James Harlan (senator)

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James Harlan
United States Senator
from Iowa
In office
March 4, 1867 – March 4, 1873
Preceded by Samuel J. Kirkwood
Succeeded by William B. Allison
In office
January 29, 1857 – May 15, 1865
Preceded by Himself
Succeeded by Samuel J. Kirkwood
In office
March 4, 1855 – January 5, 1857
Preceded by Augustus C. Dodge
Succeeded by Himself
8th United States Secretary of the Interior
In office
May 16, 1865 – August 31, 1866
President Andrew Johnson
Preceded by John Usher
Succeeded by Orville Browning
Personal details
Born (1820-08-26)August 26, 1820
Clark County, Illinois, U.S.
Died October 5, 1899(1899-10-05) (aged 79)
Mount Pleasant, Iowa, U.S.
Political party Whig (Before 1855)
Free Soil (1855–1857)
Republican (1857–1899)
Spouse(s) Ann Peck
Education DePauw University (BA)

James Harlan (August 26, 1820 – October 5, 1899) was an attorney and politician, a member of the United States Senate (1855–1865), (1867–1873) and a U.S. Cabinet Secretary at the United States Department of Interior (1865–1866) under President Andrew Johnson.


Early life[edit]

Harlan was the son of Silas and Mary (Connolly) Harlan. Born on August 26, 1820 in Clark County, Illinois and raised in Indiana, Harlan attended local schools as a boy. He graduated from Indiana Asbury University (now DePauw University) in 1845.

He moved to Iowa City, Iowa, where he served as Superintendent of Schools. He also studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1850. He joined the Whig Party and became active in politics. In 1850 Harlan declined the Whig nomination for Governor of Iowa. From 1853 to 1855 Harlan was president of Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

First Senate tenure[edit]

Hon. James Harlan

In 1855 Harlan was elected by the Iowa legislature to the United States Senate as a Free Soil Party candidate. In 1857 the US Senate declared the seat vacant because of irregularities in that legislative election. He was re-elected by the legislature and seated as a Republican, serving until 1865. In 1861 Harlan was a Delegate to the Peace Conference that tried to arrange a compromise to prevent the American Civil War.

Secretary of the Interior[edit]

In 1865 he resigned from the Senate when he was appointed as Secretary of the Interior under President Andrew Johnson, an appointment he held until 1866. As secretary he announced that he intended to "clean house" and fired "a considerable number of incumbents who were seldom at their respective desks".[1] He had done so after requesting, in late May 1865, a report listing all employees who (1.) uttered disloyal statements since the bombardment of Fort Sumter, (2.) all those not known to entertain loyal sentiments or who had associated with those known to be disloyal, (3.) those who were inefficient or not necessary to transact public business, (4.) all such persons "as disregard in their conduct, habits, and associations, the rules of decorum, [and] propriety proscribed by a christian civilization."[2]

Among this group was the poet Walt Whitman, then working as a clerk in the department, who received his dismissal note on June 30, 1865.[3] Harlan had found a copy of Leaves of Grass on Whitman's desk as the poet was making revisions and found it to be morally offensive. "I will not have the author of that book in this Department", he said. "If the President of the United States should order his reinstatement, I would resign sooner than I would put him back."[4] Twenty-nine years later, Harlan defended his firing of Whitman, saying that the clerk was dismissed solely "on the grounds that his services were not needed".[1][5]

Harlan was a member of the Southern Treaty Commission that renegotiated treaties with Indian Tribes that had sided with the Confederacy, such as the Cherokee and Choctaw. As part of the new treaties, they had to emancipate their slaves, as was being done by amendment within the United States, and offer them full citizenship in the tribes if they chose to stay in Indian Territory. If they left, the freedmen would become United States citizens. (Membership issues related to the Cherokee Freedmen and Choctaw Freedmen have become significant since the late 20th century.) Harlan resigned from the post in 1866 when he no longer supported the policies of President Johnson.

Second Senate tenure[edit]

He was elected again by the Iowa legislature to the United States Senate in 1867, and served until the end of his term in January 1873. During his Senate service, Harlan was Chairman of the committees of Public Lands; District of Columbia; Education; and Indian Affairs.

Harlan was an unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1872, and was also an unsuccessful candidate for Governor in 1895.

From 1882 to 1886, Harlan was appointed as Presiding Judge for the Court of Commissioners, which heard cases related to the Alabama claims.

Death and legacy[edit]

James Harlan's statue was one of two that represents the state of Iowa in the U.S. Capital until it was replaced

James Harlan died in Mount Pleasant on October 5, 1899. A commemorative sculpture was done of him; Iowa installed it in the United States Capitol along with one of pioneer Governor Samuel Kirkwood (each state may install two statues for display in the Capitol). The Harlan statue was located in the Hall of Columns until it was replaced in 2014 by a statue of Norman Borlaug. It is now on display at Iowa Wesleyan College.[6]

Harlan was a close friend of President Abraham Lincoln and his family. In 1868 his daughter, Mary Eunice Harlan, married Lincoln's son Robert Todd Lincoln. The couple lived during the summers at Harlan's home in Mount Pleasant. The residence has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is now known as the Harlan-Lincoln House. Operated as a house museum, it exhibits memorabilia from both the Harlan and Lincoln families.[7] After his Senate career ended, Harlan turned a previous house of his into the Harlan House Hotel. He died in the hotel, which become his residence in the early 1890s.[8] It is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The city of Harlan, Iowa in Shelby County was named for him.


  1. ^ a b Loving, Jerome. Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself. University of California Press, 1999. ISBN 0-520-22687-9. p. 291.
  2. ^ National Archives, RG48, Entry 14, James Harlan to Bureau Chief, May 29, 1865
  3. ^ Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. ISBN 0-679-76709-6. p. 455
  4. ^ Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979. ISBN 0-671-22542-1. p. 304.
  5. ^ Peck, Garrett (2015). Walt Whitman in Washington, D.C.: The Civil War and America’s Great Poet. Charleston, SC: The History Press. pp. 137–40. ISBN 978-1626199736. 
  6. ^ Petroski, William (August 18, 2014). "Harlan statue moved from D.C. to Mount Pleasant". Des Moines Register. [permanent dead link]
  7. ^ "Harlan-Lincoln House". Abraham Lincoln Online. Retrieved 2012-05-31. 
  8. ^ Christopher A. Wilde. "Harlan House Hotel". National Park Service. Retrieved 2017-04-27. 

External links[edit]

U.S. Senate
Preceded by
Augustus C. Dodge
U.S. Senator (Class 3) from Iowa
Served alongside: George W. Jones
Succeeded by
Preceded by
U.S. Senator (Class 3) from Iowa
Served alongside: George W. Jones, James W. Grimes
Succeeded by
Samuel J. Kirkwood
Preceded by
Robert Johnson
Chair of the Senate Public Lands Committee
Succeeded by
Samuel Pomeroy
Preceded by
Samuel J. Kirkwood
U.S. Senator (Class 3) from Iowa
Served alongside: James W. Grimes, James B. Howell, George G. Wright
Succeeded by
William B. Allison
New office Chair of the Senate Education Committee
Succeeded by
Charles D. Drake
Preceded by
John B. Henderson
Chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee
Succeeded by
William Alfred Buckingham
Political offices
Preceded by
John Usher
United States Secretary of the Interior
Succeeded by
Orville Browning