Richard Olney

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Richard Olney
Richard Olney, Bain bw photo portrait, 1913.jpg
34th United States Secretary of State
In office
June 10, 1895 – March 5, 1897
PresidentGrover Cleveland
William McKinley
Preceded byWalter Q. Gresham
Succeeded byJohn Sherman
40th United States Attorney General
In office
March 6, 1893 – June 10, 1895
PresidentGrover Cleveland
Preceded byWilliam H. H. Miller
Succeeded byJudson Harmon
Personal details
Born(1835-09-15)September 15, 1835
Oxford, Massachusetts, U.S.
DiedApril 8, 1917(1917-04-08) (aged 81)
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
Spouse(s)Agnes Park Thomas
EducationBrown University (BA)
Harvard University (LLB)

Richard Olney (September 15, 1835 – April 8, 1917) was an American statesman.

He served as United States Attorney General in the cabinet of Grover Cleveland and Secretary of State under Cleveland and briefly under William McKinley.

As attorney general, Olney used injunctions against striking workers in the Pullman strike, setting a precedent, and advised the use of federal troops, when legal means failed to control the strikers.

As Secretary of State, he raised the status of America in the world by elevating U.S. diplomatic posts to the status of embassy.

Early life and education[edit]

Olney was born into a family of means in Oxford, Massachusetts. His father was Wilson Olney, a textiles manufacturer and banker.[1] Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, until Olney was seven. The family then moved back to Oxford and Olney attended school at the Leicester Academy in Leicester.[1]

He graduated with high honors as class orator from Brown University in 1856.[1] He received a bachelor of laws degree from Harvard Law School in 1858.[1]

In 1859, he passed the bar and began practicing law in Boston, attaining a reputation as an authority on probate, trust and corporate law.[1]

Early career[edit]

Olney was elected a selectman in West Roxbury, Massachusetts and served one term in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1874. He declined to run again, preferring to return to his law practice.[1]

In 1876, Olney inherited his father-in-law's Boston law practice and became involved in the business affairs of Boston's elite families.[2]

During the 1880s, Olney became one of the Boston's leading railroad attorneys[2][3] and the general counsel for Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway.[4]

Olney was once asked by a former railroad employer if he could do something to get rid of the newly formed Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). He suggested that the ICC would become a captive regulator, replying in an 1892 letter, "The Commission... is, or can be made, of great use to the railroads. It satisfies the popular clamor for a government supervision of the railroads, at the same time that that supervision is almost entirely nominal. Further, the older such a commission gets to be, the more inclined it will be found to take the business and railroad view of things... The part of wisdom is not to destroy the Commission, but to utilize it."[5]

Attorney General[edit]

In March 1893, Olney became U.S. Attorney General and used the law to thwart strikes, which he considered an illegitimate tactic contrary to law.[2] Olney argued that the government must prevent interference with its mails and with the general railway transportation between the states.

Pullman strike[edit]

During the 1894 Pullman strike, Olney instructed district attorneys to secure from the Federal Courts writs of injunction against striking railroad employees.[6] He ordered the Chicago district attorney to convene a grand jury to find cause to indict Eugene Debs and other labor leaders and sent federal marshals to protect rail traffic, ordering 150 marshals deputized in Helena, Montana alone.[6]

When the legal measures failed, he advised President Cleveland to send federal troops to Chicago to quell the strike, over the objections of the Governor of Illinois.[2]

Secretary of State[edit]

Upon the death of Secretary of State Walter Q. Gresham, Cleveland named Olney to the position on June 10, 1895.[2]

Olney quickly elevated US foreign diplomatic posts to the title of embassy, officially raising the status of the United States to one of the world's greater nations. (Until then, the United States had had only Legations, which diplomatic protocol dictated be treated as inferior to embassies.)

Olney took a prominent role in the boundary dispute between the British and Venezuelan governments. In his correspondence with Lord Salisbury, he gave an extended interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine that went considerably beyond previous statements on the subject, now known as the Olney interpretation.[7]

Later years[edit]

Olney returned to the practice of the law in 1897,[1] at the expiration of Cleveland's term.

In March 1913, Olney turned down President Wilson's offer to be the US Ambassador to Great Britain,[8] and later, in May 1914, when President Wilson offered Olney the Appointment as Governor of the Federal Reserve Board, he declined that appointment. Olney was unwilling to take on new responsibilities at his advanced age.[9]

Personal life[edit]

In 1861, Olney married Agnes Park Thomas of Boston, Massachusetts.[1]

Olney was the uncle of Massachusetts Congressman Richard Olney II.[citation needed]

Author H.W. Brands recounts claims that Olney "responded to a daughter's indiscretion by banishing her from his home, never to see her again, although they lived in the same city for thirty years."[10]


Olney received the honorary degree of LL.D from Harvard and Brown in 1893 and from Yale University in 1901.[1]


  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Olney, Richard". Encyclopædia Britannica. 20 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 91.
  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Richard Olney Dies; Veteran Statesman" (PDF) The New York Times (April 10, 1917), page 13. Retrieved April 6, 2011
  2. ^ a b c d e "Richard Olney (1895–1897): Secretary of State" Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. Retrieved April 6, 2011
  3. ^ Thomas Frank, "Obama and 'Regulatory Capture'" The Wall Street Journal (June 24, 2010). Retrieved April 5, 2011
  4. ^ Encyclopedia of Populism in America: A Historical Encyclopedia ISBN 978-1-59884-567-9 p. 582
  5. ^ Bernstein, Marver H. (1955). Regulating Business by Independent Commission. Princeton University Press. p. 265. Letter by Richard Olney to Charles Perkins, President, Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, December 28, 1892.
  6. ^ a b "Orders Sent to Indict Debs" (PDF) The New York Times (July 5, 1894). Retrieved April 6, 2011
  7. ^ Schlup, Leonard C.; Ryan, James Gilbert (2003). Historical Dictionary of the Gilded Age. M.E. Sharpe. p. 344. ISBN 9780765621061. Retrieved November 30, 2017.
  8. ^ "Olney Refuses Offer of London Embassy" (PDF) The New York Times (March 16, 1913), page 2. Retrieved April 6, 2011
  9. ^ "Wilson Seeks Head of Reserve Board" (PDF) The New York Times (May 6, 1914), page 14. Retrieved April 6, 2011
  10. ^ Brands, H.W. Bound to Empire: The United States and the Philippines. p. 18.


  • Grenville, John A. S. and George Berkeley Young. Politics, Strategy, and American Diplomacy: Studies in Foreign Policy, 1873-1917 (1966) pp 158–78 on "Grover Cleveland, Richard only, and the Venezuelan crisis"
  • Young, George B. "Intervention Under the Monroe Doctrine: The Olney Corollary," Political Science Quarterly, 57#2 (1942), pp. 247–280 in JSTOR
Legal offices
Preceded by
William H. H. Miller
U.S. Attorney General
Served under: Grover Cleveland

Succeeded by
Judson Harmon
Political offices
Preceded by
Walter Q. Gresham
U.S. Secretary of State
Served under: Grover Cleveland

Succeeded by
John Sherman