Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Richard Olney (1893–1895): Attorney General

Born in Oxford, Massachusetts, Richard Olney came from a mercantile family in rural New England. He attended Brown College and graduated in 1858 from Harvard Law School. Olney inherited his father-in-law’s practice in Boston in 1876 and became a player in the business affairs of Boston’s elite families. During the 1880s, Olney rose to become one of the city’s leading railroad attorneys.

President Grover Cleveland, during his second term in the White House, nominated Olney for attorney general despite Olney’s lack of political experience. Once in office, Olney used the law to stymie working-class political movements. He garnered an injunction to halt the march of Jacob Coxey’s army of unemployed veterans on the Capital in 1894.

He also sent federal marshals to protect rail traffic during the massive 1894 Pullman strike in Chicago. When legal strategies to halt the strike failed, Olney counseled President Cleveland to send in federal troops to put down the strike over the objections of the Illinois governor. Onley then won a further victory in the Supreme Court when he successfully argued that blanket injunctions could be used to halt strikes of railroad workers whose lines carried interstate commerce and mail.

After Secretary of State Walter Gresham died in 1895, President Cleveland named Olney to the vacant office. As head of the State Department, Olney aggressively pursued a foreign policy in support of American rights as interpreted via the Monroe Doctrine. Remaining secretary of state through the end of the Cleveland administration, Olney retired from politics and refused calls for to run for President in 1896 and 1904.