Edmunds was a longtime U.S. senator (1866-1891) and a member of
the Electoral Commission of 1877, which decided the contested
presidential election of 1876. He was a dedicated advocate of
black civil rights, including the Fifteenth Amendment.
He was born on
February 1, 1828, in Richmond, Vermont, to Naomi Briggs Edmunds
and Ebenezer Edmunds. Poor health forced him to leave public
school and be tutored at home by his brother-in-law. Edmunds
read law at the U.S. Supreme Court library in Washington, D.C.,
in the winter of 1845-1846, and then continued his studies at a
leading law firm in Burlington, Vermont. In 1849, he was
admitted to the state bar and established a practice in
Richmond; he relocated to Burlington two years later. In 1852,
he married Susan Marsh Lyman, niece of diplomat George Perkins
Marsh; the couple later had two children.
In 1854, Edmunds was elected as
an antislavery Whig to the first of five consecutive one-year
terms in Vermont House of Representatives, the last three as its
speaker. He served 1861-1862 as a Republican in the State
Senate, where he was president pro tempore. In 1864, U.S.
Secretary of State William H. Seward named Edmunds as special
counsel to negotiate the extradition of a group of Confederates
from Canada. The appointment enhanced his reputation even
though the mission was ultimately unsuccessful. In early 1866,
he was appointed to fill one of Vermont’s U.S. Senate seats
vacated upon the death of Solomon Foot. Sworn in on April 5,
1866, Edmunds voted the next day to override President Andrew
Johnson’s veto of the Civil Rights Act. It was the first
congressional override in American history and carried by one
vote. In October, the Vermont legislature formally elected
Edmunds to finish Foot’s term, and subsequently reelected him to
four more terms in the U.S. Senate.
As a senator, Edmunds supported
the Reconstruction policies of the Congressional Republicans.
In January 1867, he successfully proposed amendments for black
manhood suffrage to the statehood bills of Nebraska and
Colorado. (Statehood for Colorado was rejected.) In 1868, he
chaired the Senate committee that drafted the rules of procedure
for President Johnson’s removal trial, and later voted to
convict the president (who was not removed from office). Over
the decades, Edmunds was a vocal advocate of federal legislation
to advance or protect black civil rights, including the Ku Klux
Klan Act of 1871, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and the Federal
Elections Bill (“Force Bill”) of 1890. He chaired the Senate
Judiciary Committee from 1872 until his retirement in 1891,
except when the Democrats had a Senate majority in the 46th
Congress (1879-1881). As a “hard money” supporter, he voted for
the Specie Resumption Act of 1875, which made the nation’s paper
currency (“greenbacks”) redeemable in gold coins.
When the Electoral College count
for the presidential election of 1876 was
Edmunds was appointed chairman of a special Senate committee
charged with finding a process to resolve the situation. On
January 10, 1877, he and Congressman George McCrary, chairman of
the special House committee, proposed the creation of a
commission independent of Congress for final adjudication of the
disputed electoral returns. Edmunds was appointed to the
15-member Electoral College Commission, which consisted of five
senators, five representatives, and five justices of the Supreme
Court. They voted 8-7 to award all the disputed votes, and thus
the presidency, to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes.
Edmunds sponsored the
Anti-Polygamy Act of 1882, which became commonly referred to
as “the Edmunds Act.” It extended a federal law of 1862, which
had made plural marriage illegal, by prohibiting polygamists
from voting, serving on juries, or holding public office. In
1885-1886, his showdown with President Grover Cleveland led to
repeal of the Tenure of Office Act, which had required a
president to obtain Senate approval before removing high-ranking
presidential appointments from office.
Edmunds served as
president pro tempore of the Senate in the 47th and
48th Congresses (1881-1883; 1883-1885). Therefore,
after the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881,
Edmunds became the “acting vice president” when Vice President
Chester Arthur assumed the presidency. Edmunds was an
unsuccessful candidate for the Republican presidential
nomination in 1880 and 1884, unable to gain significant support
beyond his New England base. Although respected for his
integrity and ability, his cold personality and acerbic rhetoric
did not earn him many friends among fellow politicians.
While a senator, Edmunds argued several cases before federal
circuit courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. He resigned from the
Senate on November 1, 1891, and returned full-time to his law
practice. In 1895, he successfully convinced the Supreme Court
to rule the federal income tax unconstitutional (Pollack v.
the Farmers Loan and Trust Company). He opposed the
American acquisition of overseas territories in the wake of the
Spanish-American War of 1898. In 1912, he moved to
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and later relocated to Pasadena,
California, where he died on February 27, 1919.