Schuyler Colfax

Schuyler Colfax
17th Vice President of the United States
In office
March 4, 1869  March 4, 1873
President Ulysses S. Grant
Preceded by Andrew Johnson
Succeeded by Henry Wilson
25th Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives
In office
December 7, 1863  March 3, 1869
President Abraham Lincoln
Andrew Johnson
Preceded by Galusha A. Grow
Succeeded by Theodore M. Pomeroy
Member of U.S. House of Representatives
from Indiana's 9th district
In office
March 4, 1855  March 3, 1869
Preceded by Norman Eddy
Succeeded by John P. C. Shanks
Personal details
Born Schuyler Colfax Jr.
March 23, 1823 (1823-03-23)
New York City, New York
Died January 13, 1885 (1885-01-14) (aged 61)
Mankato, Minnesota
Political party Republican (After 1855)
Other political
Whig (before 1854)
Indiana People's Party (1854)
Spouse(s) Evelyn Clark Colfax
Ellen Maria Wade Colfax
Children Schuyler Colfax III

Schuyler Colfax Jr. (/ˈsklər ˈklfæks/; March 23, 1823 – January 13, 1885) was a journalist, businessman, and politician from Indiana. He served as a United States Representative (1855–69), Speaker of the House of Representatives (1863–69), and the 17th Vice President of the United States (1869–73). To date, he is one of only two Americans (John Nance Garner is the other) to have served as both House speaker and vice president.

Colfax was known for his opposition to slavery while serving in Congress, and was a founder of the Republican Party. In January 1865, as Speaker of the House, Colfax made the unusual choice to cast a vote for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. (Speakers can vote on House motions but, by convention, rarely do so.) After winning the presidential election of 1868, Ulysses S. Grant and Colfax, at ages 46 and 45, were the youngest Presidential ticket elected in the 19th Century. Believing Grant would only serve one term, in 1870 Colfax attempted unsuccessfully to garner support for the 1872 presidential nomination by telling friends and supporters he would not seek a second vice-presidential term. Grant ran again, and Colfax reversed himself and attempted to win the vice presidential nomination, but was defeated by Henry Wilson. In January 1871, Colfax encouraged a unified Italy to adopt a republican government that protected religious freedom and civil rights of its citizens.

An 1873 Congressional investigation into the Crédit Mobilier scandal named Colfax as one of the members of Congress (mostly Republicans), who likely received payments of cash and discounted stock from the Union Pacific Railroad in exchange for favorable action during the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad. Colfax left the vice presidency at the end of his term in 1873 and never again ran for office. Afterwards he worked as a business executive and became a popular lecturer and speech maker.

Colfax died in Mankato, Minnesota on January 13, 1885 while changing trains as he was en route to Rock Rapids, Iowa to give a speech.[1]

Early life

Further information: Schuyler-Colfax House
Schuyler Colfax's grandfather William

Schuyler Colfax was born on March 23, 1823, in New York City to Schuyler Colfax Sr. (born August 3, 1792), a bank teller, and Hannah Delameter Stryker, who had married on April 25, 1820.[2] His grandfather, William Colfax, served in George Washington's Life Guard during the American Revolution, became a general in the New Jersey militia and married Hester Schuyler, a cousin of General Philip Schuyler.[2][3] William was commander at Sandy Hook during the War of 1812.

Ancestral home of Schuyler Colfax's grandparents William and Hester. Originally built in 1695.

Colfax's father contracted tuberculosis and died on October 30, 1822, five months before Colfax was born. His sister Mary died in July 1823, 4 months after he was born. His mother later remarried, becoming the wife of George W. Mathews.[2] Colfax's mother and grandmother ran a boarding house as their primary means of economic support. Colfax attended private schools in New York City until he was 10, when family financial difficulties ended his formal education and caused him to take a job as a clerk in the store owned by his stepfather.[2][4]

In 1836 Colfax's family moved to New Carlisle, Indiana. In 1841 Mathews was elected St. Joseph County Auditor, and he appointed Colfax as his deputy, a post which Colfax held for all eight years Mathews served as auditor.[2]

Newspaper editor

Colfax became interested in journalism and covered the Indiana Senate for the Indiana State Journal.[2] In 1845 Colfax purchased the newspaper and changed its name to the St. Joseph Valley Register.

In addition to covering the Indiana Senate, Colfax contributed articles on Indiana politics to the New York Tribune, leading to a friendship with its editor, Horace Greeley. At 19 Colfax became the editor of the pro-Whig South Bend Free Press. He owned the Register for nine years, at first in support of the Whigs, then shifting to the Republican Party after its founding in the 1850s.[5]

Marriages and family

Ellen M. Wade, wife of Schuyler Colfax

On October 10, 1844 Colfax married childhood friend Evelyn Clark. She died childless in 1863. On November 18, 1868, two weeks after he was elected vice president, Colfax married Ellen (Ella) M. Wade (1836-1911), a niece of Senator Benjamin Wade. They had one son, Schuyler Colfax III (1870-1929), who served as mayor of South Bend, Indiana from 1898 to 1901.[6]

Whig Party delegate

Colfax was a delegate to the 1848 Whig National Convention. He was also a delegate to the state constitutional convention of 1849-50. Colfax was the 1852 Whig nominee for Congress in the district which included South Bend, but narrowly lost to his Democratic opponent.

Beta Theta Pi

In 1854 Colfax was initiated into the Beta Theta Pi fraternity at DePauw University, an achievement remarkable for the fact that he had not attended college.[7]

U.S. Congressman (1855–69)

In 1854 Colfax ran for Congress again; the Whig Party was on the verge of collapse, and Colfax won election as a candidate of the short-lived Indiana People's Party, an anti-slavery movement which formed to oppose the Kansas–Nebraska Act. Colfax served seven terms, March 4, 1855, to March 3, 1869. He was chairman of the House Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads from 1859 to 1863. From 1863 to 1869 he served as Speaker of the House.

Know Nothing party affiliation

In 1855 Colfax considered joining the Know Nothing Party because of the antislavery plank in its platform. He was selected without his knowledge to be a delegate to the party's June convention, but had mixed feelings about the party and subsequently denied having been a member. Although he agreed with many Know Nothing policies, he disapproved of its secrecy oath and citizenship test. By this time of his 1856 campaign for reelection the Republican Party had formed as the main anti-slavery party, and Colfax became an early member.[8]

Opposed slavery

Colfax was identified with the Radical Republicans in Congress, and was an energetic opponent of slavery. His speech attacking the pro-slavery Lecompton Legislature in Kansas was printed in pamphlet form, and became the most widely requested Republican campaign document in the 1858 mid-term elections.

Civil War

Visited General Frémont in St. Louis

John C. Frémont

At the start of the American Civil War Major General John C. Frémont commanded Union Army forces in St. Louis, Missouri, appointed by President Abraham Lincoln.[9] On September 14, 1861 Colfax visited Frémont and petitioned him to send troops to capture Confederate General Sterling Price's forces in Kentucky. Following Price's victory of the Battle of Wilson's Creek, Price's Confederate troops under Leonidas Polk occupied Columbus, Kentucky on September 3, 1861. Colfax believed Frémont had 20,000 troops under his command in St. Louis. Frémont informed Colfax that he only had 8,000 troops in St. Louis and was unable to spare any.[9] In addition Frémont told Colfax that Lincoln and federal authorities in Washington had requested him to dispatch 5,000 of his troops elsewhere. Colfax suggested that Frémont reply that he could not spare any troops or Missouri would be lost to the Confederacy. Frémont declined, recognizing that he had a reputation for being insubordinate, and not wanting to appear unwilling to follow the instructions of his superiors in the Lincoln administration.[9] Frémont had earlier angered President Lincoln over his controversial August 30 edict that put Missouri under martial law and emancipated rebel slaves outside of the Confiscation Act.

Elected Speaker of the House

In 1862, following Galusha A. Grow's defeat for reelection to his House seat, Colfax succeeded Grow as Speaker of the House.[10]

Announced passage of Thirteeth Amendment

On January 31, 1865 Colfax announced the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Though it is unusual for a Speaker to vote, he directed the clerk to call his name after the roll call had been taken. He then cast the final vote in favor of the amendment, which abolished slavery throughout the United States and territories, to much applause from its supporters in the House.[11]


Western travels

In 1865, Colfax, along with author Samuel Bowles and Lieutenant Governor of Illinois William Bross, set out across the western territories from Mississippi to the California coast to record their experiences. They compiled their observations in an 1869 book called Our New West. Included in their book were details of the views of Los Angeles, with its wide panorama of vast citrus groves and orchards, and conversations with Brigham Young.

Addressed the political situation

On Tuesday September 17, 1867 Colfax addressed a Republican meeting in Lebanon, New York on the political situation in Washington.[12] Colfax said he was firmly against those who participated in the Confederate rebellion to be reinstated in office and control Republican Reconstruction policy. Colfax affirmed that he was not in any way for repudiating the debt caused by the Confederate rebellion.[12] Colfax said Congressional reconstruction would give security and peace to the nation as opposed to President Johnson and his southern Democratic policies. Colfax favored Johnson's impeachment saying Johnson was recreant, an upsurper, and was unfaithful in executing the Reconstruction laws of the land in granting a general amnesty to all Southerners who participated in the Civil War. Colfax told Republicans who were tired of Reconstruction to leave the party and join the Democrats.[12]

Election of 1868

Grant Colfax 1868 Campaign Poster

During the 1868 Republican Convention the Republicans nominated Ulysses S. Grant for president.[10] Colfax was selected for vice president on the fifth ballot.[13] Colfax was popular among Republicans, known for his friendly character, party loyalty, and his Radical views on Southern Reconstruction.[13] Among Republicans he was known as "Smiler Colfax".[13] Grant won the general election and Colfax was elected the 17th Vice President of the United States.[10][13]

Vice President (18691873)

Vice President Schuyler Colfax

Colfax was inaugurated March 4, 1869, and served until March 4, 1873. Grant and Colfax, 46 and 45 respectively at the time of their inauguration, were the youngest presidential and vice presidential team until the inauguration of Bill Clinton and Al Gore in 1993.[14]

Italian unity

On Friday January 6, 1872, from Washington D.C., in a letter published in the New York Times, Colfax recognized and rejoiced in King Victor Emmanuel II's victory of unifying Italy and setting up a new government in Rome. Colfax encouraged Italy to form a Republican government that protected religious freedom, regardless of faith, and the civil rights of all individuals, including those who lived in poverty. Colfax said, "for out of this new life of civil and religious liberty will flow peace and happiness, progress and prosperity, with material and national development, and advancement as surely as healthy springs flow from fountains of purity."[15]

Election of 1872

Prior to the 1872 Presidential Election, Colfax believed that Grant would only serve one term as President.[13] In 1870 Colfax announced he would not run for political office in 1872.[13] Colfax's announcement failed to garner prominent support among Republicans for a presidential bid, as he had planned, while Grant decided to run for a second term.[13] In addition, Liberal Republican interest in Colfax as a possible presidential candidate alienated him from Grant and the regular Republicans. (The Liberal Republicans believed that the Grant administration was corrupt and were against Grant's attempted annexation of Santo Domingo.)[13] Colfax reversed course and became a candidate for the Republican vice presidential nomination by informing his supporters that he would accept it if it was offered.[13] However, Colfax's previously stated intent not to run in 1872 had created the possibility of a contested nomination, and Senator Henry Wilson defeated Colfax by 399.5 delegate votes to 321.5.[13] Grant went on to win election to a second term, and Wilson became the 18th Vice-President of the United States.[13]

Crédit Mobilier scandal (18721873)

In September 1872, during the presidential campaign, Colfax's reputation was marred by a New York Sun article which indicated that he was involved in the Crédit Mobilier scandal. Colfax was one of several Representatives and Senators (mostly Republicans), who were offered (and possibly took) bribes of cash and discounted shares in the Union Pacific Railroad's Crédit Mobilier subsidiary in 1868 from Congressman Oakes Ames for votes favorable to the Union Pacific during the building of the First Transcontinental Railroad. Henry Wilson was among those accused, but after initially denying a connection, he provided a complicated explanation to a Senate investigating committee, which involved his wife having purchased shares with her own money, and then later canceling the transaction over concerns about its propriety. Wilson's reputation for integrity was somewhat dampened, but not enough to prevent him from becoming vice president.

Colfax also initially denied involvement to the press, but a Congressional investigation in January 1873 revealed that in 1868 Colfax had taken a $1,200 gift check for 20 shares of Crédit Mobilier stock from Ames. Throughout the investigation and after leaving office Colfax denied having taken Ames' $1,200 check.[2] At the end of the investigation in February 1873, Colfax was not censured or forced to resign, mainly because the incident took place during his tenure as Congressman, and because he was scheduled to leave office the following month.[16]

In addition to Colfax's involvement in the Crédit Mobilier scandal, the investigation revealed the more damaging accusation that Colfax had received a $4,000 gift also in 1868 from a contractor who supplied envelopes to the federal government while Colfax was chairman of the Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads, and so had influence in the awarding of such contracts.[16]

His political career ruined, Colfax left office under a cloud at the end of his term in March, and never ran for office again.[10][17][16]

Lecturer and business executive

Colfax, five days out of office, was castigated in a political cartoon for his involvement in the Crédit Mobilier scandal. Uncle Sam shown encouraging Colfax to commit Hari-Kari. Keppler March 8, 1873

Even after leaving office in 1873, Colfax's reputation remained damaged as he continued to defend himself against charges of corruption in the Crédit Mobilier scandal and from the Congressional investigation that followed. On March 8, 1873 Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper published a political cartoon by Joseph Keppler that depicted Uncle Sam advocating Colfax commit Hari-Kari.[18]

Colfax began to recover his reputation after embarking on a successful career as a traveling lecturer offering speeches on a variety of topics. His most requested presentation was one on the life of Abraham Lincoln, whom the nation had begun to turn into an icon. With an expanding population that desired to know more details and context about Lincoln's life and career, an oration from someone who had known him personally was an attraction audiences were willing to pay to hear, and Colfax delivered his Lincoln lecture hundreds of times to positive reviews.

In 1875 he became vice president of the Indiana Reaper and Iron Company.[19] On February 12, 1875 having returned to Washington D.C. to give a lecture he advised his friends in Congress who were frustrated over the slow pace of action "Ah! the way to get out of politics is to get out of politics."[19]

Declined to run for office (1882)

On April 3, 1882 Colfax announced in a letter to the South Bend Tribune that he declined to run for office again. Colfax said he appreciated that his friends had wanted him to become a candidate for his old US House seat or another position,[20] but that he was satisfied by the 20 years of service he had given during the "stormiest years of our Nation's history."[20] He also said that he was enjoying his life as a private citizen. Colfax said he would not accept any nomination even if tendered without his having campaigned, and that his "only ambition now is to go in and out among my townsmen as a private citizen during what years of life may remain for me to enjoy on this earth."[20]

Death and burial

Gravesite of former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and Vice President under Ulysses S. Grant, Schuyler Colfax Jr. His grave is located in the South Bend City Cemetery in South Bend, Indiana, and is open to public viewing.

On January 13, 1885, Colfax walked about three-quarters of a mile (1 kilometer) in −30 °F (−34 °C) weather from the Front Street depot to the Omaha depot in Mankato, Minnesota, intending to change trains on his way to Rock Rapids, Iowa to give a speech.[21] Five minutes after arriving at the depot, Colfax died of a heart attack brought on by the extreme cold and exhaustion.[22]

He was buried in the City Cemetery at South Bend, Indiana.[23] A historical marker in Mankato in Washington Park, site of the former depot, marks the spot where he died.

Historical reputation

Colfax's 20 years of public service ended in controversy in 1873 due to the revelation that he was involved in the Crédit Mobilier scandal. He never returned to seek political office in part because he believed that it was best to stay out of politics once leaving office, and in part because he was content with his life as a private citizen. Because of his success as a lecturer, his reputation was somewhat restored. He had remained popular in his home area, and was often encouraged to run for office, including attempts to nominate him for his old U.S. House seat, but he always declined.[20]

Towns in the U.S. states of California, North Carolina, Illinois, Washington, Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa, and Louisiana are named after him. Schuyler, Nebraska, named after Colfax, is the county seat of Colfax County, Nebraska. The ghost town of Colfax, Colorado, was named after him, as was Colfax County, New Mexico. Colfax, California boasts a bronze statue of Colfax, at the Amtrak station.

The main east-west street traversing Aurora, Denver and Lakewood, Colorado, and abutting the Colorado State Capitol is named Colfax Avenue in the politician's honor. There is another Colfax Avenue in South Bend, Indiana (a few miles east of his New Carlisle home and adjacent to his burial site); Colfax Place in the Highland Square neighborhood in Akron, Ohio, in Grant City in New York's Staten Island; in Minneapolis, Minnesota; in Roselle Park, New Jersey; and a Colfax Street on Chicago's South Side. There is a Colfax Street leading up Mt. Colfax in Springdale, Pennsylvania, in Palatine, Illinois, in Evanston, Illinois, and Jamestown, New York. Dallas, Texas and one of its suburbs, Richardson, each have separate residential roads named Colfax Drive. There is also a Colfax Avenue in Concord, California as well as in Benton Harbor, Michigan, where the school fight song contains the phrase "of that Colfax school" because the high school is located on the street.

There is a Colfax Elementary School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Elementary School and High School in Colfax, California also bear his last name. The Schuyler-Colfax House, built by Colfax's antecedents,[24] can be found in Wayne, NJ. Also in Wayne is a middle school bearing the same name. Members of his family reside in northern New Jersey, but no longer own the Colfax museum. They are currently trying to purchase the museum and all of its contents.

Media portrayals

Actor Bill Raymond portrayed Colfax during his time as Speaker in the 2012 Steven Spielberg film Lincoln.

Odd Fellows: founder of Rebekah Degree

As a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Colfax, along with members William T. Martin of Mississippi and E. G. Steel of Tennessee, were appointed to prepare a Ritual of ceremonies pertaining to the Rebekah Degree and report at the 1851 session.[25] On September 20, 1851, the IOOF approved the degree and Colfax was considered the author and founder.[26][27]


See also


  1. "Schuyler Colfax Drops Dead at Mankato". Worthington Advance. Worthington, MN. January 15, 1885. p. 4. (subscription required (help)).
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 BDOA_CS_1906.
  3. William Nelson (1876). Biographical Sketch of William Colfax, Captain of Washington's Body Guard.
  4. Hollister, Ovando James (1886). Life of Schuyler Colfax. New York: Funk & Wagnalls. pp. 14–19. OCLC 697981267.
  5. Trefousse, Hans (1991). Historical Dictionary of Reconstruction. New York: Greenwood Press. pp. 47–48. ISBN 0313258627. OCLC 23253205.
  7. William Raimond Baird (1906). Hand-book of Beta Theta Pi. New York, NY. p. 297.
  8. Brand, Carl Fremont (1916). The History of the Know Nothing Party in Indiana. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University. p. 74, note 39.
  9. 1 2 3 Abbot 1864, p. 282,283.
  10. 1 2 3 4 Bain, David Haward (2004). The Old Iron Road: An Epic of Rails, Roads, and the Urge to Go West. New York City, New York: Penguin Books. pp. 65–6. ISBN 0-14-303526-6.
  11. Rives, F. & J. (January 31, 1865). "Proceedings, January 31, 1865". Congressional Globe. Washington, DC. p. 531.>
  12. 1 2 3 New York Times (September 20, 1867), Hon. Schuyler Colfax on the Political Situation, PDF.
  13. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Joseph E. Delgatto, Indiana Journal Hall of Fame, Schuyler Colfax 1966
  14. Ifill, Gwen (July 10, 1992). "THE 1992 CAMPAIGN: Democrats; CLINTON SELECTS SENATOR GORE OF TENNESSEE AS RUNNING MATE". The New York Times. Retrieved May 23, 2010.
  15. NYT 01-10-1871.
  16. 1 2 3 MacDonald 1930, p. 298.
  17. Brinkley, Alan (2008). The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People (5th ed.). New York City, New York: McGraw-Hill. p. 409. ISBN 978-0-07-330702-2.
  18. Joseph Keppler (March 8, 1873), Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, page 420
  19. 1 2 New York Times (February 14, 1875), A Visit From Schuyler Colfax
  20. 1 2 3 4 NYT 04-07-1882.
  21. Hollister, 1886.
  22. "Schuyler Colfax Dead", The New York Times, January 14, 1885, p. 1.
  23. Political Graveyard
  24. "Historic House Museums, Structures and Sites". Wayne Township Parks and Recreation Department. Town of Wayne, NJ. Retrieved May 28, 2016.
  25. Humphrey, Jimmy C., editor (January 1, 2015). "How Time has Changed... The Degree of Rebekah" (PDF). I.O.O.F. News. Winston-Salem, NC. p. 13.
  26. "Our Rebekah History". Official website. Rebekah Assembly of Idaho. Retrieved 11 April 2010.
  27. "The International Association of Rebekah Assemblies". Rebekahs In the San Francisco/San Jose Bay Area – website. Retrieved 11 April 2010.


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External links

Political offices
Preceded by
Andrew Johnson
Vice President of the United States
March 4, 1869 – March 4, 1873
Succeeded by
Henry Wilson
Preceded by
Galusha A. Grow
Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives
December 7, 1863 – March 3, 1869
Succeeded by
Theodore Medad Pomeroy
United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Norman Eddy
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Indiana's 9th congressional district

March 4, 1855 – March 3, 1869
Succeeded by
John P. C. Shanks
Party political offices
Preceded by
Andrew Johnson(1)
Republican nominee for
Vice President of the United States

Succeeded by
Henry Wilson
Notes and references
1. Lincoln and Johnson ran on the National Union ticket in 1864.
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