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Gideon Welles was a 19th century journalist and politician who served as secretary of the U.S. Navy under presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson.
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Born on July 1, 1802, in Glastonbury, Connecticut, Gideon Welles became a prominent journalist and politician who supported individual freedoms. Opposing slavery, he helped found the Republican Party in 1856 and was later appointed U.S. secretary of the Navy by President Abraham Lincoln. Welles continued to hold his cabinet seat under President Andrew Johnson and opposed Radical Reconstruction.
Gideon Welles was born in Glastonbury, Connecticut, on July 1, 1802. After attending the Episcopal Academy and the institution now known as Norwich University, he studied law. Around this same time, he developed a passion for the written word.
Welles was a supporter of Thomas Jefferson's and Andrew Jackson's political ideologies, which he espoused in editorials that he wrote for his newspaper, The Hartford Times. Welles then won a seat to the Connecticut General Assembly in 1827—becoming its youngest representative at the time—serving until 1835. As a politician, he went against conservative Calvinist doctrines by pushing the idea that one didn’t have to subscribe to a particular religious belief in order to hold political office or testify in court. Welles was heavily critiqued for his actions and reforms, and spoke openly about the unprincipled beliefs of his compatriots.
Welles would continue to be a formidable political entity. He was appointed Connecticut's postmaster by President Andrew Jackson in 1836. A decade later, President James Polk appointed Welles to be the provisions and clothing chief for the U.S. Navy.
Welles left the Democratic Party over the issue of slavery after the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed—which extended human bondage into Kansas—and became one of the founders of the Republican Party in 1856. Welles created the Harford Evening Press newspaper to push his political views, and would eventually head the Connecticut delegation to the 1860 Republican National Convention.
Partially due to his credentials as a New Englander and former Democrat, Welles was able to secure a cabinet seat once Abraham Lincoln took presidential office in 1861. Welles hence became secretary of the Navy.
The country’s naval force had fallen into disrepair. Turning the enterprise around during the Civil War, Welles helmed the creation of ironclad ships, pushed for improved steam technology and created blockades of Confederate ports, thereby disrupting income to be had from the cotton trade. He also authorized the enlistment of African-American naval officers who had escaped slavery.
Seen as an efficient, serious man, Welles often didn't see eye to eye with other Lincoln cabinet members and didn’t always agree with Lincoln himself. Yet the two remained connected and their families enjoyed a close relationship. Welles was with Lincoln after he was shot; Welles's wife Mary Jane was particularly good friends with Mary Todd Lincoln, staying by her side during the president's final hours.
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