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George H. Williams

Hon. George H. Williams was born in New Lebanon, Columbia county, N. Y., on the 26th day of March, 1823. When quite young his father moved to what was then called western New York, but which is now the central portion of the state. From early boyhood he lived here in the town of Pompey, Onondaga county, and attended district school until he was 14 years of age, after which he attended the Pompey academy far three years. During this time he worked on a farm, and thus earned enough money to pay tuition at the academy. At the age of 17 he entered the law office of Daniel Got, an eminent lawyer, and at one time a member of congress from New York. Four years were spent in this office, at the end of which he was admitted to practice in the courts of that state. Friends provided money with which to buy a small law library, and at the age of 21 he started for the territory of Iowa, and located at Fort Madison, where he formed a partnership with a lawyer named Daniel F. Miller, and immediately entered upon a large practice. When the state government was formed in 1847, he was elected judge of the first judicial district, and retained the office for five years. At the end of this time he was offered a unanimous election by Whigs and democrats, but refused to be again a candidate for the office. In 1852 he was nominated by the democratic convention as a presidential elector-at-large, and canvassed the state for Franklin Pierce. In 1853 he was appointed chief justice of the territory of Oregon, and came here in June of that year. He was reappointed by President Buchanan, but shortly afterwards resigned. He was elected to the constitutional convention, and was made chairman of the judiciary committee. During and after this convention he earnestly and actively opposed the establishment of slavery in Oregon. In September, 1864, he was elected to the United States senate, and was made chairman of the committee on private land claims, and was a member of the committees on finance and public lands.

He was a member of the joint committee on reconstruction, and was chairman of the sub-committee, having in charge Virginia. North Carolina and Tennessee for investigation, in which capacity he examined a great number of witnesses as to the condition of these states, among whom was General Robert E. Lee. This committee prepared and reported the 14th amendment to the constitution, and section 2 is substantially as he prepared it, he prepared and introduced a bill for the reconstruction of the insurrecting states, which was passed, under which the rebelling states were recognized and admitted to representation in congress. He prepared and introduced the tenure of office act, which was passed, the object of which was to prevent Andrew Johnson from removing from office Union men and filling their places with Southern sympathizers.

He prepared the act, which was passed, regulating the election of senators. He was in Washington when Lincoln was assassinated, and accompanied the remains to Springfield as a representative of the senate. Soon after retiring from the United States senate, he was appointed by President Grant a member of the joint high commission, to provide for the settlement of the Alabama claims. Among other questions to come before this commission was the Northwestern boundary. Both governments, by a long correspondence, were fully committed to their respective positions. Great Britain contended that the Rosario straits was the true boundary, whereas the United States claimed it was De Huro canal. This seemed an insurmountable obstacle, but it was finally suggested that it be referred to the German emperor for arbitration. This Judge Williams refused to agree to, unless it was specifically agreed in the treaty that the arbitrator should decide which of the two channels was the true boundary, and thus prevent a compromise decision. This was agreed to, and Emperor William decided in favor of the United States, thus giving us San Juan and adjacent islands. At the conclusion of the commission's work, President Grant appointed him attorney-general of the United States. At this time an unhappy condition of affairs prevailed in several of the Southern states, where Ku Klux Klan, the Invisible Empire and other secret societies were creating a reign of terror, by acts of violence upon white and black Union men. He inaugurated a vigorous prosecution of the ringleaders, who were convicted and imprisoned, thus destroying the societies. So successful was his work in this matter that the president entrusted him with the entire management of Southern affairs, at this critical period, when political disturbances and upheavals were constantly occurring. There were two state governments organized in Louisiana, and a bloody turmoil was impending, when the president requested him to decide which government should be recognized. All the ballots had been destroyed, but after careful investigation, he advised the recognition of the republican administration, which was done. Two state governments attempted to organize in Arkansas, and friends of each were arming for battle. Federal troops were on the scene, and bloodshed seemed unavoidable. Judge Williams made a thorough investigation of conditions, and recommended that the democratic administration be recognized, which was promptly done. In Alabama there were two legislative assemblies, both of which sent delegates to Washington, and the issues between them were submitted to him. He formulated a plan by which the two bodies were consolidated into one, subsequently known as the "Williams legislature." In 1873 he was appointed chief justice of the United States supreme court, but his confirmation was bitterly opposed by democrats, assisted by a few republicans. After a suspense of six weeks without action, he asked the president to withdraw his name, which he did with great reluctance. In 1874 he resigned the office of attorney-general, since which time he has been practicing his profession in the city of Portland.

Source: Oregon Native Son and Historical Magazine, June 1899

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