Biography of John H. Mitchell

JOHN H. MITCHELL. – Honorable John H. Mitchell, United States senator from the State of Oregon, was born in Washington county, Pennsylvania, to which locality his parents had removed when he was two years old. Bright and apt, and giving signs of marked intelligence, his parents determined that he should be given an opportunity to gratify his thirst for knowledge. So he was sent to the Witherspoon Institute, an establishment ranking high among the educational institutions of the State of Pennsylvania. Diligent in his studies, and ambitious to take advantage of the opportunities thus afforded him, young Mitchell became, as was to be expected, the leader of his class, and in due time graduated with high honors.

Choosing law as the profession to which he desired to devote himself, he entered the office of Honorable Samuel A. Purviance, then the leading attorney of that portion of Pennsylvania of which in those days Butler was the center. Mr. Purviance, who was subsequently attorney-general of the state, was at the time Mitchell entered his office a member of Congress, and was a man of national reputation. Under the instruction of Purviance, who took a great interest in his pupil, the young student made rapid progress in overcoming the intricate windings of the subtle law. To read law is one thing, to read and understand it another. Young Mitchell was not satisfied with the mere reading. His nature was such that he could not content himself with memorizing. He must comprehend his subject, – in other words, make it part of himself. This thoroughness which marked him as a student of the law has remained one of the strongest characteristics of the man, and has had much to do with his success in life. Admitted to the bar in 1856, he soon afterwards removed to the Pacific coast, – an inviting field for self-reliance, genius and ambition.

A remarkable set of men were those who laid the foundations of constitutional liberty on these far-off shores; and the commonwealths they created are the best monuments to their ability, energy and indomitable will. They were of a superior race, the flower of the youth of the older states, – men of caliber, will and expanding thought. And in this connection it may be well right here to call attention to a fact not generally recognized, that it was from among this body of men that came the leaders who successfully waged the battle for the Union. Grant passed his early manhood on the Pacific coast; and the lessons he there learned, and the persistency which was characteristic of the type of manhood of which we are speaking, he carried into the war. The same spirit which overcame the perils of the desert, and laughed at the obstacles of towering mountains, and reduced the savage to abject fear, conquered the Rebellion. Sherman was a banker in San Francisco, Phil Sheridan a lieutenant in Oregon, and Joe Hooker a civil engineer among the wilds of Rogue river in Oregon. Baker, the orator, soldier and statesman, was preaching the “doctrine of the new crusade” in the land of the Argonauts. Brave, generous men! A grateful country recognizes their worth, and does homage to the memory of those who have passed over to the majority. A man of small ideas and petty purposes could make no headway in a current of humanity like this. That Mitchell succeeded amid such surroundings is the best evidence as to the quality of his manhood.

His first conspicuous public appearance was at the formation of what was known as the Union party in Oregon. There was a sentiment on the Pacific coast at the outbreak of the war of the Rebellion in favor of the establishment of what was to be known as a Pacific coast republic. Lovers of the Union were aware that if this scheme were successful the fate of the nation was to be despaired of; and that this peril, though insignificant in comparison with others which then threatened its existence, would be sufficient to hasten and bring about the success of those who elsewhere were determined upon the destruction of the Union. It was at this juncture that Mitchell first came to the front as a political leader; and his voice and influence were on the side of the Union. The welding of the Union sentiment into a political organization stood as a menace to the schemes of those who were plotting the establishment of this Pacific republic; and in the face of this organized protest the plotters were compelled to abandon their proposed project. Thus was a great national calamity averted. As the representative of the Union party, Mitchell was in June, 1862, elected to the state senate of Oregon, and was chosen presiding officer of that body. Growing in popularity he soon became the recognized leader of his party, and in 1866 (although not a candidate in the meaning of that term) came within one vote of the caucus nomination for United States senator.

In October, 1872, he was elected to the United States Senate for the full term commencing March 4, 1873. He was assigned to the Committee on Privileges and Elections, then one of the most important committees of that body, and was also given a place on Railroads (of which he afterwards became chairman), Transportation Routes to the Seaboard, Claims and Commerce. During the struggle which followed the presidential campaign of 1876, Mr. Mitchell was the acting chairman of the Committee on Privileges and Elections, then composed of fifteen of the leading and most influential members of the Senate. Governor Morton, the chairman, was incapacitated from serving owing to his being a member of the Electoral Commission. The duties thus devolved upon him were onerous and grave, as much depended upon the course of that committee as to what would be the outcome of a contention that contained within its environments the horrid specter of another civil war. A mistake, no matter how trifling, would have precipitated upon the country a struggle, the result of which was beyond human ken, and the contemplation of which even at this distant day causes one to shudder. That Mitchell met the responsibilities imposed upon him with excellent judgment is evidenced by the result. The preparation of the Republican side of the case depended largely upon the results of the investigations that were being pursued by the Committee on Privileges and Elections; and so thoroughly were these investigations conducted that it was made manifest that truth and equity were on the side of the Republican contestants. Public sentiment acquiesced in the judgement of the committee; and the decision of the Electoral Commission, based in a large measure upon the labors of that committee, safely seated in the presidential chair. Mr. Mitchell prepared the report of the committee in the Oregon case, and was unanimously chosen by the Senate to orally argue the case before the Electoral Commission, which he did to the entire satisfaction of the Republicans of the Senate and the country.

The same indomitable energy that marked Mr. Mitchell’s conduct on this occasion is also typical of his efforts in behalf of the interests of his state. The Columbia river, a majestic stream, second only to the “Father of Waters,” and draining a country richer by far than the famous valley of the Nile, is obstructed at several places, particularly at The Dalles, where the immense volume of water rushes through a narrow gorge at lightning rapidity, and at the Cascades, where the waters tumble and dash over countless boulders of immense size, creating eddies and swift currents, so that navigation at those two points is impossible; and as a result portages have to be made and a trans-shipment rendered necessary. To overcome these obstacles and make the Columbia a free river (for it is apparent that those who control the portages also control, or, perhaps, what is a better and truer expression, own the river); has been the prayer of the people of Oregon for years. Various project to overcome these obstructions were from time to time presented and discussed, and finally laid aside, as such projects usually are unless backed by some earnest man. Among the first steps taken by Mr. Mitchell soon after his election to the Senate was to secure the aid of the national government in removing these obstructions. After countless difficulties he finally succeeded in obtaining an appropriation for the construction of a system of locks at the Cascades; and this work, though not progressing with the activity that its importance demands, but still with the same sort of activity that marks all enterprises under the supervision of the government, will be finished in a year or two. In the meantime he did not relax his efforts to get the government committed to some plan for overcoming the obstructions at The Dalles; and so persistent and energetic have his efforts been that, at the first session of the Fiftieth Congress, the Senate passed his bill for a boat railway, for the commencement of which five hundred thousand dollars are appropriated; and when this work is completed, and the last obstruction to the free navigation of the Columbia is thus removed, “a mighty river will go mingling with his name forever.”

At the close of his first term, the Democrats had succeeded in getting control of the legislature; and it is claimed that their success was brought about through the instrumentality of a company that controlled the navigation of the Columbia river, and was opposed, as a matter of course, to any effort to rend that stream from the grasp of a soulless and selfish monopoly. Be this as it may, the Democrats were successful. In 1882 the Republicans again being in majority in the legislature, Mr. Mitchell received the nomination for senator, two-thirds of the Republicans in the legislature voting for him in caucus. For forty days the legislature balloted without result, Mitchell during most of the time receiving within from two to four votes necessary to elect. This failure to elect was brought about by a bolt of a few malcontents, actuated by personal motives and aims. Seeing that his election was impossible, Mr. Mitchell threw his influence in favor of his former law partner, J.N. Dolph, who was elected in the closing hours of the session. In 1885 the legislature failed to elect. During this struggle Mr. Mitchell was not a candidate, and was absent from the state. At a called session Mr. Mitchell, though not a candidate, was elected by the votes of both Republicans and Democrats, receiving on the second ballot in joint convention the votes of three-fourths of all the Republicans, and one-half of all the Democrats in the legislature, it being almost universal wish of the people of the state that he be returned to the Senate. In the present Congress he is chairman of the Committee on Railroads, and is a member of the Committees on Transportation Routes to the Seaboard, Claims, Postoffice and Postroads, and Mines and Mining.

As a lawyer Mr. Mitchell is clear headed, and quick to appreciate and apprehend a point. His legal arguments are perspicacious and marked by thoroughness and research. In the debate in the Senate on the Interstate Commerce Bill he took a position as to the proper construction of that measure, which has been followed by the courts when called upon to construe the law; and the decisions of the Commission have been on a line with his argument, – an argument, too, which was at the time contravened by some who have the reputation of being able lawyers, but who in this instance appear to have misconceived the scope and purposes of the bill.

True to his friendships, Mr. Mitchell has the largest personal following of any political leader on the Pacific coast; and this following is by no means confined to Republicans. His admirers are to be found on the other side of the party wall, and are no less enthusiastic in their praises of him than those of his followers who are of the same political faith as he. The future has much in store for him; for it is hardly to be supposed that ability, energy and sincerity are to be overlooked. The country must ever rely upon its earnest men, – men of deep convictions, courage, sincerity and honesty of purpose; and such a man is John H. Mitchell.



History of the Pacific Northwest Oregon and Washington. 2 v. Portland, Oregon: North Pacific History Company. 1889.

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