Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Walter Q. Gresham (1893–1895): Secretary of State

Walter Gresham was born in Harrison County, Indiana, in 1832. He received some higher education at Corydon Seminary and at the University of Indiana and was admitted to the Indiana bar in 1854.

During the Civil War, Gresham raised a company of volunteers in Corydon. He befriended Ulysses S. Grant when Grant commanded the Army of the Tennessee and was promoted to general upon Grant's recommendation.

President Grant named him a district judge for Indiana in 1869. Gresham's most famous action on the bench was the injunction he issued against unions in the great railroad strike of 1877, urging President Rutherford Hayes to use federal troops to break the strike.

In 1883, Gresham accepted Chester Arthur's nomination for postmaster general. He implemented the Pendleton Civil Service Act and other route reforms during his year and a half in office. Gresham became a stopgap replacement for the deceased Charles Folger as secretary of the treasury in the fall of 1884 but quickly resigned to take a position on the Seventh Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Gresham supported Grover Cleveland for President in 1892, and Cleveland nominated him for secretary of state in February 1893, part of an attempt to attract reformist Republicans to his administration. Gresham's modest means and insufficient knowledge of foreign policy issues made him a lackluster selection, and he made many of his decisions based on a legalistic approach to foreign relations. Gresham drew Republican criticism by refusing to annex Hawaii, fanning the flames of American expansionism.

Walter Gresham died in Washington while trying to mediate a dispute between Venezuela and Great Britain over the border of the British Guiana.