Name:  Reuben Eaton Fenton

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Born:  July 4, 1819
Died:  August 25, 1885
Complete HarpWeek Biography:
Reuben Fenton was a U.S. representative, U.S. senator, and New York governor.  He was born on July 4, 1819, in Chautauqua County, New York, to Elsie Owen Fenton and George W. Fenton, who were farmers and storekeepers. He received an education at local academies, and then began teaching school while studying law at a law firm. In 1837, he and a brother took over management of their father’s store and assumed its debt. A more astute businessman than his father, Rueben Fenton’s investments in land and lumber brought him great wealth. In 1833, he married Jane Frew, but she died within two years. In 1844, he married Elizabeth Scudder; the couple later had three children.

Fenton entered politics in 1846 with his election as town supervisor, serving in that position for eight years. In 1852, he ran for Congress as a Free-Soil Democrat. Although his district was predominantly Whig, enough anti-slavery Whigs bolted their party to elect him as their representative. In the U.S. House, Fenton was relatively quiet, concentrating on constituent concerns, until the debate over the Kansas-Nebraska bill provoked his vociferous denunciation. The breakup of the party system in the 1850s hurt Fenton, who lost his reelection bid in 1854 to a Know-Nothing candidate. He then joined the new Republican Party and was elected presiding officer of the first New York State Republican Convention in 1855. Fenton ran for Congress again in 1856, this time winning an easy victory in what was now a firmly Republican district.

Fenton served in the U.S. House until he resigned in 1864 to run for governor of New York.  He defeated Horatio Seymour, the Democratic incumbent, by a slim margin of less than one percent of the vote. Once in office, though, Fenton was able to use the governorship to make himself into the political “boss” of New York Republicans. He and the Republican-controlled legislature instituted a series of reforms, including the initiation of free public education, the founding of Cornell University, the opening of teacher-training colleges, the implementation of health and housing standards, and the creation of a professional fire department in New York City.

In 1869, the state legislature sent Fenton to the U.S. Senate. He was outmaneuvered by Senator Roscoe Conkling for control of the New York Republican Party. A critic of the Grant administration, Fenton joined the Liberal Republican movement in 1872 and supported Horace Greeley in the presidential election. With his political influence further undermined, Fenton retired in 1875 to become a banker. In 1878, he was appointed chairman of the American delegation to the International Monetary Conference in Paris.  He died on August 25, 1885, in Jamestown, New York.

Source consulted: American National Biography





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