiot, in 1845, with whom he had seven children. Washburne's flourishing legal career carried him to practice before the Illinois Supreme Court in Springfield, where he befriended Abraham Lincoln and involved himself in Whig Party politics. At the Whig National Convention in 1844, Washburne delivered the speech nominating Henry Clay for president. In 1848, he failed to secure nomination for the Thirty-First Congress, but in 1852, Washburne won election, as a Whig, to the Thirty-Third Congress. He won reelection as a Republican in 1854 and to the next seven consecutive Congresses, serving in the U.S. House of Representatives from March 1853 to March 1869. Washburne was a key supporter of Lincoln in the latter's unsuccessful bid to win election to the U.S. Senate in 1855, and Washburne was among the organizers of the Republican Party in Illinois. Washburne also supported Lincoln for Senate in 1858 and for president in 1860. When Lincoln arrived in Washington, DC, in secret after his election, it was Washburne alone who met him at the station. During the Civil War, Washburne served as an important Republican leader in the House of Representatives. Washburne used his seniority and influence with President Lincoln to further Ulysses S. Grant's wartime military career. As a member of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, Washburne sided with the Radical Republicans and opposed President Andrew Johnson's Reconstruction policy. On March 5, 1869, President Grant appointed Washburne secretary of state, but Washburne resigned on March 16, and President Grant appointed him minister to France, a position Washburne held until 1877. Washburne returned to the United States and lived the remainder of his life in Chicago, Illinois.

John Y. Simon, "Washburne, Elihu Benjamin," American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 22:750-51; Biographical Directory of the American Congress 1774-1996 (Alexandria, VA: CQ Staff Directories, 1997), 2018.