James Ashley was a prominent political and business leader in Northwest Ohio in the mid-nineteenth century,
Ashley was born on November 24, 1822, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When he was four years old, his family moved to Portsmouth, Ohio. Although Ashley's father was a bookbinder, many of his ancestors had been Baptist ministers. Ashley's father encouraged his son to pursue a career in the ministry. Ashley refused and ran away from home at the age of fourteen. He spent several years as a cabin boy on steamboats on the Ohio River. He then returned home to Portsmouth and learned the printing trade.
In 1851, Ashley left Portsmouth and moved to Toledo, where he opened a drugstore. He also became active in local politics and helped organize the Republican Party in the community. He quickly became prominent in the party and served as chairman of the Ohio Republican Convention in 1858. In that same year, Toledo voters elected Ashley to the United States House of Representatives. He was reelected four times until he lost in 1868 by fewer than one thousand votes.
In Congress, Ashley championed abolitionist causes. During the American Civil War, Ashley was the first representative to call for an amendment to the United States Constitution that would outlaw slavery. He submitted his proposal on December 14, 1863. His idea formed the basis of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. He served as the chairman of the House's Committee on Territories and helped organize Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming, and Montana. Ashley strongly opposed Mormonism and polygamy, and he successfully campaigned to reduce the size of Utah to limit Mormon influence. Ashley also played a leading role in President Andrew Johnson's impeachment. In 1867, he demanded that the House Judiciary Committee begin an investigation of the President. Ashley lost reelection in 1868 principally because of his radical views on race issues. Increasingly, white Ohioans rejected government actions that would increase equality between whites and African Americans.
In 1869, President Ulysses Grant appointed Ashley governor of the Montana Territory. A majority of the people residing in Montana favored the Democratic Party and opposed Ashley's Radical Republican views. He served as governor for fifteen months and returned to Toledo after President Grant removed him from office. Ashley then became involved with railroad construction and helped to establish the Toledo, Ann Arbor & North Michigan Railroad. He ran for the United States House of Representatives in 1890 and 1892, but Ohioans refused to elect him in both elections. He died on September 16, 1896, in Alma, Michigan.
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