Edgar Cowan

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Edgar Cowan
Edgar Cowan - Brady-Handy.jpg
United States Senator
from Pennsylvania
In office
March 4, 1861 – March 4, 1867
Preceded by William Bigler
Succeeded by Simon Cameron
Personal details
Born (1815-09-19)September 19, 1815
Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, US
Died August 31, 1885(1885-08-31) (aged 69)
Greensburg, Pennsylvania, US
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Lucitra Oliver Cowan
Profession Politician, Lawyer, Raftsman, Schoolmaster

Edgar Cowan (September 19, 1815 – August 31, 1885) was an American lawyer and Republican politician from Greensburg, Pennsylvania. He represented Pennsylvania in the United States Senate during the American Civil War.

Cowan was born in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Franklin College, Ohio, in 1839 and subsequently became a raftsman, boat builder, schoolmaster, and a student of medicine. He studied law, was admitted to the bar and commenced practice in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, in 1842. He was elected as a Republican to the United States Senate and served from March 4, 1861, to March 4, 1867, and was an unsuccessful candidate for reelection to the Senate.

During his tenure in office, he served as chairman, Committee on Patents and the Patent Office (Thirty-seventh through Thirty-ninth Congresses).

As senator, he argued against the Civil Rights Act of 1866, particularly out of concern that it would allow women the right to enter into contracts independently of their husbands. The debates over the Civil Rights Act included guaranteeing, at the federal level, the right for any free person to enter into a contract, and he argued that the federal government was not to involve itself in regulating contract law, which he saw as squarely within the domain of state power. In particular, he argued that the federal guarantee of contract rights might allow women to enter into contracts under their own person and not in the person of and with consent of their husbands. Woman's ability to enter into contracts was illegal due to coverture law, which were the set of laws referred to as the "civil death" of women. Under coverture, women's husbands owned their wives' property, wages, and body. Women had no legal right to contract, to property, or to bodily autonomy.[1] Senator Cowan cautioned against the Civil Rights Act of 1866 as a bill that would threaten this order. According to Senator Cowan, "A married woman in no State that I know of has a right to make contracts generally...Now, I ask Senators...whether they are willing...to interfere with regard to the contracts of married women...I say that this bill...confers upon married women, upon minors, upon idiots, upon lunatics...the right to make and enforce contracts." [2]

While largely invoking gender and marriage to make his points about states' rights, his arguments helped create a legal distinction between sex and race in federal law. In the senate, while trying to elucidate the meaning of the Thirteen Amendment, he stated, "What was the involuntary servitude mentioned there.... Was it the right the husband had to the service of his wife? Nobody can pretend that those things were within the purview of that Amendment; nobody believes it."[2] Thus, "involuntary servitude" was only to be in reference to men in the service of other men, not women in legal service to their husbands. In response to arguments by the likes of Senator Cowan, The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was written to only apply to "race" and "color," but did not include gender.

Following the Civil War, he was appointed by President Andrew Johnson as Minister to Austria in January 1867, but was not confirmed by the Senate. He then resumed the practice of law.

Cowan died in Greensburg and was buried in St. Clair Cemetery.


  1. ^ "Women and the Law". www.library.hbs.edu. Retrieved 2016-08-05. 
  2. ^ a b Dru Stanley, Amy (1998). From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Era of Slave Emancipation. Cambridge University Press. p. 57. 

External links[edit]

United States Senate
Preceded by
William Bigler
U.S. Senator (Class 3) from Pennsylvania
March 14, 1861 – March 4, 1867
Served alongside: Simon Cameron, David Wilmot and Charles R. Buckalew
Succeeded by
Simon Cameron