Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Robert J. Walker (1845–1849): Secretary of the Treasury

Robert J. Walker was born in 1801 in Northumberland, Pennsylvania. He graduated at the top of his class from the University of Pennsylvania, studied law, was admitted to the state bar in 1821, and opened a law practice in Pittsburgh in 1822. Four years later, Walker was in Natchez, Mississippi, where he opened a law office, purchased slaves, and became wealthy from speculating in cotton, sugar, and land.

By 1835, Walker had turned his attention to politics, beating an incumbent for a seat in the United States Senate where, as a Democrat, he served until 1845. During that year, President James K. Polk tapped him to become secretary of the treasury; Walker remained at the Treasury Department throughout Polk’s four-year term. After leaving the cabinet, Walker opened a law practice in Washington, D.C. He declined President Franklin Pierce’s offer, made in 1853, to serve as minister to China.

Four years later, though, Walker acceded to President James Buchanan’s wish that he become the territorial governor of Kansas, a difficult job given the controversy between proslavery and abolitionist forces over whether the territory would enter the Union as a slave state or a free state. Though Walker had once owned slaves, he had freed them in 1838 and was not, as Buchanan had hoped, a proslavery supporter. Walker ultimately resigned his position after only seven months in office and worked to secure Kansas’s entrance into the Union as a free state.

When the Civil War erupted, Walker denounced secession and supported the Union. During that time, he helped publish the New York Continental Monthly (1862-1864). In 1863, he went to Europe as a representative of the Department of the Treasury, working to prevent the Confederacy from securing international loans. After that stint, Walker returned to his law practice; he later became a lobbyist for the Russian government as St. Petersburg negotiated the sale of Alaska to the United States. Robert J. Walker died in 1869.

For further reading:

Shenton, James P. Robert John Walker: A Politician from Jackson to Lincoln. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.