Biography of Hon. George H. Williams

HON. GEORGE H. WILLIAMS. – Judge Williams alone among the citizens of our state, and of the Pacific coast, 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. Our state was therefore denied the honor designed by our most popular President. It is not, however, to recall the personal bias or envies of the past, – they have been long forgotten and forgiven, – but to remind ourselves that it was upon an arena no less great than that of the nation that Judge Williams has passed the most intense years of his life, and that it is as one of a group of men the first among Americans – a company composing our “Great Round Table” in the most eventful years of our history – that he has been accustomed to move. In his long shadow that stretches from our state to the national Capitol, we not only thing ourselves a little greater, but feel more strongly the ties that unite us to the national life. A statesman is not worth much except as a patriot, and in nothing is there more assurance of the permanence of our central government than in the pride and honor which the states feel in a field of action commensurate with the abilities of their chosen and loved men, where they may project their masterful endeavors. While we could make no exception of any of our senators or representatives that have been at Washington, remembering the fiery Baker and the noble and jovial Nesmith, it is only justice to allow the national dimensions of Judge Williams. He was a positive additive power in the senate during his term; compacting dispersed and wavering feeling, and giving form to uncertain tendencies; and was, moreover, able to defend his policy before great audiences in all parts of the union.

He was born in New Lebanon, Columbia county, New York, March 26, 1823, and removed at an early day to Onondaga county, receiving his education at the Pompey Academy. He studied law with Honorable 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, practicing law; and in 1847 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 reappointed by Buchanan in 1857. He terminated his services in this position by his own resignation, and resumed the practice of law. He became a member, however, of the constitutional 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 a constitutional convention required the popular vote upon that question, was active in presenting the question before the people; and in 1860 in the formation of a Union party; and was subsequently very earnest in supporting Lincoln’s administration and 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 act 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 “Tenure-of-office act,” which kept Republicans all over the United States from being turned out of office by Andrew Johnson, – vetoed by the President and passed over the 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, – vetoed and passed over the veto of President Johnson; 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 ad in the construction of a railroad from the Central Pacific in California to Portland in 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 b 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 lighthouse at Yaquina Bay, and other lighthouses on the coast of Oregon; an act granting certain lands to Blessington Rutledge, a citizen of Lane county; a resolution to increase the pay of assistant 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.

Senator 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, no less difficult than had been the suppression of the rebellion. From 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 our wisest and most experienced statesmen were quarreling among themselves and waging a fierce contest with President Johnson as to how these 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.

When the President 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 saved the Republican party. The Senator did much also during those days to give Oregon a reputation abroad and to build up the state at home. His bills for the welfare of our state were carefully nurtured, well adapted to the conditions then existing, and in their working have been the means of developing our domestic and interstate commerce and opening for us the markets of the world.

In 1871 he was appointed one of the joint high 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 that 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; and his sagacity and foresight probably gave us the territory in dispute. Being appointed on the commission as a citizen of the Pacific coast, he was expected to keep special watch of the disposition of the Northwest boundary. The dispute is familiar, and is presented elsewhere in this work. Great Britain was fully determined, and by diplomatic correspondence was committed, to maintain that the boundary ran through the Rosario strait; while the United States contended that the center of the Canal de Haro was the true line. It was a point of especial 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 the “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 determining 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 strictly an interpretation of the treaty of 1846; that he should not decide de novo, but simply explicate 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 our favor; for the Emperor could allow that the treaty intended nothing else but the main of most-used channel, which proved to be the Canal de Haro. By this, the United States secured the San Juan and other islands.

In December, 1871, he was appointed attorney-general of the United States by President Grant, 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 administration. It was during the time of the Ku Klux outrages; and the laws defied by the clans must 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 government; and the Secretary of War was direct to wait upon his instructions as to the movement of troops into the disquieted regions. At the time of rival governments form a number of the Southern states, each seeking the recognition of the President, Attorney-General William’s advice was closely followed, in accordance with which the Democratic government of Arkansas and the Republican government of Louisana was recognized. The contending parties in 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 imp0ression made by his words. Since that time, with the change of administrative policy, the Republican party has made but little showing in those states.

In 1874 his name was presented to the senate for the place of chief justice left vacant by the death of the illustrious Chase. It was hard for the old East to admit that the West was entitled to such an honor as would be bestowed by the elevation of the Oregon statesman; and after a contention which promised to be a great controversy, and which well-nigh threatened the disruption of 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 the administration.

Since his return to unofficial life the Judge has made his home at Portland in our state, practicing law and giving essential aid to all of our great public causes. he has been constantly sought for heavy political campaign work, and to grace the festivals of our metropolis 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 an invaluable contribution to this discussion.



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

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