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  Name:  George Hunt Pendleton
  Born:  July 29, 1825
  Died:  November 24, 1889

  Complete HarpWeek Biography:

Pendleton, George Hunt (July 29, 1825 – November 24, 1889)

George Pendleton was a U.S. representative (1857–1865), the Democratic vice–presidential nominee in 1864, a U.S. senator (1879–1885), and the U.S. minister to Germany (1885–1889).

He was born on July 29, 1825, in Cincinnati, Ohio, to Jane Frances Hunt Pendleton and Nathaniel Greene Pendleton, an attorney and Whig congressman.  After attending local schools and Cincinnati College, young George began studying under private tutors in 1841.  Three years later, he took a Grand Tour of the Middle East and Europe, matriculating for a while at the University of Heidelberg.  When he returned to America in 1846 he married Mary Alicia (“Alice”) Key, the daughter of Francis Scott Key (author of “The Star–Spangled Banner”) and niece of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney.  The couple later had three children.

Admitted to the Ohio bar in 1847, Pendleton practiced law until 1853 when he won a commanding victory to the state senate as a Democrat.  Impressing colleagues with his legislative skill, he was nominated for Congress in 1854.  Although unsuccessful, he was subsequently elected in 1856 and served until 1865.  During the crisis over the issue of slavery in Kansas in the late 1850s, Pendleton opposed the pro–slavery Lecompton Constitution, allying himself with Senator Stephen Douglas against President James Buchanan.

In 1860, Pendleton endorsed Douglas for president, and then favored the Crittendon Compromise during the secession winter of 1860–1861.  During the Civil War, Pendleton was a principled critic of Lincoln administration policies and a leader of the peace wing of the Democratic Party.  He particularly opposed the suppression of civil liberties, such as the suspension of habeas corpus and the replacement of civilian with military authority, and considered the Legal Tender Act (making paper currency legal) to be unconstitutional.  He served on the House Judiciary Committee, the Ways and Means Committee, and as one the House managers of the impeachment of Judge West Humphreys.  Despite policy differences, Pendleton’s skill and diplomacy won respect on both sides of the political aisle.  His dignified manner was reflected in the nickname “Gentleman George.” 

After the McClellan–Pendleton ticket lost in the November 1864 election, Pendleton returned to Congress, but was defeated for reelection in 1866.  In the post–war era Pendleton became a Greenbacker, which was an abrupt change in his monetary view, having formerly opposed paper money as unconstitutional.  Thereafter he supported the “Ohio Idea” of paying government bonds in paper currency (“greenbacks”), rather than in gold coins (“hard money”).  His new “soft money” position lost him support among Democrats from the Northeast and kept him from winning the party’s presidential nomination in 1868.  Ohio Democrats chose him as their gubernatorial candidate the next year, but he lost to Rutherford B. Hayes.  Pendleton then became president of the Kentucky Central Railroad.

In 1878, the Ohio state legislature elected Pendleton to the United States Senate, where he championed civil service reform.  As chair of the Senate committee on civil service, he steered through Congress legislation for appointments and advancement in the federal bureaucracy based on merit, not partisan patronage; the law became known as the Pendleton Act of 1883.  His stance on the issue angered Democratic supporters of the old patronage system, who denied him renomination to the Senate in 1884.  The next year, President Grover Cleveland named him minister to Germany, where he served until his death in Brussels, Belgium, on November 24, 1889.

Source consulted:  Ari Hoogenboom, “Pendleton, George Hunt,” American National Biography (online).


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