Probably one of the best known Iowa statesmen of the 19th century, James B. Harlan (1820 – 1899) was an educator, a surveyor, an attorney and a politician. He served as a member of the United States Senate (1855-1865 and 1867-1873), Cabinet Secretary at the United States Department of Interior (1865-1866), and as a Federal Judge (1882-1886).
And, while most remember James B. Harlan as the influential Senator from Mt. Pleasant in Henry County, Iowa – it was actually Iowa City that gave him his start – not only in politics – but also, in his professional life as well. Allow us here to tell you more. But first, let’s give you a brief introduction, via the Iowa historian, William J. Peterson…
James Birdsall Harlan was born in Clark County, Illinois on August 26, 1820.
At age 21, Harlan is off to college – walking the 18 miles on a regular basis! But, after only one year at school, his funds ran out, so James returned home in order to work and raise more money for his continued education.
In the meantime, in 1843, James and a few of his friends decided to head off to explore the new West – just across the Mississippi into the Territory of Iowa.
After exploring Burlington, the group hopped a steamboat going south – which led, first, to Keokuk, and then into Missouri – where they ended up in Paris – a small community southwest of Hannibal…
It’s here Harlan saw, first hand, the evils of slavery – making him the pro-abolitionist he was the rest of his political career.
From Paris, the team went further south and west in Missouri – to Clinton – where Harlan found his first work opportunity as a teacher with the Methodist-Episcopal church there.
Before long, James was back home, returned to Asbury, where he graduated and got married – all in the fall of 1845!
Harlan’s first full-time position in education came via an invitation to oversee the struggling Iowa City College – which was connected with the Methodist-Episcopal Church and Harlan’s alma mater – Asbury College – back in Indiana. The college had gone through a number of different administrators since its inception in 1843, so James & Ann Eliza made the big move – a twelve-day buggy ride across Illinois, crossing the Mississippi River into Bloomington, and finally arriving in Iowa City on March 25, 1846. Read more about the colleges and academies during Iowa City’s earliest days.
In 1846, there were already a handful of other successful small schools and academies here in Iowa City, but as a growing community – soon to be the capital city of the new State of Iowa – the opportunities for success were certainly here for this energetic 26-year old. According to Peterson, here’s what Harlan did in his first year of work at the school…
As Harlan completed his first year at Iowa City College, the Whig party asked him to be their state candidate for the position of Superintendent of Public Instruction. The race was highly volatile – notice, for example, the article (below right) from The Iowa Capitol Reporter – Iowa City’s Democrat newspaper…
As it turned out, Harlan won the 1847 election but, much like today, the losing party didn’t like the results, and in the followup election, the other team won – leaving Harlan empty-handed and ready to move on to other interests.
The two key study references for those “reading law” in 1850 – Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England and Coke’s The Institutes of Lawes of England.
Prior to the development of law schools such as the SUI School of Law – which started in 1868 – men like James Harlan would go through a lengthy two-step apprenticeship process called “reading law.” First, the would-be lawyer would find an experienced, practicing attorney who was willing to apprentice or mentor the student. In Harlan’s case, there were at least a dozen experienced lawyers in Iowa City to choose from (see list below)…
Secondly, under the tutelage of a willing teacher, the new apprentice would begin a period of study. There was no determined length to this work, so everything depended on how quickly the student learned and could convince his teacher that he understood the ins and outs of the law. Being an excellent student, by September 1850, Harlan was admitted to the bar and began practicing law in Iowa City. Which now brings us to one more Iowa City story…
As a new lawyer in town, it obviously took some time to establish his practice, so on the side, in 1852 and 1853, Harlan turned to a trade he learned back in Indiana – surveying. In the 1850’s, Iowa was expanding quickly, with thousands of pioneers coming into the state, buying land and settling in the new West. According to historical records, Harlan moonlighted as a deputy surveyor, hitting the road during this season of his life, surveying land in western Iowa in order to pick up some extra cash.
(JP-034) In a rare postal cover and letter (below) from July 20, 1853, we find Harlan trying to work out some surveying problems with a piece of land in Calhoun County (see map above). In this response letter to Warner Lewis – General Surveyor for Iowa & Wisconsin – we see that James is trying his best to resolve some questions that have developed on this project – and as you can see from the end of his letter, he’s hoping to get things corrected soon – because he needs the cash!
After seven years in Iowa City, an invitation that launched the next season of his career came Harlan’s way. The Mt. Pleasant Collegiate Institute invited him to come be their new school president, so from 1853 to 1855, Harlan transformed this small private Methodist school into Iowa Wesleyan College. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Built in 1854, The Harlan House was built for James Harlan who served as the college’s president from 1853 to 1855 and again from 1869 to 1870. He maintained his home in Mt. Pleasant after he resigned as college president to become one of the U.S. senators from Iowa and then Secretary of the Interior during the administration of Andrew Johnson. Harlan retired to the house in 1876 and lived there until his death in 1899. The house passed to his daughter Mary who had married Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln. She donated the house to Iowa Wesleyan in 1907.
James Harlan’s close friendship with President Abraham Lincoln was very evident – aided no doubt by the growing closeness between Robert Todd Lincoln and Harlan’s daughter – Mary Harlan – who eventually married in October 1868. Two events occurred in the last 45 days of the President’s life (1865) that established Harlan’s connection with Mr. Lincoln in the public mind. First, Harlan and his daughter Mary were in the party of the Lincoln entourage at the inaugural ball following his 1864 re-election, with Mary accompanying her future husband. Second, Harlan went to Union Army headquarters at City Point with the Lincolns in early April. The Lincolns often took the Harlans on drives out of the city, and in this last week of the President’s life, they took a buggy ride together into the Virginia countryside. Harlan later wrote about this last time with his good friend…
This drive has become to me historical. First, because it was the last one taken by me in his company; and proved to have been so near the end of his life. And, secondly, because he had suddenly become, on the fall of Richmond and the surrender of the Confederate Army, April 9th, at Appomattox, a different man from what I had ever seen in him. His whole appearance, poise and bearing had marvelously changed. He was, in fact, transfigured. That indescribable sadness which had previously seemed to be an adamant element in his very being, had been suddenly exchanged for an equally indescribable expression of serene joy as if conscious that the great purpose of his life had been achieved … Yet there was no manifestation of exultation, or ecstasy. He seemed the very personification of supreme satisfaction.
Harlan’s relationship to the President was recognized when he became president of the Lincoln Monument Association in 1865.
James Birdsall Harlan, 1820-1899 – was honored with a bronze sculpture designed by Nellie Walker, and it was displayed in Washington, D.C.’s United States Capitol, as part of the National Statuary Hall Collection from 1910 to 2014. The statue is now on display on the campus of Iowa Wesleyan University in Mt. Pleasant.
Godspeed, Senator Harlan.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.