Elihu Benjamin Washburne was bornin Livermore, Maine, on 23rd September, 1816. He worked as a printer's apprentice before becoming assistant editor of the Kennebec Journal in Augusta.
Washburne studied law at Kent's Hill Seminary in 1836 and Harvard Law School in 1839. After being admitting to the bar in 1840 Washburne he worked as a lawyer in Galena, Illinois. A member of the Whig Party he failed in his attempt to be elected to the 31st Congress in 1848. However, he was successful in the 33rd Congress and took his seat in March, 1853.
An early member of the the Republican Party, and served as chairman of the Committee on Commerce and Committee on Appropriations. In 1860 Washburne played an important role in persuading radicals such as Joshua Giddings to support the nomination of Abraham Lincoln. He also persuaded Lincoln to appoint Salmon P. Chase as Secretary of the Treasury. However, he failed to stop William Seward (Secretary of State) and Simon Cameron (Secretary of War), entering the Cabinet.
A strong opponent of slavery, Washburne became a leading figure in the group that became known as the Radical Republicans. Although privately critical of some of his policies, he remained loyal to Abraham Lincoln throughout the American Civil War. He also promoted the career of his friend, Ulysses S. Grant.
Washburne opposed the policies of President Andrew Johnson and argued that Southern plantations should be taken from their owners and divided among the former slaves. He also attacked Johnson when he attempted to veto the extension of the Freeman's Bureau, the Civil Rights Bill and the Reconstruction Acts.
In 1868 President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Washburne as his Secretary of State. However, he resigned a few days later in order to accept a diplomatic mission to France. Elihu Washburne served until 1877 when he returned to the United States and settled in Chicago where he died on 23rd October, 1887.