Robert J. Walker

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Robert John Walker

Robert John Walker (July 23, 1801November 11, 1869) was an American economist and statesman.

Born in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, the son of a judge, he graduated at the top of his class at the University of Pennsylvania in 1819, and was admitted to the bar in Pittsburgh in 1821. He practiced law in Pittsburg from 1822 to 1826, when he removed to Mississippi. There he joined his brother Duncan Walker, in a lucrative law practice, Walker became an speculator in cotton, land and slaves. (In 1838 he freed his own slaves.)

He became politically prominent during the nullification crisis, and from 1836 to 1845 he sat in the United States Senate as a Unionist Democrat. Being an ardent expansionist, he voted for the recognition of the Republic of Texas in 1837 and for the joint annexation resolution of 1845, and advocated the nomination and election of James K. Polk in 1844. He favored the award of public lands to new states; endorsed a low tariff; opposed distribution of the federal surplus funds for fear of creating an excuse to raise tariff rates; and, significantly, supported the independent Treasury system idea. He also opposed the Bank of the United States.

He was U.S. Secretary of the Treasury throughout the Polk administration, from March 8, 1845 until March 5, 1849, and was generally recognized as the most influential member of the President's Cabinet.

As Treasury Secretary, Walker financed the Mexican-American War and drafted the 1849 bill to establish the United States Department of the Interior. He also supported the independent Treasury system, pushed for a tariff for revenue, and established a warehousing system for handling imports that has had lasting influence.

Walker's greatest work was the preparation of the famous Treasury report of December 3, 1845. Although inferior in intellectual quality to Alexander Hamilton's Report on Manufactures, presenting the case against free trade, it is regarded as the most powerful attack upon the protection system that has ever been made in an American state paper. The Walker Tariff of 1846 was based upon the principles of this paper and was in fact largely the secretary's own work.

After leaving Treasury in 1849, Walker devoted himself to business and land speculation, as well as mining interests.

Walker at first opposed the Compromise of 1850, but was won over later by the arguments of Stephen A. Douglas. He was appointed governor of Kansas Territory in the spring of 1857 by President James Buchanan, but in November of the same year resigned because of his opposition to the Lecompton Constitution. He did not, however, break with his party immediately, and favored the so-called English Bill. It was partly due to his influence that a sufficient number of anti-Lecompton Democrats were induced to vote for that measure to secure its passage.

He supported the Union cause during the American Civil War and in 1863 and 1864, as financial agent of the United States, did much to create confidence in Europe in the financial resources of the United States. During this time Walker was instrumental in securing a loan of $250,000,000 from Germany.

He practiced law in Washington, D.C., from 1864 until his death there in 1869. Both during and after the Civil War he was a contributor to the Continental Monthly, which for a short time he also, with James R. Gilmore, conducted.

Preceded by:
George M. Bibb
United States Secretary of the Treasury
Succeeded by:
William M. Meredith

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