William Freeman Vilas

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The Honorable
William Freeman Vilas
United States Senator
from Wisconsin
In office
March 4, 1891 – March 3, 1897
Preceded by John Coit Spooner
Succeeded by John Coit Spooner
33rd United States Postmaster General
In office
March 6, 1885 – January 6, 1888
President Grover Cleveland
Preceded by Frank Hatton
Succeeded by Donald M. Dickinson
17th United States Secretary of the Interior
In office
January 16, 1888 – March 6, 1889
President Grover Cleveland
Preceded by Lucius Q.C. Lamar
Succeeded by John Willock Noble
Personal details
Born (1840-07-09)July 9, 1840
Chelsea, Vermont, U.S.
Died August 27, 1908(1908-08-27) (aged 68)
Madison, Wisconsin, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Anna M. Vilas
Alma mater University of Wisconsin–Madison
University at Albany
Profession Politician, Lawyer
Military service
Allegiance United States United States of America
Service/branch  United States Army
Union Army
Rank Union army lt col rank insignia.jpg Lieutenant colonel
Unit Wisconsin 23rd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment
Battles/wars American Civil War

William Freeman Vilas (July 9, 1840 – August 27, 1908) was a member of the Democratic Party who served in the United States Senate for the state of Wisconsin from 1891 to 1897.[1] He was a prominent Bourbon Democrat.

Life and career

Vilas was born in Chelsea, Vermont, the son of Esther Greene (Smilie) and Levi Baker Vilas, a politician. Vilas moved to Madison, Wisconsin with his family in 1851. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1858, and from the Albany Law School in 1860. He enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War and was a captain in the 23rd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment and later served as the lieutenant colonel of that regiment.

Following the war, Vilas was a Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and a regent of the University from 1880 to 1885 and 1898 to 1905. Vilas served as a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1885, until he was appointed the Postmaster General between 1885 and 1888, and as Secretary of the Interior from 1888 to 1889, both under President Grover Cleveland.

After leaving the cabinet, he led Wisconsin German Americans in the protest against the Bennett Law of 1889 which required schools to only use the English language. From 1891 until 1897 he was a member of the United States Senate, in which, during President Cleveland's second term, he was recognized as the chief defender of the Administration, and he was especially active in securing the repeal of the silver purchase clause of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. He was unsuccessful in an 1896 reelection bid, having been defeated by Senator John Coit Spooner.

Vilas was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention of 1896, but withdrew after the adoption of the free-silver plank. He then became one of the chief organizers of the National Democratic Party, attended the convention at Indianapolis, and was chairman of its committee on resolutions. He was also the main drafter of the National Democratic Party's platform. Vilas, a favorite of the delegates, refused to run as the party's sacrificial lamb.

He is interred at the Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison, Wisconsin.

Vilas County, Wisconsin is named for William F. Vilas.[2] Senator Vilas is also the namesake of the town of Vilas, South Dakota.[3]

See also


  1. Vilas, William Freeman 1840 - 1908 at www.wisconsinhistory.org
  2. Vilas County History
  3. Chicago and North Western Railway Company (1908). A History of the Origin of the Place Names Connected with the Chicago & North Western and Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha Railways. p. 134.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


External links

Political offices
Preceded by
Frank Hatton
United States Postmaster General
Served under: Grover Cleveland

Succeeded by
Donald M. Dickinson
Preceded by
Lucius Q.C. Lamar
U.S. Secretary of the Interior
Served under: Grover Cleveland

Succeeded by
John W. Noble
United States Senate
Preceded by
John C. Spooner
Senator from Wisconsin (Class 3)
with Philetus Sawyer (1891–1893)
John L. Mitchell (1893–1897)
Succeeded by
John C. Spooner