Joshua Reed Giddings was born on October 6, 1795, in Tioga Point (later Athens), Pennsylvania. He was the son of Joshua and Elizabeth (Pease) Giddings. As an infant, he moved with his parents to Canandaigua, New York, in 1795. In 1806, the family moved to Ashtabula County, Ohio. There, Giddings worked on his father’s farm. During his youth, Giddings received little, if any, formal education, but he was an avid reader.
War of 1812
When the War of 1812 began, Giddings enlisted in a regiment of the Ohio militia commanded by Colonel Richard Hayes. At sixteen years of age, Giddings was the youngest member of the regiment. On September 29, 1812, he took part in a battle with American Indians on Marblehead Peninsula, near Sandusky, Ohio. Native warriors killed six members of the regiment and wounded six others during the engagement. Giddings later funded the erection of a monument on the site, honoring the Americans who died.
Marriage and Civilian Life
After the War of 1812, Giddings returned to civilian life and taught school while studying law under the tutelage of Elisha Whittlesey. In 1819, Giddings married Laura Waters, originally of Granby, Connecticut. In February 1821, Giddings joined the Ohio bar, and the couple moved to Jefferson, Ohio, where Giddings opened a law practice. Reportedly, the Giddings home in Jefferson later became a stop on the Underground Railroad. The Ashtabula County Historical Society now maintains Giddings’ original law office a historic site.
While living in Jefferson, Giddings became active in politics and voters elected him to the Ohio General Assembly in 1826. He served one term, declining to be re-nominated, and returned to his law practice in 1828. From 1831 to 1837, Giddings partnered with Benjamin F. Wade, a future U.S. Senator and co-sponsor of the controversial Wade-Davis plan for Reconstruction.
In 1836, Giddings reentered the political arena as a member of the Whig party. Voters elected him to serve in the Twenty-fifth U.S. Congress (March 4, 1837-March 3, 1839) to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of his former mentor, Elisha Whittlesey. In 1838, voters re-elected Giddings was to Congress, where he served for over twenty years.
Giddings’ briefly interrupted his service in Congress when he resigned on March 22, 1842, because of the Creole affair. In 1841, slaves being transported on the brig Creole from Virginia to New Orleans killed the captain, took possession of the ship, and sailed it to the port of Nassau, where British officials declared them liberated. The United States protested and requested indemnity from the British, asserting that the slaves belonged to American citizens. As federal officials negotiated a settlement, Giddings introduced resolutions in the House of Representatives asserting that “in resuming their natural rights of personal liberty” the slaves “violated no law of the United States.” Led by southern representatives, the House censured Giddings by a vote of 125 to 69. Giddings countered by resigning his seat and returning to Ohio, where electors in his district vindicated his position by promptly re-electing him.
As the debate over the extension of slavery in the territories escalated, Giddings joined the Free Soil Party. An ardent abolitionist, Giddings sponsored national Free Soil conventions in Cleveland in 1849 and 1851. By the middle of the decade, voters re-elected Giddings to Congress as a member of the short-lived Opposition Party. He then became a founder of the Republican Party. Throughout his Congressional career, Giddings was an outspoken opponent of the extension of slavery, voting against the annexation of Texas, the Mexican-American War, the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
Giddings’ Congressional career ended in 1859 after his party did not re-nominate him. Two years later, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Giddings as consul-general to the British North American Provinces (Canada) on March 25, 1861. While serving in that capacity, Giddings died in Montreal, Canada, on May 27, 1864. He was buried in Oakdale Cemetery, Jefferson, Ohio.