By CARL E. FEATHER - firstname.lastname@example.org
The brass plate is partially obscured by the July grass that grows about the stone substrate. One is more likely to be drawn to the white house by the orange lilies than the tiny memorial that marks the birthplace of Theodore Elijah Burton at 73 E. Jefferson St., Jefferson.
While most Ashtabula County residents recognize the names of Sen. Benjamin Wade and Rep. Joshua Giddings, even if they can’t place them on a timeline or speak of the deeds that made them famous, Burton’s name is rarely spoken in these parts.
That’s a shame, for Burton’s contributions to our nation and world are with us more than a century after he championed them: the Panama Canal, an efficient inland waterways system and a Niagara Falls with minimal industrial intrusion at the cataract.
Burton, who was born in Jefferson Dec. 10, 1851, had an outstanding career in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, living up to the prophecy spoken by the physician who delivered him: “He will make a remarkable man.”
“Certainly he towered above all others in his Congressional statesmanship of his time. Nor was his statesmanship limited to legislative activities,” wrote Herbert Hoover in the introduction to Forrest Crissey’s biography, “Theodore E. Burton American Statesman.” “… his span of legislative service stretched over forty years. So much did he feel that his best service to his country was in the legislative hall that he refused to leave it for offers to the Federal bench or position in the cabinet.”
Burton served two terms as an Ohio senator and 28 years in the House, as well as two years on Cleveland City Council. But his accomplishments went far beyond those typical of a congressman. Hoover recognized him as “an economist of the highest order,” “the father of our modern inland waterways system,” an “implacable foe of ‘pork barrel’ legislation,” and at all times “the advocate of constructive measures for peace.”
So significant was Burton in Hoover’s mind, the president who was midwife to the Great Depression declared “The greatest loss I suffered in my Administration was his passing in 1929 (one day before the markets crashed), for he had understanding of our problems of those times as did no other Senator.”
Growing up smart
Theodore Burton’s father, William, was 63 and pastor of Jefferson’s Congregational Church when his wife, Elizabeth, 39, gave birth to Theodore, “a gift from God.” The December baby was doted upon.
“His father built for Theodore a little wagon the pioneer forebearer of the modern baby carriage and the elderly scholar drawing his young son become a familiar sight on the strets of Jefferson,” Crissey wrote.
While still a youngster, the family moved to Austinburg, and in 1858, William Burton died.
“His going marked a house of desolation,” Burton would later write in a letter to a friend. “I knew knew not (where) to turn.”
His sense of direction soon recovered, however, as civil war spread across the county. Growing up in a hotbed of abolitionist activity, Burton embraced the reports from the weekly newspaper and would share them at the Austinburg corners with whomever was willing to listen to his orations. He soon became known as the town crier of war news for all of Austinburg.
Then one day the newspaper failed to arrive. Burton walked to Jefferson, then the additional 10 miles to Ashtabula, where he located a copy of the Cleveland Leader, edited by Edwin Cowles, an Austinburg native. The newspaper’s owner would not allow Burton to take the newspaper with him, so Burton memorized the several accounts of the second Battle of Bull Run and Cowles’ editorial. Then he returned to Austinburg and recited the accounts. Those who heard his recitation remarked that the words he used were clear indication that Burton had memorized the editorial rather than paraphrase it with an adolescent’s vocabulary.
His father had purchased property in Iowa before his death, and Burton’s older brothers went west to that land. When it became necessary to sell the home in Austinburg, Burton also headed to Iowa, where he enrolled in Grinnell College. It is said he left behind the “most brilliant record for scholarship ever made by a student of that institution.” But he did not forget his roots; Burton studied the Ashtabula Sentinel as eagerly as he did Cicero. He continued to follow the exploits of Wade, as well. And he still found time to do manual labor, financing his education by working in the fields at harvest and teaching district school during the winters.
Burton left Iowa in 1866 to study at Oberlin College. His original intentions were to follow in his father’s career path of ministry, but he gave up that notion for law. From Oberlin, he went to Chicago to read law in the office of Lyman Trumbull, and in 1875 returned to Ohio to work in the John. M. Henderson law firm. His first year in practice, Burton earned $3,000. By 1878, he had his own practice in Cleveland and made a name for himself as an attorney for corporations.
Although he was engaged to a college sweetheart for eight years, Burton eventually concluded that he was “married to his career” and broke the engagement. His law practice was very profitable and gave him the resources to enjoy the best life had to offer, including foreign travel. In 1880, he made his first transatlantic trip, a journey that awakened a nomadic instinct. Burton would make 28 trips to Europe in his life, as well as journeys to the Orient, Australia and South America. Some of his closest, lifelong friendships were forged on the decks of these transatlantic liners.
“His social pores seemed to open when exposed to the sea air and, in his earlier crossings, he formed some of the pleasantest friendships of his life,” wrote Crissey.
Politics and water
Burton’s travels instilled in him a sense of civic responsibility, and in 1886 he began his single term as a member of city council. That brief experience propelled him to run for and win a seat in the U.S. House in 1888. He served a term representing the Ohio 21st District, but lost his bid for re-election in 1890. Four years later, he was nominated as the Republicans’ man, and Burton won that election, and the next seven.
As a representative, Burton took a special interest in federal waterways projects, which were often loaded with pork and did little to improve the overall viability of America’s inland transportation system.
For example, Congress would appropriate millions of dollars to improve a branch of the Ohio River so it would support navigation but ignore the fact that once the barge reached the Ohio, it would encounter shallow water that prevented further movement. Another problem was that Congress attempted to fund too many projects at one time, which resulted in parceling out appropriations at an ineffectual rate.
“We ought to treat water as an entirety: navigation, water power, purification of water, prevention of floods and there is nothing better than this House can do than to frame some system under which they shall be treated, not merely in reference to navigation, as a separate unit, but to bring all together as an asset of this people as important as the land,” Burton stated in his vision for the nation’s inland waterways.
Burton’s protean approach caught the attention of Theodore Roosevelt, who appointed him chairman of the Inland Waterways Commission in 1907 and National Waterways Commission in 1909.
In those positions, Burton pushed for overarching policies that ensured uniformity and functionality across the inland waterways. Burton also supported construction of the Panama Canal and pushed through Congress the legislation that authorized its construction and established it as a politically neutral zone.
One of his most enduring contributions when it comes to waterways was his work in preserving Niagara Falls. Commercial interests were already entrenched at the falls and salivating at the possibilities of cheap energy in the late 19th century. Burton worried that their greed would push development all the way to the cataract, and one of the great natural treasures of two nations would thereby be destroyed.
Thus, during the 59th Congress, Burton went to bat for a class of people he had no connection to — honeymooners — and conducted extensive hearings before the Rivers and Harbors Committee on the matter of preserving the falls. The legislation that came out of those efforts incorporated treaty provisions that illustrated Burton’s abilities as a statesman. The provisions prevented power companies from using the courts to attack the legislation’s constitutionality and thereby protected the resource from assault.
“Through the years every person who enjoys the majestic beauty of Niagara Falls will owe a debt of gratitude to Theodore Burton for saving this unique natural scenic spectacle from depletion and defacement by the great power companies,” wrote Crissey. “It was a distinguished bachelor’s most gallant gesture to the marriage shrine.”
Burton’s stance on the falls also came as a surprise because he was, in his Cleveland law days, a corporate lawyer. Yet he resisted the influence of big business and co-sponsored the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.
He also was “in continuous revolt” against the patronage system.
“For one, I am willing to vote for a bill forbidding any Representative on this floor from making any recommendation for any position in any of the Executive Departments of the Government,” Burton declared when the Civil Service Bill came before the House on Jan. 7, 1898. “And I would do it ... because it would relieve us of a burden that at times is too grievous to be borne. Every member here must choose between efficient service as a Representative of the people and the giving of so large a share of his time to solicitation for offices as to render his work inefficient and unsatisfactory.”
Eight years later, Burton was still talking about civil service and this burdensome cost of government. He despised any kind of waste in government and many of his political associates called him “tight” and a “crank on the ethics of public expenditures.”
Then they’d add, “However, I’d like to know that Burton would administer my estate when I’m gone. I’d like to know that my family would get every nickel of it.”
Burton was elected to the Senate in 1908 and completed one term. He chose not run again and moved to New York, where he worked in banking.
The Republicans did not forget him, however, and in 1916 he was considered a candidate for president. Burton received 77.5 votes out of 987 on the first ballot at the Republican National Convention.
Four years later, Burton returned to Ohio and was elected to the House, this time representing the 22nd District. He was re-elected in 1922, 1924 and 1926.
President Harding appointed him to the World War Debt Funding Commission in 1922, and in 1925, Burton chaired the United States delegation to the conference for the control of international traffic in arms, in Geneva, Switzerland.
Burton served as president of the American Peace Society, a pacifist group founded in 1828. Under Burton’s leadership, Cleveland hosted the First World Conference on International Justice in 1928. The event drew 13,000 participants, including world leaders.
His concern for world peace was so great, Burton gave up his House seat in 1928 to pursue his work with the society. But politics called him back to Washington when Burton won a special election to fill the term of Frank B. Willis, who died March 30, 1928. Burton was serving as senator from Ohio when he died, Oct. 28, 1929.
Burton’s passing was mourned in Cleveland, where businesses along the route of his funeral procession closed in honor of the man who had represented the city and its people for decades.
“Streetcars and all traffic came to a dead stop. There was not a sound but the clatter on the pavement of the hoofs of the soldiers’ mounts and the droning of airplanes overhead,” Crissey wrote.
Although Burton never married and had no children, he had numerous nephews and nieces who represented the family and the Austinburg congregation at the funeral.
Burton was laid to rest in Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery, at the top of a little knoll just a few feet from the Garfield monument. An impressive two-column monumen marks his place of rest.
Although his Jefferson birthplace is obscure, Burton’s home in Westlake, “Dover Farm,” is commemorated by an Ohio Historical Marker. The website, mcquillinassociates.com/hq.htm, explores Dover Farm.