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William Peters Hepburn

william peters hepburn
William Peters Hepburn November 4, 1833 – February 7, 1916 was an American Civil War officer and an eleven-term Republican congressman from Iowa's now-obsolete 8th congressional district, serving from 1881 to 1887, and from 1893 to 1909 According to historian Edmund Morris, "Hepburn was the House's best debater, admired for his strength of character and legal acumen"1 As chair of one of the most powerful committees in Congress, he guided or sponsored many statutes regulating businesses, including most notably the Hepburn Act of 1906 The Hepburn Act authorized the US Interstate Commerce Commission to require railroads to charge "just and reasonable" rates2


  • 1 Background
  • 2 Civil War service
  • 3 First service in Congress
  • 4 Return to Congress
  • 5 Hepburn Act of 1906
  • 6 Surprise defeat, and success at House reform
  • 7 After Congress
  • 8 Honors
  • 9 References


Hepburn was born in Wellsville, Columbiana County, Ohio and raised from the age of seven in Iowa City, Iowa His schooling was limited to a few months in an Iowa City academy3 The great-grandson of Revolutionary War officer, printer, and congressman Matthew Lyon, and the great-great-grandson of Thomas Chittenden, the first Governor of Vermont, he was first engaged as an apprentice printer, before studying law He became prosecuting attorney of Marshall County in 1856 as well as serving as district attorney for the eleventh judicial district from 1856 to 1861 He was also the clerk to the Iowa House of Representatives4

In May 1860, Hepburn was one of two delegates representing counties in the eleventh judicial district at the 1860 Republican National Convention, where Abraham Lincoln was nominated5 The following March, when serving a brief term as a lobbyist for those counties in Washington DC, Hepburn attended Lincoln's presidential inauguration5

Civil War serviceedit

During the Civil War, he served as an officer in the 2nd Regiment Iowa Volunteer Cavalry He was promoted from captain of Company B to major of the First Battalion on September 13, 1861, then to lieutenant colonel in 18626 He participated in the final stage of the Battle of Island Number Ten near New Madrid, Missouri, and saw combat during the Siege of Corinth, the Battle of Iuka in northeastern Mississippi, and the Battle of Collierville, Tennessee5 From time to time he was also assigned as an inspector of cavalry for the Army of the Cumberland and, due to his legal experience, served as an acting inspector general and court martial president or judge advocate for troops in the lower Mississippi River theatre5

He was mustered out on October 3, 1864, upon the expiration of his term of service6 He moved his family to Memphis, Tennessee before returning to Iowa in 1867, to a home in Clarinda5 In 1886, he joined the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States MOLLUS, through that organization's District of Columbia Commandery, as Companion #04476 The MOLLUS was the first post-Civil War veterans' organization, founded by and for those who served as commissioned officers in the Union army and navy

First service in Congressedit

Soon after Hepburn established his legal practice in Clarinda, Iowa, he again became active in Republican politics5 In 1880, Hepburn was elected as a Republican to the United States House of Representatives from Iowa's 8th congressional district, after defeating incumbent William F Sapp in the district convention on the 346th ballot5 He was re-elected in 1882 and 1884, but was defeated in the 1886 general election by Independent Republican Albert R Anderson Anderson, a former state railroad commissioner, had run on an anti-monopolist, anti-corporate platform, and "specialized in the unfairness and excesses of the prevailing railroad rates"7 Historians have viewed Hepburn's defeat as a catalyst for authorization of a federal Interstate Commerce Commission, which became a higher priority for other congressman who hoped to avoid Hepburn's fate7

In 1888, two years after his defeat, he was the principal opponent to James F Wilson for the Republican nomination for US Senate However, when it became apparent that he lacked the votes among the Iowa General Assembly to defeat Wilson, his supporters withdrew his name from consideration8

After the election of President Benjamin Harrison returned the White House to Republican hands in 1889, Hepburn served as Solicitor of the Treasury

Return to Congressedit

In 1892, after three terms away from Congress, Hepburn ran again for his former seat after Anderson's successor, Republican James Patton Flick, declined to run for a third term Hepburn won his party's nomination and the general election, and was re-elected seven more times During this period he served as Chairman of the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce

In 1894, Hepburn finished a distant second in the Republican caucus to nominate a successor to retiring US Senator Wilson5

In 1899, Hepburn briefly became a candidate for election as Speaker of the House,9 but soon deferred to the successful candidacy of fellow Iowan and Civil War veteran David B Henderson10 Hepburn became notorious for his disdainful treatment on the House floor of newer members, prompting the New York Times to refer to him as the "House Terror"11 However, Hepburn was also an enduring but outspoken advocate to reform House rules that vested autocratic powers in Speakers of the House1213

Even before the publication of Upton Sinclair's expose The Jungle, Hepburn led efforts to adopt federal laws regulating food quality In 1902 the Hepburn Pure Food Act passed the House but not the Senate14 When such a bill finally passed both houses as the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 following the publication of Sinclair's book, Hepburn was the bill's floor manager15

Hepburn was also instrumental in appropriating funds for a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans16 Hepburn initially preferred a route through Nicaragua over a route through Panama,17 but ultimately became a key House sponsor of appropriations measures necessary for completion of the canal through Panama18

Hepburn Act of 1906edit

He also sponsored the Hepburn Act of 1906, a major priority in the second term of President Theodore Roosevelt1 The Act gave the Interstate Commerce Commission ICC the power to set maximum railroad rates and led to the discontinuation of free passes to loyal shippers Scholars consider the Hepburn Act the most important piece of legislation regarding railroads in the first half of the 20th century, while economists debate whether it went too far, and if its passage contributed to the Panic of 1907

Surprise defeat, and success at House reformedit

When running for his twelfth term in 1908, Hepburn was upset in the general election by his Democratic opponent, William D Jamieson In a year of strong Republican victories in Iowa led by Presidential candidate William Howard Taft, Jamieson won majorities in eight of the district's eleven counties19 Hepburn's loss was attributed to "purely local conditions and local strife," such as anger over bank failures and Hepburn's choices for local postmasters20

After his defeat but before his final term ended, he became the chairman of a 25-member group seeking once again to reform House rules that allowed Speaker Joe Cannon to amass even greater powers21 This time, Hepburn's reform efforts succeeded; Speaker Cannon was forced to surrender the power to block bills he did not like from coming to the floor once they received committee support22

After Congressedit

Hepburn returned to the practice of law, first in Washington, DC, then in Clarinda He died on February 7, 1916


The small town of Hepburn, Iowa, a few miles north of Clarinda, was named in his honor23

His home in Clarinda, known as the William P Hepburn House, is a National Historic Landmark24


  1. ^ a b Edmund Morris, “Theodore Rex: 1901-1909,” p 422 2001, ISBN 0-394-55509-0
  2. ^ 59th Congress, Sess 1, ch 3591, 34 Stat 584, enacted June 29, 1906
  3. ^ Editorial, "Col Wm P Hepburn," Waterloo Evening Courier, 1916-02-08 at p 4
  4. ^ Merrill Edwards Gates, Men of Mark in America, Volume 2, 1906, page 44
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h John Ely Briggs, "William Peters Hepburn," pp 45-47, 180 State Hist Soc of Iowa 1919
  6. ^ a b Logan, Guy E, Roster and Record of Iowa Troops In the Rebellion, Vol 4
  7. ^ a b Cyrenus Cole, "A History of the People of Iowa," p 395 Torch Press, Cedar Rapids: 1921
  8. ^ "An Hour at the Capitol," Sioux County Herald, 1888-01-17 at p 4
  9. ^ "Candidates for Speaker: Two Iowa Congressmen Wish to Succeed Thomas B Reed," New York Times, 1899-04-21 at p2
  10. ^ "The Speakership Contest," New York Times, 1899-04-29 at p 3
  11. ^ "House Terror is Routed," New York Times, 1903-12-12 at p4
  12. ^ "Wants House Rules Changed,' New York Times, 1899-08-24 at p1
  13. ^ "Cannon's Do-Nothing Plan," 1903-11-08 at p1
  14. ^ "Pure Food Bill Passed," New York Times, 1902-12-20 at p 8
  15. ^ Letter to the editor from Cong J Van Vechten Olcott, "Mr Cannon and Pure Food," New York Times, 1906-06-07 at p 6
  16. ^ "History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century," Vol 4 Biography of William P Hepburn
  17. ^ "Nicaragua Canal Debate," New York Times, 1900-05-02 at p3
  18. ^ "To Rush the Canal Bill," New York Times, 1905-12-06 at p4
  19. ^ "Hepburn Loses to Jamieson in the Eighth District," Des Moines Capital, 1908-11-05 at p1
  20. ^ "Hepburn's Defeat," Marble Rock Journal, 1908-11-12 at p1
  21. ^ "To Curb Speaker's Power," New York Times, 1908-12-12 at p2
  22. ^ "Cannon Surrenders Power," New York Times, 1909-02-21 at p1
  23. ^ W L Kershaw, "History of Page County, Iowa," 478 SJ Clarke Publishing Co, 1909
  24. ^ Cathy A Alexander and Ralph Christian March 1976, National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination: William Peters Hepburn House / Dorothy Schwimmer House pdf, National Park Service  and Accompanying 4 photos, exterior, from 1972 and 1975 241 MB
  • "William Peters Hepburn" Find a Grave Retrieved 2009-05-06 
  • United States Congress "William Peters Hepburn id: H000523" Biographical Directory of the United States Congress  Retrieved on 2009-05-06
US House of Representatives
Preceded by
William F Sapp
Member of the US House of Representatives
from Iowa's 8th congressional district

1881 – 1887
Succeeded by
Albert R Anderson
Preceded by
James P Flick
Member of the US House of Representatives
from Iowa's 8th congressional district

1893 – 1909
Succeeded by
William D Jamieson

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