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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,041


This is the grave of Jacob Cox.

Born in Montreal in 1828, Cox came from the old New England and New York elite and ended up back in the United States as a child. His father was a building contractor building a church up there when his boy was born. The family was wealthy but lost most of it in the Panic of 1837. So he couldn’t go to Columbia, as was planned. He had wanted to become a lawyer. So in 1840, he became a legal apprentice. The law in New York was that you could become a lawyer without a degree if you apprenticed for a lawyer for at least seven years. But he only did this for two years and, still being a kid, changed his mind. He moved to Ohio as a bookkeeper and started self-educating. Eventually, through his own pluck, he got into Oberlin in 1846. By this time, he wanted to be a minister. He married the daughter of the college president too. He finished his degree, but then got into some kind of doctrinal argument with his father-in-law and left his ministry career behind. He became a school superintendent for awhile and then finally passed the bar. Quite a lot of career changes for a young man!

Cox not only had legal ambitions, but also political ones. He was a strong Whig and a moderate abolitionist. When the Whigs collapsed, he helped organize the Republican Party in Ohio. In 1859, he won a term in the Ohio state Senate. There he became a close ally of rising stars such as Salmon Chase and James Garfield. So this was going to be a very well-connected person. He also got interested in the military, probably seeing the Civil War in the distance. So he started studying military science in his free time.

Not surprisingly, Cox volunteered for the Civil War almost right away and became an important person in it. He was immediately named Brigadier General of Ohio Volunteers. At first, his job was to recruit soldiers. He first saw battle in the Kanawha Valley campaign under George McClellan. Soon, McClellan was transferred to Washington to run the Army of the Potomac and Cox came too. Of course, McClellan wouldn’t actually do anything useful like fight. Cox did well fighting during Lee’s invasion of Maryland that led to Antietam. He fought under Ambrose Burnside in that epic battle and performed well under the general’s supervision. Cox at least had a sense that he had no idea what he was doing, unlike a lot of these politician-generals. So he didn’t want a rise in command, thinking himself too inexperienced. But he did so well that he was promoted to major general. Mostly he spent the next couple of years in minor posts though. He didn’t see a major battle again until he was commanding under John Schofield in 1864 and 1865. At Utoy Creek, a lesser-known but important battle in the Atlanta campaign under Sherman, Cox’s men broke a key Confederate supply line, which is what led John Bell Hood to leave Atlanta. So that was critical.

Cox survived the war and went back to politics in Ohio. Now he was a war hero on top of everything else. So in October 1865, he was elected governor of the state, obviously as a Republican, serving one two year term. Cox might have been a war hero. But his views of the freedpeople had become increasingly retrograde. He came to oppose Black male suffrage and announced his support for Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction policies. As was so often the case, you could be an abolitionist before the war, but still be a stone cold racist and have no tolerance for anything helped Black people outside of the technical end of slavery.

Ohio was such an important state for post-Civil War Republicans (hence all the mediocre presidents from there) that any Ohio leader had to be considered for a top post in any administration. So when Grant became president, even though he did not care for Cox’s approval of Johnson, between needing to throw a sop to Ohio and to the party’s conservative wing, he named Cox Secretary of Interior. He was a bit of an odd choice for this job, not having any real experience in the type of governance required at Interior. But when did that stop a Gilded Age politician? At the very least, he was an effective administrator. At Interior, his main interest was civil service reform. To be fair here, the corruption of Gilded Age appointees was pretty titanic. To say the least, interest in this was not a dominant feature of the Grant administration, there with the Harding and Trump administration as the most corrupt in American history. But Cox pushed it hard. Grant did not care, primarily because what got Cox’s goat was that government employees were expected to take time off to campaign for Republicans while also getting paid. Grant obviously wanted Republicans to win and so was fine with this. So Cox resigned in anger in late 1870. Grant was furious. He thought of himself as a military commander and Cox as an insubordinate underling. Cox was right on the merits in terms of fighting for civil service reform. But it wasn’t just Grant who didn’t care. Congressional leaders were outraged that he was getting in the way of their patronage networks.

Cox was also not objectively horrible on Native issues, at least for a man of his time. He resisted the desire of military leaders to transfer Indian Affairs to the War Department. He believed that treaties should be upheld. Of course he didn’t believe the tribes were equal. Nearly no white did, even the reformer types. In fact, Cox was super condescending to the tribes. In 1870, leading members of the Lakota–Red Cloud among them–came to Washington. Cox was their host. He wanted to convince them that the Grant administration was honest (ha!). He wanted to convince them that they would live up to treaty obligations. He also wanted to show them the power of the American government. To say the least, they were not impressed. They didn’t believe Cox because why would they? They lectured him about the government failing to live up to other treaties. Cox told them it was “unmanly” to complain. Give me a break dude. Spotted Tail told Cox that the Interior Secretary would have committed suicide if he had to put up with what they did. Red Cloud said that if Cox was serious, he would provide the necessary food and weapons for his tribe to survive. Well, this did impress Cox enough that he lobbied Grant to approve it and other than Red Cloud’s desire for guns, Grant said OK. But even at the ceremonial White House dinner for them, Spotted Tail noted the difference between how the whites ate and the rations given to his tribe. In short, Cox and Grant may have been less horrible for the tribes than most other whites. But their ability to sympathize or act with anything but condescension at best was extremely limited.

Anyway, Cox was furious over Grant’s disinterest in cleaning up corruption. So, let’s lay out the equation: Civil Service Reformer + Indifference toward Black rights = Liberal Republican in 1872. Cox fit that equation all the way. He was a big supporter of that reformer effort to unseat Grant in 1872, disgusted both by the prosecution of a meaningful Reconstruction in the South and by the corruption issue. In fact, he was the chief organizer of the 1871 Cincinnati meeting to launch the idea. He really, really, really hated Grant by this time. Cox was considered to head their presidential ticket to challenge Grant. But when the reformers realized they really didn’t have a good candidate and chose Horace Greeley in a marriage of convenience with Democrats, Cox was so angry that he dropped out of the effort. Cox then wanted to go to the Senate. But he was seen as a traitor to the Republican Party and a lot of those state-level Republicans both supported Grant’s Reconstruction policy and the spoils system. So they chose someone else.

After this, Cox became a railroad president, the ultimate position for a Gilded Age politician. He did get elected to the House in 1876, but only served one term, preferring to return to his money. He became dean of the Cincinnati Law School in 1881 and remained in that position until 1897, while also serving as president of the school for four years. William McKinley, one of the many mediocre Ohioans of the period, tried to get him to come into his administration as ambassador to Spain, but Cox was opposed to imperialism and would not represent the McKinley foreign policy to the nation the U.S. was planning to steal land from. So he turned it down. Like a lot of these old Civil War guys, he also fed the market for war memoirs and histories, writing a bunch of them in the 1880s and 1890s. He also took up the new technology of the microscope as a hobby in these years and studied a lot of species only visible through the microscope.

While on vacation in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1900, Cox died suddenly. He was 71 years old.

Jacob Cox is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio.

If you would like this series to visit other people who have served as Secretary of the Interior, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Columbus Delano, who replaced Cox, is in Mount Vernon, Ohio and Zachariah Chandler, who replaced Delano, is in Detroit. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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