William Peters Hepburn
(November 4, 1833 –
February 7, 1916) was a American
officer and an eleven-term Republican congressman
from Iowa's now-obsolete 8th
congressional district, serving from 1881 to 1887, and from 1893 to
1909. According to historian Edmund Morris
, "Hepburn was the
House's best debater, admired for his strength of character and
legal acumen." As chair of one of the most powerful committees in
Congress, he guided or sponsored many statutes regulating
businesses, including most notably the Hepburn Act
of 1906. The Hepburn Act authorized
the U.S. Interstate
to require railroads to charge "just and
was born in Wellsville, Columbiana
County, Ohio and raised
from the age of seven in Iowa City, Iowa.
His schooling was confined to a few months
in an Iowa City academy. The grandson of Revolutionary War
printer, and congressman Matthew Lyon
he was first engaged as an apprentice printer, before studying law.
prosecuting attorney of Marshall County in 1856 as well as serving as district attorney for
the eleventh judicial district from 1856 to 1861.
also the clerk to the Iowa House of Representatives.
In May 1860, Hepburn was one of two delegates representing counties
in the eleventh judicial district at the 1860 Republican National
, where Abraham
was nominated. The following March, when serving a
brief term as a lobbyist for those counties in Washington D.C.,
Hepburn attended Lincoln's presidential inauguration.
Civil War service
During the Civil War
, he served
as an officer in the 2nd Regiment Iowa Volunteer
. He was promoted from Captain of Company B to Major of
the First Battalion on September 13, 1861, then to Lieutenant
Colonel in 1862. He participated in the final stage of the
Battle of Island Number
Ten near New Madrid,
Missouri, and saw combat during the Siege of
Corinth, the Battle of Iuka in northeastern Mississippi, and the Battle of
From time to time he was also assigned as
an inspector of cavalry for the Army of the Cumberland
and, due to
his legal experience, served as an acting inspector general and
court martial president or judge advocate for troops in the lower
Mississippi River theatre.
He was mustered out on October 3, 1864, upon the expiration of his
term of service. He moved his family to Memphis,
Tennessee before returning to Iowa in 1867, to a home in
First service in Congress
Soon after Helpburn established his legal practice in Clarinda, he
again became active in Republican politics. In 1880, Hepburn was
elected as a Republican to the United States House of
from Iowa's 8th congressional district, after
defeating incumbent William F.
in the district convention on
the 346th ballot. He was re-elected in 1882 and 1884, but was
defeated in the 1886 general election by Independent Republican
Albert R. Anderson
. Anderson, a former state
railroad commissioner, had run on an anti-monopolist,
anti-corporate platform, and "specialized in the unfairness and
excesses of the prevailing railroad rates." Historians have viewed
Hepburn's defeat as a catalyist for authorization of a federal
Interstate Commerce Commission, which became a higher priority for
other congressman who hoped to avoid Hepburn's fate.
In 1888, two years after his defeat, he was the principal opponent
to James F. Wilson
for the Republican nomination for
U.S. Senate. However, when it became apparent that he lacked the
votes among the Iowa General Assembly to defeat Wilson, his
supporters withdrew his name from consideration.
After the election of President Benjamin Harrison
returned the White House
to Republican hands in 1889, Hepburn served as Solicitor of the
Return to Congress
In 1892, after three terms away from Congress, Hepburn ran again
for his former seat after Anderson's successor, Republican James Patton Flick
, declined to run for a
third term. Hepburn won his party's nomination and the general
election, and was re-elected seven more times. During this period
he served as Chairman of the Committee
on Interstate and Foreign Commerce
In 1894, Hepburn finished a distant second in the Republican caucus
to nominate a successor to retiring U.S. Senator Wilson.
In 1899, Hepburn briefly became a candidate for election as
Speaker of the House
, but soon
deferred to the successful candidacy of fellow Iowan and Civil War
veteran David B. Henderson
. Hepburn became notorious for
his disdainful treatment on the House floor of newer members,
prompting the New York Times
to refer to him as the "House
Terror." However, Hepburn was also an enduring but outspoken
advocate to reform House rules that vested autocratic powers in
Speakers of the House.
Even before the publication of Upton
's expose The
Hepburn led efforts to adopt federal laws
regulating food quality. In 1902 the Hepburn Pure Food Act passed
the House (but not the Senate). When such a bill finally passed
both houses as the Pure Food and
of 1906 (following the publication of Sinclair's
book), Hepburn was the bill's floor manager.
Hepburn was also instrumental in appropriating funds for a canal
connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Hepburn initially
preferred a route through Nicaragua over a route through Panama,
but ultimately became a key House sponsor of appropriations
measures necessary for completion of the canal through
Hepburn Act of 1906
He also sponsored the Hepburn Act of 1906,
priority in the second term of President Theodore Roosevelt
. The Act gave the
Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) the power to set maximum
railroad rates and led to the discontinuation of free passes to
loyal shippers. Scholars consider the Hepburn Act the most
important piece of legislation regarding railroads in the first
half of the 20th century, while economists debate whether it went
Surprise defeat, and success at House reform
When running for his twelfth term in 1908, Hepburn was upset in the
general election by his Democratic opponent, William D. Jamieson
. In a year of strong Republican
victories in Iowa (led by Presidential candidate William Howard Taft
), Jamieson won
majorities in eight of the district's eleven counties. Hepburn's
loss was attributed to "purely local conditions and local strife,"
such as anger over bank failures and Hepburn's choices for local
After his defeat but before his final term ended, he became the
chairman of a 25-member group seeking once again to reform House
rules that allowed Speaker Joe
to amass even greater powers. This time, Hepburn's
reform efforts succeeded; Speaker Cannon was forced to surrender
the power to block bills he did not like from coming to the floor
once they received committee support.
returned to the practice of law, first in Washington,
D.C., then in Clarinda.
He died on February 7,
town of Hepburn,
Iowa, a few miles north of Clarinda, was named in his
in Clarinda, known as the William P. Hepburn House, is on the National Register of Historic
- Edmund Morris, “Theodore Rex: 1901-1909,” p. 422 (2001), ISBN
- 59th Congress, Sess. 1, ch. 3591, 34 Stat. 584, enacted June
- Editorial, "Col. Wm. P. Hepburn," Waterloo Evening Courier,
1916-02-08 at p. 4.
- John Ely Briggs, " William Peters Hepburn," pp. 45-47, 180 (State
Hist. Soc. of Iowa 1919).
- Logan, Guy E., Roster and Record of Iowa Troops In the Rebellion, Vol.
- Cyrenus Cole, "A History of the People of Iowa," p. 395 (Torch
Press, Cedar Rapids: 1921).
- "An Hour at the Capitol," Sioux County Herald, 1888-01-17 at p.
- " Candidates for Speaker: Two Iowa Congressmen Wish
to Succeed Thomas B. Reed," New York Times, 1899-04-21 at
- " The Speakership Contest," New York Times,
1899-04-29 at p. 3.
- " House Terror is Routed," New York Times,
1903-12-12 at p.4.
- " Wants House Rules Changed,' New York Times,
1899-08-24 at p.1.
- " Cannon's Do-Nothing Plan," 1903-11-08 at
- " Pure Food Bill Passed," New York Times,
1902-12-20 at p. 8.
- Letter to the editor from Cong. J. Van
Vechten Olcott, " Mr. Cannon and Pure Food," New York Times,
1906-06-07 at p. 6.
- " History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the
Beginning of the Twentieth Century," Vol 4 ( Biography of William P. Hepburn)).
- " Nicaragua Canal Debate," New York Times,
1900-05-02 at p.3.
- " To Rush the Canal Bill," New York Times,
1905-12-06 at p.4.
- "Hepburn Loses to Jamieson in the Eighth District," Des Moines
Capital, 1908-11-05 at p.1.
- "Hepburn's Defeat," Marble Rock Journal, 1908-11-12 at
- " To Curb Speaker's Power," New York Times,
1908-12-12 at p.2.
- " Cannon Surrenders Power," New York Times,
1909-02-21 at p.1.
- W. L. Kershaw, " History of Page County, Iowa," 478 (S.J. Clarke
Publishing Co., 1909).
- Retrieved on 2009-05-06
- Retrieved on 2009-05-06