Biography of William Wallace Thayer

The typical Western man is popularly conceived as a man of liberal ideas, of generous and hospitable instincts, imbued with a spirit of adventurous enterprise, and withal hardy and courageous. He is not punctilious in minor questions of etiquette or inclined to make much of mere forms and ceremonies. He is a friend to his friends, a man of sterling integrity and of firmness of character developed by habits of self-reliance. Such men are the State builders whose names and deeds are a part of the history of the newer States of the American Commonwealth. Every western community contains individuals approaching more or less near this ideal type.

Throughout Oregon, genial and democratic “Governor” Thayer, as he is familiarly called, is recognized as an example of the typical western man. Personally known as he is in every section of the State, his friends are almost as numerous as his acquaintances. Although it has frequently become his duty during the course of his public career to oppose men and measures which seemed to him not in accord with the best interests of the State, and when such occasions have transpired his firm and decisive course show him a man earnest of purpose and unwavering in matters of judgment, he has nevertheless maintained the respect, nay, the affections of the citizens, so that even those who have experienced his opposition have recognized his purity and unselfishness of motive.

William Wallace Thayer is a native of the Empire State, having been born at Lima, Livingston county, New York, on the 15th day of July, 1827. His father was a man of influence in Western New York, and is well remembered in the vicinity of his home, for his vigor and uprightness of character and as having taken an active part in local political affairs. Besides the subject of this sketch, he had several other sons, the eldest of whom, Judge A. J. Thayer, came to Oregon at an early day and died in July, 1873, while Judge of the Supreme Court of this State. The children received the usual education of the times and circumstances of Western New York at that period, consisting chiefly of spelling book and “Rule of Three” exercises in the winter at the neighborhood school. As the community increased in population, and farm products could be converted into money with greater facility, the family became prosperous and acquired some little property, and were enabled to live in comfort. The eldest son, Andrew J. Thayer, above mentioned, studied law and was admitted to practice, and his example was emulated by his young brother, William or “Wall,” as he was usually called. The latter evinced at an early age an aptitude for his books and indulged in an extensive course of reading, particularly in works of history, biography and travel.

Devoting himself to his preparation for his adopted profession, he shaped his reading accordingly, and especially in constitutional history and the elementary principles of the common law, his study laid the foundation for the broad knowledge of the law that distinguished him in later years. He attended a few lectures at Rochester, New York, in the winter of 1851, although most of his legal study was done in the office of a local practitioner at Tonawanda, New York. He was admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court, in March, 1851, at Rochester, and at once began to practice at Tonawanda. He was married there November 11, 1852, to Miss Samantha C. Vincent, having already gained a foothold in his profession, and to the congenial union thus formed no doubt his success in after years has been largely due. One son has been born to them, Charles Thayer, at present a lawyer and banker at Tillamook, Oregon.

Desiring a wider field for his energies, young Thayer determined to remove from Tonawanda, and at first went to Buffalo, N. Y., where he practiced his profession for a short time, but probably owing to the example and invitation of his elder brother, he sold out his possessions in the spring of 1862, and as many a man of enterprise had done before, pushed out overland to Oregon. He joined his brother at Corvallis, Oregon, and for a time they were On’ partnership, but later he removed to Lewiston, Idaho. Here he was elected a member of the Territorial Legislature and served one term. Again in 1866, he was elected District Attorney of the Third Judicial District of the Territory. He did not complete his term in the latter office, for in 1867, he resigned and removed to Portland, where he has since made his home.

On returning to Oregon he was in the prime of life and the full maturity of his powers. He was just forty years of age, and his varied experience, together with his habit of constant and unremitting study of his cases, thoroughly prepared him to compete with the best legal talent of the State. His abilities were at once recognized and his practice speedily assumed large proportions. He was always a staunch supporter of the Democratic party, though tolerant and little inclined to carry partisanship to excess in local affairs.

In 1878, he was nominated by his party for the office of Governor of the State, and such was his popularity that he was elected over his opponent, although the remainder of his ticket was defeated. He was inaugurated September 11, 1878, and served the full term of four years.

During this period the abilities of Governor Thayer had ample scope for their exercise, and he did not rest until the public service had been thoroughly reorganized, abuses corrected, reforms instituted and improvements effected in all of the State institutions. The penitentiary system was changed, so that instead of a source of heavy expense to the State, and an aid to the utter demoralization of the convicts therein, it was made self-supporting, and a credit to the State in a humanitarian as well as in a financial sense. Through his influence the asylum for the insane, the asylum for the blind and the. school funds were put on a more satisfactory basis. It was during his term that the judiciary system was altered and a statute enacted, providing for the electing of the judges of the Supreme and Circuit Courts in separate classes, instead of the original arrangement by which the Circuit Judges sat as Judges of the Supreme Court, and in appointing the new Judges to serve until their successors were elected and qualified. In making appointments to office his fairness and liberality were illustrated by his appointment of men .irrespective of their political affiliations and wholly upon their merits and with a view to the public weal. Important legislation regarding the State swamp lands and tide lands was had during his administration, and as a member of the Board of Commissioners for the sale of school lands, Governor Thayer had occasion to construe and apply these statutes. In this as well as in all other matters his aim was to deal justly by both State and people and while he endeavored to act in all cases for the best interests of the State, he allowed no shallow desire for popularity to influence him in his decisions. The peculiar characteristics of his administration was its economy. He applied to the public service true business principles and he made use of the same unostentatious and upright methods that mark his private life.

He resumed his practice at Portland at the close of his term, but he was the unanimous choice of the delegates to the State convention of his party in 1884 for the office of Judge of the Supreme Court, and was again triumphantly elected when few of the candidates of that party succeeded. He assumed the duties of that office July 1, 1884, and his term expires July 1, 1890. Since 1888, by virtue of the Constitution, he has been Chief Justice of the Court.

A history of his life would be incomplete without a survey of the more important cases which have come before him for decision and a discussion of his opinions rendered therein. It is not possible here to do more than to state, in general, that while his term has covered the most important period of the legal growth of the State, and as new questions of prime importance become more numerous from term to term as the volume of business in the State increases, the high estimation which has heretofore been accorded to his legal abilities has not been diminished by his decisions on the bench. His untiring industry, coupled with his broad knowledge of principles and cases is manifest, while a certain equity of character and an innate love of justice temper his views of the law in the abstract and often intervenes to soften its asperities in its application to cases. He is little inclined to deny a remedy in a just cause on account of trivial mistakes in procedure, but laying aside niceties of practice so far as can properly be done, his aim is to seek the real point in controversy and do justice between man and man.

Of his private character, his charity, his democratic tastes, his affability and sense of honor little need be said. His success at the bar, in so far as it may be ascribed to any one characteristic more than to his general ability and learning, may perhaps be said to lie in the singular clearness with which he discusses the proper legal remedy to the facts of his case, and as a Judge he is especially marked for his full and fair statement of the case before enunciating the principles of law to be applied thereto.


Biography, History,

Harvey Whitefield Scott. History of Portland, Oregon: with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Prominent Citizens and Pioneers. Portland, Oregon. D. Mason & Company, 1890.

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