Schuyler Colfax was born in New York City on the 23rd of
March 1823. His grandfather,
who had fought in the
American Revolution and served closely with
Washington, married Hester Schuyler, a cousin of General
Philip Schuyler, and named one of his sons for
Washington and another for Schuyler. Schuyler Colfax,
Sr., became a teller in a bank on New York City's Wall
Street. In 1820 he married Hannah Stryker, the daughter
of a widowed boardinghouse keeper. He died of
tuberculosis two years later, as his wife was expecting
her first child. Four months after his father's death,
Schuyler, Jr. was born in New York City on March 23,
1823. He attended the public schools of New York
until he was ten, and then became a clerk in his
step-father's store, then moving in 1836 with his mother
and step-father to New Carlisle, Indiana.
In 1841 Schuyler Colfax moved to South Bend, where for eight years he was deputy auditor (his step-father being auditor) of St. Joseph County; in 1842-4 he was assistant enrolling clerk of the state senate and senate reporter for the Indiana State Journal. At sixteen, Colfax wrote to Horace Greeley, editor of the influential Whig newspaper, the New-York Tribune, offering to send occasional articles. Always open to new talent, Greeley agreed and published the boy's writings on Indiana politics, beginning a correspondence and friendship that lasted for the rest of their lives. In 1845 he established the St. Joseph Valley Register, which he published for eighteen years and made an influential Whig and later Republican journal.
Schuyler Colfax was a member of the state constitutional convention in 1850, and in 1854 took an active part in organizing the "Anti-Nebraska men" (later called Republicans) of his state, and was by them sent to Congress. Schuyler Colfax served with distinction in Congress from 1855 until 1869, the last six years as speaker of the House.
At the close of the Civil War Schuyler Colfax was a leading member of the radical wing of the Republican party, advocating the disfranchisement of all who had been prominent in the service of the Confederacy, and declaring that "loyalty must govern what loyalty has preserved."
After the Republicans gained the majority in the House of Representatives in the mid-term elections of 1858, Colfax became chairman of the Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads. He was an energetic
opponent of slavery and his speech attacking the pro-slavery Lecompton Legislature in Kansas became the most widely requested Republican campaign document in the election. In 1862, following the electoral defeat of House Speaker Galusha Grow, Colfax was elected Speaker of the House. During his term as Speaker, he announced the passage of the
Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.
As the 1868 presidential election approached, Speaker Colfax believed the nomination of Ulysses S. Grant to be "resistless." As for himself, he declined to run either for the Senate or for governor of Indiana, leaving the door open for the vice-presidential nomination. Colfax insisted that presiding over the House as Speaker was "the more important office" than presiding over the Senate as vice president. But the vice-presidency was the more direct avenue to the presidency. At the convention, his chief rivals for the second spot were Senate President pro tempore Ben Wade and Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson. Colfax polled fourth on the first ballot and gained steadily with each subsequent ballot. The temperance forces were delighted that Colfax's headquarters distributed no liquor, in contrast to Senator Wade, who handed out spirits freely among the delegates. Among Republicans there was a collective sense that the abstinent Colfax would balance a ticket with Grant, who had been known to drink heavily.
Colfax stayed in Washington while the Republican convention met in Chicago. His good friend, William Orton, head of the Western Union Telegraph Company, arranged for Colfax to receive dispatches from the convention every ten minutes. On May 21 Colfax was in the Speaker's Lobby when he received Orton's telegram announcing his nomination. Cheers broke out, and the room quickly filled with congressmen wishing to offer congratulations. As he left the lobby, Colfax was greeted by House staff members, who "gathered around him in the most affectionate manner and tendered him their regards." Citizens hailed him as he walked across the Capitol grounds. On the Senate side, Bluff Ben Wade received the news that he had been beaten and said, "Well, I guess it will be all right; he deserves it, and he will be a good presiding officer." The news was received with seemingly universal applause. "His friends love him devotedly," wrote one admirer, "and his political adversaries . . . respect him thoroughly."
Colfax was inaugurated March 4, 1869, and served until March 4, 1873. Colfax was an unsuccessful candidate for renomination for the vice presidency in 1872 and was replaced by Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson. Colfax had been involved in the Crédit Mobilier of America scandal and left office under a cloud.