Early Parkersburg Had Political Giant In Van Winkle
Peter G. Van Winkle,
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For Early Parkersburg History and Old Pictures
Early City Had Political Giant In Van Winkle
Peter G. Van Winkle, the man who cast the decisive vote against impeaching Andrew Johnson as president was a favorite son of Parkersburg. A New York born lawyer, Van Winkle was one of the political giants in early Parkersburg history who played a prominent role in the statehood movement. A sad looking man with drooping eye lids and graying muttonchop side burns Van Winkle was secretary and later president of the Northwestern Virginia Railroad Co. As such he was responsible to a very great extent or construction of the railroad line from Grafton to Parkersburg, a major 19th Century undertaking that changed the course of industrial development in the Mid Ohio Valley. The line was built and operated in conjunction with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Later Van Winkle served as an attorney and lobbyist for the B&O.
He played a prominent role in the political convention at Wheeling in 1861, and when the government was formed with Francis H. Pierpont. another Parkersburg man, as governor, Van Winkle was a member of his advisory council. When the constitutional convention was held. Van Winkle had a leading role. He was largely responsible or having the eastern Panhandle counties included, mainly in order to ensure that the B & O line would be entirely within Maryland and West Virginia borders. But Van Winkle's greatest contribution to history was his vote on the Johnson impeachment, a vote that brought him the vilest sort of criticism and which certainly cemented his decision not to seek a second term in office.
John F. Kennedy in his Profiles in Courage chose to write about another senator, Edmund G. Ross of Kansas, whom he credited with the key vote against impeachement. But in a peculiar bit of literary double talk Kennedy noted in the same chapter that it was Van Winkle's vote that extinguished the last faint glimmer of hope which Edmund Ross had already all but destroyed. The correspondent or the Richmond Times who covered the Senate trial had no such problem in determining who cast the main vote. Here is how the on the scene reporter described the crucial moment: Next was called Mr. Van Winkle, and the excitement now became intense 17 votes only had thus far been cast for acquittal. Mr. Vickers was, of course certain and the only dependence now of the President's friends was upon Van Winkle and Willey the other senator from West Virginia.
The vast audience on the floor and the galleries held their breath as the question was asked and the West Virginia Senator voted "Not Guilty." This secured acquittal for Vickers was certain and he followed Van Winkle. Willey answered guilty when his name was called. At the conclusion the chief justice announced that 35 senators had voted to impeach the president and 19 had voted against it. Thus the two thirds majority had not been obtained. Van Winkle acquitted Johnson on each of the 11 articles against him. He used a technicality on the first article, which concerned the removal of Stanton as secretary of war. Back in West Virginia, editorial opinion ran strongly against Van Winkle. He had already ignored the opinion of The Parkersburg Daily Sentinel, which had urged him vote to impeach the president. "Gentlemen " the newspaper said, vital issues are at stake your Gentlemen! the newspaper said, vital issues are at stake your votes will either bring ruin upon the country or deliver it from the terrible incubus the cause of our political and financal distress It is our firm conviction that the salvation and the future safety of the country demand the displacement of Andrew Johnson. Every consideration for the safety of the Republic speaks to you in thundering tones when it demands that you oust the betrayer of our confidence who since in his present position has been a disgrace to a great Nation. Earlier The New York Herald, addressing an open letter to Van Winkle, had urged him to vote for acquittal and said There is not a man in the Senate who is more certain to vote with scrupulous regard to what he believes under his oath to be justice according to the law and evidence.
Following the vote The Wheeling Intelligencer accused Van Winkle of having betrayed his party and constituents who are covered with shame and filled with indignation at his treachery. Even the West Virginia Legislature which had elected Van Winkle to the post added its official condemnation. Van Winkle wrote to his son Rathbone on July 13 1868: As to my impeachment vote I have seen no reason to regret it. The stir made at first died away very suddenly. I have been told voluntarily by two Republican senators with in a few days that nobody ever suspected me of anything improper. I am invited to and attend all the Republican caucuses. Never the less Van Winkle did not bother to file for reelection to the Senate. He returned to Parkersburg after his term ended to spent the final three years of his life. He died on April I5 1872 some 63 years after his birth in New York City to an old Knickerbocker family. Van Winkle had come to Parkersburg as a young man In 1830 he married Juliet, a daughter of William and Martha Rathbone. She was a sister of the Rathbone brothers who gained great wealth when oil was discovered on their farm at Burning Springs. In 1835 he was admitted to the Parkersburg bar Later, he served as town recorder a member of the governing board of trustees and finally as president of that board a position similar to that of mayor before getting involved at politics at the state and national level.
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