Mr. Lincoln's War
The Civil War in the words of western New York soldiers and Citizens

Mr. Lincoln's War - - - printer-friendly version

 

Reuben Fenton

timeline of Reuben Fenton's life

When Abraham Lincoln was elected to the presidency on Nov. 6, 1860, Reuben E. Fenton had been a member of the House of Representatives for several years. The Congressman was first elected in 1852, and was the 31st Congressional District's representative for Chautauqua and Cattaraugus Counties.

Fenton's first act as a Congressman was to introduce a bill to grant relief to the surviving invalids of the Revolution and the War of 1812.1 His strong interest in the welfare of the American soldier would dominate his political career as the nation moved into the Civil War and then into Reconstruction. As a Free Soil Democrat Reuben Fenton, in opposition to his party, which advocated proslavery measures, made his first speech in Congress against the Kansas - Nebraska bill, which would extend slavery and repeal the Missouri Compromise. His defiance of his party's position on this subject cost him the election in 1854, when he lost by 1676 votes.

Mr. Fenton went on to become one of the founders of the Republican Party in New York State, organizing and presiding over the states first Republican Convention in 1855. His win in the election of 1856 by 8000 votes was tallied against the same opponent of 1854.2 He continued his Congressional career through 1864 when he was nominated for Governor against Democratic incumbent Horatio Seymour.

During Fenton's congressional career, he advocated: laws to facilitate furloughs and discharges for disabled soldiers, payment of bounties and arrears of pay due wounded and deceased soldiers, and simplifying the application form for pensions.3 Fenton also supported legislation to repeal the Fugitive Slave Law, regulate emigration, and bring about a cheap postal system.4

Though first being proposed as a Republican candidate for governor in 1862, Fenton declined the honor. He was again approached by the party in 1864, this time accepting the nomination. It was vital to Lincoln's presidency that the Republicans should win in New York. It would be an exciting campaign, as Democrat Horatio Seymour was vying for reelection.5 His reputation as a brilliant and magnetic speaker would make Fenton's task difficult. Fenton had made comparatively few speeches, and was not effusive or dramatic in the presentation. However, it was generally thought that those speeches he did present commanded attention and were effective in their purpose. Apparently so, for the Lincoln - Fenton ticket swept the state, with Fenton accumulating 1,544 votes more than Lincoln.6 The New York Tribune stated, "We believe this to be the only instance in which a Republican candidate for governor polled a heavier vote than that cast for our candidate for President in the same election."7

Governor Reuben E. Fenton's background in finance and political economy served him well as he began to guide New York through the rough spots brought on by the War.

Fenton's concern for the welfare of American soldiers was again in the forefront even as he raised the last quota of troops called for from New York. He did his best to help families locate their soldier sons, "franked" their letters with his signature so that they could send them without postage, and visited the wounded in hospitals. His many late night hospital vigils and ceaseless trips to the War and Navy Departments in order to facilitate needed paperwork was proof of his sincere concern. The New York Soldiers' Aid Society, in recognition of his services, elected him its president.8 Within a few months after the election, the War ended and disbanded regiments began coming home. In a formal proclamation on the occasion of the presentation of the regimental flags to the Governor, Fenton welcomed the men home by saying, "Soldiers, your state thanks you and gives you pledge of her lasting gratitude. You have elevated her dignity, brightened her renown, and enriched her history. The people will regard with jealous pride your welfare and honor, not forgetting the widow, the fatherless, and those who were dependent upon the fallen hero." 9

With the courage of his convictions, and the backing of the idealistic "Radical" Republicans, the South was not the only institution to begin Reconstruction.The New York State Republicans of 1865 began a legislative program of civil and industrial reform to address the postwar problems of urbanization and industrialization.10

After two terms as New York State Governor, Fenton lost the November 1868 election to John T. Hoffman, a Tammany-backed Democrat. In 1869, he was chosen to represent New York in the United States Senate, a position he held until March 3, 1875. His intimate knowledge of national affairs and remarkable ability for solving financial problems enabled him to serve his state with distinction. His speeches on taxation, the currency, the customs service, and the public debt attracted the attention of the ablest financiers.19

After retiring from the Senate, Reuben E. Fenton held no public office, but returned to his home in Jamestown. In 1878, he was appointed chairman of the US Commission of the International Monetary Conference, held in Paris, France. Their duty was to fix the rates of value between gold and silver, and provide for their common use.20

The final years of his life were spent as director, and then president of The First National Bank in Jamestown. He made the walk to and from his home each day, conversing with others along his way. Governor Fenton made himself available for speeches and public ceremonies and remained a vital part of the community.21 His death occurred in his office at the bank, on Aug.25, 1885

Hon. Chauncey DePew said this of Gov. Reuben E. Fenton: "The immense State and local indebtedness following the war, the wild speculations incident to an unstable currency, and the perilous condition of public and private credit he thoroughly understood, and with great sagacity and judgment devoted his powers to removing the dangers and preparing for the storm. He gave the State what it most needed after the drain and demoralization of the war, a wise business government."22

Beman Brockway, Fenton's private secretary, gave this description: "He was a singularly pure man. He has one of the cleanest records ever made by a man in public life twenty years. It is well-nigh faultless."23 I know he had a kind heart. He had a good word for everyone, and delighted in making all happy. It was an exceedingly difficult thing for him to say no when a favor was solicited. If pecuniary aid was asked it was not in his power to refuse. After the war closed, and our boys were returning home, in 1865, large numbers of them called on the Governor, and many were in destitute circumstances. Not one was ever sent empty away. For weeks there was hardly a day when there were not considerable amounts disbursed in this manner, and there was never any account made of it."24

Hon. Obed Edson, a Democratic office holder in Chautauqua Co. related: "Mr. Fenton was a fine specimen of superior mental and physical vigor. He was of poetic temperament and through his career in the most stormy of our political eras maintained a disposition mellow, refined and courteous. His manners were unassuming and cordial to a charming degree. Tall, and with an innate and wholly unabtrusive dignity, he was in appearance, as in character and services, an ideal American."25

Gilbert W. Hazeltine, M.D. reminisces as follows: "Fenton was impelled to the deep studies of finance, political economy, and science of government, not only that he might more understandingly and more thoroughly perform this duty to his constituents and to the country, but likewise from a love inherent in his nature for the work."26

Helen G. McMahon said this in summing up Fenton's achievements: "Governor Fenton came out of an investigation of widespread bribery and graft in the work of enlarging the Erie Canal without a word of criticism, although the investigation was made by men of the opposite party. In a period when the big corporations, especially the railroads, were spending money freely to influence legislation, Fenton was generally on the side of the people, and his administration stands up under examination as constructive and progressive."27


Works Cited:

1. Mohr, James C.,The Radical Republicans and Reform in New York During Reconstruction, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1973, p.9

2. Alexander, DeAlva Stanwood, A Political History of the State of New York, Port Washington, L.I. N.Y., Ira J. Friedman, Inc., 1909, 1969, Vol II p.242

3. Mohr, James C., The Radical Republicans and Reform in New York During Reconstruction, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1973, p.10

4. Edson, Hon. Obed, History of Chautauqua County, New York, Boston, Mass., W. A. Fergusson, 1894, p.454

5. Ibid., p.454

6. Alexander, DeAlva Stanwood, A Political History of the State of New York, Port Washington, L.I., N. Y., Ira J. Friedman, Inc., 1909, 1969, Vol. III, p.125

7. New York Tribune, January 18, 1869

8. DePew, Hon. Chauncey, Proceedings of the Senate and Assembly of the State of New York in relation to the death of Reuben E. Fenton, Albany, Weed, Parsons, & Co., 1887, p.27, 28

9. Edson, Hon. Obed, History of Chautauqua County, New York, Boston, Mass., W. A. Fergusson, 1894, p.455

10. Mohr, James C., The Radical Republicans and Reform in New York During Reconstruction, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1973, p.20

11. Ibid., p.28

12. Ibid., p.61, 62

13. Ibid., p. 110, 111

14. Ibid., p.146

15.McMahon, Helen G., Chautauqua County A History, Buffalo, Henry Stewart, Incorporated, 1959, p.155

16. Ibid., 155

17. Mohr, James C., The Radical Republicans and Reform in New York During Reconstruction, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1973, p.218

18. Brockway, Beman, Fifty Years in Journalism, Watertown, Daily Times Printing and Publishing House, 1891, p.302

19. Edson, Hon. Obed, History of Chautauqua County, New York, Boston, Mass., W. A. Fergusson, 1894, p.455

20. Ibid., p.456

21. McMahon, Helen G., Chautauqua County A History, Buffalo, Henry Stewart, Incorporated, 1959, p.155

22. Depew, Hon. Chauncey, Proceedings of the Senate and Assembly of the State of New York in relation to the death of Reuben E. Fenton, Albany, Weed, Parsons & Co., 1887, p.81

23. Brockway, Beman, Fifty Years in Journalism, Watertown, Daily Times Printing and Publishing House, 1891, p.300

24. Ibid., p.304

25. Edson, Hon. Obed, History of Chautauqua County, New York, Boston, Mass., W. A. Fergusson, 1894, p.457

26. Hazeltine, Gilbert W., The Early History of the Town Of Ellicott, Chautauqua County, New York, Fenton Genealogical Library, 1971, p.503

27. McMahon, Helen G., Chautauqua County A History, Buffalo, Henry Stewart, Incorporated, 1959, p.155