By Dan Cole, Charlotte Historical Society
In 1863, Rev. Bernice Darwin Ames wrote Charlotte’s history for Abby Hemenway’s Vermont Historical Gazetteer. “Hon. John A. Kasson is one of the most distinguished men Charlotte has produced. He graduated at the University of Vermont in 1842, practiced law for a time in New Bedford, Mass., and subsequently settled in Iowa.”
Kasson developed a natural flair for diplomacy, and every American President from Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt utilized his talents. He worked with representatives of nearly every European country and became a favorite of powerful Prussian Chancellor and pragmatic diplomat Otto von Bismarck.
Adam and Honor (Steele) Kasson left Connecticut for Charlotte in 1816, buying the large house at the Four Corners (West Village) known as the Barton tavern. With them was their son’s family: John Steele and Nancy (Blackman) Kasson and three children. Three more were born in Charlotte: Chester (1816); George Dixon (1819, died 1820); and John Adam, born January 11, 1822. John attended the local school at the “Corners.”
“The ‘Corners’ had its tavern, of course, kept by Joseph Barton; … Charles Kasson; Calvin C. Martin; and latterly by Luther R. Hubbell…. Hon. John A. Kasson of Iowa was born in this house, and was quite a lad when his parents removed from town.” (Higbee; Around the Mountains)
Higbee was inaccurate. Kasson’s father died in the house in 1827, his grandfather in 1828, an aunt and uncle in 1831, and his grandmother in 1835. The causes of death are not known, but were likely consumption. All are buried in Barber Cemetery (West Burying Ground).
Nancy and her sons Chester and John removed to Burlington where her eldest son Charles Kasson was an established attorney. John graduated from Burlington Academy in 1838 and the University of Vermont in 1842. He began legal training with his brother before accepting a contract to tutor the children of a Virginia plantation owner. He became incensed over slavery and quit after six months. He returned to live in Massachusetts, a political activist leaning toward the egalitarian Locofoco party.
He obtained his LL.D. and was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar. As many ambitious young men did, John became a Mason (Bedford’s Star in the East Lodge) but chafed under conservative Massachusetts politics that hindered ambitious young men. He decided to move west, but before departing was appointed a delegate to the Free Soil (Whig) Convention in Buffalo, New York, in 1848. He helped frame the platform that declared all United States territories should prohibit slavery.
Once out west, Kasson built a lucrative law practice in St. Louis, returning to Washington, D.C. on April 30, 1851 to marry Caroline Eliot, daughter of Rev. William and Margaret Eliot. Before he moved to Des Moines, Iowa, John formed many influential friendships, including the politically prominent Blair family, and Edward Bates, who would become Abraham Lincoln’s Attorney General. At Indianola, Iowa, John and Caroline welcomed their only child, Emma Cushman Kasson, born May 9, 1855.
John helped establish the new Republican Party in 1854 and was Chairman of the Iowa Republicans in 1858. At the 1860 Republican Convention in Chicago, he was the final arbiter for the Platform Committee, and Horace Greeley credited him with negotiating a cohesive platform from among the various factions. Abraham Lincoln took notice and appointed him First Assistant Postmaster General under Montgomery Blair.
Kasson was dispatched as U.S. Commissioner to the 1862 International Postal Congress in Paris and negotiated reciprocal postal delivery treaties with Great Britain, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Switzerland and Italy—most still continue today. This brought him into the sphere of a new Prussian minister, Otto von Bismarck, while establishing his credentials as a master negotiator. What differentiated Kasson from other diplomats was his placement of priorities: country over personal advancement.
Beginning in 1877, Kasson worked more closely with Bismarck (now Chancellor of a unified Germany) as Minister to Austria-Hungary, serving under presidents Grant, Hayes and Garfield. Subsequently Kasson became Minister to Germany under President Arthur.
Following Kasson’s appointment by President Arthur as Special Envoy to the International Conference in Berlin on the Congo, Bismarck welcomed Kasson to the city. He served under President Cleveland as Special Envoy to the International Conference on Samoa, also in Berlin. Both conferences intended to prevent wars by minimizing colonial ambitions of competitive European powers.
In between, Kasson served in the Iowa legislature and six terms in Congress. He was absent from home so often that it came as no surprise that his wife divorced him.
Kasson was selected president of the Committee on the Centennial Celebration of the Adoption of the Constitution in Philadelphia in September 1887; in 1889 he authored a history of the Constitution. In 1898, President McKinley appointed Kasson to the United States and British Joint High Commission to adjust disagreements with Canada.
The year 1897 saw passage of the Dingley Tariff Act under McKinley. McKinley tapped Kasson to be Special Commissioner to negotiate reciprocal tariff treaties under the act. After McKinley’s assassination, influential Senate leader Nelson Aldrich, lobbied by business interests, blocked approval of the treaties. President Teddy Roosevelt let the matter drop, and Kasson angrily refused to accept his pay—effectively finishing his career.
From humble beginnings, John Adam Kasson became an indispensable negotiator and world-renowned statesman. He became ill with pneumonia and died in Washington, D.C. on May 18, 1910 in his 88th year, as Halley’s Comet passed over.