Go to the homepage...

George Franklin Edmunds
(February 1, 1828 – February 27, 1919)


George 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 disputed, 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 the 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.

Go to the homepage...





Website design © 2001-2005 HarpWeek, LLC & Caesar Chaves Design
All Content © 1998-2005 HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to