This week’s notable Hoosier obit focuses on one of Indiana political history’s most important, and slightly controversial, public figures. Schuyler Colfax, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and vice president under Ulysses S. Grant’s first term, was a major player within the Republican Party during the late nineteenth century. However, his political career ended in controversy when news broke that he was a minor player in the Credit Mobilier scandal that also threatened Grant’s tenure in the White House. News of Colfax’s death on January 13, 1885 was somewhat inconspicuous.
Schuyler Colfax was born on March 23, 1823 in New York City. He and his family moved westward in 1836, settling in St. Joseph County, Indiana. As the Indianapolis Sentinel reported in his obituary, the “earlier years of his life were spent as a clerk in a county store, but when eighteen years of age he was appointed Deputy County Auditor, at South Bend, by his stepfather, who was Auditor.” This was the start of his life-long involvement in politics.
In 1850-51, Colfax served as one of the delegates to the Indiana Constitutional Convention, where he staunchly “opposed by voice and vote the clause prohibiting free colored persons from coming into the State.” Defeated as a Whig party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1851, he eventually won election to the House as a member of the newly-formed Republican party in 1854. He served in this body for the next 14 years. After the election of 1860, President-elect Abraham Lincoln gave Colfax some consideration for a cabinet post, before he settled on Indianan Caleb B. Smith. In 1863, during the height of the Civil War, House members elected Colfax as Speaker of the House. During his time leading the House, he helped secure congressional passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ending slavery, on January 31, 1865. The states ratified the amendment on December 18, 1865.
In 1868, while still serving as Speaker, the Republican Party nominated him to be General Ulysses S. Grant’s running mate. They won the election on November 3, 1868. Colfax would serve only one term in Grant’s administration. In 1872, Colfax announced that he was retiring from politics. The Republican Party nominated Henry Wilson to replace Colfax on the 1872 reelection ticket. However, there was a practical reason for Colfax’s retirement and the party replacing him as vice president nominee.
During 1868, Colfax became involved in a railroad shell corporation called Credit Mobilier of America, investing his own money into the scheme and receiving a $1,200 dividend check from Oakes Ames, a Congressman who roped some of his colleagues into it. After the New York Sunbroke the story, Colfax was later implicated in the scheme and nearly impeached. The impeachment proceedings stalled because Wilson replaced Colfax on the ticket. (Consequently, Wilson also became implicated in the scandal, but died of a stroke in 1875.) After nearly 20 years of success in public life, Colfax left Washington in 1873 a defeated, slightly tarnished man.
He spent the remaining years of his life rebuilding his reputation as a public speaker, traveling around the country sharing his memories of President Lincoln during the Civil War. On January 13, 1885, Colfax arrived in an extremely cold Mankato, Minnesota on another lecture tour. As the Greencastle Times reported, Colfax “walked from the Milwaukee [Railroad] depot, the distance of half a mile, and it is presumed the exertion superinduced an attack of heart of disease. He fell forward from the seat in the waiting room and died without uttering a word.”
The Indiana press’s reaction to Colfax’s death balanced its respect for the fallen leader but also acknowledged his Credit Mobilier foibles. The Greencastle Timesdescribed the scandal as the “wrongs and embitterments that wore put upon him through the hatred and malice of his enemies,” but that his reputation was left “unscathed in the estimation of his home constituency and all those who knew him best.” The Indianapolis News wrote that, “Of his connection with the “Credit Mobilier” nothing need be said now, for the country knows it all. It is alluded to here because, in nearly thirty years of public life in his state or in congress, this is the only imputation on his integrity.”
On the other end of responses, the Terre Haute Expressdid not even mention the affair. Finally, on the day of his death, the Indianapolis News published a column that fully defended Colfax against accusations of impropriety. “The case against him, wrote the News, “as having received $1,200 in an ‘S. C. [presumably for Schuyler Colfax] or bearer’ check from Oakes Ames was a strong one circumstantially but lacked direct conclusive proof, and against it Mr. Colfax put a private life without stain and a long and honorable public career to that time unsullied.” The Odd Fellows, of which Colfax was a member, attended to Colfax’s remains, and escorted the body back to Indiana via train within a few days. He was buried on January 17, 1885 at City Cemetery, South Bend.
Despite Colfax’s involvement in one of the nineteenth century’s most explosive political scandals, his career in the House of Representatives, especially his help in passing the thirteenth amendment, deserves some level of recognition. Like many leaders of the Gilded Age, Colfax involved himself in an unsavory business arrangement that ruined his chances for higher political office. Nevertheless, he tried to rehabilitate his reputation and enjoyed a few years of success on the lecture circuit. While most Americans may not think of Schuyler Colfax when discussing the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, he was one of Indiana’s statesmen that left an indelible, and slightly infamous, mark on political life during the times.
Indiana’s contribution to the “Golden Age of Freethought” during the late nineteenth century has been covered by previous blogs for the Indiana Historical Bureau; in particular, iconoclastic author Ambrose Bierce, the Vonnegut’s, and Robert Ingersoll and Lew Wallace’s “legendary train ride.” This blog covers another another Hoosier freethinker, W. H. LaMaster. His freethought newspaper, the Iconoclast, became a staple of Indianapolis thought through the 1880s and he continued his column writing until his death in 1908. LaMaster advocated for religious skepticism, scientific advancement, and was a staunch anti-temperance advocate. LaMaster, alongside notable freethinkers like Ambrose Bierce, Clemens Vonnegut, and Robert Ingersoll, helps us understand the rich religious diversity in the Midwest during the late nineteenth century.
William Hammon LaMaster was born on February 14, 1841 in Shelbyville, Indiana, to Benjamin and Elizabeth LaMaster. His early life is mostly unknown to us, but we do know that he lived for a time in Missouri on the family farm, according to the US Census. From there, LaMaster served for the Union army during the Civil War, serving in the 89th Indiana Infantry and the 146th Indiana Infantry. After the war, he returned home to Shelbyville (and later Liberty), passed the bar exam, and began his law practice. As early as 1868, he was beginning to make a splash within Republican Party circles. As the Daily Ohio Statesman reported, LaMaster was a “rising young lawyer of that city [Shelbyville, Indiana], a gentleman and a scholar, and hitherto was the main hub in the Republican Party in that county. He was in the war, and bears honorable scars.” In 1868, he advertised his law practice in the Connersville Examiner, and described his credentials as “Attorney at Law, and Deputy Common Pleas Prosecutor. Will practice in the Courts of Union and Fayette Counties.”
Also in 1868, LaMaster began writing a regular newspaper column writing for the Connersville Examiner called “Liberty Items.” In it he shared his thoughts on local happenings in Liberty Township, Union County, Indiana. In personal affairs, he married Harriet Reed on December 26, 1866, with the usual proceedings of a “Minister of Gospel,” as described on their marriage record. LaMaster’s iconoclastic views had not yet bubbled to the surface, at least with regards to his nuptials.
From there, LaMaster’s story is unclear until the late 1870s, when his religious skepticism was in full force. While LaMaster’s evolution into a freethinker is of great importance, it is outside of the scope of this initial post. By May 1879, his public life as a freethinker was evident in a lecture entitled “The God of the Bible” that he delivered at Terre Haute’s Dowling Hall. The Terre HauteWeekly Gazette described, “From the way he states his subject something of an idea of his manner of treating it may be learned.” Unfortunately, research has yet to uncover the text of this lecture. However, an advertisement published in an 1884 issue of the Index suggests that it might have been akin to known-agnostic Robert Ingersoll’s critical lecture, Some Mistakes of Moses.
Being a skeptic, so far as spiritualism is concerned in any form, whether manifested through ignorant mediums or otherwise, I must say that I saw nothing on my late experience among spirits in Terre Haute to convince me of the truth of modern spiritualism.
When LaMaster was not debunking spiritualism in Terre Haute, he was trying to debunk another popular notion during the period: temperance. The movement, which called for either the curtailing or elimination of alcohol consumption, gained steam during the late nineteenth century. LaMaster viewed the movement as he did most creeds—as an overzealous, dogmatic group who wanted to control people’s lives. He did not parse words when he wrote in the Indianapolis People that the first temperance lecturer was the Devil, who “taught a very remote grandmother of ours the art of using, in a very temperate manner, a certain kind of ‘fruit,’ to her ‘mental’ advantage, before any wicked distiller ever thought of solving the difficult problem, how to convert its juice into intoxicating beverages.” Now, it is important to clarify LaMaster’s personal view; while he supported any individual or personal efforts to be temperate with drink, he was opposed to using laws to move people in that direction, a distinction the Indianapolis News made sure to print.
While temperance was one of LaMaster’s political hobby horses, his dedication to freethought and secularism was his main contribution to the growing diversity of Indiana’s religious thought during the late nineteenth century. In an 1898 article for the Improvement Era, “What Agnosticism Is?,” LaMaster outlined his own view regarding theological matters. He wrote:
Agnosticism as an applied theory or doctrine may therefore be said to be one which neither asserts nor denies the existence of the infinite, the absolute. Or, it may be defined as a “theory of the unknowable which assumes its most definite form in the denial of the possibility of any knowledge of God.” And so the agnostic may be said to be one who does not claim or profess to know of the existence of a supreme being called God.
Regarding agnosticism, LaMaster’s view mirrored the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (who coined the term) as well as the other titan of Midwestern freethought, Robert G. Ingersoll. Conversely, LaMaster’s agnosticism under-girded his poor estimation of Christianity, which he believed rested on a poor foundation of “faith.” He declared:
To state the proposition more tersely we will say that while Christianity is willing to rest on “faith” alone in arriving at any one or more objective religious truths, agnosticism demands something more—it demands evidence of the highest character before accepting as very truth any kind of a religious belief or dogma. Hence we find Christianity standing for a bare and empty faith and agnosticism for the strongest and the most indisputable of testimony. And so it must be admitted that as between the Christian and the agnostic there is an impassable gulf.
For LaMaster, the use of reason, in conjunction with evidence, provided a person with the clearest picture of the world and their place within it.
In the introduction to the 1893 version, LaMaster further explained his worldview and the impetus for publishing Ingersoll’s answers. He wrote:
It is for the good and well-being of the whole people that a natural religion should take the place of a supernatural one. With the imaginary or idealistic, progressive thought can have nothing to do, since it is the real, and not the ideal, that men and women should crave to find. The world is in need of a religion of humanity—one of philosophy and good deeds—and not one of creeds.
The idea of a “religion of humanity” recalls the proto-humanistic philosophy of Auguste Comte, who argued for a natural religion based on altruistic impulses and mutual affection among individuals without the need for supernaturalism. LaMaster also published with these letters an essay that he likely prepared for the International Congress of Freethinkers in Chicago entitled, “The Genesis of Life.” In it, he argued for a naturalistic explanation for life on earth, noting that “whilst there may be no particular source of life in the universe, there is always to be found a general or universal one from which it may emanate and become an active, moving, and expressive energy in organic nature.”
His years publishing the Iconoclast were difficult, especially in a city like Indianapolis, where its community of freethought was “without organization,” according to the Index. “With the Iconoclast,” wrote B. F. Underwood in the same paper, “existence is yet a struggle, as it necessarily is with all young liberal journals.” Despite its success with Ingersoll’s Answers to Indianapolis Clergy, the Iconoclast ceased publication in 1886.
Over the next 20 years, LaMaster continued writing and publishing a variety of essays and pamphlets, both in journals and newspapers. In 1896, he published, “The Growth and Magnitude of the Sidereal Heavens,” in Popular Astronomy, where he speculated on the existence of extraterrestrial life. “Let us then, in our magnanimity,” declared LaMaster, “rise above the compass of our human selfishness and allow our minds to be inspired with the thought that there are other worlds than ours in the starry vaults of heaven, which are the abode of even more sentient beings than ourselves.” These ideas would be echoed nearly a century later by astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan, in his television series, Cosmos.
In another piece, “How Do We Think?,” LaMaster speculates on the interaction of language and human minds, and whether language is necessary for human thought. LaMaster mused:
If it be true, then, that mind is one of the endowments of matter, even in its organized forms, and one of its functions is that of thinking, it cannot be denied that it will think independently of words actually spoken or disguised . . . . Words themselves presuppose some kind of thought; in fact, words are the natural and legitimate offspring of thought.
Again, LaMaster was extremely prescient about this point. The hypothesis that thought comes before language and that our brains are hard-wired for language has been buttressed by cognitive scientists like Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker. Despite his training as an attorney, it is evident that LaMaster was a man whose interest in ideas, particularly of the sciences, was particularly well-rounded, especially for the nineteenth century.
Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, he continued writing newspaper columns, including authoring pieces for the Indianapolis News . In one article from February 26, 1895, he wrote about the enduring legacy of American revolutionary and freethinker Thomas Paine. In one of his final columns, written for the August 16, 1907 issue of the Indianapolis Star, LaMaster shared his thoughts about the human soul:
The soul per se, unlike other forms of matter, can have neither growth nor decay. It having therefore its own eternal place and fixity in the universe, it can be neither born nor can it die. And whatever then may be its form or shape it possesses potential being, and one, too, of the highest order.
This nascent spiritualism should not be taken to mean that he had changed his mind. Rather, LaMaster believed that the “soul” was likely an emergent property of humanity’s natural place in the universe.
In 1906, he and his family moved to Westphalia, Knox County, Indiana, away from the hustle of Indianapolis, where he continued his intellectual pursuits until the end. LaMaster died on July 28, 1908, at the age of 67. In his obituary from the Indianapolis News, he was described as a “frequent contributor to the Indianapolis News and other Indianapolis newspapers,” and was a “vigorous writer.” In that last remark, they were certainly correct. In his lifetime, LaMaster had written for numerous newspapers, journals, and pamphlets on a wide-range of topics. His newspaper, the Iconoclast, helped to cement a growing freethought community in Indianapolis. His speculations on science are still noteworthy today. In this regard, LaMaster was a classic, nineteenth century “polymath.” In his explorations and religious unorthodoxy, LaMaster contributed much to our understanding of freethought in the Midwest during the late nineteenth century.