Star – Clipper Supplement
James Wilson is a representative working man. He was taken to Connecticut by his parents in 1851, where the family immigrated from Ayrshire, Scotland. It was during this year-1851-the writer first knew him.
He was then a bright, active boy of sixteen years. He worked for his uncle, West Wilson, through the summer and attended the district school in the winter. The family moved to Perry, Tama County, in 1856, having saved money during the four years stay in Connecticut sufficient to enter a half section of land, build and purchase some stock to commence farming with. He hired to Stephen Klingaman to run his saw mill, and sawed logs to build many of the early houses and fences of North Tama in the two succeeding years. He also worked on a farm for Elijah Guernsey, of Geneseo, during the summer of 1860. When the war began the subject of our sketch and his brother Peter had started farming on their own account. They had become of age-men of maturity, and recognized the claims of the government upon them for service.
They formed a co-partnership to exist during the war-a common arrangement among brothers at that time. One would enlist and the other would remain to look after home affairs. When the war would end an equal division was to be made. This arrangement was carried out. Peter, being the strongest, enlisted and sent home what he could spare out of pay-first as a private, then corporal, then sergeant. When Peter enlisted the two owned eighty acres of land between them. When they divided, a year after the war closed, there was a half section and all the cattle and horses and hogs it would maintain to divide. While Mr. Wilson was adding the three eighties and the horses, cattle and swine, he was attracting the attention of his townsmen, and one day in September, 1864, at the house of the writer, the plan was formed to make Mr. Wilson a member of the board of supervisors, and it was successful. He was elected in October, serving the term for 1865-6. The way having been opened for preferment the farmers of Tama County sent him to the legislature to obtain legislation to require people to take care of their stock so that poor men could farm without fences. Previous to this the policy had prevailed to fence the crops and let cattle run, as farms were few, little land under cultivation and pasture range extensive. When this order changed there was not native timber sufficient to fence the prairies, and barb wire had not been invented. It was much less expensive to fence the few cattle than all the prairies. Joseph Dysart was Senator, and the two Tama men working together secured the law that permitted counties at their option to fence cattle out or in. Mr. Wilson was placed on the railroad committee. The grants of land of 1856 to the Iowa railroads had lapsed to the government because they had not been earned. Congress then regranted them to the State to dispose of as to it seemed best. The peculiar position occupied by the transportation question at that time was that the railroads denied the right of the State to interfere at all with the freight and fare rates, citing the Darmouth College decision. The railroad committee, upon which Mr. Wilson was placed, was evidently constructed with care. It consisted of seventeen members. The first bill reported by the committee was in relation to the unearned lands which had been given to the Rock Island R. R. Co. Mr. Wilson suggested it would be the proper time to settle the question: whether or not the State could control freights and fares on railroads by reserving the right to regulate if the lands were a donation. Not one member at that time would agree to consider the proposition, so he brought it before the House in a minority report which may be found in the journal of that body of that year. The fight over the question was animated and earnest; the committee solid against the right to regulate except our member, but the House sustained him and passed the bill with the right reserved to the State to regulate freights and fares.
One after another of the railroads had their lands re-granted, but Mr. Wilson insisted that all should become subject to the State in regard to charges. It was the first legislative battle between corporations and the people that was won by the latter. Mr. Wilson was returned to the Thirteenth General Assembly and also the Fourteenth. At the opening of the Fourteenth he was unanimously elected speaker of the House, and while it had a very able Democratic minority and many critical questions had to be passed upon relating to the codifying of the laws and the Rankin episode, none of his decisions were ever appealed from. Mr. Wilson was elected to the Forty-third and Forty-fourth Congresses and took an active part in securing legislation to jetty the mouth of the Mississippi river that has resulted in materially reducing the cost of transportation of Iowa products eastward. The regulation of inter-State commerce was first attempted in the Forty-third Congress, and a bill passed by the House at that time which has not been improved by any proposition for that purpose since. Mr. Wilson saw with surprise when he first went to Congress that very few members understood the rules. He devoted much of his time during his first term in mastering the code by which business in the House was conducted and was soon recognized as an authority, and when Mr. Blane was elected to the Senate during Mr. Wilson's second term he was placed in Blane's place on the committee on rules, a distinction which he was frequently said was the greatest he ever had in his public life.
When the Hayes and Tilden fight between the parties had raged up to within a dangerously short period before the fourth of March, and a strong faction of Southern members under Proctor Knott purposed to defeat the electoral count laws by refering each State reported upon, and the ablest parliamentarians had failed to convince Speaker Randal that Knott was wrong. Wilson could not get the floor in his own right, but took it and before he could be rapped down had presented a point that the Speaker was compelled to hold well taken. Knott was beaten and Hayes counted in by virtue of the electoral laws and Nation chaos prevented. At the expiration of his term of service Mr. Wilson returned to his farm where his family had continued to reside.
He was appointed a member of the railway commission by Governor Sherman in 1882, and served eleven months in that capacity. Many important conclusions were reached during that time, and there has been general regret he did not continue at that post of usefulness and responsibility. The Republican convention that had met to nominate a candidate for Congress for the Fifth district in 1882, after balloting a long time for various gentlemen, tendered the nomination to Mr. Wilson. Had he consulted his own political ease and comfort he would not have accepted. He has explained to me-and it is in his line of policy-that he wanted to secure an act to protect the herds of the country from a cattle plague that few recognized as dangerous as he did and as a member of the railroad commission he saw that one-fifth of the traffic on railroads was State and four-fifths interstate. He was willing to give up the easy position of commissioner and serve the people where workers were needed. Mr. Wilson was elected and succeeded in getting a law to detect, quarantine and disinfect, which was as far as that Congress would go toward pleuro-pneumonia legislation. That law is all the protection we now have. Mr. Wilson rallied every Republican in the House but two to his support, and enough Democrats were secured to pass it. The Reagan Inter-State commerce bill also passed the House at that time, for which the subject of our sketch claims no essential credit. He preferred a different and better bill, but voted for Reagan's as the best he could get. Mr. Wilson's election to that Congress was a surprise to many. The same counties had given Rush Clark 600 majority four years previous. Two years later Major Thompson had been elected without much opposition. In the meantime the prohibition craze had alienated from the Republican party the Germans, Bohemians and many anti-prohibition voters of native and other nationalities. Wilson's majority was but twenty-three over Ben Frederick, which invited a contest. Frederick attacked the citizenship of men who voted for Wilson, who retaliated in kind. Mr. Wilson spent $4,000 in defending his seat, which he successfully did until the last hour of the session of the Forty-eighth Congress. A bill to place General Grant on the retired list of the army with full pay had been pending and was beaten in the House. The Senate passed a bill and sent it over to the House. Mr. Randall, of Pennsylvania, asked to have it considered, which was objected to. He then moved to suspend the rules and pass it by a two-thirds vote. The speaker ruled this out of order, pending consideration of the contested election case (Frederick against Wilson) that was then before the House. Frederick's friends proposed the passage of both the Grant bill and the seating of Frederick, but objection would prevent this agreement. The Republican members left the decision to Wilson. Some advised refusal, but more to consent. He had but an instant to decide. In that instant he thought of the severe struggle he had gone through to defend his seat, the expense, the loss of the battle and of all the documents for that session, of a resolution to be passed declaring he had not been elected and was not entitled to his seat, and to miss success so much desired. On the other hand he knew General Grant personally, knew he was dying of a terrible disease; dying in poverty, without provision for his wife and family; dying with the reflection that Congress had refused to honor him with what he had earned as a soldier. Mr. Wilson said to those who tried to dissuade him from consenting that if he did not consent the people of Iowa would never forgive him, and he could never forgive himself, and standing in his chair he told the House to put Gen. Grant on the retired list and sacrifice him, and partisans trampled the rights of a majority under foot at the eleventh hour, a power they had which could have been exercised at the second hour, but lacked the courage of men who know they are right. James Wilson enjoys the distinction of being the first farmer who ever went to Congress from Iowa if not from the West. He has attended to bills of legislation that affected working men. Since his retirement from Congress he has been living on his farm.
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