Richard Achilles Ballinger

Lawyer, politician, and Secretary of the Interior Richard A. Ballinger was born in Boonesborough Iowa on July 9, 1858.  His father was also a lawyer. Ballinger pursued the profession; after graduating from Williams College in 1884, he was admitted to the bar two years later and established himself as an expert in public land law.  In 1886, Ballinger settled in the then Washington territory.  He served as may or of Seattle from 1904 to 1906. The course of Ballinger's career changed when fellow Williams College alumnus James Rudolph Garfield was appointed Secretary of the Interior by President Theodore Roosevelt.  Garfield asked Ballinger to become the commissioner of the disreputable General Land Office in March 1907.  The Office was responsible for enforcing land laws and selling public lands.  It was also badly in need of reform, a task that Ballinger undertook vigorously and immediately.  Ballinger, however, disagreed with the efforts of Garfield, Gifford Pinchot, and other conservation advocates in the Roosevelt administration on the transfer of vast tracts from private to public control.  Soon he left his appointment as Commissioner of Lands and returned to private practice, claiming that he had improved the efficiency of the General Land Office. However, Ballinger was once again summoned by the U.S. government when President Taft appointed him Secretary of the Interior in 1909.  Ballinger’s appointment was disappointing to many who had hoped Garfield would retain the position.  In fact, when Taft appointed Ballinger, the new President was signaling his disagreement with the entire thrust of conservation under Roosevelt.  Perhaps no one was more unhappy with Taft’s choice than Gifford Pinchot, head of the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service.  Ballinger disagreed with Pinchot's method of operation, and his appointment was a direct threat to Pinchot's accomplishments as Chief Forester in the Department of Agriculture.  Pinchot had arranged a system of coordinating federal agencies to have land removed from private control and placed under the stewardship of federal scientists.  This method was the principal means by which Pinchot had enlarged the national forests and placed vast tracts under the control of the Department of Agriculture.   Ballinger believed that these arrangements were illegal, and thus his appointment to the cabinet post was a direct threat to Pinchot’s work done under the Roosevelt administration.The conflict between the two antagonists came to a head in 1909.  Louis Glavis, head of the Portland field division of the Land Office, accused Ballinger of misconduct.  Glavis insisted that Ballinger was bringing pressure indirectly to push through Alaskan coal land claims without thorough investigation; the claims were being made by former clients of Ballinger.  Pinchot used these charges to attack Ballinger publicly,  seeking to discredit the Secretary of the Interior and restore the policies of the Roosevelt administration.  While Ballinger was cleared by the President and by a Congressional investigation of any wrongdoing, Pinchot succeeded in winning over public opinion and the sympathies of conservationists in the Republican Party.  He portrayed Ballinger as a destroyer of Roosevelt’s policies as well as making Taft out to be a traitor to the former president who was instrumental in Taft’s campaign.  The dispute, known as the Ballinger-Pinchot controversy, was partially responsible for splitting the Republican Party which secured the 1912 election for Woodrow Wilson. Shortly after the scandal, Ballinger left his office in March 1911 due to failing health.  He returned to Seattle and to his law practice.  He died there on June 6, 1922. Ballinger had never fully recovered from the damage done to his reputation for prudence and integrity.

(Prepared by Jill Stover)