Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James
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PHELPS, William Walter, congressman, born in New York city, 24 August, 1839. The first of his ancestors in this country was William Phelps, a brother of the John Phelps that was Oliver Cromwell's private secretary. He came to this country in 1630, arid settled near Simsbury, Connecticut The descendants long remained there, and one of them, William Walter's great-grandfather, represented the town for thirty consecutive terms in the Connecticut assembly. The grandson, , John J. Phelps, was the first to leave Simsbury for New York, where he made a fortune in business, organized and became president of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western railroad, and left the bulk of his property to his only son, William Walter. The latter was early sent to Yale, and, in spite of an affection of the eyes, which took him out of college for a year, and for another year prevented him from reading, he won many honors and stood second in his class at his graduation in 1860. In the Columbia law-school he secured the valedictory in 1863. Entering active practice, he became counsel for the Rock Island and the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western railroads, the United States trust company, the City bank, and other corporations, before he was thirty years old. Gay. Reuben E. Fenton offered him a judgeship, which he declined, and in 1869 the death of his father compelled him to retire from practice and give his time to the management of the estate and the trusts connected with it. Retaining an active interest in his college, he led in the "Young Yale" movement, which resulted in giving the alumni a share in the government of the institution. He was at once elected to the board of trustees by a heavy vote, and by successive elections has been kept there ever since. He had always taken a keen interest in politics, and was an enthusiastic Republican during the civil war. He had been the successful counsel for his sister's father-in-law, William E. Dodge, in his noted contest for a seat in the house of representatives, and in 1872 he was himself elected to the house from the New Jersey district where his country-place was situated. He took high rank as a debater almost at once, and became noted as one of the few men to whom the house would always listen. He discussed, in his first term, questions of banking and currency, the franking privilege, the Pacific mail subsidy, and the government of the southern states. The house sent him with Clarkson N. Potter and Governor Charles Foster, to New Orleans to investigate the outbreak of the White league against the Louisiana legislature, which had led General Sheridan to denounce the league as "banditti." Both parties finally agreed to abide by the committee's decision, and the legislature was organized in accordance with their report. From the outset of his congressional career Mr. Phelps showed independence, and on one party measure, the so-called Civil rights bill, which, as a lawyer, he declared unconstitutional (as the courts subsequently held), he voted against the Republicans. This vote cost him his re-election. He was defeated by seven votes in a district that he had previously carried by 2,715. He had become warmly attached to James G. Blaine, then speaker of the house, and was his ardent supporter in the presidential conventions of 1876, 1880, and 1884. In the last two National conventions he was a delegate-at-large from New Jersey. In 1881 President Garfield sent him as United States minister to Austria, where his familiarity with the language and customs of the country, his liberal mode of life, and his intense Americanism made him a valuable representative. On the change of administration he at once tendered his resignation, and finally retired in August, 1882. He was immediately elected to congress again from his old district, and has continued to serve through the 48th, 49th, and 50th congresses, always running hundreds, and sometimes thousands, ahead of his ticket. His assignment on committees required him to give much attention to foreign affairs, but he has also taken special interest in discussions on the tariff, the merchant marine, and the congressional library. Among his more notable speeches, separately published, are those on the Franking Privilege, 24 February, 1874; Sound Currency, 1 April, 1874; the Civil Rights Bill, 4 February, 1875; Fitz-John Porter's Case, 1 February, 1884; the Laskar Resolutions. 19 March, 1884; an oration before General Grant and his cabinet at a Grand army reunion in Paterson, New Jersey, on " The Dangers of War," and one at Mount Holly, New Jersey, on Decoration day, 1886, on "The Dangers of Peace"; a tariff address before the Agricultural society of New Jersey, 5 February, 1884, and one on Congress before the New England society, New York, 22 December, 1886. He is a regent of the Smithsonian institution and a fellow of the corporation of Yale college, was vice-president of the Yale alumni association, president of the Columbia law-school alumni association, and a founder of the Union league and University clubs.
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