William Windom – as in Windom Park

 

William Windom

 

Windom Park is just the right name for the Northeast Minneapolis neighborhood that reflects the life of its namesake, William Windom, Minnesota Member of Congress and Senator and U.S Secretary of the Treasury.  The neighborhood encompasses Windom’s life  – from the administration of Franklin Pierce through the presidency of Benjamin Harrison,  Windom Park  residents  might reflect on the life of William Windom as they walk Windom Park down Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln, Johnson, Ulysses, Hayes, Garfield, Cleveland, Benjamin and Harrison Streets.  Windom’s life,  impact, struggles –and parallels with politics today — come readily to mind with each block and each administrative era in which Windom was a powerful player.

 

William Windom was born in Belmont County, Ohio in 1827, the son of Quaker farmers Hezekiah and Mercy Spencer Windom.  In 1837 the family moved to Knox County, Ohio, where Windom was admitted to the bar in 1850.  He practiced law in Mount Vernon, Ohio and was elected Knox County prosecuting attorney in 1852.  In 1855 Windom moved to Winona, Minnesota, where he established a thriving  law practice and a reputation as a political force..  In 1859 Windom was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives where he served five terms as the Republican representative of Southeastern Minnesota during the administrations of Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant.

 

In 1869 Windom was appointed to fill the US Senate vacancy caused by the death of Senator Daniel S. Norton. Two years later, in 1871, he was elected to the U.S. Senate where he served until his March 1881 appointment as Secretary of the Treasury under President James A. Garfield.  Following Garfield’s death in November 1881 death Windom resigned his position.  He was then elected to fill his own Senate vacancy and served until 1883 when he failed in a re-election bid.

 

What’s missing from this synopsis is the full story.  William Windom did not just hang out with the DC solons.  His legacy is quite amazing.  The untold story of his political presence  is that he might well have been President William Windom.  During his years in the House Windom gained a reputation of one of the foremost advocates of activist government, promoting a program of intervention by the federal government in the nation’s economic, political and social institutions.  In his massive biography of Windom Robert Seward Salisbury observes that “Windom supported such policies  as protective tariffs, subsidies to business, and public works projects to promote economic development; assistance to various discriminated-against groups including blacks, Indians, and women; regulation of private behavior includingtemperance and anti-pornography laws;  control of patent monopolies, and the supremacy of national authority over the competing dogma of states’ rights.”An anonymous correspondent to the Daily Pioneer Press mentioned the senator’s entire congressional career as “a continuous struggle for the rights of the masses against rings and monopolies.

Convinced that government improvement of water routes was the best solution to the problem of excessive rates charged by railroad monopolies Windom was active in political action  related to transportation.  From 1873 to 1874 he served as chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Transportation Routes to the Seaboard.

 

In his role as Secretary of the Treasury Windom was also an activitist.  The Department of the Treasury biography of Windom notes that his “expansionist beliefs combined with his Minnesota roots made him personally sympathetic to the new Western states’ desire for a currency backed by silver.  Although he advocated a gold standard, he effected a compromise in the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 which authorized the Secretary [of the Treasury] to buy silver and gold bullion and to issue notes of full legal tender.”

 

Salisbury writes that the first mention of Windom as a possible candidate for the national ticket occurred in February 1876 when a number of Minnesota newspapers began touting the Senator as the Republican nominee for vice president.  Newspapers in Windom, New Ulm, Waseca, Redwood Falls and Winona all put in a word for Windom as did the Daily Pioneer Press.  Most promoted an electable ticket with James G. Blaine of Maine for president and Windom for vice-president.  The St. Peter Tribune noted “there couldn’t be a better man found in all the land…He has a national reputation and we believe his nomination would give general satisfaction.”  The New Ulm Herald observed that his Senatorial record, particularly his work with transportation reform “placed him at once in the front rank of statesmen and thinkers of the country.”  Windom indicated he would prefer his position as Senator representing the State of Minnesota.  In the end, his name was not put in nomination for the vice presidency in 1876.

 

That was not the end of the national buzz, however.  When it became clear that the presidential incumbent, Rutherford B. Hayes, would not seek re-election in 1880, Windom’s name re-surfaced as a candidate for the Republican presidential candidacy.  A spate of pro-Windom editorials touted Windom’s credentials.  Minnesota newspapers sang his praises, while the Washington Star commended his “freedom from personal antagonism within the party, his clean record and lack of scandal, his great popularity among Southern Republicans, his intelligent conception of the nation’s industrial questions, and his straight record as a Republican, satisfactory alike to the stalwart and independent elements.” (quoted in Salisbury, p. 294.

 

Windom seems to have taken the presidential talk in stride.  He did concede, though, that the deciders of the day “might go farther and fare worse, and they probably would.”  The self-deprecating Windom, nonchalant on the surface was no barnstorming politician.  Vying with the understated Windom for the presidential nomination were Ulysses S. Grant running for a third term and Senator James Gillespie Blaine of Maine.  The Minnesota press, while highly supportive of Windom’s character and political acumen, was a bit dubious about his chances.  The Chicago paper, the Inter Ocean, observed that Windom had “many warm friends here who believe that as a candidate he would carry the Northwest solid in the convention…He is..spoken of as having a perfect, straight and correct report.  Salisbury includes a delightful personal note, quoting a Senate page who wrote that Windom was “more highly respected than any other in the senate.  The boys stand more in awe of Windom than any other senator.  He is polite but not familiar.  We look upon him as a very correct man.  Never heard of lobbyists approaching him, or even thinking of such a thing.  He is a sort of a model fellow.”

 

History shows that Windom’s fate was doomed at the Chicago Republican National Convention.  The Minnesota delegation went into the convention united in support of their native son. They anticipated that Windom was the second choice of a majority of the Convention delegates who would turn to him when and if there were the expected deadlock between Blaine and Grant.  Windom’s nominating speech by delegate E.F. Drake was a lackluster three minute snippet described by the Chicago Tribune as “a brief speech of simple eulogy.”   Drake’s limp effort paled in comparison with Roscoe Conkling gave a rousing endorsement of Grant for a third term.  Though the deadlock endured Windom was out of the game.  Even the Minnesota delegation caved when three delegates went to Blaine.  Post-convention rumor was that at one point the Grant delegation came close to throwing their substantial weight to Windom but fate got in the way.  After 34 ballots the Wisconsin delegation threw 16 or its 20 votes to Garfield who was nominated and ultimately elected to the presidency in 1880.

 

Though it seems unfair now, Windom’s rout in Chicago made him a favorite target of political cartoonists. Historian Roger Fischer wrote an in-depth piece on “William Windom: Cartoon Centerfold, 1881-91” for the Fall 1988 issue of Minnesota History, the publication of the Minnesota Historical Society.  Fischer reports that Windom appeared in about two dozen color cartoons in Punch and its rival Judge, the two most popular and politically influential illustrated humor weeklies of the age.  The cartoons lean to the vicious, lampooning Windom, an honorable man, as a “roly poly” Christmas ornament, a monkey, a chicken, a school child, and a circus performer.

 

In 1883 Windom moved to New York City where he opened a law practice.  President Benjamin Harrison  reappointed him Secretary of the Treasury in March 1889.  In 1891 Windom addressed a banquet of the New York Board of Trade and Transportation at Delmonico’s with the words, “As a poison in the blood permeates arteries, veins, nerves, brain and heart, and speedily brings paralysis or death, so does a debased or fluctuating currency permeate all arteries of trade, paralyze all kinds of business and brings disaster to all classes of people.”  This was Windom’s last pronouncement.  Seconds later he suffered a heart attack and died.  He was laid to rest in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, DC.

 

Some William Windom factoids:

  • Windom married Ellen Towne Hatch (1831-1914) of Massachusetts on August 20, 1876.  They had three children:  Son William Douglas (b. 1859, d. 1926) Daughter: Ellen Hatch (“Nellie”, b. 1866, d. 1941) and Florence Bronson.
  • The USS Windom, a Treasury Department revenue cutter named for William Windom, served in the US Navy and was later named Comanche.  Constructed at the Iowa Iron Works in Dubuque, the USS Windom served in Spanish-American War, then reverted to the Treasury.  Renamed the Comanche, the ship also served under Navy Department control during World War I.  Serving out her years with the Revenue service the ship was placed out of commission on July 31, 1930.  The story of the USS Windom is a saga in its own right.
  • The papers of William Windom are held by the Minnesota Historical Society which has compiled an extensive catalog of the collection.
  • The town of Windom, county seat of Cottonwood County, Minnesota, was platted in 1871 and incorporated in 1875.  The name of the town was proposed by General Judson W. Bishop of St. Paul, chief engineer for construction of the railway ,
  • The post office for the city of Harmony, Minnesota, was once named Windom, in honor of the Senator.
  • Windom Township, organized in 1858, was first called Brooklyn, then Canton, and renamed in 1862 to honor William Windom.
  • Minneapolis has not one but two neighborhoods named after the sometimes radical Republican reformer – Windom Community in Southwest Minneapolis  and Windom Park in beautiful Northeast.
  • And yes, actor William Windom is the great grandson of Senator William Windom for whom this neighborhood is named.

 

Further reading:

Fischer, Roger A.  “William Windom: Cartoon Centerfold 1881-91)  Minnesota History, Fall 1988.  (available online)

Salisbury, Robert S.  “Presidential Politics 1880: William Windom and the GOP”  Minnesota History, Fall 1985.  (available online)

Department of the Treasury’s history of the Treasury Secretaries – William Windom, 1861 and 1889-91

William Windom: AN Inventory of His Papers, prepared by CHaryl N. Thies and Kathryn M. Johnson, Minnesota Historical Society.

 

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