James L. Graham, born on November 17, 1817 in Pittsburgh, was the son of Irish immigrants William and Frances Graham. Arriving at Philadelphia in 1808, the senator’s father first settled in Pittsburgh, relocating in Allegheny City in 1824, becoming a successful butcher in the old city. From age-six, he home-tutored James, while his son worked at his father’s store. The senator eventually enrolled in the Old Allegheny Seminary and graduated, age 20, as an ordained Methodist-Episcopal minister.
Graham studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1857, he and his wife Mary Margaret (Stubbs) Graham moving to the First Ward, Pittsburgh, where he opened a private practice. The senator served as sheriff of Allegheny County from 1857 to 1861, recruited troops and provided supplies during the Civil War, and dedicated 20 years as a county school director. In addition to these services, Senator Graham spent nine years as director of the poor, served as president of the Allegheny Savings Bank, and chaired the Pittsburgh city council for one-term.
In October 1862, Allegheny County elected Cameron-stalwart Graham to the state Senate. He emerged as caucus choice for Speaker during the 1868 session after playing a major role in gaining control of the June 1867 Williamsport State Republican Convention from Philadelphia boss William Mann. At the 1869 Philadelphia Convention, Graham served as president and an influential factor in nominating Cameron-choice John Geary for governor. As a delegate to the 1868 National Republican Convention, the senator helped nominate Ulysses S. Grant. In his own right, Graham received three nominations as the 23rd Congressional District’s choice for the U.S. House of Representatives; however, he failed in each subsequent election.
Enjoying a 12-year Senate career (1862-1874), Graham focused particular attention to coal-industry labor reform, pro-temperance legislation, and progressive manufacturing bills. The senator supported a high tariff, backed adoption of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments, cast “aye” votes behind the 1866 Civil Rights Act, the Emancipation Proclamation, a resolution instructing the Pennsylvania congressional delegation to impeach and prosecute President Andrew Johnson during debate over the 1867 Reconstruction Acts, and Grant’s 1869 Force Act. He supported Pennsylvania’s Free Railroad (fair freight-rates) Bill, the 1868 Calamity Act, the Philadelphia Registry Act, and the 8-Hour Labor Act.
He chaired Vice and Immorality (1867), Corporations (1870), and the Finance Committee for all but one year (he was Speaker) of his career. Graham also served as a member of the George O. Evans “Treasury Ring Scandal” Investigating Committee. In 1883, he represented his district in the state House of Representatives, becoming Speaker of the House in 1885, ultimately serving the lower chamber through 1890. Among the many honors bestowed on Senator Graham, in 1873 Governor Hartranft appointed James, Commissioner to the Vienna Exposition. The Honorable James L. Graham passed away in Pittsburgh on June 20, 1895.