Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Elihu B. Washburne (1869–1869): Secretary of State

Elihu Benjamin Washburne was born in 1816 in Livermore, Maine. After stints as an apprentice printer, an assistant editor, and a school teacher, Washburne attended Maine Wesleyan Seminary and then Harvard Law School, where he studied the law.

Washburne was admitted to the Maine bar in 1840 but chose not to practice in the state, moving to Galena, Illinois, where he established a law practice and became involved in local politics. In 1844 and again in 1852, he served as a delegate to the Whig National Convention; in 1848 and 1852, he ran for a seat in the United States House of Representatives, succeeding on his second attempt.

Washburne served in the House until 1869, first as a Whig and then as Republican, before becoming President Ulysses S. Grant’s secretary of state, a post he held for less than two weeks in March 1869. The day after he resigned his cabinet post -- apparently because of ill health -- President Grant appointed him to the less strenuous but still prestigious position of U.S. minister to France, where Washburne served from 1869 until 1877.

Washburne would write about his time in Paris during the siege of the commune in his two-volume Recollections of a Minister to France, 1869-1877. Elihu Benjamin Washburne resigned his post in 1877 and returned to the United States, where he died in 1887.