Allen Thurman was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, to Mary Granberry Allen Thurman, a teacher, and Pleasant Thurman, a minister and teacher. In 1815 his parents freed their slaves and moved the family to Chillicothe, Ohio. Young Thurman attended his mother’s academy, and then read law primarily under the supervision of his uncle, William Allen. In 1835 he was admitted to the Ohio bar and became the law partner of his uncle, who soon entered the U.S. Senate. In 1844 Thurman married Mary Dun Thomplins; they had three children.
When Thurman was elected to Congress in 1844, he became the youngest member of the House of Representatives. As a Democrat, he held party positions on tariff, land, and expansion policies, and supported the Polk administration’s Mexican War. He sided with the Whigs, however, on the issue of internal improvements. His racial prejudice led him to favor the unsuccessful Wilmot Proviso, which would have banned slavery from any territory gained from Mexico, and to oppose the repeal of the Missouri Compromise prohibition on slavery north of 36' 30°. Like many of his constituents, he wanted to reserve the western territory for the settlement of whites. Thurman decided not to run for reelection, and returned to his private law practice. In 1851 he was appointed to the state supreme court and served for five years, one as chief justice, before returning to his law practice.
During the Civil War, Thurman criticized Lincoln administration policies, especially emancipation and violations of civil liberties. He supported the war effort, but encouraged political compromise and a peaceful settlement. In 1867, he ran for governor as an opponent of black manhood suffrage, but lost narrowly to Rutherford B. Hayes. The next year, however, the Democratic state legislature elected Thurman to the U.S. Senate, where he was a strong voice against the Reconstruction policies of the Republican Party. During the Electoral College crisis of 1876-1877, he helped forge the solution of creating a commission to resolve the controversy. On monetary policy, Thurman took a hard-money, anti-national bank position beginning in the antebellum period, but by the 1870s he opposed both the gold standard and the use of “greenbacks” (paper currency not backed by gold) to inflate the money supply.
Thurman was elected president pro tempore of the Senate before the Ohio legislature, now in Republican hands, replaced him with John Sherman in 1881. Ohio Democrats nominated him as a favorite-son candidate for president in 1876, 1880, and 1884. In 1888, Grover Cleveland chose the aging Thurman to be his vice-presidential running mate, hoping he would appeal to conservative Midwesterners. Thurman campaigned actively, but his obvious frailty (he collapsed twice on stage) and his vocal complaints about the physical ailments provoked negative publicity. While Cleveland’s popular percentage was higher than in 1884, the Democratic ticket lost in the Electoral College. Thurman died in Columbus, Ohio, on December 12, 1895.
Source consulted: American National Biography