James Mitchell Ashley Biography

Governor, U.S. Representative (1824–1896)
James Mitchell Ashley was best known as a U.S. congressman and abolitionist who laid the foundation to pass the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery.


Born on November 14, 1824, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, James Mitchell Ashley was a U.S. congressman from Ohio, governor of Montana Territory and an abolitionist. Ashley laid the foundation to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery. He later worked as a railroad president in the Midwest. Ashley died on September 16, 1896, in Alma, Michigan.

Early Life

James Mitchell Ashley was born on November 14, 1824, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to John Ashley, a bookbinder, and Mary Ashley. When he was a young child, his family moved to Portsmouth, Ohio. During his teen years, his father prodded him to go into ministry to follow a long line of relatives who worked as Baptist ministers. Ashley refused and instead ran away from home and worked as a steamboat cabin boy on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

Several years later, he returned home and educated himself in the printing industry. He worked as a newspaper editor at the Portsmouth Dispatch and afterward at the Portsmouth Democrat. Ashley then studied law, passing the Ohio bar in 1849, but never practiced. In 1851, Ashley moved to Toledo, Ohio, to open a drugstore.

Political Career

While in Toledo, Ashley was active in local politics and served as chairman of the Ohio Republican Party in 1858. A year later, in 1859, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives in the 36th Congress.

During his tenure, Ashley was one of the abolitionist movement’s leaders. According to biographer Robert F. Horowitz, Ashley "maintained that under the war powers clause of the Constitution, the government had the right to interfere with slavery in the states and to initiate complete abolition, and that the power should be used against the oligarchic slaveholders. He firmly believed that his views would eventually be accepted by the administration and the American people." In 1863, Ashley proposed an amendment to the United States Constitution to abolish slavery, forming the foundation of the Thirteenth Amendment. When it passed in 1865, Ashley telegraphed the Toledo Commercial, "Glory to God in the highest! Our country is free."

Ashley believed President Andrew Johnson, a supporter of Southern causes during the Civil War, had played a role in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Ashley was also critical of the president’s attempts to veto extensions of the Freedmen's Bureau, the Civil Rights Bill and the Reconstruction Acts. He supported impeachment proceedings against Johnson, charging him with the "usurpation of power and violation of law by corruptly using the appointing, pardoning, and veto powers, by disposing corruptly of the property of the United States, and by interfering in elections."

The United States House of Representatives successfully impeached Johnson, though Ashley’s passion for his causes did not endear him to all voters; in 1868 he lost reelection into the 41st Congress by a slim margin.

The next year, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Ashley as governor of Montana Territory. Ashley’s interests then turned to the railroad industry. From 1877 to 1893 he served as president of the Toledo, Ann Arbor and Northern Railroad company. During this time he also ran for the United States House of Representatives in 1890 and 1892, but lost both elections.

Personal Life

Ashley married Emma Smith in 1851. His family, including his namesake James Ashley Jr., resided in Ohio and Michigan.

In 1863, Ashley experienced a severe diabetes attack. Though he survived, he fell ill again three years later. Ashley died in Alma, Michigan, on September 16, 1896. His body was buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Toledo, Ohio.

In 1897, a eulogy held at the Unitarian Church in Ann Arbor described Ashley’s personal character, stating that he was a large man, "intellectually, physically and morally. There was nothing petty, small or mean about him."

His impact as a railroad industry leader was felt in the communities he affected. Ashley Street in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the train station still stands, was named in his honor.

Ashley is the great-grandfather of the late Thomas William Ludlow Ashley, a U.S. representative from Ohio.

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