MICHIGAN TRAILS -
GENEALOGY and HISTORY

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Austin Blair
Michigan Governor 1861 - 1865

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Austin Blair ex-Governor of Michigan, and ex-member of Congress, was born at Caroline, Tompkins County, New York, February 8, 1818. His father, George Blair, felled the first tree; built the first log-cabin; and burned the first log-heap in Tompkins County. He settled there in 1809, and lived for sixty years on the same spot until his death,--at the age of eighty-four. He possessed a good early education, which was improved by constant reading, and his naturally strong mental powers remained with him to the close of his life. Conscientious, sagacious, and upright, he had the fullest confidence of his neighbors; benevolent and religious, he was one of the first to advocate the abolition of slavery, and thanked God that he lived to see it accomplished. Mr. Blair's mother, whose maiden name was Rhoda Beackman, was a worthy companion for so good a man. She was energetic, thorough, thrifty, ambitious for her family, conscientious, benevolent, and kind; and her death was universally regretted. Mr. Blair's parents sleep together in the soil of the old homestead. Joseph Blair, great-grandfather of Austin Blair, emigrated from Scotland in 1756, and settled on a piece of land in the present city of Worcester, Massachusetts; the original patent for which is now in the possession of the Antiquarian Society of Worcester. Tradition says that his son Robert, grandfather of Mr. Blair, was born on the ocean during the outward voyage, in 1756. Mr. Blair inherits the energy and force of character of his parents. This owes its development largely, perhaps, to his early physical labor upon a hard and not very fruitful soil, in a rigorous climate, which early induced him to turn his attention to a different mode of life. With a thorough primary education, he commenced the study of Latin at the age of sixteen.

His habits were, from choice and necessity, economical; and his tastes led him to spend his time in study and thoughtful investigation, but he cared little for authority. Cazenovia Seminary, where he prepared for college, was, and still is, a Methodist institution; and the yearly revival of religion, to which the students were expected to give attention, seemed to Mr. Blair to turn the whole school into a mob. With others, he protested against them; and a considerable excitement, involving, among other complications, the expulsion of one of the students, was the result. Mr. Blair entered Hamilton College; but, in his Junior year, attracted by the great reputation of President Nott, he changed to Union College, from which he graduated in 1837. While there, he joined in a revolt against the secret societies, and assisted in organizing an association intended to check their unfair monopoly of college honors and society privileges. These episodes of college life illustrate that fearless independence of character which Mr. Blair's subsequent career has shown. Mr. Blair was admitted to practice in the Court of Common Pleas of Tioga County in 1841, and the same year removed to Michigan. He first located at Jackson; but, during a temporary stay at Eaton Rapids, in 1842, he was elected Clerk of the then new county of Eaton. On his return to Jackson, in 1844, he actively espoused the Whig cause in the advocacy of the claims of Henry Clay to the Presidency. He was elected a member of the Lower House of the State Legislature in 1845; and, in 1847, was a member of the Judiciary Committee, and rendered efficient service in connection with the revision of the General Statutes at that session. He also made an earnest report in favor of abolishing the color distinction as related to the elective franchise,--the same ground that he has ever since held.

This displeased a large section of the Whig party, and occasioned his defeat at the next election. He was also active, at the same session, in securing the abolition of capital punishment.

It was effected by a close vote; and elicited from Rev. George Duffield, then a leading Presbyterian minister in Detroit, a sermon, in which he denounced the advocates of the measure as infidels. Mr. Blair, in 1846, found himself antagonized by a strong element of his party on the issue then made; but, in less than ten years, the growth of the antislavery sentiment overwhelmed that organization. His views tended in one direction; those of others, in the opposite direction; there was, and could be, no enduring compromise. In the Whig National Convention of 1848, all resolutions of an antislavery character were tabled; Mr. Clay, who was the favorite of the Northern wing of the party, was defeated; and General Zachary Taylor was nominated. This was accepted as the triumph of the ultra Southern sentiment, and severed the last ligament that held Mr. Blair to his party. He joined the Free-soil movement, and was a member of the Buffalo Convention, and of the committee of that body that nominated Van Buren and Adams for President and Vice-President. Although this aided the election of Taylor, at that time, by drawing largely from the Democratic vote in New York, its subsequent gains were mainly from the Whig party, until 1854, when both the Whig and Free-soil parties in Michigan were merged in the Republican party, which was formed at Jackson on the 6th of July. Here Mr. Blair found himself again acting with most of his old political associates. They had advanced to his position,--he had not gone back to theirs. He was a member of the Committee on Platform, of which the late Senator Howard was Chairman. The result of that movement is a matter of political history. Mr. Blair held the office of Prosecuting Attorney for Jackson County, to which he was elected in 1852; and, in 1854, he was chosen to the State Senate, taking his seat there on the incoming of the first Republican administration in 1855, and held the position of parliamentary leader of his party in the Senate.

From this time up to 1861, Mr. Blair found a congenial and agreeable current in politics,--highly exciting, it is true, but not at that time regarded as dangerously threatening. He was a member of the Republican National Convention of 1860 that nominated Mr. Lincoln for President; though, as chairman of the Michigan delegation, and as representing the sentiment of his party in Michigan, he strove earnestly for the nomination of William H. Seward. He was nominated and elected Governor of the State in 1860, and was re-elected in 1862. His term embraced the four years commencing January 1, 1861, almost the entire period of the war,-- during which he won the popular sobriquet of the "War Governor." His official acts are public history, though no public records will ever do justice to the important actors in the memorable drama then enacted. His confidence in the success of the Union cause, and his earnestness and zeal in its support, are indicated by his messages to the Legislature, and in the various orders issued from the office of the Adjutant-General of the State; some of the results of his labors were shown in the ninety thousand men furnished by Michigan to the Union armies. Governor Blair's attention to politics had always made serious inroads upon his private business. His own political campaigns were expensive,--as he always made a personal canvass, speaking night and day. His duties as Governor occupied his entire time, involving many expenses for which he could not demand reimbursement, while his salary was merely nominal. He retired from office fairly impoverished, very weary, and, to a great extent, unfitted for legal work. In 1867 he was elected to Congress from the Third Michigan District, and was re-elected in 1869 and 1871. The early part of his Congressional service was at the time when the Republican party in Congress, with its unrestricted control of both Houses, stood in a position of antagonism and defiance to President Johnson.

Although more moderate in his views than Thaddeus Stevens, then the leader of the House, and some others, he was far from sympathizing with the President, and voted with his party throughout, making a speech in support of the impeachment proceedings. He, however, had no feeling of affinity with the adventurers and so-called carpet-baggers who swarmed the capital, and infested the Southern States, about this time,--making a pretended patriotism the pretext for schemes of plunder and spoliation. He was a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Fortieth Congress,--his first term. In the Forty-first Congress, as a member of the Committee of Ways and Means, he gave his hearty support to the bill known as the "Act to Strengthen the Public Credit," and favored, generally, all legislation calculated to hasten a return to specie payments. The tariff revision, reported by the same committee, was sustained by him in an exhaustive speech, in which he advocated the principle of protection to domestic industry,--a sentiment then remaining fresh with him from the historic days of Henry Clay's political leadership. He was also, in this Congress, a member of the Committee on Revision of the Laws, of which Judge Poland was Chairman. From a gradual weakening of sympathy with the more extreme tendencies of his party, he first began to lose favor in Administration circles by a speech which he made on the gross mismanagement and delinquencies in the Post-office Department, of which Mr. Cresswell was then at the head. In the Forty-second Congress, Mr. Blair was at the head of the important Committee on Claims, then having charge of the whole subject, including war claims, which have since been turned over to a separate committee. This latter class of claims occupied much of the attention of the committee, and involved many nice and intricate questions. William and Mary College, of Virginia, made a claim for loss and destruction by the Union troops during the war.

This was one of a very large class of claims, including literary institutions, churches, and public buildings, that would have followed; but the committee treated them generally as mere spoliation, for which no payment could be made. Mr. Blair opposed measures calculated to unnecessarily limit the right of local self-government in the States; but supported, in a speech, Mr. Hoar's Education Bill, which, unlike all previous measures of the kind, was free from this objection. He also made a speech on the "Bill to Reform the Civil Service," in which he criticised the President sharply. His growing dissatisfaction with the Grant Administration culminated in an open rupture by his moving, in the House, an investigation of the Navy Department in connection with the unlawful payment, by Secretary Robeson, of the celebrated Secor claim. Although, by usage, he was made chairman, he was rendered powerless by the remainder of the Committee of Investigation being packed in opposition to him. The only result was a pretty full exposition of the abuses of the Navy Department in the report which he made. In the first session of this Congress he served on the committee which reported the bill commonly called the "Enforcement Act," which was directed against the so-called Ku-klux bands. He supported this bill, rather because he thought it might serve to quiet partisan clamor, than because he believed it was called for, at that time. Mr. Blair's unfriendliness toward the Administration during the closing session of the Forty-second Congress, amounting, it may be said, to a feeling of deep disgust, only awaited an available opportunity to manifest itself openly and actively. This was afforded by the nomination of Horace Greeley for President by the Liberal movement in 1872. That convention gave voice to his thought actively; and, when Congress adjourned, he entered the campaign with vigor, and assailed the Administration to the utmost, in a hundred speeches.

During this campaign, Postmaster-General Cresswell assailed Governor Blair for attacking him in the matter of the Chorpenning claim, which he had allowed. Governor Blair's speech in reply was extensively published at the time, and Mr. Cresswell subsequently resigned. Since the close of his Congressional term, March 4, 1873, he has turned his attention to his profession, and has taken no active part in politics. He supported Mr. Tilden in 1876, not simply because he seemed a stronger man than Mr. Hayes, but because he thought the Republican party might, by defeat, learn a wholesome lesson of moderation. He, however, approves the independent and conservative course of President Hayes, who, he says, "is proving an abler Executive than he expected, and is disappointing many of the petty partisans who pinned their hopes upon him." Governor Blair's altered political associations have been due rather to the natural order of growth and decay of parties than to changes of political opinion on his part. From being a Henry Clay Whig, he naturally and affectionately embraced Republicanism; and, to the Republican platform adopted at Chicago, in 1860, exemplified by the Administration of Abraham Lincoln, he is still as loyal as when urging Michigan's heroes to the front, and extending a watchful care over them while in the field. Governor Blair does not accept the orthodox creeds in religion, but believes earnestly in the religion of honest living.

American Biographical History of Eminent and Self-Made Men with Portrait Illustrations on Steel, Vol. I-II 1878

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