The Gibbons Family, A Chester County Family, 1884, Genealogy Open Stacks, HSP; also: Obituary of the Honorable Charles Gibbons, Public Ledger (Philadelphia), August 15, 1884;also: Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography, ed. James Grant Wilson and John Fiske, six vols (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1887-1889); also: Last Will and Testament of Charles L. Gibbons, executed 14 August 1884; Charles Gibbons to William Lewis, Apr. 5, 1845, Lewis-Nelson Papers, HSP; Chronicles of the Union League of Philadelphia, 1862-1902 (Philadelphia: William F. Fell and Company, 1902), 42; Maxwell Whiteman, Gentlemen in Crisis: The First Century of the Union League of Philadelphia, 1862-1962 (Philadelphia: The Union League of Philadelphia, 1975), 74; SJ, February 13, 1846, 195.
Charles L. Gibbons, born March 30, 1814 in Wilmington Delaware, was the son of prominent Quaker physician, scientist, author, correspondent of Lucretia Mott, and temperance-abolition advocate Dr. William Gibbons and the former Rebecca Donaldson, a founder of the “Home for Aged Women” in Wilmington.
The Quaker family originally settled near Kennett Meeting, Chester County; Dr. Gibbons later moving to Wilmington to practice medicine. Senator Charles Gibbons was the youngest of William’s three prominent sons: the others, eminent physician Henry Gibbons and abolitionist, merchant, banker, publisher, and author James Sloane Gibbons, the latter marrying reformer Abby Hopper, founder of the Labor Aid Society. Gibbons read law under Charles Chauncey of Philadelphia, joined the Philadelphia bar, 1838; became his mentor’s law partner; and married reformer Eliza C. Hull in 1839, the daughter of Wager and Elizabeth Hull of New York City. Charles specialized in civil law in the 1850s, working chiefly in federal and orphans courts, but gained a reputation for handling controversial cases, receiving an appointment as “Special United States Attorney for prize cases” during the Civil War.
Gibbons challenged Furman Shepherd for the Philadelphia district attorney’s office. The election disputed, Charles served just eight months, but within that time, tried one of Philadelphia’s high-profile cases – the murder by Hugh Marra and James Dougherty of U.S. Chief of Secret Service, Detective James Brook.
Gibbons was an eloquent orator, noted for his July 4, 1865 eulogy of Lincoln and his stirring speeches on the abolition of slavery before the Union League. In the Senate, Gibbons supported high tariffs and promoted the incorporation of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, while advocating efforts to expedite the completion of a Pennsylvania Central Railroad line.
Senator Gibbons, a former Henry Clay Whig, played a major role in the formation of the 1856 Republican Party (People’s and later Union Party), and served as the organization’s first state convention chair. Charles also named and co-founded the Union League in 1862, and was the author of the group’s first articles of association. Charles helped with League recruitment efforts during the Civil War, helping to organize nine regiments (black and white), cavalry and artillery companies, and passionately supported President Lincoln, who Gibbons received on June 6, 1864 during the president’s visit to Philadelphia. The senator served as director of the League, 1863-1869, and became the organization’s vice-president from 1870 through 1874. A crusader for African-American equality and an original “Lincoln Unionist,” Gibbons expressed a devout hatred of slavery, aligning with the Curtin-McClure radical faction of the Union Republican Party. Gibbons worked diligently in the Senate to repeal the fugitive slave act, and he spent nearly three decades appealing for a revised state constitution that protected minorities and promoted an improved public education system.
The Gibbons were liberal contributors to the city’s charities. Although she succeeded her husband in death by only a few months, wife Elizabeth inherited ownership of the Home for Aged Women in Wilmington. The Gibbons’ colleague, Stephen Smith, African American co-architect of Pennsylvania’s Underground Railway, assisted the senator and his wife in benevolent ventures, Mr. Smith representing a major force in the establishment of Philadelphia’s “Home for Aged Women and Infirmed Colored People.” Senator Gibbons passed away from “rheumatic gout” on August 14, 1884, while at his summer home at Beach Haven, New Jersey. He was mourned city-wide.