Lawyer, orator, author, and politician, John J. Ingalls was born at Middletown, Essex County, Massachusetts, on December 29, 1833, to Eliza Chase and Elias T. Ingalls whose ancestors had settled in New Hampshire and Massachusetts during the early seventeenth century. Ingalls attended public schools until the age of sixteen, at which time he studied under a private tutor in preparation for college, and he entered Williams College at Williamstown, Massachusetts, in September 1851. After graduating in 1855, Ingalls studied law and was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1857. The following year (October 1858), looking for a healthier clime and the opportunities a frontier community might offer a capable young attorney, he moved to Sumner, Atchison County, Kansas Territory.
Soon after arriving in the boomtown of Sumner, Ingalls opened an office and began to practice law. He also became active in the political affairs of the territory and in 1859 served as a delegate to the Wyandotte Constitutional Convention. As chair of the convention’s Phraseology Committee, Ingalls influenced the final document, which became the Constitution of the State of Kansas, and was the “recognized scholar of the convention.” During the campaign for ratification, Ingalls told his father “the Constitution will undoubtedly be adopted though I am by no means sanguine about admission under it into the Union. The democrats oppose it as a party measure, but I Estimate the Republican majority in the territory at five thousand, which gives us a sure thing.”
Ingalls was correct, of course, but the U.S. Congress did not vote to admit Kansas under the Wyandotte Constitution until January 1861. In the meantime, Ingalls accepted appointment as secretary of the Territorial Council, and also in 1860 relocated his residence and law practice to the City of Atchison. The following year, after admission, Ingalls served the first state legislature as secretary to the state senate. From that vantage point, he observed the selection of the first to U.S. senators from Kansas; two men with whom he was not impressed: “. . . Jim Lane you know through the papers as one of the free state leaders in Kansas troubles three or four years ago, and subsequently as the murderer of Jenkins at Lawrence,” wrote Ingalls to his brother on April 12, 1861. “He is an unmitigated scoundrel and demagogue of the first order. . . . His ability is average and his attainments as a lawyer fair: upon the stump he is unequaled, though his oratory is of no sort described in the books . . . . He is energetic and laborious to a miracle and unscrupulous as a devil. . . . [Samuel] Pomeroy is of Massachusetts birth, a blacksmith by trade, about fifty years old, and as fat, mean and hypocritical an old canker as can well be described. He has fattened upon the calamities of the public: and his Election to the Senate is the greatest calamity of all.” Subsequently, Ingalls served as member of the state senate, and ultimately, in the wake of the scandal that brought down Pomeroy, Ingalls was elected U.S. senator from the Sunflower State, a position he held from March 4, 1873, to March 3, 1891.
In addition to his legislative service and legal practice, during the last three years of the Civil War, Ingalls edited the Atchison Champion , while its owner and editor John A. Martin was on active duty with the Eighth Kansas. Ingalls made two unsuccessful bids in 1862 and again in 1864 as an “Anti-Lane” candidate to secure election to the office of lieutenant governor. And during General Sterling Price’s September-October 1864 raid through Missouri and into eastern Kansas, Ingalls served in the Kansas State Militia as judge advocate on the staff of General George W. Deitzler.
Although best known as one of the state’s founding fathers and political leaders, Senator Ingalls was also a recognized man of letters. His essays, “Blue Grass” and “Catfish Aristocracy” and his sonnet, “Opportunity,” won him wide national acclaim as an author. He died at Las Vegas, New Mexico, on August 16, 1900. On January 21, 1905, a statue of John J. Ingalls was formally presented to Congress by the state of Kansas for placement in Statuary Hall.
Burton J. Williams, Senator John James Ingalls: Kansas’ Iridescent Republican (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1972.
Dictionary of American Biography . New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934.
La Forte, Robert S. Biographical sketch of “Ingalls, John James.” In American National Biography . New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.