||Complete HarpWeek Biography:
Fenton, Reuben Eaton (July 4, 1819 – August 25, 1885)
Reuben Fenton was a U.S. representative, U.S. senator, and New York
Reuben Eaton Fenton 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: Phyllis F. Field, “Fenton, Reuben Eaton,”
American National Biography (online).