John Covode

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JOHN COVODE was born in Westmoreland county, March T7, 1808, and became one of the most potent factors in the political and business world our county ever produced. He was a son of Jacob Covode, and a grandson of Garret Covode, a native of Holland, who was kidnapped in the streets of Amsterdam by the captain of an out-going vessel. The kidnapped boy was brought to Philadelphia and sold as a "redemptioner," Under this mode of servitude, which was sancticned by our law and has been considered elsewhere in this work, he was held for several years after he became of age. During this time it is said that he was employed as a domestic servant in the Mount Vernon household of Washington. He was born in the same year that gave birth to Washington, 1732, and was kidnapped about 1736. He finally redeemed himself from this unjust bondage and then started out in the world for himself. He lived to a good old age, dying in 1826, aged ninety-four years. It is not supposed that his name when a child in Holland was Garret Covode, but rather that that name was given him by the captain who had stolen him. John Covode's mother's name was Updegraff. She was of Quaker extraction, and there is a tradition in the family that two of her ancestors, with a man named Wood, prepared a protest against the decision of William Penn in recognizing the legality of African slavery in Pennsylvania. It was moreover said to have been the first anti-slavery manifesto published in this country.

Mr. Covode was brought up on a farm and taught habits of industry and economy which he retained until his death. When a young man lie learned the trade of woolen manufacturing in New York State, and this engaged his attention in part for the remainder of his life. There was no time, we think, that he was not interested in the making of woolen textile fabrics. His place of birth and of residence was in the northern part of Ligonier Valley, in Fairfield township, which then bordered on the Conemaugh. When the Pennsylvania canal was built, therefore, it found him already located near its route, and he began life by working and contracting on its construction. When it was completed he engaged in transporting goods on it. It is said that he commanded the first section-boat which went from Philadelphia to the Ohio. He was engaged in the mercantile business also, and in each venture was remarkably successful. All this preceded his entry into the political world. He was later one of the early advocates of the construction of the Pennsylvania railroad, and was also a lifelong stockholder in it.

His first venture in the political world, as an office-seeker, at least, was in 1844, when he was the Whig candidate for state senator. The district was strongly Democratic and his defeat was a foregone conclusion. Yet when he entered the field a second time he came so nearly being elected that the Democrats, being in power in the state, and being alarmed at his growing popularity among the Whigs, changed the district so as to put him into a district that was so strongly Democratic that he could not hope to win. This second canvass was made in 1850, and his successful opponent was Col. John McFarland, of Ligonier. When he was twenty-three years old he was appointed a justice cf the peace for "Ligonier and Fairfield Townships" by Governor Wolf. In this humble position his neighbors bestowed on him the sobriquet of "Honest" John Covode, and this he retained till his death. In 1854, when forty-six years of age, he was nominated for Congress by the Whigs of the nineteenth district, then composed of the counties of Westmoreland, Indiana and Armstrong. His opponent was Augustus Drum, an accomplished lawyer of his day, who was then a member of Congress, having been elected two years before by a large majority. But Mr. Drum had unfortunately introduced a measure relative to the W '"ilmot Proviso which made him enemies among the Abolition element of the Nineteenth district. As a result, Mr. Covode defeated him by the then handsome majority of 2,757 votes. He was thus a member of the XXXIVth Congress, and was re-elected in 1856, 1858, and in i86o. March 5, 1860, he introduced a resolution providing for a committee of five members of the house to "investigate whether the President of the United States," (James Buchanan), "or any other officer of the Government has, by money, patronage or other improper means, sought to influence the action of Congress, or any committees thereof, for or against the passage of any law appertaining to the rights of any State or Territory," etc. Of this committee he was made chairman, and as such personally conducted a long and laborious system of inquiries which has been known in history as the "Covode Investigation." He unfortunately had no confidence in the administration of Buchanan. Voluminous testimony was taken, which was published in an elaborate report. A great many disclosures were made which, when published, to say the least, produced a most painful impression on the public mind, and greatly increased the unpopularity of the administration. In the light of subsequent events a revision of the report would be required, that justice be clone either to Mr. Buchanan or Mr. Covode. But the disclosures made by the Covode Investigation passed out of view when the Civil war came, for greater and more important questions were thus presented to the people of the United States for their solution. The investigation, however, gave Mr. Covode a national reputation, and helped greatly to make him one of the potent factors in the Civil war period of our nation's history. It exposed particularly the corrupt means by which the Kansas and Nebraska legislation had been secured, and was for years almost a text-book in the hands of Republican stump speakers and editors in all parts of the United States. Mr. Covode was a member of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War up to March 4, 1863, when he retired temporarily from Congress. He was elected again to Congress in 1866, and in 1868 was pitted against Hon. Henry D. Foster, one of the most eminent lawyers western Pennsylvania ever produced. A bitter contest ensued, both claiming the election, but the matter was decided in favor of Mr. Covode.

Pennsylvania had been a Democratic state generally until 1860, and in 1863 it was doubtful if the Governor, Andrew G. Curtin, could be re-elected, though lie was a very able and popular man. Mr. Covode was put up as a candidate for the nomination and would undoubtedly have made a strong candidate. He was chairman of the Republican state committee in 1869 and held the position till his death.

On January 10, 1871, he reached Harrisburg on his way to Washington, in apparently good health and passed a pleasant evening in Harrisburg in consultation with friends from various parts of the state who had met him there, perhaps by appointment. Expecting to take the morning train to Washington, he retired earl-. About three o'clock he was awakened by a severe pain about his heart. Medical skill was summoned at once, but in less than two hours he was numbered with the dead.

Mr. Covode's strong characteristics were his simplicity, his earnestness, and his sagacity and energy, and if to these is added kindness, his make-up will be complete. He had not been well educated, and at best could but clothe his ideas in homely phrase. Yet so earnest, so direct and good humored were his popular addresses, that the studied preparation of the most polished lawyers was almost impotent when compared with his efforts. His simplicity made him a power with President Lincoln. Gen. N. P. Banks accredits Covode with having induced Lincoln, against the ruling of Secretary Stanton and against the advice of some of his most prominent supporters, to issue the order directing the immediate and unreserved exchange of prisoners during the latter part of the war.

By industry and business tact he had amassed an ample competence for that day, and had earned the name of being a shrewd business man and financier. In the early years of the war, when bankers and capitalists were doubting the advisability of investing in the war loan to be issued, Mr. Covode telegraphed the Secretary of the Treasury that he would take $50,000.00 of the forthcoming bonds. The effect of the telegram was to greatly strengthen the public credit, and in this way it was worth more to the government than the amount paid for the bonds. He made but few, if any, set speeches in Congress, and one looks in vain in the columns of the Congressional Globe for the source or evidence of his great power and prominence. His strength lay in the fact that he was a fearless and tireless worker, a doer of things, a harmonizer of discordant elements. Though he won his elections only by bitter contests, he at once forgave his opponents, and in representing his district knew no party lines whatever. It was these qualities which combined to make him popular in his district and state, and the same qualities were the sequel of his power in Congress. In reviewing his character, Senator John Sherman, of Ohio, spoke these words:

"I can truthfully say that I know of no one in public life who was a truer friend, more faithful to his convictions of duty, less influenced by bitterness and malignity, and who was less changed by his long political service, than the plain John Covode of our early acquaintance. It so happened that I once visited his district and sought the secret of his continued popularity at his home, where there had been many political changes. He had been engaged extensively in many branches of business; had accumulated a large fortune; from a laboring man had became the employer of thousands of laborers; had held high official  position; and yet, in all these changes had continued the same plain-hearted, genial, kind and accessible John Covode. He felt and knew the popular pulse, because he mingled with and knew the people as well as any man in public life."

Charles Sumner, the polished scholar and senator from Massachusetts, bore this tribute to his worth I wish to say a few words of him and his career which I hope will impress the youth of the country. In him we have a bright illustration of what may be attained under a political system which invites every kind of ability to its service, which welcomes every description of talent, and which excludes none from the responsibilities and honors of public life. However much of honor and fame John Covode may have earned by his public services, he holds a higher place in my esteem for the true courage he possessed. I have never honored him more than when, in a speech in Philadelphia not long ago, he boldly proclaimed what other and weaker men would have labored to suppress, and announced, as a reason for his hostility to every species of human bondage, the fact that his grandfather had been sold as a "redemptionist" near the very spot where he was then speaking to thousands on matters of high importance; standing up an acknowledged leader in a land famous for the number and abilities of its leading men and the average intelligence of its people. He was the irreconcilable foe of slavery because, in the traditions of his family, that detestation was the outgrowth of experience, of bitter suffering, of unmerited reproach. He loved liberty as one to when its beauty was a reality and not merely a sentiment. And so the same practical traits are to be seen all through his character. As one denied the blessings and advantages of an education, he was an unflinching friend of free schools. As an American laborer, his life was spent in shielding American labor from the blight of foreign competition. As a Pennsylvanian he loved the state which gave him birth and the sepulcher to his fathers. As an American citizen, he loved the land where he and his kindred found refuge and honor. His was a sympathic heart and his hand was open. He alleviated the sorrows and afflictions of his neighbors with unstinted generosity."

Source: Page(s) 662-667, History of Westmoreland County, Volume I, Pennsylvania by John N Boucher. New York, The Lewis Publishing Company, 1906.
Transcribed August 2008 for the Westmoreland County History Project
Contributed by Nathan Zipfel for use by the Westmoreland County Genealogy Project (

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