Eli M. Oboler Library
Fred T. Dubois-Biographical Sketch
Fred Thomas Dubois was like many other young men of his generation who sought expanded opportunities in the West. He took with him valuable assets--a handsome physique, a convivial personality, an active and inquisitive mind, and an instinct for politics. In Idaho he applied his talents and found his future, if not his fortune, in a long career of public service. He was instrumental in securing Idaho statehood while he used every chance to move himself up the political ladder until he reached the United States Senate. At the same time, by espousing a series of controversial issues, Dubois gained prestige and built a powerful state machine. But these same issues-- free silver, anti-imperialism, and especially anti-Mormon agitation--propelled him across the political spectrum from Republican to Silver Republican, to Democrat. Party regularity meant very little to him when a principle was involved. By the time his senate career ended, Dubois was known for his unorthodox political style. It was a style that blended progressive impulses with machine boss tactics, and behind it all there seemed to be no consistent philosophy. There was, instead, a struggle among competing elements as principle vied with personal ambition and a kind of instinctive opportunism. Yet Dubois never appeared to waver in his belief that he was acting with the purest motives and a true understanding of what the public good required. To the end of his long career, he remained one of Idaho's most controversial politicians.
Born on May 29, 1851, in Crawford County in southeastern Illinois, to Jesse and Adelia Morris Dubois, Fred was the fifth of seven children. That he later chose a life of public service hardly seems remarkable when one considers his family heritage. His grandfather, Toussaint Dubois, was of French-Canadian Catholic stock and had been a prosperous merchant and land speculator in the area around Vincennes, Indiana. He had also won local acclaim for his leadership of scouts at the Battle of Tippecanoe. This military career provided valuable political contacts with the family of Governor William H. Harrison. By the time of Fred's birth, his father, Jesse K. Dubois, had already fashioned a substantial public career of his own as an official in the United States Land Office at Palestine, Illinois, a member of the state legislature for ten years, and a county judge. He had been an early and ardent member of the Whig party and a strong opponent of the extension of slavery. As a young man he had made the acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln and others who would form the nucleus of the new Republican party in Illinois. In 1856, at Lincoln's urging, the Republicans nominated Jesse Dubois as their candidate for Auditor of Public Accounts. Following his election, he resigned the post of county judge and moved his family to the state capital in Springfield. Re-elected as Auditor in 1860, Jesse Dubois' career ended in 1864 in an unsuccessful bid for the nomination for Governor.
Thus Fred T. Dubois inherited a family tradition of public service and experienced from his earliest days the excitement of politics. His father remained a close friend of Lincoln and the Dubois home was just down the street from that of the future president. As the nation moved through the cataclysm of civil war, Fred attended the local public schools and the Shurtleff Preparatory School in Alton, Illinois, before he and his brother Jesse K. Dubois, Jr., enrolled at Yale College in 1868. There the two brothers, who remained almost inseparable until Jesse's death in 1908, roomed together. After graduating with the Class of 1872, Jesse studied medicine while Fred returned to Illinois, where he worked for a time for the wholesale dry good house of John V. Farwell & Company in Chicago.
But a career in business proved less attractive than public service. Through family political contacts, Fred won appointment as Secretary of the Board of Railway and Warehouse Commissioners in 1875, only to resign the following year shortly before his father's death. By 1880 he had decided to seek his future elsewhere. The opportunity to move to Idaho came when Jesse decided to give up his thriving medical practice and secured an appointment as physician for the Fort Hall Indian Reservation. After a brief stint as a cowboy on a cattle drive to Casper, Wyoming, Fred also found employment at Fort Hall. There he learned a variety of tasks and through his innate good humor won many new friends. He also came to see possibilities for personal advancement and in 1882 used his political connections in Illinois, including the intervention of the state's congressional delegation and Secretary of War Robert T. Lincoln, to get an appointment as United States Marshal for Idaho Territory.
The post of Marshal provided other political openings. Dubois traveled throughout the territory, making the acquaintance of the leading figures in all areas. Moreover as warden of the penitentiary, he had a base in the capital of Boise. But his most significant act in this period was to launch a campaign to disfranchise the Mormon voters on the grounds that they had violated the law by practicing polygamy and unlawful cohabitation and that the church leaders in Salt Lake City had exerted undue influence in Idaho political contests. This anti-Mormon theme ran through Dubois' early career, lay quiescent for a time, and then was resurrected in his effort to oust Reed Smoot of Utah from the United States Senate. Dubois professed to see the issue as one of public decency and constitutional law, but Mormons and many others saw it as religious bigotry. The most important result of this campaign was the test oath passed by the 1884 territorial legislature which was designed to disfranchise anyone who practiced polygamy or belonged to an organization that advocated polygamy.
Knowing that he had struck a responsive chord in many of the electorate, Dubois rode the issue to further success by winning election as Territorial Delegate to Congress over the incumbent Democrat. "Honest John" Hailey, in 1886. As Idaho's sole representative in Congress, Dubois defended the lead mining interests against a lowering of the lead tariff and, most important, prevented the dismemberment of the territory by interests who hoped to attach the northern panhandle to Washington and the southern half of the territory to Nevada. These accomplishments led to his re-election in 1888. With the Republican Benjamin Harrison in the White House, Dubois used the connections to the Harrison family dating from the time that their grandfathers had stood together at Tippecanoe to get the president's support for a bill making Idaho the forty-third state in 1890.
With Idaho safely in the Union, and the state legislature about to meet for the first time, Dubois devised an ingenious scheme to assure his election to a full six-year term in the U.S. Senate. The members of the Senate were apportioned in three classes according to the year in which their terms expired. Membership in the 1893 and 1895 classes was twenty-nine, while the 1891 class contained twenty-eight. This meant that one of the new Idaho senators would go into the latter group, whose terms expire on March 4, 1891, while the other would draw by lot either the 1893 or 1895 class. Thus one of Idaho's senators would leave office before another meeting of the legislature. Dubois' plan was to have the legislature elect three senators with a guarantee that Dubois would be elected to fill the six-year term beginning in March, 1891. The maneuver showed Dubois at his manipulative best as he deftly balanced the rival ambitions of other senatorial aspirants and the claims of northern Idaho's representatives that their section should be assured of at least one of the two available Senate seats. All went well as the legislators elected George L. Shoup, William J. McConnell, and Fred T. Dubois, but then a fourth candidate, William H. Clagett, convinced the solons to add his name to the list. The spectacle of a state legislature choosing four United States senators in a single session led one Montana newspaper to comment that "Idaho evidently goes on the principle that electing United States senators is like courting a widow--it can't be overdone." Ultimately, however, the plan worked as the Senate rejected Clagett's challenge to Dubois' election.
When Fred Dubois took the oath at the beginning of the Fifty-second Congress in December, 1891, he was, at age forty, the youngest man in the Senate. During his first term he gave first priority to domestic policy and rendered especially valuable service to Idaho interests through his membership on the Committees on Immigration, Irrigation, and Public Lands. He voted for more stringent restrictions on the immigration of Chinese laborers, led the filibuster effort against repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, and worked to defend Idaho's wool and lead interests from proposed reductions in the schedules of the Wilson-Gorman Tariff of 1894.
At the same time, Dubois was rising in the party leadership as secretary of the Republican caucus and a member of the party's steering committee in the Senate, where he wielded influence second only to that of his friend Henry M. Teller of Colorado. In 1894, Dubois worked to pass the Indian Appropriation bill. This measure ratified an agreement with the Nez Perce under which lands would be allotted to the members of the tribe and then the remaining area of the Nez Perce Reservation north of the Clearwater River would be thrown open to white settlement, a move that would add over 500,000 acres to the public domain in Idaho. Dubois, mindful of the needs of the Native Americans, also secured an amendment to the bill providing that an irrigation canal be built with federal funds to water the lands of the Fort Hall Reservation near Pocatello before they were allotted to the Indians.
But the chief western interest championed by Dubois was silver. He believed that bimetallism, not the first money policy of the Populists, was the answer to the country's financial problems. Thus he advocated the free and unlimited coinage of silver at the ratio of sixteen ounces of silver to one ounce of gold. At the same time that he broke with the "gold bugs" in his own party, Dubois was critical of the Democratic administration of Grover Cleveland for its free trade policy, believing that both the gold standard and free trade played into the hands of Great Britain.
Dubois was careful during his first term to secure his political base in Idaho through skillful use of the patronage. He had two of his trusted lieutenants named to federal posts--Joseph Pinkham as United States Marshal and Fremont Wood as United States Attorney. Dubois also continued to exert control over the Republican party in the state, but what added immeasurably to his strength was his following of "Dubois Democrats" led by his Blackfoot friends, Frank W. Beane and John W. Jones. These long standing ties to members of both major parties, and to Populists on the silver question, provided Dubois with considerable flexibility in dealing with men and issues. He established very early a pattern of ignoring party lines whenever required. That was to be his political trademark throughout his career. This tendency appeared when he led the Idaho delegation to the 1892 Republican national convention. Though his family had ties to the family of President Harrison Dubois shifted his support to James G. Blaine. And in 1896, Dubois and other silver men from the West bolted the St. Louis convention, formed the Silver Republican party, and nominated a Democrat, William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, for president. Then on his return to Idaho, he discovered that his refusal to announce a complete break with the Republican party made it impossible to effect a fusion of the Populists, Democrats, and Silver Republicans at the state level. The result was that Dubois' friends, Chairman Mart Patrie and C. J. "Jule" Bassett, were ousted from the Republican state central committee while a Democratic-Populist fusion ticket won control of the state legislature, which then elected a Populist, Henry Heitfeld, to replace Dubois in the Senate.
When Dubois retired in the spring of 1897, he had held public office for fifteen years. Now, he could return to his 320 acre ranch where he raised alfalfa and a herd of yearling steers bearing his brand of "16 to 1". There was also time for a trip to the Orient with his good friends, Senators Richard F. Pettigrew of South Dakota and Frank J. Cannon of Utah. The trio made stops in Japan and China to study their manufacturing and commercial development. On their way home, they visited Hawaii, an experience that confirmed Fred Dubois' suspicion of schemes to annex the islands. But despite the growing debate in the country over imperialism. Dubois insisted that the paramount issue was silver.
The midterm elections of 1898 proved a major disappointment. In Colorado and Idaho the Silver Republicans did well, but elsewhere the trend was discouraging as the failure of the various silver parties to cooperate led to the defeat of many of Dubois' friends--Charles Hartman and Lee Mantle in Montana, Charles A. Towne in Minnesota, and Frank Cannon in Utah. A disconsolate William E. Borah wrote that the Silver Republican party had "the largest political graveyard... of any political organization in the history of the world." Borah believed the party was all but dead and the emphasis on expansion rather than silver in the campaign seemed to bear him out. Even in Idaho, the people rallied to support the administration's decision to retain the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. Dubois viewed this expansionist policy in economic terms, seeing it as a scheme by the money power to take advantage of the cheap labor in Hawaii and the Philippines. To him the policy was "unholy, immoral and contrary to the spirit of our institutions..."
Dubois' interest in politics seemed to diminish in 1898, but both Borah and William Jennings Bryan urged him not to abandon a public career. Part of the reason for his unusual attitude lay in the fact that Dubois had fallen in love with Edna Maxfield Whited, a native of Illinois, but now an organizer of the kindergarten movement in South Dakota. They were married in 1899 and their union produced two daughters. Elizabeth Mary in 1900 and Edna Margaret (usually called Toussaint) in 1902. The marriage was a happy, cooperative partnership between two intelligent, ambitious persons with strong professional interests. The family letters reveal Fred's strong affection for his wife and daughters. They also reveal how the demands of his public career and later the need to provide an adequate income through business ventures, often kept them apart as Fred remained in Washington, D.C., for most of the year while Edna looked after the Blackfoot ranch and the girls attended boarding schools.
Dubois was only forty-six when he lost his seat, but prospects for a return to the Senate appeared dim. By 1900 the Silver Republican party was dying at the national level as its leaders disagreed over United States policy in the Philippines following the Spanish-American War. Dubois and Richard F. Pettigrew strongly opposed the imperial policy of the McKinley administration, but Henry M. Teller of Colorado favored some sort of protectorate over the islands, and William E. Borah thought that to relinquish the Philippines would be a cowardly act. In Idaho, disagreement over which issues should be paramount in the campaign, inability to make a fusion agreement with the Populists, and the disintegration of the Silver Republican party organization in several counties taxed Dubois' ingenuity. Yet it is a measure of his political skill that he was able to overcome these difficulties and to win back his Senate seat. While continuing to insist on the overriding significance of the silver issue, and calling for a fusion of all the silver parties to defeat McKinley, Dubois was able to take advantage of a situation peculiar to Idaho to assure his own election even as the Silver Republican party dissolved. He won control of the Democratic party through the combined influence of the "Dubois Democrats" and the so-called "dynamiter" faction of the party who opposed Governor Frank Steunenberg's handling of the 1899 labor dispute in the Coeur d'Alenes. Early that year violence had broken out when the Western Federation of Miners sought to unionize the Bunker Hill and Sullivan, the largest lead-silver producer in the region. When one thousand armed men dynamited the company's concentrator, Steunenberg asked for federal troops and imposed martial law in Shoshone County. Over seven hundred arrests followed, with the men detained in a bull pen system similar to that used in the 1892 disturbances in northern Idaho. Even worse was the permit system requiring a miner to get a state permit before he could obtain work in the region. To acquire the permit, the miner had to swear that he was not a member of the Western Federation of Miners. In short, Governor Steunenberg treated the union not as a legitimate labor organization, but an association of anarchists dedicated to violence. These events weakened Steunenberg and made it possible for Dubois to shape a fusion ticket of Democrats and Silver Republicans that carried Idaho for Bryan and gained control of the state legislature in a year that saw a major Republican victory across the nation.
Once he had been elected to the Senate over his only rival, the incumbent George L. Shoup, Dubois announced that he was going into the Democratic caucus in the new Congress. A month later, he joined other silver men in signing an address that announced the demise of the Silver Republican party.
The major issues confronting Fred Dubois during his second term were American rule in the Philippines, reclamation of arid Western lands, extension of the nation's forest reserves, and the effort to deny Reed Smoot of Utah his seat in the U. S. Senate. The Philippines had long been of concern because Dubois believed that their retention undermined the most fundamental principles of the American system. Most important of these was the idea that the power of government must rest upon the consent of the governed. Now, as a member of the Senate Committee on the Philippines, he also sought to protect Idaho's sugar beet growers from the competition of imported Philippine sugar. He and other Democratic anti-imperialists demanded the abolition of tariff barriers on all other Philippine products, not because they favored free trade, but because they hoped this stratagem, if successful, would force the Roosevelt administration to grant independence to the islands. This was probably the most significant issue on which Dubois challenged the Roosevelt administration.
Dubois was much more supportive of the president's conservation policies. When the Fifty-seventh Congress met in December, 1901, he made one of his most significant contributions to the long term development of the West in helping to shape new federal legislation to reclaim arid lands. The representatives of the West met in conference and appointed a committee of seventeen, one from each of the states and territories in the region, to frame a general irrigation law. Dubois presided over many of the sessions as the committee met almost nightly for a month. His tact and patience helped to reconcile conflicting interests, and in less than six months Congress passed the National Reclamation Act. The law provided a special fund based on the proceeds from the sale of public lands. Monies from the fund would pay for irrigation works and would be repaid within ten years by those purchasing the newly-watered land. The act also balanced federal and state roles by allowing the states and territories to pass laws governing the conditions which applied in their respective areas.
Despite the general popularity of the new reclamation law, the shifting political landscape in Idaho was a portent of difficult times ahead for Dubois and the state's Democrats. By 1902 the Populist party was in its death throes, but its tiny remnant refused fusion with the Democrats, while the Republicans enjoyed the kind of party unity that had enabled them to dominate the state in the early 1890's. Dubois retained control of the Democratic organization as the state convention chose a slate that included no fewer than five Dubois lieutenants and a number of other so-called "Dubois Democrats." But in the general election the Democrats were swamped as the entire GOP ticket swept into office and Idaho returned to the Republican fold for the first time since 1896. In the new state legislature Republicans outnumbered Democrats fifty to seventeen, thus assuring that Idaho's new senator would be a Republican. In a close contest, Weldon B. Heyburn defeated William E. Borah for the prize amid charges of corruption and Mormon influence in the electoral process. Dubois, searching for an explanation of the voters' rejection of the Democrats, found it in the charges of Mormon influence. He saw further evidence of a Mormon "conspiracy" in the election of Apostle Reed Smoot as the United States senator from Utah. Thus began a four year flight to deny Smoot his seat on the grounds that he could not serve both the Mormon Church and the United States. Although Dubois marshaled an extensive propaganda campaign by sympathetic women's groups such as the National Congress of Mothers, he failed to persuade his Senate colleagues to oust Smoot.
By early 1903, Dubois was embroiled in still another controversy--the Roosevelt administration's proposal to extend the nation's forest reserves. This proposal would have a significant impact on Idaho and it sharpened the on-going debate between Eastern conservationists like Gifford Pinchot and Western residents who feared such reserves would retard their states' economic development. Dubois, though a Democrat, strongly endorsed the Roosevelt plan, while Idaho's Republican leadership--Senator Weldon B. Heyburn Congressman Burton L. French and Governor Frank Gooding--all opposed the extension of forest reserves in northern Idaho. For three years the debate went on, with the Roosevelt administration finally victorious in adding 7.4 million acres to the forest reserves in the Gem state. Dubois had supported the president on this issue because he believed that the reserves were beneficial to Idaho. They not only controlled the use of timber and water resources, but kept them out of the hands of the timber syndicate. And so, once again he had crossed party lines to defend a principle in which he believed.
While supportive of Roosevelt's conservation efforts, Dubois continued to fight against the administration's policy in the Philippines. He joined other senators in opposing tariff reciprocity with the islands because he felt it threatened Western beet sugar producers and opened the possibility of a large influx of Chinese coolie labor. Finally, to avoid a showdown with the Democratic minority in the Fifty-ninth Congress, the president organized an official junket led by Secretary of War William Howard Taft. Some thirty congressmen and their wives joined Taft, General Tasker Bliss, and Alice Roosevelt on the trip to the Philippines, China and Japan. Fred Dubois participated as a member of the Senate Committee on the Philippines. Despite hearing testimony from Filipinos strongly in favor of self-government and visiting the revolutionary leader Emilio Aguinaldo at his home in Cavite, Dubois changed his position. Whereas he had formerly argued for independence, he now compared the Filipinos to the American Indians, judged them incapable of self-rule, and urged the administration to sell the islands to Japan. He also refused to accept a proposal to lower the duty on Philippine sugar and killed such a bill when it reached the Senate Committee on the Philippines. Dubois believed that the measure would have destroyed the beet sugar industry in Idaho. He also feared that if large corporate interests, such as the Sugar Trust and the Tobacco Trust, were to gain a foothold in the islands, the United States would have little chance to get out of the Philippines. Thus anti-imperialism merged with domestic economic interests to shape Dubois' position.
While his defense of Idaho's forests and sugar interests won increasing public support, Dubois' political base in the Gem state was slowly eroding as the Democratic party declined following the debacle in 1902. Still in the midst of his battle to oust Reed Smoot, Dubois supported William Randolph Hearst's bid for the 1904 Democratic presidential nomination. When Judge Alton B. Parker was named to head the ticket, Dubois worked hard to have both major parties incorporate an anti-polygamy plank in their platforms. In Idaho, Dubois' emphasis on the anti-Mormon theme alienated other Democrats. Suffering from insufficient funds, loss of critical newspaper support in much of the state, and the disaffection of many party leaders who wanted to emphasize other issues, he led the Democrats to a shattering defeat.
In the next two years, however, Dubois persisted in his quixotic crusade against Reed Smoot. Although predicting it would probably mean the end of his political career, he saw it as a struggle based on principle. As the 1906 election approached, Dubois suggested to his secretary, Charles E. Arney, that the coming campaign should be fought on the issue of "total disfranchisement of all the Mormons." Later he wrote his old friend, James Hawley, "Personally I should much prefer to lose in making such a fight, than to win through any assistance which might be given by the Mormons." Rejecting advice from fellow Democrats that he emphasize problems in Governor Frank Gooding's administration, Dubois continued to focus on the Mormon issue. Dubois' hold on the party strengthened when his chief Democratic rival, former Governor Frank Steunenberg, was killed by a bomb blast outside his home late in 1905. This incident removed the last counter influence in the party councils to Dubois' anti-Mormon monomania. Although the Democratic state convention adopted a generally progressive platform, Dubois insisted on the inclusion of a pledge to re-enact a test oath as provided in Article VI, Section 3 of the Idaho constitution. Such an oath had been used to disfranchise the state's Mormons between 1885 and 1893. Few voters wanted to turn back the clock. Those who were not bitter about Dubois' campaign were apathetic. Republicans, taking advantage of the public's indifference toward the question, focused their criticism on Dubois' support of new forest reserves in Idaho. The result was another republican landslide. The 1907 legislature was dominated by Republicans, who outnumbered Democrats by more than two to one in each house and they quickly chose William E. Borah as the state's new senator. A few weeks later, Dubois suffered his final defeat when the Senate refused to unseat Reed Smoot. Fred Dubois was only fifty-five years old, still in good health, and relatively vigorous when his term ended. In the months that followed, he attempted to keep up his anti-Mormon campaign in the pages of The Idaho Scimitar, a newspaper he published to alert the state to the continuing Mormon menace. But the paper, like so many of his business ventures, folded after a short time. In 1908 there were two other blows. Dubois was ousted from leadership of the Democratic party by a decision of the state supreme court in favor of the faction led by John Nugent. Then, at the end of October, Jesse died after a long bout with cancer. The brothers had been almost inseparable since their high school days, and Jesse's death was a tragic loss for Fred.
Dubois spent most of his remaining years in Washington, D.C., where he tried to eke out a living for his family through an occasional lecture, an article on the Mormons or some other Western topic, and infrequent employment. The old progressive even served for a time as a lobbyist for the lead trust. Always short of cash, he pursued a series of business ventures that promised the elusive financial security that he sought but never found. In his later years he survived by cutting his personal living expenses, borrowing from friends and securing appointment to minor government boards. In addition to the financial strain there was loneliness. His daughters were away at school for much of year, while Edna took care of the affairs at the ranch in Idaho. Dubois kept in touch with each of them through letters, but the long separations were a psychological burden for him.
In spite of these personal concerns, Dubois seems never to have lost his zest for politics. Though he no longer had a power base in Idaho, he retained his contacts with national Democratic leaders and returned to active participation in 1912 when he served as floor manager of Champ Clark's bid for the party's presidential nomination. Following Clark's defeat, Dubois remained active as regional manager for the Wilson campaign in the Pacific Northwest. Two years later, he made a bid to have the fledgling Idaho Progressive party nominate him for the U. S. Senate, but gave up the effort when it became clear that even the influence of such national leaders as Gifford Pinchot could not persuade other candidates to step aside. Then in 1916 Dubois again served as Wilson's Western manager.
Dubois' last major effort in Idaho politics came in 1918. Party lines were blurred that year by the growing appeal of the Nonpartisan League, a vigorous movement fueled by farmer discontent. Fred Dubois saw in this an opportunity to assemble a political slate without regard for traditional party organizations. He sought no office for himself but acted on behalf of the Wilson administration. The president had declared that "politics is adjourned" and was secretly in favor of the re-election of Idaho's senators--Republican William E. Borah and Democrat John Nugent--because both supported his progressive program. Dubois tried to put together a slate that would accomplish this objective. Despite the opposition of regular party leaders, he worked behind the scenes to have the Nonpartisan League endorse both incumbent senators. That accomplished, Dubois tried to prevent a successful challenge to the plan by dissident members of the major party organizations. Given its complexity, the scheme worked reasonably well. Nugent was elected despite the national Republican trend in 1918, while Borah led a Republican sweep for the rest of the state ticket. Dubois took credit for assuring Nugent's victory through the endorsement and support of the Nonpartisan League. Considering the array of competing personal ambitions, the bewildering cross currents of national and state issues, and the active intervention of outside elements such as the Wilson administration and the Nonpartisan League, Dubois' role in the election of 1918 provided a fitting "last hurrah" for Idaho's most unorthodox politician.
His remaining years were quieter. In 1918, as a reward for his loyalty to the Wilson administration and his part service to the party, Dubois was appointed a civilian member of the War Department's Board of Ordnance and Fortifications. Two years later he lost the post when the Republicans regained control of the White House. One last political appointment came in 1924 under the Coolidge administration. At the age of seventy-three Dubois became a Democratic member of the International Joint Commission for the Settlement of Boundary Disputes between the United States and Canada. He remained a member until his death in Washington, D. C., on February 14, 1930.
Leo W. Graff, Jr.
Associate Professor of History