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American President

A Reference Resource

Isaac Wayne MacVeagh (1881): Attorney General

Isaac Wayne MacVeagh was born in 1833 in Pennsylvania. He attended local schools until graduating from Yale University with a law degree in 1853. He began his own practice after being admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in 1856, but by 1859, he was serving as district attorney for Chester County, Pennsylvania, a post he held until 1864.

During the Civil War, MacVeagh became a captain in an emergency infantry, ultimately becoming a major of cavalry in 1863, the same year he served as chairman of the Republican State Committee. At war's end, MacVeagh moved his law practice to Harrisburg, the state capital, and in 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him U.S. minister in residence to the Ottoman Empire (now known as Turkey). He served in this position for one year but was so disturbed by Grant's handling of the Republican Party that he resigned his position and joined the Republican opposition against Grant.

In 1872, MacVeagh served as a delegate to the Pennsylvania State Constitutional Convention and by 1876 had relocated his law practice to Philadelphia. That same year, MacVeagh led opposition forces against a third Grant term and promoted the nomination of Rutherford B. Hayes as President. Because of disputed presidential election returns, Hayes tapped MacVeagh to travel to Louisiana to negotiate an end to Democratic opposition to Hayes' presidency in exchange for the removal of military troops occupying the state.

In 1881, President Garfield made MacVeagh his attorney general. However, because of Garfield's assassination, MacVeagh would remain in his post only a short time, resigning in December 1881 after having secured an indictment against Garfield's assassin, Charles J. Guiteau.

During the 1880s, MacVeagh served as chairman of the Pennsylvania Civil Service Reform Commission, but the Republican Party's opposition to such reform led him to join the Democratic Party. Thus, it was as a Democrat that he served as U.S. ambassador to Italy from 1893 to 1895 during President Grover Cleveland's administration.

In 1897, MacVeagh joined a law firm in Washington and served as counsel for the District of Columbia. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him as chief counsel for the United States during the Venezuelan arbitration hearings. Isaac Wayne MacVeagh died in 1917.