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Delano, Columbusfree

(05 June 1809–23 October 1896)
  • Phyllis F. Field

Delano, Columbus (05 June 1809–23 October 1896), congressman and secretary of the interior, was born in Shoreham, Vermont, the son of James Delano and Lucinda Bateman. James died when Columbus was six, and Columbus came under the care of his uncle Luther Bateman, a farmer, with whose family he moved to Mount Vernon, Ohio, in 1817. Although obliged to work at an early age, he obtained sufficient schooling to study law in the office of Hosmer Curtis and was admitted to the bar in 1831. To supplement his practice he sought appointment as county prosecutor and, when that office became elective in 1832, won a three-year term, running as a National Republican. He resigned in his second term when his law practice had become larger. In 1834 he married Elizabeth Leavenworth, with whom he had two children.

In 1844 the local Whig congressional nominee died, and Whig leaders asked Delano, an excellent stump speaker, to take his place on the ticket. Delano prevailed in the election by just twelve votes. Antislavery was a burning issue in Delano’s Western Reserve district, and he quickly identified with radical antislavery Whigs in Congress. He was one of only fourteen House Whigs who voted against the Mexican War, and he vigorously endorsed the Wilmot Proviso, which would have excluded slavery from territory acquired from Mexico. Although antislavery supporters backed him for governor, his controversial opinions prevented his nomination by the Whigs. Similarly disappointed by the Whigs’ nomination of southern slaveowner Zachary Taylor for president in 1848, Delano angrily predicted the demise of the Whig party.

In 1850 Delano moved to New York City, where he was a banker for five years with Delano, Dunlevy & Company. Returning to Mount Vernon with capital to invest in sheep raising and farming, Delano again became interested in politics with the rise of the Republican party. When his ambitions were continually blocked by Radical leaders Salmon P. Chase and Benjamin F. Wade, Delano sided with more moderate antislavery elements in his party. He seconded Abraham Lincoln’s nomination at the 1860 Chicago convention, and in 1864 he was Lincoln’s chief Ohio supporter for renomination. Although frequently a contender for senatorial and gubernatorial nominations in the 1860s because of his support from party moderates, he always lost out to candidates with broader appeal.

Delano served briefly as commissary general for Ohio’s troops at the beginning of the Civil War until responsibility for their subsistence was taken over by the U.S. government. In 1863 he was elected to the Ohio General Assembly for a two-year term and chaired the Judicial Committee, which endorsed voting by Ohio soldiers in the field. The following year Delano was elected to the Thirty-ninth Congress (1865–1867), where he chaired the Committee on Claims. After Lincoln’s assassination, he supported Andrew Johnson’s efforts simply to restore, rather than reconstruct, the southern states but ultimately came to support federal guarantees of the civil rights of freedpeople in opposition to the president. He is classified, however, among the more moderate members of the party on constitutional and race issues. About this time Delano gave up the practice of law and, outside of politics, devoted himself entirely to sheep raising and banking in Mount Vernon. Delano was a strong advocate of tariff protection on wool, speaking vigorously in favor of the Wool and Woolens Act of 1867. Radicals distrusted Delano, who was apparently defeated for reelection by 271 votes in 1866, but he contested the count in several locations and resumed his seat on 3 June 1868.

Seeking to end factionalism and appreciating Delano’s background in finance, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him commissioner of internal revenue in 1869. Delano reorganized the department and increased revenue. He did not, however, personally address the problem of tax avoidance by whiskey distillers, which would soon result in scandal for the Grant administration. Grant appointed Delano to his cabinet as secretary of the interior in 1870. During his five years of service Delano implemented Grant’s “peace policy” toward the Indians, which encouraged the extermination of the buffalo to force tribes onto reservations, used Christian organizations to teach agricultural life styles, and withheld annuities to punish Indians for noncooperation with governmental policies. The plan was disastrous for Native Americans, depriving them of economic and cultural resources and encouraging resistance rather than peace, and it anticipated the provision of individual homesteads for Indian families with the remainder of native lands opened to non-Indians. Democrats in Congress investigated allegations that inferior goods were supplied to some reservations during his tenure, but in this Delano was clearly not involved. His son, however, with Delano’s apparent knowledge, did demand to be paid for participating in government surveys for which he did no work. Delano worked eagerly to promote the interests of western railroads. As a result, Democrats routinely portrayed him as a corruptionist, and he resigned his post in 1875 under a cloud. In retrospect Delano appears primarily to have tolerated rather than participated in corrupt activities.

Returning to Ohio, Delano served as president of the National Wool Growers’ Association and advised Congress on tariff duties on wool as late as 1890. He endowed a grammar school at Kenyon College and served on the college’s board of trustees for many years. He was a warden of the Episcopal church when he died at his estate outside Mount Vernon. Through much of his career, Delano promoted free labor, business growth, and economic development, important components of an expanding American capitalism, whose triumph justified, to his mind, almost any means.


Delano’s papers are at the Library of Congress and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. See also the Records of the Office of the Secretary of the Interior (RG 48) in the National Archives. For biographical sketches see Joseph A. Smith, History of the Republican Party in Ohio (1898) and Biographical Record of Knox County, Ohio (1902). On Ohio politics see Stephen Maizlish, The Triumph of Sectionalism (1983), and Felice Bonadio, North of Reconstruction: Ohio Politics, 1865–1870 (1970). On Indian affairs see Francis Paul Prucha, The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians (1984). An obituary is in the New York Times, 24 Oct. 1896.