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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 431

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This is the grave of William Kelley.

Born in 1814 in Philadelphia to a Quaker family, Kelley’s father died when William was 2. That led to some very hard times for the family. His mother opened a boarding house to keep the family going, which was very hard work. He had to work young too, first as an errand boy for a bookstore, then an editor for a newspaper, and then as a jeweler. He apprenticed for that in Philadelphia and moved to Boston for a few years to practice his trade before coming back home. He turned from that to the law and passed the bar in 1841.

Kelley came of political age as a Democrat. But these were in the years when slavery was something the Second Party System tried not to talk about. Both Democrats and Whigs were national parties and they maintained that by sweeping slavery under the rug. But this became much harder during the 1840s. Once John Tyler and John C. Calhoun committed the government to annexing Texas and pushing for the nation to be overtly pro-slavery and then James Polk defeated Martin Van Buren for the 1844 Democratic nomination based on the former’s support of Texas annexation, people like Kelley didn’t have anywhere to turn. He became an anti-slavery Democrat until he had a good alternative. During the Kansas-Nebraska Act debate, in 1854, Kelley gave a speech titled “Slavery in the Territories” that got him a ton of attention. That same year, he resigned from the Democratic Party, disgusted by Stephen Douglas and the popular sovereignty Pandora’s Box opened in Kansas. He became a founder of the Republican Party that same year.

Kelley became friends with Abraham Lincoln and was elected to Congress in 1860. As a member of Congress during the Civil War, he pushed hard for civil rights and abolitionism, first to enlist African-American troops in the military and then for the Thirteenth Amendment. He advocated for male suffrage for African-Americans after the war and introduced a bill for black voting in Washington, D.C. In the fight over Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, Kelley famously said on the House floor, “Sir, the bloody and untilled fields of the ten unreconstructed States, the unsheeted ghosts of the two thousand murdered negroes in Texas, cry, if the dead ever evoke vengeance, for the punishment of Andrew Johnson.” Not bad.

Kelley in fact served fifteen terms in Congress, not leaving the body until his death. He was Chairman of the House Committee on Coinage, Weights, and Measures between 1867 and 1873, the Ways and Means Committee between 1881 and 1883, and then the Committee on Manufactures in 1889 and 1890. He was the first politician to suggest what became Yellowstone National Park.

Outside of his civil rights stances, Kelley was most known for his extreme position on the tariff. He was a huge believer in a high tariff. In fact, he has an argument to being the most fervent protectionist in this nation’s history. His nickname in Washington became Pig-Iron Kelley because of his dogged fight for high tariffs on iron and steel. Moreover, he absolutely refused to wear clothing made in another country and was known for berating his colleagues who did that. He got caught up in the Credit Mobilier scandal and admitted that he had been given some railroad stock, but that he paid the cost back out of the dividends and did no political favors for the railroad. Sure, why not. Anyway, if James Garfield could be elected president after being caught with his hand in the cookie jar, it wasn’t going to hurt Kelley with his voters. By most accounts, Kelley had no hobbies, refused to spend money on anything, and spent all his free time reading political and economic texts. Which, to be honest, isn’t a bad set of characteristics for a Congresscritter. He wrote a few books on civil rights and tariffs over the years as well.

Kelley might however be most famous for his daughter, Florence Kelley, the great Progressive and child labor activist of the late 19th and early 20th century. In fact, it was looking for her (unsuccessfully, I think she is actually cremated) that I found her father.

Kelley did have one vice–smoking. And that’s what killed him, as he died of throat cancer in 1890, at the age of 75.

William Kelley is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

If you would like this series to visit other civil rights activists in the Reconstruction-era Congress, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Ben Wade is in Jefferson, Ohio and Schuyler Colfax is in South Bend, Indiana. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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