John Coit Spooner

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John Coit Spooner
Portrait of John Coit Spooner.jpg
Chair of the United States Senate Rules Committee
In office
March 4, 1899 – April 30, 1907
Preceded byNelson W. Aldrich
Succeeded byPhilander C. Knox
United States Senator
from Wisconsin
In office
March 4, 1885 – March 3, 1891
Preceded byAngus Cameron
Succeeded byWilliam F. Vilas
In office
March 4, 1897 – April 30, 1907
Preceded byWilliam F. Vilas
Succeeded byIsaac Stephenson
Member of the Wisconsin State Assembly
from the St. Croix district
In office
January 1, 1872 – January 1, 1873
Preceded byRevel K. Fay
Succeeded byDavid C. Fulton
Personal details
Born(1843-01-06)January 6, 1843
Lawrenceburg, Indiana, U.S.
DiedJune 11, 1919(1919-06-11) (aged 76)
New York City, U.S.
Resting placeForest Hill Cemetery
Madison, Wisconsin
Political partyRepublican
Annie Elizabeth Main
(m. 1868)
Children4, including Philip
RelativesPhilip L. Spooner Jr. (brother)
EducationUniversity of Wisconsin–Madison
Military service
AllegianceUnited States
Branch/serviceUnited States Volunteers
Union Army
Years of service1864–1866
Battles/warsAmerican Civil War

John Coit Spooner (January 6, 1843 – June 11, 1919) was a politician and lawyer from Wisconsin. He served in the United States Senate from 1885 to 1891 and from 1897 to 1907. A Republican, by the 1890s, he was one of the "Big Four" key Republicans who largely controlled the major decisions of the Senate, along with Orville H. Platt of Connecticut, William B. Allison of Iowa, and Nelson W. Aldrich of Rhode Island.

Early life[edit]

Portrait of John Coit Spooner, in 1899.

Spooner was born in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, on January 6, 1843, the son of Philip Loring Spooner and Lydia (Coit) Spooner.[1] Philip Spooner was an attorney and judge and served on the bench in both Indiana and Wisconsin.[2] Spooner moved with his parents to Madison, Wisconsin, in 1859.[3] He attended the common schools and graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a Bachelor of Philosophy (Philosophiae Baccalaureus, or P.B.) degree in 1864.[4][a] While in college, Spooner joined the Psi Upsilon fraternity[5] and was admitted to membership in Phi Beta Kappa.[6]

Military service[edit]

During the Civil War, he enlisted in the Union Army as a private assigned to Company D, 40th Wisconsin Infantry, a three-month unit.[2] After Spooner's 100 days of service were complete, he returned home and recruited a company from his college classmates, Company A, 50th Wisconsin Infantry, which he commanded as a captain.[3] At the close of the war, Spooner received a brevet promotion to major.[7]

Start of career[edit]

After the war, Spooner served as private secretary to Wisconsin Governor Lucius Fairchild,[8] and then the governor's military secretary with the rank of colonel[9] He later served as quartermaster general of the Wisconsin Militia with the rank of brigadier general.[10] He studied law with his father from 1865 to 1867, and he was admitted to the bar in 1867.[9]

After becoming a lawyer, Spooner was appointed assistant attorney general of Wisconsin and he served from 1869 to 1870.[9] In 1869, Spooner received the honorary degree of Master of Arts from the University of Wisconsin.[11][12] Spooner moved to Hudson in 1870, and practiced law there from 1870 to 1884.[7] He established himself in the field of railroad and corporation law, and served as counsel for the West Wisconsin Railway and Chicago, St. Paul and Minneapolis Railway.[9]

Spooner was a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1872.[3] He was a member of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents from 1882 to 1886.[3]

United States Senator[edit]

He was elected as a Republican to the United States Senate January 27, 1885,[8] and served from 1885 to 1891, being defeated for re-election by William F. Vilas.[9] He served as chairman of the Committee on Claims from 1886 to 1891.[13]

In 1888 and again in 1892, Spooner was a delegate to the Republican National Convention and was the chairman of Wisconsin's delegation.[14] Spooner was the unsuccessful Republican nominee for governor of Wisconsin in 1892.[9] After his election defeat, he moved to Madison and resumed practicing law in 1893.[9]

In 1897, Spooner was elected to the U.S. Senate, succeeding Vilas.[9] He was reelected in 1903,[9] and served from 1897 until his resignation in 1907.[13] He served as chairman of the Committee on Canadian Relations from 1897 to 1899 and of the Committee on Rules from 1899 to 1907.[13]

As a Senator, Spooner was credited with the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 provision that enabled the government to prosecute Standard Oil.[15] He also promoted the legislation which created a civil government for the Philippines following the Spanish–American War.[15] He was the author of the Spooner Act, which gave President Theodore Roosevelt authority to purchase the Panama Canal Zone.[15] A popular figure among Republicans, he turned down three cabinet posts during his political career: Secretary of the Interior in President William McKinley's administration in 1898,[14] Attorney General under President McKinley in 1901,[14] and Secretary of State in President William Howard Taft's administration in 1909.[13]

Spooner and fellow Wisconsin Senator, Robert M. La Follette, were known to be bitter rivals.[16] Spooner disagreed with La Follette's progressive policies, which were opposed to his own conservative policies.[16] Spooner was also one of the early opponents of direct primary elections.[17] At the time, party nominees were selected by the party officials, sometimes by party bosses.[17] Spooner's view of political campaigns if direct primaries became standard was:

Direct primaries would destroy the party machinery ... and would build up a lot of personal machines, and would make every man a self-seeker, and would degrade politics by turning candidacies into bitter personal wrangles.[18]

Spooner shocked the state of Wisconsin and much of the American political world with his sudden resignation in March of 1907. In his letter to the Governor, he explained that he felt the need to return to the legal profession in order to build a financial cushion to provide for his retirement and his heirs. He also noted that he had only two years left in his term and did not plan to seek re-election anyway.[19] Members of the political media also speculated that Spooner had timed his resignation to catch the La Follette faction off guard and unprepared for a Senate campaign.[20]

On hearing of his resignation, President Roosevelt remarked, "I can not sufficiently express my regret at Senator Spooner's resignation. We lose one of the ablest, most efficient, most fearless, and most upright public servants that the nation has had."[21]

Later life[edit]

After his retirement from the Senate, he practiced law in New York City.[22][23] In 1910, Spooner and Joseph P. Cotton formed the firm of Spooner & Cotton, where Spooner practiced until his death.[22][23]

Death and burial[edit]

Spooner died on June 11, 1919, at his home on 205 West 57th Street in Manhattan,[8][15] following a nervous breakdown.[24][25] He was interred in Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison, Wisconsin.[25]

Awards and honors[edit]

Spooner received the honorary degree of LL.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1894.[11] He also received honorary LL.D. degrees from Yale University in 1908[26] and Columbia University (1909).[27]


In 1868, Spooner married Annie Main of Madison.[14] They were the parents of four children, three of whom lived to adulthood[14]—Charles Philip Spooner (1869–1947), Willet Main Spooner (1871–1928), John C. Spooner (1877–1881), and Philip Loring Spooner (1879–1945).[24]


  1. ^ Many sources incorrectly state that Spooner received a Ph.D. This appears to be a misreading of the abbreviation for his bachelor's degree, which was occasionally abbreviated as B.Ph. or Ph.B.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gates, Merrill Edwards (1905). Men of Mark in America. Washington, DC: Mn of Mark Publishing Company. p. 318 – via Internet Archive.
  2. ^ a b Men of Mark in America, p. 318.
  3. ^ a b c d "Historical Essay: John Coit Spooner (1843–1919)". Wisconsin Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society. August 3, 2012. Retrieved February 1, 2020.
  4. ^ University of Wisconsin (1867). Catalogue of the University of Wisconsin for the Academic Year 1866–67. Madison, WI: State Journal Book and Job Printing House. p. 46.
  5. ^ Wertheimer, Leo Weldon, ed. (1917). General Catalogue of the Psi Upsilon Fraternity. Indianapolis, IN: Psi Upsilon Fraternity. p. 692 – via Internet Archive.
  6. ^ Morgan, Bayard Quincy, ed. (1917). Catalogue, Phi Beta Kappa, Alpha of Wisconsin. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin. pp. 79, 84 – via Google Books.
  7. ^ a b Berryman, John R., ed. (1898). History of the bench and bar of Wisconsin. Vol. 2. Chicago: H. C. Cooper, Jr. pp. 381–399. Retrieved January 31, 2020.
  8. ^ a b c "Senator Spooner". Wisconsin State Journal. June 11, 1919. p. 10. Retrieved September 21, 2019 – via open access
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i Men of Mark in America, p. 319.
  10. ^ Wisconsin Secretary of State (1869). The Legislative Manual of the State of Wisconsin. Madison, WI: Atwood & Rublee, State Printers. p. 195 – via Google Books.
  11. ^ a b Thwaites, Reuben Gold (1900). "Biography, John C. Spooner". Biographical Sketches of Representative Alumni. Madison, WI: Wisconsin Electronic Reader. Retrieved January 31, 2020.
  12. ^ Loeb, Max (1907). General Catalogue of the Officers and Graduates of the University of Wisconsin, 1849–1907 (PDF). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin. p. 56 – via Library of Congress.
  13. ^ a b c d United States Congress (2005). Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774–2005. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office. p. 1865. ISBN 9780872891241 – via Google Books.
  14. ^ a b c d e Men of Mark in America, p. 320.
  15. ^ a b c d "John C. Spooner Dies In City Home" (PDF). New York Times. New York, NY. June 11, 1919. Retrieved January 25, 2015.
  16. ^ a b Bie, Michael (2007). It Happened in Wisconsin. Guilford, CT: TwoDot. pp. 48–51. ISBN 978-0-7627-5358-1 – via Google Books.
  17. ^ a b Ranney, Joseph A. (March 7, 2012). "Great Wisconsin lawyers: John C. Spooner". History of the Courts. Madison, WI: Wisconsin Court System.
  18. ^ Eigen's Political & Historical Quotations Archived August 30, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  19. ^ "John C. Spooner Leaves Senate; in Effect May 1". Wisconsin State Journal. March 4, 1907. p. 1. Retrieved January 25, 2023 – via
  20. ^ "Spooner's Exit Timed". The Washington Post. March 6, 1907. p. 47. Retrieved January 25, 2023 – via
  21. ^ "Spooner's Resignation". Appleton Post. March 14, 1907. p. 6. Retrieved January 25, 2023 – via
  22. ^ a b "Personal: Spooner & Cotton". The Wall Street Journal. New York, NY. July 10, 1910. p. 8 – via
  23. ^ a b "Hoover Selects Lawyer as New Mexican Envoy". Shamokin News-Dispatch. Shamokin, PA. March 28, 1930. p. 13 – via
  24. ^ a b "John C. Spooner in Grave Plight". The Daily News and the Times. May 22, 1919. p. 1. Retrieved September 22, 2019 – via
  25. ^ a b "Sen. Spooner to Be Buried in This City". The Capital Times. June 11, 1919. p. 1. Retrieved September 22, 2019 – via open access
  26. ^ Yale University (1914). Directory of the Living Graduates of Yale University. Meriden, CT: The Curtiss-Way Co. p. 403 – via HathiTrust.
  27. ^ Committee on the General Catalogue (1916). Catalogue of Officers and Graduates of Columbia University. New York, NY: Columbia University. p. 1097 – via HathiTrust.

Further reading[edit]

  • Fowler, Dorothy Ganfield. John Coit Spooner: Defender of Presidents (1961) scholarly biography
  • Parker, James Richard. "Senator John C. Spooner, 1897-1907" (PhD dissertation, University of Maryland; ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1972. 7229414).
  • Parker, James R. "Paternalism and Racism: Senator John C. Spooner and American Minorities, 1897-1907." Wisconsin Magazine of History (1974): 195-200. online

External links[edit]

Party political offices
Preceded by Republican nominee for Governor of Wisconsin
Succeeded by
U.S. Senate
Preceded by U.S. senator (Class 3) from Wisconsin
March 4, 1885 – March 3, 1891
Served alongside: Philetus Sawyer
Succeeded by
Preceded by U.S. senator (Class 3) from Wisconsin
March 4, 1897 – April 30, 1907
Served alongside: John L. Mitchell, Joseph V. Quarles and Robert M. La Follette, Sr.
Succeeded by
Preceded by Chair of the Senate Rules Committee
March 4, 1899 – April 30, 1907
Succeeded by