John Coit Spooner

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John Coit Spooner
Portrait of John Coit Spooner.jpg
United States Senator
from Wisconsin
In office
March 4, 1885 – March 3, 1891
Preceded by Angus Cameron
Succeeded by William F. Vilas
In office
March 4, 1897 – April 30, 1907
Preceded by William F. Vilas
Succeeded by Isaac Stephenson
Member of the Wisconsin State Assembly
In office
Personal details
Born (1843-01-06)January 6, 1843
Lawrenceburg, Indiana
Died June 11, 1919(1919-06-11) (aged 76)
New York City, New York
Political party Republican
Children Philip Loring Spooner

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. He chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee.[1]

Early life and career[edit]

Portrait of John Coit Spooner, in 1899.

Born in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, Spooner moved with his parents to Madison, Wisconsin in 1859. He attended the common schools and graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1864. During the Civil War, he enlisted as a private in the Union Army and at the close of the war was brevetted major. He served as private and military secretary to the Governor of Wisconsin, studied law, and was admitted to the bar in 1867, then serving as assistant attorney general of Wisconsin until 1870.

Spooner moved to Hudson, Wisconsin and practiced law there from 1870 to 1884.


He was a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1872 and was a member of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents.

He was elected as a Republican to the United States Senate January 27, 1885 and served from 1885 to 1891, being defeated for re-election by William F. Vilas. He served as chairman of the Committee on Claims from 1886 to 1891. Afterwards, he was an unsuccessful candidate for Governor of Wisconsin in 1892 and moved back to Madison in 1893. He was elected to the U.S. Senate again in 1897, was reelected in 1903, and served from 1897 until his resignation in 1907. He served as chairman of the Committee on Canadian Relations from 1897 to 1899 and of the Committee on Rules from 1899 to 1907. As a Senator, he sponsored the Spooner Act, which directed President Theodore Roosevelt to purchase the Panama Canal Zone.

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, Attorney General under President McKinley in 1901, and Secretary of State in President William Howard Taft's administration in 1909.

Spooner and fellow Wisconsin Senator, Robert M. La Follette, were known to be bitter rivals. Spooner disagreed with La Follette's progressive policies, which were opposed to his own conservative policies. Spooner was also one of the early opponents of direct primary elections. At the time, party nominees were selected by the party officials, sometimes by party bosses. Although the system left much to be desired, Spooner had this to say in description of political campaigns after the reform of direct primary elections:

"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."[2]

After his retirement from the Senate, he practiced law in New York City at the firm of Spooner & Cotton until his death.

He died on June 11, 1919 in Manhattan, New York City.[3] He was interred in Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison, Wisconsin.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lewis Gould, The Most Exclusive Club: A History of the Modern United States Senate (2009) pp 17-31
  2. ^ Eigen's Political & Historical Quotations Archived 2006-08-30 at the Wayback Machine.
  3. ^ "John C. Spooner Dies In City Home. Former United States Senator for Wisconsin Took Up Law Practice Here of 64". New York Times. June 11, 1919. Retrieved January 25, 2015. Former United States Senator John Coit Spooner from Wisconsin, who since his retirement from the Senate in May. 1907, had been engaged in the practice of law in New York, being a member of the firm of Spooner Spooner, 14 all Street, died at 1:10 this morning at his home, 205 West Fifty-seventh ... 

External links[edit]

U.S. Senate
Preceded by
Angus Cameron
U.S. Senator (Class 3) from Wisconsin
March 4, 1885 – March 4, 1891
Served alongside: Philetus Sawyer
Succeeded by
William F. Vilas
Preceded by
William F. Vilas
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
Isaac Stephenson