Gregory A. Dunn

Gregory Dunn
Portrait of Gregory A. Dunn

17th President of the United States
September 20, 1881-March 4, 1885

Predecessor Samuel J. Tilden
Successor James G. Blaine

Vice President of the United States
March 4, 1881-September 20, 1881

Predecessor Franklin Denny
Successor James Garfield

United States Representative, Wisconsin

Predecessor Joseph Horner
Successor George Coughlin

President of the University of Wisconsin

Predecessor Thomas Jameson
Successor F. Montgomery Stevens
Born April 18, 1838
Died August 14, 1928
Spouse Sarah Dunn
Political Party National

Gregory Abel Dunn (April 18th, 1838-August 14th, 1928) was the 17th President of the United States, serving from 1881 to 1885, after assuming office following the assassination of Samuel Tilden. Dunn is known for his involvement of the United States in the Alaskan War, his campaigns against Native Americans in the West, his establishment of a Federal Commerce Commission to oversee the burgeoning railroad industry and for helping pass the Dunn Act, which forbade states from denying naturalized or natural-born American citizens the right to vote based on any discriminatory factor, which helped guarantee the rights of black men to vote, earning him the ire of Southern landowners.

Early Life

Gregory Abel Dunn was born in 1938 to Maria Louisa (nee Bellafonte; 1817-1845) and Thomas J. Dunn (1808-1873) in Albany, New York. His father was a lawyer (later a judge) and strict Presbyterian, and his mother was a French Protestant immigrant who died when he was only seven years old while giving birth to his sister Louise. In 1850, Thomas Dunn married Delilah McAndrews (1830-1900), who was only 8 years older than her newly adopted son, and moved the family to Wisconsin, where he had been made a federal judge by President Zachary Taylor.

Dunn attended the University of Wisconsin, graduating in 1860 with degrees in history and theology. Encouraged by his father to become a lawyer, Dunn instead chose to become a professor and missionary. At Wisconsin, he was a founder of the school's Kappa Psi Delta chapter, where his bust remains to this day. In 1861, he married Sarah Franklin (1841-1911), with whom he had five children - Thomas, Peter, Louisa, Henry, and Magdalena.

Academic and Political Career

The deeply religious Dunn traveled to the West in 1863 to teach at a mission school in the Nevada Territory, believing that the key to solving the Indian troubles was to convert them to Christianity. At the Lake Tahoe Mission, Dunn was struck with typhoid fever and was near death for most of the summer of 1864 - he took his survival as a sign of divine intervention that he was meant to live on for other things, and stated in his autobiography, "The power of Christ saved me from the fever, but only because I was not meant for the mission."

Upon returning to Wisconsin in 1865, Dunn and his wife settled in Madison and he became a professor of history, theology and political theory. Dunn came to disputes with his father, who supported slavery, due to his belief that it was an immoral practice. Dunn campaigned vigorously in Wisconsin on the behalf of Nationalist President Horatio Seymour, although he declined the Abolition Party's nomination for the US Senate. Dunn wrote a book, Slavery and the Triumph of Decent Society, in 1870 which served as his appraisal of the controversial Compromise of 1868 and his approval of President Seymour. When the President died soon thereafter, Dunn was deeply depressed and wrote an eloquent letter to Seymour's widow giving his condolences. In 1872, Dunn was nominated against his will as the Nationalist candidate for Madison's seat in the House of Representatives, which he declined due to his disinterest in politics - however, once Josiah Marks was President and following the volatile first two years of the Marks administration, Dunn vigorously decried himself as "a full-throated opponent of the Floridian" and ran as a Nationalist for the seat, which he won in a landslide.


As a Representative, Dunn was a vocal opponent of Marks but supported Nationalist moderates such as Arthur James Vandenberg and Charles Lacely, and was highly critical of the influence of various military leaders in the party. Dunn described himself as a champion of the "supremacy of the liberty-loving," concerned about the right-wing tilt the party was experiencing in opposition to Marks and wrote the Dunn Five-Point Plan for ending slavery, in which he eventually came to agree with Marks' policy of allowing states to phase out slavery over the course of a decade. With the Indian Wars coming to dominate his last three years in Congress, Dunn championed his missionary work and maintained that Christianizing the Indians was a necessity, but believed that if they peacefully moved to Alaska, the United States should cease pursuing them.

Election of 1880 and Vice Presidency

At the 1880 National Party Convention, held in Baltimore, the fiery party ran on a platform of increasing the size of the army, "Protecting the Union," and rebuking various economic policies from the Marks administration. Sensing a rift in the Democratic Party, Nationalist party bosses agreed that the more militant elements of their party needed to be subdued so that a "national candidate" could emerge. The bosses eventually settled on compromise candidate Samuel Tilden, a known fighter against corruption in New York, a supporter of the army but not a militant, and who would defend the Compromise of 1868. As his running mate, they selected Dunn, who while not a nationally well-known candidate was picked to appease the conservative wing of the party, whom Dunn was typically identified with.

The 1880 election was a landslide for the Nationalists over the ineffective J.A. Gibbons, and Dunn became Vice President on March 4, 1881, although he spent much of his time in Wisconsin, away from the duties of the office in order to coordinate the Indian Wars from Madison. In this sense, he was the most influential Vice President in decades, given that he had a specific task he was asked to complete for the administration.

On September 20, 1881, while on his way back to Washington by train, Dunn was interrupted at the train station in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to be informed of the sudden assassination of the President, who had been killed instantly. Dunn took the oath of office at the Gelly House in Pittsburgh, and rode to a mourning Washington as the first President to succeed an assassinated predecessor.

Presidency: 1881-1885

Later Life

Dunn returned to Wisconsin in 1885 and retired permanently from politics. He eventually agreed to become the President of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, a post he held until 1916, when he finally retired. Dunn later commented that agreeing to be Vice President was the worst decision he ever made and that, "the notoriety that comes with the Presidency is enough to cripple a man."

When he wrote his autobiography in 1920, Dunn devoted a single chapter to his time in Washington and filled the rest of the book with lavish details of his academic career and ideas on political theory, as well as the inner workings of the University of Wisconsin. In fact, his autobiography was written as, "The Life of Gregory Dunn, President of the University of Wisconsin."

Dunn was reclusive and kept himself out of public view for much of the early 20th century, insisting that he was about as interesting of a historical figure as "Napoleon's foot masseuse." He wrote five works of fiction as well as a series of historical essays about the Renaissance, and was an avid researcher late into his life. He passed away in 1928 at the age of 90, at the time the oldest age ever reached by a President. Dunn was buried at a cemetery a few miles away from the University of Wisconsin.

"If you want to be a politician, then you need to get used to people not thanking you for anything and blaming you for everything." - Gregory Dunn, 1894