He was the 'keeper' and 'guardian' of a Prez

prev
next

Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

Donald McDonald Dickinson figured to make his way this week to the City of Brotherly Love for the Democratic National Convention. In spirit, of course.

Dickinson, the namesake of a county in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is decidedly in the past tense as far as politicians go. A prominent Detroit attorney during his day, Dickinson died in 1917, but not before making a major political impact in his home state.

In 1995, as part of the centennial celebration of The Detroit Legal News, the paper featured Dickinson as one of Detroit’s “Legal Legends,” a man who was instrumental in Grover Cleveland’s rise to the presidency.
“I wish there were about 20 ‘Dickinsons’ in the country,” Cleveland once wrote.

Dickinson was equally effusive in his praise of Cleveland, the only U.S. president to serve non-consecutive terms of office.

“Flashback to 1886,” The Legal News wrote in its 1995 profile of Dickinson. “It’s the Michigan Democratic Convention and the chaplain has just finished his opening prayer.

“But there’s been a serious omission. Not a single word to the Almighty about President Grover Cleveland. A conventioneer rises to his feet in protest, then offers a supplementary prayer invoking a blessing upon the ‘Democrat of Democrats, the noblest of them all.”

That conventioneer, of course, was Dickinson, who in 1887 accepted an appointment as postmaster general. At age 41, Dickinson was the youngest member of Cleveland’s cabinet.

“Dickinson’s star in Detroit’s legal and political communities rose quickly after he received his law degree from the University of Michigan in 1867,” it was said in The Legal News profile of the New York native. “In 1876, just 30 years old, Dickinson was elected chairman of the Democratic State Central Committee. Four years later, he was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention.

“These were not heady days for Michigan Democrats. The Republican Party was deeply entrenched in Michigan. In fact, the state had elected only four Democratic congressmen since 1856.”

Nationally, in America’s centennial year, 1876, Democrats took it on the chin again in the Hayes-Tilden presidential race. Democrat Samuel Tilden took the popular vote, but congressional Republicans “rigged it” so Rutherford Hayes was elected to the nation’s top office by a single electoral vote.

“Dickinson was among those determined to right the wrong,” the profile piece recounted. “His themes were tariff reform, civil service reform, banking and railroad control, and an end to the type of political patronage that was rampant in the Republican Party. Grover Cleveland shared these beliefs.

“In 1884, Dickinson and his Democratic Patty had their revenge when Cleveland was elected president of the United States.”

Three years later, Dickinson was appointed postmaster general. During his two years in office, Dickinson reportedly instituted wholesale reforms, including expanded overseas mail service.

Cleveland, who lost his bid for a second term to Benjamin Harrison in 1888, returned to The White House in 1892 when he defeated the incumbent.

“Dickinson might have emerged a national figure at this point in his career, but he showed little interest in political office, spurning overtures to become attorney general, Supreme Court justice, or ambassador to the Court of St. James,” according to The Legal News profile.

“Instead, Dickinson preferred to remain largely behind the scenes while maintaining his close friendship with Cleveland. In 1893, a New York correspondent wrote that Dickinson – informally and unofficially – was the ‘keeper and guardian of the president.’”

Personal tragedy undoubtedly played a role in his desire to remain out of the political spotlight, according to historians.

“In a single dreadful year, all five of Dickinson’s children, the eldest not 10 years old, died from spinal meningitis contracted during a summer vacation in Canada,” The Legal News wrote.

Known for his “soaring flights of oratory before a jury,” Dickinson enjoyed a successful legal career in Detroit and New York as well, where he represented Jefferson Avenue merchants in their dealings with Eastern bankers, jobbers, and manufacturers. In perhaps his most notable case, Dickinson crossed swords with those representing Alexander Graham Bell in a series of patent cases when the telephone industry was in its infancy.
“Dickinson dramatically produced a man named Drawbaugh who, he said, had preceded Bell in voice transmission over wire,” according to the profile piece. “Ultimately, the court settled the matter when it concluded that Bell had beaten his competitors to the U.S. Patent Office. But Dickinson’s surprise witness produced a spirited minority opinion.”

He became a “legal legend” in the U.P. when he took a pro bono case to a surprising and successful conclusion. The case involved “Upper Peninsula settlers whose land titles under the Homestead Act were jeopardized by the railroads and the U.S. Department of Interior in the late 19th century.”

Dickinson helped the settlers prevail in court, and they repaid him by naming “Dickinson County” in his honor when it was formed in 1891.

Such triumphs were the norm for Dickinson, who died in 1917 at age 71 with his wife and two children at his bedside. His epitaph very well may have been written 30 years later by Arthur Pound in his book “Michigan and the Cleveland Era,” a historical treatise of some note.

Wrote Pound of Dickinson: “He was a reformer without cant, who became opulent through driving effort, but kept from arrogance. He was a cleanser and a purifier; an honest, able man with a gift for political negotiations and management who took politics seriously as an agency for good.”

Comments

  1. No comments
Sign in to post a comment »