James M. Ashley was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on 14th November, 1824. He worked as a clerk on boats operating on the Ohio and Missississippi Rivers. He continued to study law in his free time and in 1849 was admitted to the bar.
Ashley moved to Toledo, Ohio, where he became involved in the wholesale drug business. A member of the Republican Party, he was elected to the 36th Congress and took his seat on 4th March, 1859.
A strong opponent of slavery Ashley became one of the leaders of the Radical Republicans in Congress and played a prominant role in the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution in 1865.
Ashley developed a belief that Andrew Johnson was involved in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He was also angry with Johnson over his attempts to veto the extension of the Freeman's Bureau, the Civil Rights Bill and the Reconstruction Acts. On 7th January, 1867, Ashley charged Johnson with the "usurpation of power and violation of law by corruptly using the appointing, pardoning, and veto powers, by disposing corruptly of the property of the United States, and by interfering in elections." Congress responded by referring Ashley's resolution to the Judiciary Committee.
On 7th January, However, this did not help his political career and he was defeated in the elections for the 41st Congress in November, 1868.
In 1869 President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Ashley the governor of Montana. He was also president of the Toledo, Ann Arbor & Northern Railroad (1877-1893).
James M. Ashley died on 16th September, 1896.