Schuyler Colfax · 1966
By Joseph E. Delgatto
Schuyler Colfax was born on March 23, 1823, at his mother’s home on Moore Street near lower Broadway in New York City. Both the Schuyler and the Colfax families had lived in New York for a number of years. Each side of the family had made contributions to the American revolution.
The paternal grandfather of the seventeenth vice president of the nation was William Colfax, a general who was the commanding officer of a special unit whose responsibility it was to protect the life of General George Washington.
The Schuyler side of the family had contributed General Phillip Schuyler. In addition to his military service, General Schuyler also served as a delegate to the first Continental Congress from New York.
Colfax was named for his father, Schuyler Colfax senior, who married Hannah Stryker in New York City on April 15, 1820. The couple had been married for slightly more than two years when the senior Colfax died on October 30, 1822, just five months before the birth of his son.
For eleven years after her husband’s death, Hannah Colfax remained a widow. In 1834, she married George Matthews, a native of Baltimore.
In 1836, George Matthews moved his family west to Saint Joseph County in Indiana where they settled in the village of New Carlisle. Schuyler Colfax was thirteen at the time and prior to the move westward he had clerked in his step-father’s store in New York City.
Five years after he became a resident of Saint Joseph County, George Matthews was elected county auditor. Shortly after he was sworn into office Matthews appointed his step-son as deputy auditor. Colfax served as his step-father’s deputy for eight years and decided that politics was for him.
As a means to an end he studied law but was never admitted to the Indiana bar. Meanwhile he did fulfill a political function as the assistant enrolling clerk of the Indiana Senate. Presumably the position didn’t pay enough for him to make ends meet so Colfax got a job as a correspondent for the Indiana State Journal at Indianapolis.
Since law was not to be his profession and stepping stone to politics, then journalism would serve as well. In 1845, Schuyler Colfax bought himself a newspaper. His new property was The South Bend Free Press which Colfax renamed The Saint Joseph Valley Register. The newspaper was the Whig organ for northern Indiana and its publisher and editor was a strong party member.
Schuyler Colfax was 22 years old at the time he purchased the South Bend newspaper. A year earlier he had married Evelyn Clark, a native New Yorker. The wedding took place on October 10, 1844.
The Hoosier editor did not let marriage and editing stand in the way of his political ambitions. In 1844, Colfax campaigned throughout northern Indiana for Kentucky’s Henry Clay for the presidency. Three years later in 1847, he became secretary of the Chicago Rivers and Harbors Convention. In 1848, Colfax was elected a delegate to the Whig national convention.
In 1850, he was a member of the state constitutional convention which drafted Indiana’s present constitution. One provision of the constitution was to state that no blacks could be allowed to settle in the state. During the years preceding the Civil War, many Indiana communities were welcoming slaves as free men. A number of Hoosier towns on the Ohio River were involved in ferrying the blacks across the river to freedom in Indiana. Colfax was a leader in the fight against banning blacks from settling in Indiana.
In 1852, Schuyler Colfax felt he was ready to run for a seat in congress. He ran and lost by 232 votes. In the next election two years later, he ran again an won by more than 2,000 votes. The year was 1854, Schuyler Colfax was 32 years old and he would spend eighteen years in Washington. He served in Congress for 14 years, eight of which were spent as The Speaker of the House.
As a congressman, Colfax did nothing which would mark him as outstanding. He was more concerned with building a power base than with passing legislation. During his 14 years in the lower house he authored no legislation of any kind which would have left its mark on America.
Colfax was appointed to the Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads and became its chairman. He was instrumental in reorganizing the overland mail service and extending it to California. During President Lincoln’s administration a number of politicians urged him to appoint Colfax as Postmaster-General, but the President refused. Long after Colfax was out of Congress, it was discovered he had taken $4,000 as a campaign gift from a contractor who did business with the government. The contractor supplied envelopes for the Post Office Department.
In 1863, Colfax was elected by his colleagues as The Speaker of the House of Representatives. He was elected primarily because of his loyalty to the Republican Party. He always supported the party, never got out of line and was never controversial. As the speaker he never took a strong stand on any issue except for opposing the admission of the southern states back into the union. In fact,
Schuyler Colfax was such a nice smooth operator that his colleagues in Congress had long before his ascension to speaker had nicknamed him “Smiler” Colfax.
These same traits of party loyalty, his views on the conquered confederacy and his affability won him the nomination to the vice presidency in 1868. He won the nomination on the fifth ballot after he had defeated a number of other contenders.
As vice president, Schuyler Colfax followed 16 other men in attempting to find something to occupy himself. Other than presiding over the business of the Senate, there was no other work for the former speaker.
His thoughts then turned to the possibility of running for the presidency in 1872. Colfax mistakenly assumed Grant would not run for a second term. He decided on a strategy. In 1870, he announced he would not be a candidate for public office in 1872. The idea was to force the public to make him change his mind.
The strategy failed. Grant decided to run for a second term. Colfax decided to fight Grant for the nomination. He lost that fight and then also was forced off the ticket in favor of Henry Wilson who became the eighteenth Vice President of the United States.
In addition, Schuyler Colfax had been implicated in the Credit Mobiler scandal. The Credit Mobiler Corporation had been set up by the Union Pacific Rail Road officials to finance the construction of the line. The corporation reaped large profits and the Union Pacific suffered the consequences of not having enough financial assistance to finish construction. Congress was prodded into discussing an investigation of Credit Mobiler activities.
In order to forestall any possible investigation, Credit Mobiler president Oakes Amers distributed 343 shares of Credit Mobiler stock to various government officials. The stock was not free but recipients were allowed to pay for it out of accumulated dividends. In addition, the stock soared in value until it was worth more than 500 times its original price. Schuyler Colfax had accepted 20 shares of that stock.
The former vice president returned to private life. He no longer owned the Saint Joseph Valley Register. He had sold it when he became The Speaker of the House of Representatives. He was still interested in journalism and was more than interested when the possibility arose that he might be asked to succeed Horace Greely as the editor of
The New York Herald.
When the opportunity fell through, Schuyler Colfax turned to the avocation of many former politicians. He became a traveling lecturer. He lectured on Abraham Lincoln and temperance. Colfax was a popular speaker and much in demand. He received $150 for each speech. Reporters liked him and he received good coverage.
On January 13, 1885, he was to have changed trains at Mankato, Minnesota. In order to get from one depot to another he had to walk three quarters of a mile in 30 degrees below zero weather. Five minutes after he arrived at the Omaha depot, he collapsed and died.
After he purchased his South Bend newspaper in 1845, Schuyler Colfax made The Saint Joseph Valley Register the leading proponent of Whig politics in northern Indiana. All during the years he owned the paper (1845-1863) he wrote a weekly column for its pages. The column was political and dealt with Washington affairs.
In 1872, just after he left office as the seventeenth Vice President of the United States, the possibility arose that Colfax might be asked to edit The New York Herald. Horace Greely had just died and the paper’s owners were looking for a new editor.
The Herald was a public corporation with shares of stock on the market. In 1872, two men, Samuel Sinclair and William Orton had cornered a majority of the stock and wanted Schuyler Colfax to run the paper. Their purpose was political. They wanted the Herald to reflect the views of the Grant administration and the conservative wing of the Republican Party.
In a complicated financial maneuver Whitlaw Reid was able to put together a syndicate to gain control of the outstanding stock of the Herald. He had himself named publisher and editor. Schuyler Colfax then hit the lecture trail.
In 1865, Schuyler Colfax led a group of journalists, politicians and business leaders on a tour of The Central Pacific Railroad. During the tour, the group came to a small town which had been constructed to meet the needs of the railroad in California. Due to the presence of the Vice President of the United States, Leland Stanford, the president of the Central Pacific changed the name of the hamlet from Illinois-Town to Colfax.
When Colfax was being considered for the position of editor of The New York Herald, Whitlaw Reid said of him, “There is this to be said about Colfax, that he has always surprised people in every position he has obtained by doing better than they expected.”