Biography of Hon. William Lair Hill

HON. WILLIAM LAIR HILL. – The distinguished lawyer, author, versatile writer and thorough student whose name introduces this sketch was asked to furnish such data as might contribute in its production; and he diffidently and reluctantly responded. Among other hastily prepared notes, he answered: “Have lived an honest a life as my environments seemed to allow, mainly for the reason that, according to my hereditary creed, one who is not at least indifferently honest, cannot be very happy. In all my laborious life the one single fact in which I have the slightest pride is that, like Jim Bludsoe, I ‘never flunked,’ even when I thought the laboring oar in work or responsibility was unjustly given me.” Again: “Was a radical Republican from the time of the organization of that party, but really had no particular views on politics except bitter hostility to slavery.”

As to his literary tastes, he said: “I have always had a passion for the study of languages; and, though I never had proper advantages at school to gratify that desire, I have employed numbers of private tutors, and have given much time to the acquisition of that branch of learning. I have a reading knowledge of Greek, Latin, French, German, Spanish and Italian, though I will not pretend to any great proficiency or degree of scholarship in any of them. I have been an incessant worker all my life. I have no faith in any genius but that genius which owes its existence to persistent, concentrated and methodical labor, nor in any gospel that promises success without unremitting toil. I put no trust in the advice of a lawyer, physician or statesman, nor in the learning of that scholar or scientist who finds time in summer to go yachting, or who seeks the genial climate in winter.” He then sums up: “That is all there is of the man; and ’tis not much. It stands his works and his tastes procterea nihil.”

Such are his own views of his great individuality, – a patient, steady worker, not an idler, – nothing more. Those who have the privilege of acquaintance with the man will accept those phrases as illustrative of him, and characteristic of his walk through life. Industrious, fearless, honest, frank, independent of the world’s opinion, at times even brusquely so, not to say cynical, he has made himself distinguished for erudition in the legal profession, for painstaking and exhaustive examination of every subject engaging his attention or committed to his care. Despising the concealment of expression, he avoids all rhetorical art or indirectness of language. His legal opinions and theses, his editorial contributions and articles, his many addresses upon almost every branch of knowledge, are models of perspicuity of expression, vigorous, thought, and are exhibitions of conscientious care in investigating the truth, justice or right, and in reaching the legitimate conclusion.

This busy life of work was ushered into existence August 20, 1838, at a plantation in Southwestern Tennessee, just across the river from that memorable historic field which will be known as “Shiloh” in the ages to come. His father was there and then (later in Oregon) a prominent physician, and also an active Baptist clergyman. Our subject, as he himself claims, was a pioneer by heredity, his father coming of that stock of pioneers who carried civilization from the Carolinas across the Blue Ridge into the wilds of Tennessee. His mother was a descendant of the Huegenot Lairs who abandoned Normandy, and assisted in the colonization of the Atlantic seaboard, to escape persecution for opinion’s sake, and again migrated westward with that first installment of pioneers who crossed the Alleghanies, to hew away the forest of Kentucky, and there establish the homes of civilization.

Lair Hill in early life received just that little start in school-learning which the old-fashioned subscription schools of the Southern and Southwestern States a half-century ago afforded. To him, however, it was a start; and later in years, after he had arrived in Oregon, he appreciated his improved opportunities in the district school at the Jefferson Institute, at Jefferson, Oregon, and at the College at McMinnville, of which he was a student from 1857 to 1859, inclusive. An institution, by the way, which his father was most active in founding and sustaining, and of which the Reverend George C. Chandler was president, and whose daughter subsequently became the wife of Mr. Lair Hill. Mr. Hill made the most of all these opportunities; but to himself and his continuous and systematic pursuit of study, rather than to any institution, is due his great scholarly attainments and wealth of knowledge, not only in his adopted profession, but in history, belles lettres and almost every branch of useful learning.

The father of Mr. Hill crossed the plains in 1850 for California, and in 1851 visited the Willamette valley, remaining there until 1852,when he returned in 1853 to Tennessee for is family. He was an old-time Wig, and took an active part in politics so far as advocating the moral aspects of political questions. His son was thus stimulated to an ardent interest in the political issues of the day, and as early as his eighteenth year commenced to make political speeches when opportunity offered. That time marks the formation of the Republican party, – the nomination of its first national candidates, Frémont and Dayton. Although of Southern birth, young Hill espoused the Republican cause, seeking no better excuse than his unrelenting and bitter opposition to the institution of human slavery. When the Oregon state constitution, framed by the convention of 1857, was submitted to the people for ratification, although but nineteen years of age, he wrote and spoke against its adoption because of the presence of the alternative article, which provided that Oregon should become a slave state should a majority of the people so vote, by favoring the separate article, which provided: “Persons lawfully held as slaves in any state, territory or district of the United States, under the laws thereof, may be brought into this state; and such slaves and their descendants may be held as slaves within this state, and shall not be emancipated without the consent of their owners.”

The vote polled was 10,400 of which 7,700 was against the separate article, a majority for a free state of about 5,000. In 1860, the first election after he had attained majority, he took an active part in the presidential canvass in his county, zealously supporting Abraham Lincoln. He had commenced the study of the law in the office of George H. Williams (of national reputation as a jurist, lawyer and statesman, and who has added luster to the offices of senator, cabinet officer and foreign ambassador), and was admitted to practice in1861. Checkered to some extent has been his career, at times seeking other fields in which to devote his energies; yet Mr. Hill early, steadily and almost immediately gained a prominent rank at the bar, and has maintained it, until his reputation as a great constitutional lawyer had become national.

Early in the war of the Rebellion he became a civil employé in the army, accepting service under Major Benjamin Alvord, Paymaster U.S. Army, department of the Columbia, who subsequently was made paymaster-general United States army, and was succeeded by Simeon Francis, who was transferred from the editorial chair of the Oregonian to the office of United States paymaster, department of the Columbia, with headquarters at Fort Vancouver, with the rank of major, United States army. While Mr. Hill was attached to the paymaster’s department, under Majors Alvord and Francis, he paid the troops at Forts Hoskins, Yamhill, Umpqua, Dalles, Walla Walla, Lapwai and Colville. But he was not content alone with that service. During the war his active pen was enlisted; and he contributed constantly to several newspapers articles in support of the war, and suggestive of the policy to be pursued. Many of those articles were of remarkable force and ability, and attracted the public attention. He also made many speeches at war meetings and at conventions called to support and encourage Union measures. He was among the earliest and most persistent of the advocates of emancipation of the slaves of the rebellious states, urging it on as the plain and practical method to save the Union, as a war measure, and at the same time to purge the nation of a crime against humanity and civilization in general, and republican civilization in particular.

From 1864 to 1866, inclusive, he held the office of judge of Grant county, Oregon. In the latter year he returned to Portland, adopted that city as his residence, and entered upon the practice of the law. In 1872 he assumed the editorial charge of the Oregonian, in which he continued with marked ability for about five years, when his health, which had always been feeble, failed him. In search of health, he went east of the Cascade Mountains, selecting The Dalles as his place of residence, and there resuming and actively engaging in the practice of his profession. He continue to reside in that city until 1886. In 1870, without solicitation upon his part, Mr. Hill was tendered by President Grant’s administration the appointment of associate justice of the supreme court of Washington Territory, which he declined. Again, a similar appointment for Idaho Territory was offered, which he declined, recommending for the place Honorable W.C. Whitson, who received the appointment and died during his term of office.

While residing at The Dalles, between 1872 and 1886,Mr. Hill delivered numerous addresses and lectures mainly upon educational and social subjects before colleges, societies and general audiences. To his labors and influence perhaps, more than any other person, may be attributed the building up of the Wasco Academy at The Dalles, now one of the most flourishing institutions of learning in the state of Oregon. In 1880, during the presidential canvass, Mr. Hill took a very active part, addressing in the interest of the Republican nominee. In 1882 he was equally zealous in support of the election of Governor Moody and the Republican ticket; and in 1884 he made numerous speeches in support of the election of James G. Blaine. He was never idle when work presented itself for him to do.

In 1886 Mr. Hill went to San Francisco to supervise the publication and issue in two volumes of the codes and general laws of the State of Oregon, compiled, rearranged and annotated with reference to the judicial decisions of Oregon, of the other states and of the federal courts. Upon that work, which gives evidence of exhaustive labor and wonderful accuracy and study, Mr. Hill may rest his reputation for future fame. Nor is it disparaging to the labor of other distinguished codifiers and compilers of the laws of Oregon to say that the “Hill Codifications” is the authoritative compilation in use in the State of Oregon. This work completed, and Mr. Hill being in nowise enamored of California as a place of residence, he removed to Seattle in January, 1889, where he has since resided, and where he is recognized as a leader among the very able bar of that city.

Upon the passage by Congress of the Enabling act to admit Washington as a state into the federal union, Mr. Hill commenced the publication of a series of very able and instructive articles in a number of the Washington territorial journals, urging the adoption of a judicial system for the new state which would make its courts a means of administering justice rather than the mere forum for technical disputation. He advocated that plan which has been engrafted in the Washington judiciary system of vesting all jurisdiction, civil, criminal and probate, legal and equitable, in the same courts, and abolishing terms of the court, with all the technical learning pertaining to the subject. His valuable disquisitions on constitutional law, his citing those instruments of the various states, and his comments on the difference of fundamental provisions, where in keeping with all his labors for the past quarter century to simplify the practice in courts, to secure needed reforms to weed out old errors, and to give commons sense and right reason their proper influence.

Mr. Hill is now in the vigor of manhood. He has a large and growing practice, and is recognized as an authority on every question of constitutional law; and none more than he enjoys the confidence of the state in which he lives as the able jurist, sound lawyer and exemplary citizen.


History of the Pacific Northwest Oregon and Washington. 2 v. Portland, Oregon: North Pacific History Company. 1889.

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