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Elihu B. Washburne
25th United States Secretary of State

In office
March 5, 1869 – March 16, 1869
President Ulysses S. Grant
Preceded by William H. Seward
Succeeded by Hamilton Fish
Ambassador to France|United States Minister to France

In office
March 16, 1869 – March 4, 1877
Appointed by Ulysses S. Grant
Preceded by John Adams Dix
Succeeded by Edward F. Noyes
Member of the United States House of Representatives
In office
March 4, 1853 – March 3, 1863
Preceded by William Henry Bissell
Succeeded by Isaac N. Arnold
Member of the United States House of Representatives
In office
March 4, 1863 – March 6, 1869
Preceded by Owen Lovejoy
Succeeded by Horatio C. Burchard
Personal details
Born Elihu Benjamin Washburne
(1816-09-23)September 23, 1816
Livermore, Maine, U.S.
Died October 23, 1887(1887-10-23) (aged 71)
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Resting place Greenwood Cemetery (Galena, Illinois)
Political party Whig, Republican
Spouse(s) Adele Gratiot
Alma mater Harvard Law School
Profession Politician
Religion Presbyterian

Elihu Benjamin Washburne (September 23, 1816 – October 23, 1887) was an American politician and diplomat. A member of the Washburn family of Maine, which played a prominent role in the early formation of the United States Republican Party, Washburne served as a congressman from Illinois before and during the American Civil War, and was a political ally of President Abraham Lincoln and General (later President) Ulysses S. Grant.

As a leader of the Radical Republicans, Washburne opposed the Reconstruction policies of President Andrew Johnson and supported African American suffrage and civil rights. Washburne was appointed United States Secretary of State in 1869 by President Grant, out of respect for his championship in the House during the Civil War, and to give Washburne diplomatic clout after being appointed minister to France. Washburne's tenure as Secretary of State lasted for only eleven days, but he would serve as minister to France for the next eight years, where he became known for diplomatic integrity and for his humanitarian support of Americans and Germans in France during the Franco-Prussian War.

Early life[]

Elihu Benjamin Washburne was born on September 23, 1816 in Livermore, Maine.[1] He was the third oldest of eleven children born to Israel and Martha (née Benjamin) Washburne. Washburne's family went into financial trouble and in 1829, Israel had to sell his general store.[1] Washburne's family was forced to rely on farming for food, and Washburne and his brothers had to fend for themselves. At the age of 14, Washburne had added the letter "e" to his name, as was the original ancestral spelling, and left home in search of education and a career.[1]

Legal career[]

Washburne studied law at Kent's Hill Seminary starting in 1836. In March 1839, Washburne transferred to Harvard Law School.[2] A year later, in 1840 he graduated and passed the Bar.[2] Afterwards, Washburne left Massachusetts and moved west to Galena, Illinois, hoping to make his fortune.[2]

Political career[]

Washburne, a resident of Galena, Illinois, represented northwestern Illinois in the United States House of Representatives from 1853 to 1869. While in Congress, he was also a member of the powerful Appropriations Committee.[3]

American Civil War[]

Supported Abraham Lincoln[]

He was known for his courage, and met President-elect Abraham Lincoln upon his arrival in Washington, D.C. on February 23, 1861.[4] At the beginning of the American Civil War, an assassination attempt was feared, and other Republican Party leaders were afraid to take on this duty. Washburne and his brothers had hidden the whereabouts of President-elect Lincoln by personally cutting telegraph wires in key locations.

Radical Republican leader[]

Originally a Whig, Washburne was an early member of the Republicans and a leader of the Radical Republicans. He was among the original proponents of legal racial equality. As a congressman, he served on the Joint Committee on Reconstruction which drafted the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. After the Civil War, Washburne advocated that large plantations be divided up to provide compensatory property for freed slaves.


Washburne was an early supporter of Ulysses S. Grant, a fellow resident of Galena, helping to secure Grant's promotions to brigadier general and lieutenant general. Representative Washburne was one of only a few men in Washington D.C. who had previously known Grant.[5] Washburne kept close ties to Grant through his brother Major General Cadwallader C. Washburn during the Vicksburg Campaign when Grant was a Major General of Volunteers in the Union Army.[6] On August 30, 1863 Grant, now Major General of the Regular Army, had assured Washburne, an abolitionist, in a letter that he himself believed the purpose of the Civil War was to end slavery within the United States.[7]

Secretary of State[]

When Grant became president in 1869, he appointed Washburne to succeed William H. Seward as Secretary of State, with the understanding that he would hold the post only briefly and then serve as minister to France, with the added prestige of having been Secretary of State.[8] He became ill after becoming secretary and served for only eleven days in March 1869; it remains the shortest term of any Secretary of State. Washburne's successor Hamilton Fish, Grant's second appointment, would last for the rest of Grant's two terms in office and briefly serving under President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Minister to France[]

As minister — head of the U.S. diplomatic mission — to France, Washburne was the only diplomat from a major power to stay in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and played a major role in providing both diplomatic and humanitarian support during the siege of Paris and, after the war, the Paris Commune.[9] He made the American legation the refuge of Germans and other foreigners who could not leave Paris. For this service, he received special honors from German Emperor Wilhelm I and Otto von Bismarck, as well as from the French leaders Léon Gambetta and Adolphe Thiers.[10]


Washburne retired from government in 1877 and returned to Galena, although he was mentioned as a presidential candidate at the Republican conventions in 1880 and 1884. In 1882, Washburne published a biography of former Illinois governor Edward Coles[11] Washburne then moved to Chicago, Illinois, and served as president of the Chicago Historical Society from 1884 to 1887. In 1887 Washburne published Recollections of a Minister to France.[10]

Notable relatives[]

Three of Washburne's brothers (Cadwallader C. Washburn, William D. Washburn, and Israel Washburn, Jr.) also became politicians. His son, Hempstead Washburne, was mayor of Chicago from 1891 to 1893.


Washburne Street at 1230 south in Chicago is named in honor of Elihu Washburne.

See also[]

  • Elihu Benjamin Washburne House


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Dictionary of American Biography (1936), p. 504
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Carroll (1883), Twelve Americans Their Lives And Times, pp. 402-404
  3. An American in Paris, American Heritage
  4. Vidal (2000)
  5. Catton (1969), p. 3
  6. Catton (1969), p. 26
  7. Catton (1969), p. 8
  8. Bunting III (2004)
  9. David McCullough, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, Simon & Schuster, 2011, ISBN 978-1-4165-7176-6
  10. 10.0 10.1  "[[s:Collier's New Encyclopedia (1921)/Washburne, Elihu Benjamin|Washburne, Elihu Benjamin]]". Collier's New Encyclopedia. 1921. 
  11. Washburne, Elihu Benjamin (1882). Sketch of Edward Coles. Negro Universities Press. p. 253.


  • Bunting III, Josiah (2004). Ulysses S. Grant. Henry Holt & Co. ISBN 0-8050-6949-6. 
  • Catton, Bruce (1969). Grant Takes Command. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company. 
  • Dumas Malone, ed (1936). Dictionary of American Biography Washburne, Elihu Benjamin. New York: Charles Scribner's & Sons. 
  • Vidal, Gore (2000). Lincoln: A Novel. New York: Vintage Press. ISBN 0-375-70876-6. 

External links[]

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
William H. Bissell
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Illinois's 1st congressional district

1853 - 1863
Succeeded by
Isaac N. Arnold
Preceded by
Owen Lovejoy
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Illinois's 3rd congressional district

1863 - 1869
Succeeded by
Horatio C. Burchard
Political offices
Preceded by
William H. Seward
U.S. Secretary of State
Served under: Ulysses S. Grant

Succeeded by
Hamilton Fish
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
John A. Dix
U.S. Minister to France
1869 – 1877
Succeeded by
Edward F. Noyes

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