Constituents in New York’s 21st Congressional District, unlike U.S. Rep. Constantine B. Kilgore, D-Texas, didn’t get caught taking summer naps, joked The Plattsburgh Sentinel on April 5, 1889.
Kilgore, better known by the nickname “Buck,” had persistently blocked Republican John H. Moffitt, who represented New York’s North Country, from securing a $10,000 appropriation to construct a road through the military reservation in Plattsburgh.
Moffitt quietly inserted the appropriation in a routine spending bill, which President Grover Cleveland signed before Kilgore realized it had been added. “He had outflanked the wily ‘Texas Steer!” the Plattsburgh paper gloated.
The military base was a consistent “pet measure” of Moffitt, an iron ore smelter and Civil War soldier who had received the Medal of Honor for heroism at the Battle of Gaine’s Mill. In 1890, he secured $200,000 – the equivalent of about $5.7 million in 2020 dollars – for the military base.
Moffitt served two terms in Congress from March 4, 1887 to March 3, 1891, and was popular with constituents in the 21st District, which included Clinton, Franklin, Essex and Warren counties. In both the 1886 and 1888 elections, he received unanimous votes in the town of Bellmont, in Franklin County, where one of his iron ore ventures was located.
In December 1889, at the urging of H.G. Burleigh, a Republican leader from Whitehall and Ticonderoga, Moffitt introduced legislation to construct a federal monument at Fort Ticonderoga. “He is a busy man – always on the lookout for any legislation that may by any possibility affect his district,” The Malone Palladium reported on March 20, 1890.
Regional newspapers praised the congressman in 1888 when he stuck up, albeit unsuccessfully, for the region’s charcoal bloom iron industry, in which Moffitt had a financial interest. Charcoal bloom was an early method of smelting iron that was replaced by blast furnaces.
At that time, about 95 percent of the United States charcoal bloom iron production was in New York’s North Country. Previous clusters of the industry in North Carolina and Tennessee had almost died out due to foreign competition, which also threatened local production.
“A year ago, 175 forge fires were in blast in the Champlain district. Now there are only 40,” The Plattsburgh Sentinel reported on July 6, 1888. Moffitt, in a spirited speech on the House floor, argued against reducing the tariff on imported bloom iron from 22 to 20 percent.
“Mr. Moffitt cited a strong array of figures to prove his statements. The House refused to restore the duty (to 22 percent),” the Sentinel reported. Supporters of reducing the tariff said it would reduce the cost of construction materials. Moffitt was able to amend the tariff bill to benefit the lime industry, a major employer in Warren and Clinton counties, and to gain “some favorable changes” for the logging industry.
Moffitt did not seek re-election in 1890. After leaving Congress, he lived in Syracuse for a few years and then returned to the North Country in December 1901 to take a job as cashier at Plattsburgh National Bank, of which his brother was president.
In 1905 Moffitt was promoted to president after his brother died. In the years to come, Moffitt was active in the civic and political life in Plattsburgh, serving on various community boards and as chairman of the Clinton County Republican Committee.
In 1908, he was on a committee that lobbied the state Legislature to construct a monument at Plattsburgh to honor Thomas Macdonough and to add information about the War of 1812 Battle of Plattsburgh to public school text books. The monument eventually was built and dedicated in 1926, the year Moffitt died.
In 1908 and 1909 Moffitt was on the commission that organized the Lake Champlain Tercentenary celebration.
In 1916 he was chairman of the Plattsburgh branch of the National Security League, a non-partisan advocacy organization that promoted expanding the military, establishing a military draft and other measures to prepare the nation if it was necessary to enter the First World War.
Portrait of John Henry Moffitt courtesy Cole Collection, Plattsburgh Public Library.