Name:  James Mitchell Ashley

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Born:  November 14, 1824
Died:  September 16, 1896
Complete HarpWeek Biography:
James Ashley was born near Pittsburgh in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, to Mary Ann Kirkpatrick Ashley and John Clinton Ashley. He was raised in Portsmouth, Ohio, but often traveled with his father, an itinerant Cambellite preacher, throughout Ohio, Kentucky, and western Virginia. Such a life left no time for formal education, yet it introduced him to the institution of slavery, which he learned to despise. When he was fourteen, Ashley left home for Cincinnati to work as a steamship cabin boy. Three years later he started working for various newspapers, particularly the Scioto Valley Republican. In 1848 he became editor and part-owner of the Portsmouth (Ohio) Democrat. Meanwhile, he had been studying law and passed the Ohio bar in 1849. Two years later he married Emma Smith. Not only an adherent of the antislavery cause, Ashley participated in the Underground Railroad, helping slaves flee from Kentucky. When his role was discovered, he was compelled to leave Portsmouth for Toledo. He operated a general store there until 1858 when he sold it to focus on politics.

Ashley started in politics as a Democrat with an independent streak. He broke with the main forces in his party to support a faction of temperance Democrats in 1853 and to oppose the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. He reacted like many other Northerners during the collapse of the existing party system in the mid-1850s, swiftly migrating from the Anti-Nebraska movement to the American (Know Nothing) party to the new Republican party. In 1858 he narrowly won election to Congress as a Republican. His support of school desegregation and voting rights for women and blacks distinguished him from most politicians of the period.

In his second term Ashley opposed compromising with the seceding states and, with the onset of the Civil War, urged the confiscation of Confederate property and the emancipation of the slaves. He was instrumental in the drafting and passage of the law abolishing slavery in the federal capital. An early proponent of radical reconstruction, Ashley formulated such a plan in December 1861. It would have abolished slavery, established territorial governments in the seceded states, redistributed confiscated land to former slaves and Southern white Unionists, and granted black men the right to vote. When President Lincoln presented his "Ten Percent Plan," Ashley sought to add a provision for black voting rights, but it was defeated. Also in his second term, the congressman was accused of illegal land speculation and misuse of his office to secure jobs for relatives. A special congressional committee acquitted him in 1863.

It was Ashley who steered the Thirteenth Amendment-which abolished slavery forever in the entire United States-through the House of Representatives. He was a critic of President Andrew Johnson's Reconstruction policies, and introduced articles of impeachment against the president in January 1867. Ashley allowed his political disagreement to become personal and, in a fit of hyperbole, insinuated that Johnson was responsible for Lincoln's assassination. Ashley lost a reelection bid in 1868, but was appointed the next year by President Ulysses S. Grant to be governor of the Montana Territory. Perhaps because of private criticisms of the president, Grant did not reappoint him. In 1871 Ashley joined the Liberal Republican opponents of Grant and in 1872 supported maverick editor Horace Greeley for president.

Ashley purchased the Toledo and Ann Arbor Railroad in 1877 (which he expanded into the Toledo, Ann Arbor and Northern Michigan Railroad), but was forced to sell it during the financial panic of 1893. He was an unsuccessful candidate for Congress in 1890 and 1892.

Source consulted: American National Biography.











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