Sunday, August 25, 2019

1859 Campaign: Kirkwood, Dodge collide in Chariton

Samuel J. Kirkwood

Augustus Caesar Dodge
Politics always has been a contentious business and that certainly was the case in Iowa during the summer and early fall of 1859 as the Oct. 11 gubernatorial election approached.

The candidates were Republican Samuel J. Kirkwood, 45, of Iowa City, and Democrat Augustus Caesar Dodge, 47, of Burlington. Kirkwood was a farmer and miller, incumbent Iowa state senator and had been present at the creation of Iowa's Republican party during February of 1856.

Dodge was a far grander personage. He was a veteran of the Black Hawk War, had served as Iowa territorial delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives and one of Iowa's first two U.S. senators after statehood and was fresh from a four-year appointment as minister to Spain in the Franklin Pierce administration.

Slavery was a big issue in Iowa in 1859 as the nation careened toward civil war. Kirkwood was a staunch abolitionist; Dodge enjoyed a collegial relationship with lawmakers from the South, was a firm supporter of provisions of the Compromise of 1850 and favored strict enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law --- which required that enslaved men and women who escaped to free states, if captured, be returned to their owners.

Although Iowans were divided on slavery issues, Kirkwood was very good at twisting the knife of slavery-related issues during debates and reducing Dodge to spluttering near-incoherence. 

Kirkwood's handlers also appear to have been more astute than Dodge's, who relied on their candidate's grandeur to carry him through. In one eastern Iowa county seat town, for example, Dodge backers arranged for their candidate to enter the city and parade around the square in a grand carriage drawn by a matching four-horse hitch. Kirkwood supporters arranged for their candidate to enter town in a lumber wagon hauled by a team of oxen. Ah --- the common man.


The debate in Chariton took place on Thursday, Aug. 4, and came on the heels of earlier contentious debates in Oskaloosa on July 29 and Bloomfield on July 31. The candidates were deployed outside the front door of the brand new 1858 courthouse, looking mighty spiffy at the time, the audience grouped around them in the courtyard.

Only one newspaper was being published in Chariton at the time --- The Patriot, firmly Republican in its editorial outlook. But no Patriot issues survive from those early years. 

Fortunately, other Iowa newspapers scoured their exchanges for items to reprint in the days that followed the debate and shared a segment of the Patriot report, as follows from The Muscatine Weekly Journal of Aug. 19:


By the following, which we clip from the closing of the Chariton Patriot's account of the Gubernatorial discussion at that place, it will be seen that "the old war horse" became again "aroused and ready for the fray."

Gen. Dodge mounted a table when he spoke, and, on attempting to step from it when Kirkwood rose to close, it tipped, and to steady it, Kirkwood put his hand to it, playfully remarking, "General I told you you have been standing on a rickety platform all the time in this canvass," upon which the General became belligerent, clenching both fists, with nostrils extended, and belched forth, "Mr. Kirwood, I am ready for you, politically, personally or physically, or any other way." Kirkwood coolly and pleasantly remarked that the General got fighting mad at him in Oskaloosa, but would say to the audience "that, if the General was the last man to flinch from a fight, he (Kirkwood) was next to the last."

Kirkwood was several times interrupted by his antagonist, who stood erect on the table, with folded arms, looking furious as a Bashan Bull, to the infinite amusement of the crowd, who manifested their glee by shouts and bursts of laughter.

The General labored hard throughout his speech, and appeared to be in a bad humor. Mr. Kirkwood, we are pleased to say, bore himself calmly and with dignity throughout the discussion, to the delight and gratification of the audience. The Republicans of our county were never more enthusiastic nor determined.


When the votes were counted after Oct. 11, Kirkwood emerged the winner with a margin of 3,170. He went on to serve as Iowa's highly distinguished Civil War governor, then as U.S. senator and finally as U.S. secretary of the interior during the Garfield and Arthur administrations.

Dodge returned home to Burlington and remained active in politics, but other than serving as mayor of his home town during the 1870s did not seek public office again.

Lucas County's 1858 courthouse

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