Biography of John H. Mitchell

For a quarter of a century the subject of this sketch has been one of the most prominent figures in the political history of Oregon. Becoming a citizen of the State soon after it was invested with the sovereign dignity of statehood, he at once became an active man in the political arena, and so rapid was the growth of his influence that within six years he had served a term with distinguished credit in the State Senate, and was the choice of a large body of his party associates for the highest office the State had to bestow. This distinction, that his friends thus early in his career desired to confer upon him, was deferred but a few years later, when he was elected to the position of United States Senator, and is now serving a second term. His career in the highest Legislative body in the United States has been an active one and covers a period the most prolific in grand results in the history of the Pacific Northwest.

He was born in Washington County, Pennsylvania, on the 22d day of June, 1835. During his infancy his parents moved to Butler County, Pennsylvania, where he was reared on a farm and acquired the rudiments of an English education at the district school. At the age of seventeen years he began teaching in a country school and after spending several winters in this way he realized sufficient money to pay his tuition at Butler Academy, in Butler County, and subsequently at Witherspoon Institute. After completing the full course at both of these institutions he commenced the study of law in the office of Hon. Samuel A. Purviance, formerly member of Congress from that district, and later Attorney-General of the State under Governor Curtain. After two years study he was admitted to the Bar in Butler County, by Hon. Daniel Agnew-lately Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the State of Pennsylvania, and then presiding Judge of that district-in the spring of 1857. He then began the practice of his profession at Butler, in partnership with Hon. John M. Thompson-since a member of the National House of Representative from that district and was thus engaged until April, 1860, when he came to California. For a short time thereafter he practiced law at San Luis Obispo, and later for a brief time in San Francisco. The fame of Oregon, as a young and growing commonwealth, had, in the meantime attracted his attention, and he determined to link his fortunes with the new State. With this end in view he arrived in Portland, July 4, 1860, where he has ever since resided.

With, that same energy which has been so conspicuous in his career, he not only at once turned his attention to building up a legal practice, but took an active part in local politics. So quickly did he make his influence felt that in 1861, he was elected corporation counsel of Portland. The succeeding year he was nominated and elected by the Republican party to the Oregon State Senate, in which body he served four years. During the first two years of his term he was Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and the last two years he held the position of President of the Senate. At the close of his Senatorial term he received every mark of approval from his immediate constituents, and in 1866, strenuous efforts were made by his political friends to secure him a seat in the United States Senate. They only failed to elevate him to this exalted position through the lack of one vote in the caucus, his competitor for the nomination being Governor Gibbs, who received twenty-one votes and Mr. Mitchell twenty. In 1865, he was commissioned Lieutenant Colonel of the State militia by Governor Gibbs, and two years later was chosen Professor of Medical Jurisprudence in Willamette University at Salem, Oregon, and served in that position for nearly four years. During all of this time he was engaged in the active practice of his profession in Portland. In October, 1862, he formed a law partnership with Hon. J. N. Dolph, now his colleague in the United States Senate, which continued until January, 1873, when he resigned all other engagements to enter upon his duties as United States Senator. During this period he had acquired a reputation as a lawyer second to none in Oregon, and was constantly employed in important litigation. For several years he was the attorney of the Oregon and California Railroad Company and the North Pacific Steamship Transportation Company, while his practice extended to all the Courts, Federal, State and Territorial of Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

In September, 1872, Mr. Mitchell was nominated, in caucus, by the Republican members of the State Legislature for United States Senator, receiving the votes of over two-thirds of all the republicans in the Legislature on the first ballot. On September 28, 1872, he was elected by the Legislature in joint session as United States Senator for the term of six years commencing March 4, 1873. In this body he soon took a prominent position. He was assigned to duty on the following committees: Privileges and Election, Commerce, Claims, Transportation Routes to the Seaboard, and Railroads. At the end of two years he was made chairman of the Committee on Railroads and served as such until the end of his term. When the Electoral Commission was organized, Senator Oliver P. Morton was chairman of the Senate Committee on Privileges and Election, but having been chosen a member of the Electoral Commission, Senator Mitchell was made acting chairman of the Committee on Privileges and Election, which committee, for the purpose of taking charge of the great controversy involved in the presidential contest of 1876, in the States of Oregon, Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida, was then increased from nine, the ordinary number, to fifteen Senators. As acting chairman, Senator Mitchell presided over the committee during all the investigations which followed and which at the time attracted so much interest all over the country. He was also selected by the unanimous vote of the republicans in the senate as the senator to appear before the Electoral Commission and argue the Oregon case. This duty he performed and in a long speech ably presented the legal questions involved, and to the perfect satisfaction of his party friends defended the position taken by the republicans of Oregon. During his first term he was on several occasions selected by the republican majority as chairman of sub committees to visit South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida for the purposes of investigating contested elections.

In April, 1873, Senator Mitchell, and Senator Casserly, of Caliifornia, were appointed a sub-committee of the committee on Transportation Routes to the Sea-boards, to visit the Pacific coast and investigate and report upon the best means of opening the Columbia River to free navigation. It was in this position that he had opportunity to do a great service for Oregon. Soon after his appointment on the committee, Senator Casserly resigned his seat in the Senate, and Senator Mitchell was authorized to proceed alone. He thereupon, (luring the summer of 1873, made a most careful investigation as to improvements necessary to increase the navigation facilities of the Columbia River, and at the next session of Congress submitted an elaborate report to the committee on Transportation Routes-Senator Windom, of Minnesota being chairman-in which he recommended, among other things, large appropriations for the mouth of the Columbia River, and also an appropriation for a survey at the Cascades, with the view of ascertaining the cost and advisability of constructing canal and locks. This report, as written by Senator Mitchell, was incorporated into the report of the committee without alteration, and submitted to the Senate, and based on this report, Congress at its next session, made an appropriation for a survey for canal and locks at the Cascades, which paved the way for their subsequent construction.

At the expiration of his senatorial term, March 4, 1879, the legislature of Oregon was democratic, and Hon. James H. Slater, a democrat, was elected as his successor, whereupon Mr. Mitchell resumed the practice of his profession at Portland. In the fall of 1882, he was urged by party friends to again submit his name as a candidate for United States Senator, the legislature at that time being republican. After much hesitation he consented to do so, and in the legislative caucus received on the first ballot the votes of two-thirds of all the republicans in the legislature, and ‘thus became the nominee of the party again for United States Senator. A bolt, however, was organized and he was not elected. The contest, however, was continued from day to day, until the last day and the last hour of the forty days’ session. During the most of this time he was within a few votes of an election. It required forty-six votes to elect, and during the session he received the votes of forty-five different members. Finding an election impossible, although urged by his supporters to continue in the fight to the end, and, if not elected himself, thus prevent the election of ally one else, he withdrew from the contest during the last hours of the session, and all of his supporters, except one, who had so earnestly stood by him during forty days, gave their votes for Hon. J. N. Dolph, who was elected. Throughout this long contest, without parallel in the political history of the State, for the bitter personal character of the fight, Senator Mitchell apparently lost none of his personal popularity, and after the adjournment of the legislature upon his return from Salem to Portland, was tendered a reception which in warmth and cordiality partook more of an ovation to a successful than to a defeated candidate.

After his defeat Mr. Mitchell resumed the practice of his profession, and although earnestly urged by party friends again to permit the use of his name as a candidate for the United States Senate, at the regular session of the Legislature, in January, 1885, he peremptorily declined to do so. The Legislature, however, after balloting through the whole session adjourned without making an election. The Governor of the State thereupon called a special session of the Legislature to meet in November, 1885. Senator Mitchell at that time was in Portland, and although not personally desirous to be a candidate, and steadily refusing to permit the use of his name until within three or four days before the election, he was on the 19th of November again elected to the United States Senate, receiving on the second ballot in joint convention the votes of three-fourths of all the Republicans and one half of all the Democrats of the Legislature, having on this ballot a majority of twenty-one votes. He was at this time elected to succeed Hon. James H. Slater, and took his seat December 17, 1885, when he was assigned to duty on the following committees: Railroads, Transportation Routes to the Sea-boards, Claims, Mines and Mining, Post-offices and Post-roads, and special committee to superintend the construction of a national library. After a year’s service he was made chairman of the committee on Transportation Routes to the Sea-boards, and in March, 1889, was made chairman of the committee on Railroads. He is still representing Oregon at the National Capital, his term of service in the Senate not expiring until March 3, 1891.

Mr. Mitchell is a man of remarkable energy and untiring industry, and throughout his public career has been distinguished for keen discrimination and quick grasp of great and intricate questions. Without intending to make comparison with the able senators who have represented Oregon, at Washington, it is not too much to say that none have more fully met all the demands made upon their time and energies than Senator Mitchell. The request of the humblest of his constituents has always received at his hands his careful, considerate personal attention, while no labor or sacrifice however great, has for a moment deterred him from undertaking whatever was in his power to do for the best interests of the State. He is well equipped by nature, training and experience for high public station. He is a successful lawyer of acknowledged ability in every branch of a most difficult profession; is a forcible speaker, and possesses the tact, sound judgment and eminently practical views, without which the most brilliantly endowed men often prove such lamentable failures. Whole-souled, generous and sympathetic in nature and true as steel in his friendship he has surrounded himself with a host of friends whose loyalty he as warmly reciprocates. Indeed it can be said that no man in public or private life in Oregon ever had a more devoted personal following than Senator Mitchell. His unswerving adherence to the principles of the republican party and his fidelity to his friends are distinguishing traits in his character.

Personally Senator Mitchell is a man of striking presence and one who would arrest attention in any gathering of men. He is an interesting conversationalist; has a direct, forceful way of talking, while his ready grasp of any subject discussed would mark him as a man of no common mold of mind. He is a man of polished address and of naturally courteous manner-one who would win respectful recognition any-where and easily gain the good will and confidence of his fellows. O. F. V.


Biography, History,

Harvey Whitefield Scott. History of Portland, Oregon: with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Prominent Citizens and Pioneers. Portland, Oregon. D. Mason & Company, 1890.

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