An American politician, Schuyler Colfax's career touched on many of the ethical issues raised about the standards of public servants during the Gilded Age. He had an interesting but generally undistinguished career while in Congress and later as vice president of the United States, but his deficient sense of public morality led to his involvement in several scandals, most notably with that caused by the exposure of the Credit Mobilier.
Colfax was born in New York City on March 23, 1823, the posthumous son of a bank clerk. He started work at age 10. In 1834 his mother remarried and the family moved to Indiana, and in 1841, when his stepfather was elected county auditor on the Whig ticket, the family moved to the county seat, South Bend, which Colfax would call home for the rest of his life.
During the next years he had a checkered career. He served as his father's deputy until 1849, studied the law part-time (but was never admitted to the bar), served as a correspondent for the New York Tribune and the Indiana State Journal, and bought (1845) a half interest with a friend in the South Bend Free Press—changing its name to the St. Joseph Valley Register he made it the Whig (later Republican) organ for northern Indiana and became much involved with Whig politics. He made campaign speeches for Whig candidates, was a delegate to the Whig national conventions, and was defeated (1851) as a Whig candidate for Congress.
Since the Democrats were strong in Indiana, Colfax took positions opposite to theirs on many issues, supporting internal improvements, opposing expansion of slavery, and presenting what were described as “advanced ideas on Negro Suffrage.” Like many Northerners with antislavery feelings, he moved to the Republican Party upon the breakup of the Whigs, though not until he had flirted with the Know-Nothings.
In 1854 he was elected to Congress with the support of the latter. And from 1855 until he became vice president, Colfax served continuously in Congress. In 1856 he was elected as a Republican (and would remain one until his death), but because of his earlier Know-Nothing ties he was then and in subsequent years attacked as a nativist. In 1863, his unstinting loyalty to the Republicans was rewarded and he became Speaker of the House.
During his tenure in Congress, both before and after he became Speaker, Colfax was not involved with much major legislation. He diligently chaired the Post Offices and Post Roads Committee whose possibilities for patronage allowed him to reward his supporters. He faithfully serviced his constituents, always answering their letters, responding in so far as possible to their requests. Colfax was loyal to those who had elected him and saw his duty as a congressman to deal with their needs. He was well-liked by his colleagues.
Colfax was a Radical during Reconstruction, and like them opted for a harsh policy toward the defeated South and for federal support of the freedmen. In his position as Speaker he did not initiate any policies but staunchly supported those stemming from the Radical leaders such as Thaddeus Stevens. Colfax always regarded the smooth passage in the House of the Thirteenth Amendment, outlawing slavery in the United States and its territories, as the greatest accomplishment of his tenure as Speaker.
Colfax had presidential aspirations, but Grant easily became the Republican presidential candidate in 1868. It was natural for the Radicals to want one of their own as the vice presidential candidate, and Colfax's Radicalism helped secure him the nomination on the fifth ballot. Moreover the loyal, seemingly competent Colfax was considered safe: as one Republican leader then asserted, “his abilities are not distinguished but are just sufficient to make him acceptable to the masses. They are found of happy mediocrity.”
With the Republican victory in the November 1868 elections, Colfax had reached the pinnacle of his career. His dissatisfaction with the limitations of the vice presidency (he did not take to its then chief function, presiding over the Senate) led him—even though a relatively young man in his late forties—in 1870 to disavow running for a second term and to announce his withdrawal from public life. He changed his mind in 1872, but too late. At the Republican convention on the first ballot for Grant's running mate he lost to Henry Wilson (1812–1875), an ambitious, energetic Radical senator from Massachusetts.
A few months after the convention, in September 1872 the New York Sun, as part of a story on the Grant administration, whose reelection it vigorously opposed, reported that “the Credit Mobilier Bought Its Way Into Congress.” The Credit Mobilier was a construction company used by the Union Pacific in building its sections of the transcontinental railroad. It was organized in 1864 by some of the railroad's chief stockholders who used it to bilk their own company: the Credit Mobilier received an estimated $75 million (much of it federal funds provided to assist in building the rail line) for work worth about $50 million.
To keep Congress friendly, charged the Sun, key members of the House and Senate as well as Vice President Colfax—while still Speaker—were offered Credit Mobilier stock at par value, which when sold at face value resulted in an enormous gain for the holders of the shares. Oakes Ames, a Republican congressman from Massachusetts and in virtual control of the Credit Mobilier, later said he distributed the shares where they would “do the most good.” After the Sun published the story, Colfax, one of the key Republican and Democratic politicians implicated, strongly denied participation.
While the newspaper story could be dismissed as election campaign propaganda, the subsequent congressional investigations in February 1873 could not, and Colfax was again implicated. Colfax, like almost everyone involved, escaped serious legal consequences. He was never formally charged, but the scandal remained a cloud on his reputation. Once out of office he maintained a successful schedule as a public speaker, while declining any invitation to run for office again. He died in Mankato, Minnesota, on January 13, 1885, while changing trains there to reach Rock Rapids, Iowa, for an engagement on a speaking tour.