Henry Fountain Ashurst:
“The Silver-tongued Orator of Congress”
Henry Fountain Ashurst, one of the two first U.S. senators from the state of Arizona, was the second oldest of ten children in a pioneer ranching family. Born on September 13, 1874 in a camp at the Arizona-Nevada border, he was raised in the Arizona Territory near the site of what is now the town of Flagstaff. It was not unusual for a child at that time and place to be educated at home. “In pioneer days,” reminisced Ashurst, “the isolation of the ranch was so complete that in winter no wanderer ever came that lonely route from October to May.”
Henry briefly attended a public school in Flagstaff, Arizona. However, the majority of his early schooling came from ranch hands who possessed various backgrounds, while life in general was full of educational experiences. Henry also enjoyed reading, especially the classics. As a growing young man, Ashurst held a number of jobs on the home ranch and hired himself out as a range rider. He worked in the lumberyard, at the county jail, as a newspaper reporter, a stenographer, and Justice of the Peace.
Ashurst became fascinated by courts of law. He spent much of his time observing legal proceedings and reading law books at night. In November of 1896 at age 22, Ashurst was elected to the Territorial House of Representatives of the Arizona Legislature. Ashurst’s only formal education consisted of one year of law school at the University of Michigan from 1903-04, but that was after he had already become an established lawyer. Ashurst was well known as a gifted and colorful orator and politician who loved to quote Shakespeare. When Arizona became a state on February 14, 1912, Ashurst was elected U. S. Senator and he remained in office until 1940.
According to George F. Sparks, the editor of Ashurst’s diary:
“His real teachers were the centuries of eloquence, the classical writers whom he never tired of reading….From them he acquired the long view across the sea of politics, and the loving command of rich language that flowed through a lifetime of oratory into the pages of this diary.”
In 1962, Senator Carl Hayden’s assessment of Henry Fountain Ashurst was this:
“The range and solitude encouraged reading and reflection, and stimulated the burgeoning of ideas. It made him, incidentally, the most literary of our modern-day senators and compelled his contemporaries to remember that he, like the Websters and the Clays, the Calhouns and the Madisons, the Henrys and the Jeffersons of an earlier day, was something more than a mere politician and officeholder….No longer could it be suggested that erudition and wisdom, legal knowledge and prudence, urbanity and wit could not be found west of the Alleghenies…..For him, Aristotle and Tacticus, Aristophanes and Homer, Dante and Chaucer, Byron and Keats, Whittier and Longfellow, were the companions of his waking hours.”
Barry Goldwater, another famous Arizona senator, had this to say about Ashurst:
“He is a living example of the benefits that come to men who live with freedom and independence of thought, and it is fitting to extol this life which will serve as a growing example to the generations which follow.”
Did You Know...? Ashurst Cabin, now located at Pioneer Living History Village,
the childhood home of Henry Fountain Ashurst in 1878. Visit www.pioneer-arizona.com.
PHOENIX Magazine, September 1985.
"Old Bill Ashurst's Kid," by Mrs. White Mountain Smith, Desert Magazine, June 1940.
A Many Colored Toga: The Diary of Henry Fountain Ashurst, edited by George F. Sparks. Tucson: Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1962.
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