Biography of George H. Williams
Discover your family's story.
Enter a grandparent's name to get started.
Judge Williams, alone among the citizens of Oregon, has had the distinction of occupying a place in the highest councils of the nation-in the cabinet of a president. He was also regarded by President Grant as the man most fit and able to hold the position of Chief Justice of the United States. The bitter struggle following his nomination to this supreme position is well remembered for the sectional feeling displayed and the dissent of certain members of the senate which led the Judge to withdraw his name. It is not the intention, however, to recall the personal contests of the past they have been long forgotten and forgiven but to remind the reader that it was upon an arena no less great than the nation that Judge Williams has passed the most intense years of his life, and that it was as one of a group of men the first among Americans a company composing the “Great Round Table” in the most eventful years of our national history that he has been accustomed to move. The people of Oregon have reason to feel a justifiable pride in his career, and to appreciate more strongly the ties that unite them to the national life. Not wishing to make comparisons as to the value of the services of the able men who have represented the State of Oregon at Washington, and even while remembering the eloquent Baker and the noble and sagacious Nesmith, still it must in justice be admitted that Judge Williams in no place to which he was called, however exalted, ever fell short of its high requirements, and in the discussion and solution of some of the gravest questions which ever confronted the national government he has borne himself with distinguished honor. He was a great and positive force in the senate during his term; uniting dispersed and wavering purposes; giving proper form to uncertain tendencies, and was, moreover, able to defend his policy before audiences no less great than the whole people of the United States.
It is only briefly that we can give the salient features in the life and work of this pioneer and illustrious son of Oregon. Little more will be attempted than to allude to the more prominent events in which he has been an actor, for these alone will illustrate a character solid, firm, wise and energetic.
He was born in New Lebanon, Columbia County, New York, March 26, 1823, and removed at an early day to Onondago County, receiving his education at the Pompey Academy. He studied law with Hon. Daniel Scott, and at the age of twenty-one was admitted to practice in New York. In the same year, 1844, he removed to Iowa Territory, and commenced the practice of his profession at Fort Madison. In 1847 he was elected Judge of the First Judicial District of that State, at the first election after the formation of the State government, serving five years. In 1852 he was one of the Presidential Electors at large and canvassed the State for Franklin Pierce. In 1853, he was appointed Chief Justice of Oregon Territory and was re-appointed by Buchanan in 1857. He terminated his services in this position by resignation, and resumed the practice of law at Portland. He became a member, however, of the convention to form the Constitution for Oregon and was chairman of the judiciary committee. While in this responsible position he was active in opposing the introduction of slavery into Oregon, and as the Constitution required the popular vote upon that question, he was active in presenting the question before the people and in urging rejection of slavery. His anti-slavery principles and devotion to the Union led him to assist in the formation of the Union party in 1861. He was very earnest in supporting Lincoln’s administration and strongly upheld the efforts of the Federal Government in suppressing the rebellion. In 1864 he was elected senator in Congress and was a member of the committee on Finance and Public Lands, and also of the Reconstruction committee.
Among the measures which he introduced into the Senate and which became laws are the following: An at creating a new land district in Oregon with a land office at La Grande; an amendment to the act granting lands to the State of Oregon to engage in the construction of a military road from Eugene City to the eastern boundary of the State, granting odd sections to supply any deficiency in the original grant; various acts establishing post roads; a general law to secure the election of United States senators; the “the tenure-of-office act,” which kept republicans all over the country from being turned out of office by Andrew Johnson and which became a law by being passed over the President’s veto; a resolution against the importation of coolies; an act to provide a more efficient government of the insurrectionary States, called the “Reconstruction Act,” under which all the Southern States were reconstructed. The last named act was vetoed by President Johnson, but was passed over his veto. Among other measures were numerous appropriations for Oregon; an amendment to the act of 1861, relative to property lost in suppressing Indian hostilities in Oregon; an amendment to the Judiciary act of 1789; an amendment to the act granting lands to aid in the construction of a railroad from the Central Pacific in California to Portland, Oregon; an act fixing elections in Idaho and Washington territories on the same day as the election in Oregon; an act to pay two companies of Oregon volunteers commanded by Captains Walker and Olney; an act to strengthen the public credit; an amendment to the act granting lands to aid in the construction of a railroad from the Central Pacific to Portland, by which the grant was prevented from reverting to the Government; an act granting lands to aid in the construction of a railroad and telegraph line from Portland to Astoria and McMinnville; a resolution to facilitate the building of a light house at Yaquina Bay, and other light houses on the coast of Oregon; an at granting certain lands to Blessington Rutledge, a citizen of Lane county; a resolution to increase the pay of marshals in taking the census of 1870; an act extending the benefits of the Donation Law of 1850 to certain persons; an act creating a new land district in Washington Territory, with a land office at Walla Walla.
Judge Williams entered the senate at the most exciting and important period in the history of the government. A great war had just closed. One-third of the States of the Union were disorganized, to restore them was a great work, hardly less difficult than had been the suppression of the rebellion. Prom the first Judge Williams took a prominent part in the debates of the senate and wielded a power second to none in that body and far greater than any new member. He soon became a recognized leader among the first men of the nation, many of whom possessed great talent, unbounded ambition, long experience in the senate, world wide fame, with prestige of old, populous and powerful States to sustain them in their efforts to lead and control their associates and to shape legislation. He originated the most important measures of a political and national character which passed Congress during his term of service-the reconstruction law and the tenure-of-office act. While ten States were in a condition of anarchy, and the wisest and most experienced statesman were quarreling among themselves and waging a fierce contest with President Johnson as to how the subjugated States should be restored to their proper places in the Union, Senator Williams brought forward his military reconstruction bill, and after long and earnest debate, it passed both houses and became a law notwithstanding the opposition of the President and of the Democratic party. Under this law and its amendments, chaos was converted into order, peace was established and the Union was permanently restored on a free and prosperous basis.
While President Johnson was dispossessing of office the loyal men who had elected him and filling their places with those unfriendly to the reconstruction measures, Senator Williams prepared a bill to regulate the tenure-of-office. This was passed over the President’s veto and was invaluable in maintaining the power of the Republican party. The senator did much also during these days to give Oregon a reputation abroad and to build up the State at home. His bills for the welfare of the State were carefully matured, well adapted to the conditions then existing, and in their working have been the means of developing domestic and interstate commerce and opening for the people of the Pacific slope the markets of the world.
In 1871, Judge Williams was appointed one of the joint commissioners to frame a treaty for the settlement of the Alabama claims and the northwestern boundary, and other questions in dispute with Great Britain. In this capacity he bore himself with his usual dignity and his counsels proved of material value. Indeed, his part in predetermining the decision of the northwestern boundary in favor of the United States, is something that has never been generally known; his sagacity and foresight probably giving to the country the territory in dispute. Being appointed on the commission as a citizen of the Pacific coast, he was expected to keep especial watch of the disposition of the northwest boundary. The dispute is familiar and need not be recounted here. Great Britain was fully determined, and by diplomatic correspondence committed to maintain that the boundary ran through Rosario Straits; while the United States contended that the center of the canal DeHaro, was the true line. It was a point of special difficulty, both from the inflexible position of each nation, and from the obscurity of the words of the treaty, by reason of their reference to a “channel” which was imperfectly known, at the time they were written. As the only probable solution of the vexed question, it was proposed in the commission to refer the whole matter to the decision of the Emperor of Germany: Seeing at once that this was a loose and dangerous expedient, without some deter mining canon to serve as a guide, and that in the interest of harmony, the Emperor might easily yield to a disposition of the question upon other than its legal merits, Judge Williams refused to agree to the Emperor’s arbitration, except with the proviso that his decision should be merely an interpretation of the treaty of 1846; that he should not decide de no von, but simply settle the meaning or intention of the agreement already made. So cogently did he present these views that the commission finally acceded, being compelled to recognize that in no other form could it be worthily submitted. This virtually decided the question in the favor of the United States, for the Emperor could allow that the treaty intended nothing else but the main or most used channel, which proved to be the canal DeHaro. By this the United States secured the San Juan and other islands.
In December, 1871, Judge Williams was appointed Attorney General of the United States, and for three years fully sustained the rights and dignity of the government. Here again it is not generally known to how large an extent the force and pith of the president’s policy with reference to the Southern States, was in the hands of Judge Williams. To govern these States was the difficult point in the whole question of his administration. It was during the time of the Ku Klux outrages and the laws defied by the clans were to be maintained by the Attorney General. President Grant devolved upon him the entire charge of the disturbances and political affairs of the Southern States, so far as concerned the national government; and the Secretary of War was directed to wait upon him as to the movement of troops into the disquieted regions. At the time when rival governments from a number of the Southern States sought the recognition of the President, Attorney General William’s advice as to the course to pursue, was closely followed, in accordance with which, the Democratic government of Arkansas and the Republican government of Louisiana were recognized. The contending parties of Alabama agreed to submit their claims to him, and his plan of settlement was accepted, restoring peace to a distracted people.
In 1872 he made a tour of the South, delivering addresses in Richmond, Savannah, Charleston and other Southern cities; declaring the purpose of the President to maintain fair elections, and that every voter should be allowed to cast his ballot according to his preferences. The full vote in the election following and the return of Republicans from Virginia, South Carolina, Arkansas and some other Southern States, proved the impression made by his words. Since that time and the change of administrative policy the Republican party has made but little showing in these States.
In 1874, Judge Williams’ name was presented to the Senate for the place of Chief Justice, left vacant by the death of Salmon P. Chase. It was hard for the old East to admit that the remote West was entitled to such an honor as would be bestowed by the elevation of the Oregon statesman, and after a contention which promised a great controversy and well nigh threatened to disrupt the Republican party, the Judge withdrew his name-much to the regret of President Grant who was willing to stake upon his confirmation the success of his administration.
The result of the presidential election of 1876, when both parties claimed the election, and the public sentiment of the country was about equally divided as to the result, is still fresh in the public mind. The excitement was most intense and the situation was positively perilous, foreboding dissension and distraction, and possibly civil war. In this period of perplexity as to the course to pursue to bring about a lawful and peaceful solution of the difficulty, Judge Williams contributed an article to the Washington Star, which clearly outlined the policy afterwards pursued, and embodied all the essential features of the famous electoral commission bill finally adopted by Congress, under the workings of which lawfully and peacefully was settled the great political contest of 1876. Some time after the bill became a law, several persons claimed the honor of having first suggested the ideas it contained. The matter was agitated to some extent in the public press, and finally the Washington Star in a somewhat lengthy editorial, presented the facts in the case and clearly showed the credit belonged to Judge Williams.
Since Judge Williams’ return to unofficial life he has made his home in Portland, practicing law and giving essential aid to all great public causes. He has been constantly sought for political campaign work, and to grace the festivals of the metropolis of Oregon with his felicitous addresses. Much interest has centered in his recent utterances respecting Historical Christianity, and a lecture prepared and delivered by him upon the Divinity of Christ is regarded as a valuable contribution to this discussion.
Judge Williams has none of the small arts of the popular leader. He is a man of great and simple nature, of very high intellectual powers, of sober and solid judgment, a man who never loses his equipoise, but at all times has his great mental resources at command. In clearness of statement and power of argument, he is unsurpassed. His intellectual sincerity is apparent to all who have heard him speak, and his moral life has always been irreproachable.