Name:  Phelps, William Walter

See a full text list of Biographies


Born:  August 24, 1839
Died:  June 17, 1894
Complete HarpWeek Biography:
William Walter Phelps was a congressman and diplomat from New Jersey. He was born in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, to Rachel Badgerly Phelps and John Jay Phelps, a prosperous merchant and major investor in New York City real estate. In 1860, young Phelps graduated from Yale University and married Ellen Maria Sheffield; they had three children. In 1863, he received a degree from Columbia Law School. Upon his father’s death in 1869, Phelps inherited a great deal of trust money and began managing his family’s extensive financial holdings.

In 1872, Phelps was elected as a Republican to Congress, but lost his bid for reelection in 1874 by seven votes. While in Congress, he developed a lifelong friendship with James Blaine, then speaker of the house. Phelps contracted typhoid fever in Washington, D.C., and his health would be poor for the rest of his life. In 1881, President James Garfield, another former Congressional colleague, agreed with Secretary of State Blaine to name Phelps as U.S. minister to Austria-Hungary. After brief service abroad, he returned in 1882 to win election to the first of three consecutive terms in the U.S. House (1883-1889). When Blaine finally received the Republican presidential nomination in 1884, Phelps became was one of his key advisors and most outspoken defenders.

In 1888, Phelps declined to seek another Congressional term, perhaps because of health problems. He was, however, nominated as New Jersey’s favorite-son presidential candidate at the Republican National Convention, receiving a token number of votes on the first two ballots. He urged Blaine to reconsider his earlier withdrawal from the race, but the former secretary of state was, instead, promoting Phelps for vice president on a ticket with former senator Benjamin Harrison of Indiana for president. Harrison did win on the eighth ballot, but the delegates selected Levi Morton of New York over Phelps for the second spot.

In 1889, President Harrison named Phelps to a diplomatic delegation charged with resolving the conflict between the United States, Great Britain, and Germany, over control of Samoa. The outcome was a shared-protectorate of the strategically-located islands. Harrison then appointed him as U.S. minister to Germany, after the president’s first choice declined. Returning to America in 1893, Phelps became an appellate judge in New Jersey. The next year, he died in his home from complications related to tuberculosis.

Sources consulted: American National Biography.











Website design © 2001-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
All Content © 1998-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to