The Washburns: A Most Influential Family

The Washburn family of Massachusetts and later Maine made more than their share of contributions to the United States in politics as well as in business. Israel Washburn Sr., a Massachusetts politician and farmer, had a whopping eleven children with his wife Patty, ten of whom survived into adulthood and four who served in elective office. These were Israel Jr. (1813-1883), Elihu (1816-1887), Cadwallader (1818-1882), and William (1831-1912). In addition, Charles (1822-1889) was a diplomat. This family was, despite, Washburn Sr. holding office as a younger man, not wealthy and they worked hard farming the land and running a general store. There was little opportunity for play for the Washburn children. They were raised to be strongly anti-slavery through religious conviction and would carry these convictions into their politics.

In 1850, Washburn Jr. was elected to Congress from Maine as a Whig, serving until 1861. In 1852, Elihu joined his older brother, being elected from Illinois also as a Whig. In 1854, Cadwallader was elected from Wisconsin. On June 2nd,  1854, Israel Jr. delivered a speech in Bangor, Maine, in which he used the term “Republican” regarding the new party, possibly the first member of Congress to do so. All brothers joined the Republican Party upon its formation. While in Congress they fought against slavery and even did so physically. In 1856, Laurence Kiett of South Carolina attacked Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania after an exchange of insults, attempting to choke him, and a brawl erupted in the House. Cadwallader and Elihu participated, with the brawl ending after the former attempted to deck William Barksdale of Mississippi, but had grabbed his hairpiece first and the embarrassed Barksdale put the wig on backwards, resulting in hysterical laughter throughout the House.

Israel Washburn Jr. was elected Governor of Maine in 1860 and served two years in this position. He proved very popular and was effective at raising troops and supplies for the war effort. Opting not to run again in 1863, he was appointed by President Lincoln to be the Collector of the Port of Portland, serving in this post until 1877.

Israel Washburn, Jr. - Brady-Handy.jpg

Elihu Washburne (he added an e to his last name) was known for his strong support of President Lincoln as well as his frequent bucking of his party on railroad land grants. He thought of them as corrupt giveaways of public land and regularly voted against them. Washburne was also a supporter of President Grant and served briefly as his Secretary of State and as Ambassador to France from 1869 to 1877. His support continued despite his strong disapproval of the corruption that occurred under his administration. Although he told his supporters not to do so, they put his name up for the presidential nomination in 1880 instead of Ulysses S. Grant, leading Grant to believe that he had sabotaged his effort at the nomination, and this ended their friendship. His MC-Index score is a 59%.

Cadwallader Washburn served as a general in the War of the Rebellion and was unlike other politicians who served in command roles: he proved an excellent administrative leader and was highly recommended by Ulysses S. Grant. He took over the Minneapolis Milling Company along with John Crosby, and in 1866 formed General Mills from it. He served in Congress again from 1867 to 1871, and successfully ran for governor in 1871, serving a single term. His MC-Index score is a 95%.

Image result for Cadwallader Washburn

William Washburn served in the House from Minnesota from 1879 to 1885, having prevailed over former Republican Ignatius Donnelly for the seat and served in the Senate from 1889 to 1895. He had assisted his older brother Cadwallader with General Mills and founded what later became known as the Pillsbury Company. Washburn also formed what would become known as the Soo Line Railroad. In 1895, he was shocked to lose reelection to fellow Republican Knute Nelson, who had been conducting a secret campaign for the seat. He had been coy, even deceptive about his ambitions, not being straightforward with Washburn on his intentions until his announcement to run on January 3, 1895. Nelson even told the state legislature to “elect your Republican legislative ticket, so as to send my friend Washburn back to the United States senate or if you do not like him, send some other good Republican”.  He also had assistance from James J. Hill, a rival of Washburn’s in the railroad business who Washburn had recently angered by running his railroad between two of Hill’s. The campaign in the state legislature was bitter and the dejected Washburn called for a popular vote to elect senators. A popular vote may not have made a difference as Nelson was popular with politicians and the public alike and his Scandinavian origins helped him in Minnesota while Washburn’s perceived status as an elite from Maine worked against him. His MC-Index score is an 88%.


About the Washburns. Washburn Norlands Living History Center.

Retrieved from

Adams, E.E. The Washburn-Nelson Senatorial Campaign of 1894-1895. Minnesota Legal History Project.

Retrieved from

Emery, T. (2017, July 1). C.C Washburn founded General Mills; studied law in Rock Island. Dispatch Argus.

Retrieved from

Hess, S. (1967). An American In Paris. American Heritage, 18(2).

Retrieved from

Israel Washburn Jr.: Maine’s Little Giant of the Civil War. Maine Memory Network.

Retrieved from

3 thoughts on “The Washburns: A Most Influential Family

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s