Samuel Sullivan Cox was born on September 30, 1824, at Zanesville, Ohio. He was the grandson of Revolutionary War General James Cox. Cox was the second son of Ezekiel Taylor Cox and Maria Matilda Sullivan. Cox’s father moved to Ohio as a young man, where he became an influential newspaper owner, clerk of the Court of Common Pleas, Muskingum County recorder, clerk of the Ohio Supreme Court, and an Ohio state senator.
Young Samuel was an exceptionally bright student at the Zanesville village school. As an older student, he attended the Zanesville Academy to prepare for admission to Ohio University. During his youth, Cox served as a deputy to his father when he was the clerk of courts. In 1842, Cox entered Ohio University, where he excelled as a student. Two years later, Cox transferred to Brown University, where he studied law and graduated with honors in 1846.
Upon returning to Ohio, Cox continued his legal studies under several local luminaries, including future Ohio Governor George Hoadley. Upon being admitted to the Ohio bar, Cox formed a partnership in Cincinnati with former U.S. Senator George E. Pugh.
On October 11, 1849, Cox married Julia A. Buckingham at Zanesville. A few months after their marriage, the couple sailed for an extended trip to Europe. Upon his return, Cox published his reminiscence of the journey in a work entitled A Buckeye Abroad. The book was so favorably received that it eventually went into eight printings. The success of the book influenced Cox’s decision to abandon his law practice and follow his father into the newspaper business. In 1852, Cox purchased the controlling interest in Samuel Medary’s influential Democratic paper the Ohio Statesman, published in Columbus. While the owner of the Statesman, Cox earned the lifelong moniker of Samuel “Sunset” Cox after publishing a picturesque description of a sunset in 1853.
Service in Peru
In 1855, President Franklin Pierce appointed Cox as secretary of the legation at Lima, Peru. Soon after his departure, however, illness forced Cox to return to the United States and to resign his position.
U.S. Congressman from Ohio
One year later, Cox began a long tenure as a member of the Democratic Party in the United States Congress, when voters of Ohio’s 12th Congressional District elected Cox to a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. On March 4, 1857, Cox took his oath for the first of sixteen terms in the House representing Ohio and, later, New York.
During his first term, Cox broke with Democratic President James Buchanan over the admission of Kansas into the Union as a slave state under the territory’s controversial Lecompton Constitution. Cox favored settling the dispute over “Bleeding Kansas” by the adoption of the principle of popular sovereignty as proposed by Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas.
Cox served in Congress throughout most of the American Civil War and was a moderate Peace Democrat. Although he opposed the war, he was not a peace-at-any-price Democrat. Like President Abraham Lincoln, Cox championed saving Union. He did not, however, believe that emancipation should be a condition for peace. As the war dragged on, Cox favored restoring the Union to its antebellum status, although neither he nor other Peace Democrats offered a viable plan for doing so.
While Cox’s views on the war were not as extreme as those of Copperheads such as fellow-Ohioan Clement Vallandigham, he shared their racial views. Cox opposed Lincoln’s decision to allow African Americans to enlist in the Union army, and he voted against the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery. Appealing to base racial prejudices, Cox delivered a speech on the House floor on February 17, 1864, warning white Northerners that abolitionists and radical Republicans were “moving steadily forward to perfect social equality of black and white, and can only end in this detestable doctrine of miscegenation.” The Copperhead press seized upon Cox’s speech, printing it in a pamphlet that set off a national firestorm of debate about the mixing of races.
Cox’s appeal to racial fear did not help him at the polls that autumn. Republican candidate Samuel S. Shellabarger rode Lincoln’s coattails to victory in Ohio, unseating Cox in the House. At the conclusion of his fourth term, on March 4, 1865, Cox moved to New York City and opened a law practice with Charlton T. Lewis.
U.S. Congressman from New York
After just three years in New York, Democrats nominated Cox to represent the state’s Sixth District in Congress, and the voters elected him. Cox served two consecutive terms before voters rejected him in the general election of 1872. Despite losing his reelection bid, Cox’s tenure in Congress was uninterrupted. New York officials named Cox to temporarily fill a vacancy caused by the death of Representative James Brooks. A year later, New York voters chose him to fill Brooks’ seat in a special election. Cox subsequently served six more consecutive terms in the House.
Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Turkey
In 1885, President Grover Cleveland appointed Cox as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Turkey. Cox served overseas until October 22, 1886. Upon his return to the United States, New York voters elected Cox to fill a congressional vacancy caused by the resignation of Representative Joseph Pulitzer. Voters re-elected him to terms in the Fiftieth and Fifty-first Congresses.
During his long tenure in Congress, Cox is most remembered as a champion of U.S. postal employees. His support for letter carriers established a fixed salary, an eight-hour workday, overtime benefits, and an annual paid vacation of fifteen days. Cox also gained recognition for introducing legislation founding the Life-Saving Service, which later became the U.S. Coast Guard.
In August 1889, Cox took ill. His condition deteriorated, and he died on September 10, 1889, in New York City, before the Fifty-first Congress convened. Following a funeral on September 13, in New York City’s First Presbyterian Church, Cox was interred in Greenwood Cemetery, in Brooklyn.