George Henry Williams

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George Williams
George Henry Williams - Brady-Handy - Restored & Cropped.jpg
34th Mayor of Portland
In office
June 2, 1902 – June 2, 1905
Preceded by Henry Rowe
Succeeded by Harry Lane
32nd United States Attorney General
In office
December 14, 1871 – April 25, 1875
President Ulysses Grant
Preceded by Amos Akerman
Succeeded by Edwards Pierrepont
United States Senator
from Oregon
In office
March 4, 1865 – March 4, 1871
Preceded by Benjamin Harding
Succeeded by James Kelly
3rd Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court
In office
Appointed by Franklin Pierce
Preceded by Thomas Nelson
Succeeded by Aaron Waite
Personal details
Born (1823-03-26)March 26, 1823
New Lebanon, New York, U.S.
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
Portland, Oregon, U.S.
Political party Democratic (Before 1864)
Republican (1864–1910)
Spouse(s) Kate Van Antwerp
Kate Hughes George

George Henry Williams (March 26, 1823 – April 4, 1910) was an American judge and politician. He served as Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, was the 32nd Attorney General of the United States, and was elected Oregon's U.S. Senator, and served one term. Williams, as U.S. Senator, authored and supported legislation that allowed the U.S. military to be deployed in Reconstruction southern states to allow for an orderly process of readmittance into the United States. Williams was the first presidential Cabinet member to be appointed from the Pacific Coast. As attorney general under President Ulysses S. Grant, Williams continued the prosecutions that shut down the Ku Klux Klan. He had to contend with controversial election disputes in Reconstructed southern states. President Grant and Williams legally recognized P. B. S. Pinchback as the first African American state governor. Williams ruled that the Virginius, a gun-running ship captured by Spain during the Virginius Affair, did not have the right to bear the U.S. flag. However, he argued that Spain did not have the right to execute American crew members. Nominated for Supreme Court Chief Justice by President Grant, Williams failed to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate primarily due to Williams' removal of A. C. Gibbs United States District Attorney at Portland, Oregon.[1]

In 1875, Williams resigned as U.S. Attorney General under the controversy of his wife allegedly taking payment money from the custom house firm Pratt & Boyd in order to drop litigation by the U.S. Justice Department.[2] After his resignation, Williams took part in counting Florida ballots for Rutherford B. Hayes in settling the controversial presidential election of 1876. Williams returned to Oregon, resumed private law practice, and was elected Portland's mayor, serving two terms from 1902 to 1905. Williams advocated women's suffrage and that marriage and divorce proceedings needed to be handled by the civil courts rather than the church. Williams, at the age of 83, was indicted while Mayor of Portland for not enforcing gambling restriction statutes; he was acquitted and served out the rest of his term as mayor. On May 28, 1905, Mayor Williams made a speech at the opening ceremony of the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. Williams was the second to last surviving cabinet member of the Grant Administration.

Early life and law career

George Henry Willams was born in upstate New York, New Lebanon, Columbia County, on March 26, 1823.[3] At an early age his family moved to Onondaga County, where was educated in public and private schools, including Pompey Academy; he did not attend college.[1][3] Williams studied law under Honorable Daniel Scott having passed the bar in 1844 at the age of 21. In the same year Williams moved west, and practiced law in the Iowa Territory.[3] After Iowa was admitted to statehood, Williams was appointed district judge in 1847, serving until 1852.[3] In 1853, Williams was appointed Chief Justice of the Oregon Territory by President Franklin Pierce. In 1857, at the Oregon Constitutional Convention, Williams urged that slavery be made illegal in Oregon as a requirement for statehood. Williams advocated unsuccessfully that women's property not be subject to their husband's debts.[3]

In the early years of the Oregon Supreme Court, the three justices also rode circuit and acted as trial level judges. As a presiding judge while riding circuit, Williams presided over the Holmes v. Ford case that freed a slave family since slavery was illegal in the territory.[4] In 1857, he was a member of the Oregon Constitutional Convention held before the establishment of Oregon as a U.S. state.[5] Williams remained on the court until 1858 when he resigned from the bench.[6] He then moved to Portland, Oregon, where he resumed the practice of law.[7]

Williams, a Democrat, supported Stephen Douglas during the Presidential Election of 1860. Williams attended the Oregon Union convention of 1862, having opposed slavery, and was the chairman of the Election Committee.

U.S. Senator

In 1864 Williams, having changed over to the Republican Party, was elected to the United States Senate; he served one term, from 1865 to 1871.[3] In 1865, Sen. Williams, a Radical Republican, was appointed to the Committee on Finance and Public Lands and the Joint Committee on Reconstruction.[3] In 1866 Williams authored the Tenure of Office Act, passed by Congress in 1867 over President Andrew Johnson's veto, that limited the President in removing Cabinet officers.[3] This act was vital to the Republican Party, having saved the offices of appointed Republicans throughout the United States.[3] In 1867, he authored and supported the Military Reconstruction Act, passed by Congress over President Johnson's veto, that authorized U.S. military control of the South.[3] This act permanently restored and Reconstructed the formerly Confederate states in rebellion back into the United States in an orderly and peaceful manner using the strength of the U.S. military.[3] In 1868, Williams and his senatorial colleague Henry W. Corbett voted guilty in President Andrew Johnson's impeachment trial; Johnson was acquitted by one vote. Williams was defeated in the election of 1870.

U.S. Joint High Commissioner

Studio black-and-white portrait of American High Commissioners.
U.S. Joint High Commission in Washington, D.C.
Williams center standing.
Brady, 1871

In 1871, President Grant appointed Williams one of six U.S. Joint High Commissioners to negotiate a settlement treaty between Britain and the U.S. in Washington, D.C., over the Alabama Claims and America's Northwest boundary between the U.S. and Canada.[3] Six representatives had been chosen to represent British and Canadian interests making a total of twelve High Commissioners. Williams was chosen to be on the U.S. treaty commission due to his experience and career in the Pacific Northwest. Williams proved to be a valuable member of the U.S. Commission and served in this position with dignity. In addition to settling the Alabama claims against Britain for allowing Confederate ships to be armed in British ports, at stake was the U.S. Northwest border running through the Rosario Strait. The U.S. desired that the boundary run through the Haro Strait, however, this became a highly contentious issue between the U.S., Britain, and Canada.[3] The Washington, D.C., treaty Commissioners finally decided that the Emperor of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm I, would settle the boundary matter. Williams was able to convince the Committee that the German Emperor needed to strictly interpret the Treaty of 1846 and that the boundary be determined by the most used channel, the Haro Strait. Through William's efforts the German Emperor finally chose the Haro Strait as the Northwest boundary between the U.S. and Canada; the U.S. received the San Juan Islands.[3]

U.S. Attorney General

In December 1871, during later Reconstruction, President Grant appointed Williams as Attorney General of the United States; he served three years until 1875.[3] President Grant's southern Reconstruction policy worked primarily through William's Justice Department supported by Grant's Secretary of War, William W. Belknap.[3] Attorney General Williams continued to prosecute the Ku Klux Klan until December, 1872 when he issued a clemency policy toward the South.[8] The Justice Department had been inundated by multiple case loads against the Klan and did not have the man power to effectively prosecute all of them. Williams finished his prosecution of the remaining Klan cases in the Spring of 1873.[8] Williams believed continued prosecutions of the Klan was unnecessary and was concerned over negative public reaction to the Klan prosecutions.[8]

Toured South (1872)

During the Presidential election of 1872, Attorney General Williams toured the Southern states advocating President Grant's Southern Reconstruction policy through public speeches. Prominent Southern cities that Williams visited and spoke at included Richmond, Virginia; Savannah, Georgia; and Charleston, South Carolina. Through Williams efforts, Southern states went over to the Republican ticket, including Virginia, South Carolina, and Arkansas. This was the last time that Republicans had a majority victory in the South after the Democratic Party took control of all of the Southern Reconstructed states in 1877, known as the Solid South.[3] A Republican Presidential candidate would not win a majority of the Solid South states until 1928 with the election of Herbert Hoover in 1928.

Alabama election (1872)

When election disputes occurred during the Alabama state elections in 1872; both state Democrats and Republicans appealed to U.S. Attorney General Williams for settlement.[9] Both President Grant and Williams thoroughly consulted each other in considering a settlement for the contentious Alabama political crisis. On December 12, 1872, President Grant and George Henry Williams peacefully settled the disputed Alabama state elections between the Democrats and Republicans by issuing five resolutions to Governor David P. Lewis.[3][9] Gov. Lewis and the Republican legislature agreed to the five resolutions that included a Democratic and Republican representative to make a coordinated count of a disputed election result in Marengo County. Williams had required that the current House resign and the House building be vacated before settling the disputed election returns. Williams also vacated the Alabama Senate while disputed senatorial elections were resolved.[9] In addition to elections, Williams settled per diem compensation disputes for office holders.[9]

Louisiana election (1872)

During the election of 1872, Louisiana was in political turmoil, having two rival factions contending for control of the state legislature.[10] Democrat John D. McHenry and Republican William P. Kellogg both claimed to have won the governorship; both parties mired in charges of voting fraud.[10] Federal troops led William H. Emory, in charge of the Department of the Gulf, kept peace during and immediately after the election.[10] On December 3, U.S. Attorney General Williams, at the request of Kellogg, ruled that President Grant would enforce any decision by the United States District Courts.[11] After multiple state Returning Boards failed to resolve the election, U.S. District Court Judge Edmund H. Darrell, ordered that Kellogg was the winner of the Louisiana election.[11] On December 9, Marshall Packard, in control of the Custom House, chose a legislature that impeached Governor Henry Clay Warmoth and put in charge P. B. S. Pinchback, a Kellogg supporter, as the United States first African American state governor.[12] On December 14, Attorney General Williams informed Warmoth that President Grant recognized Kellogg as the rightful elected governor of Louisiana.[12] This action upset the McHenry faction, believing President Grant and Attorney General Williams had taken sides in a state election.[12] On December 16, Attorney General Williams reaffirmed Kellogg's election, Pinchback as the lawful governor of Louisiana, and recognized other elected Republican candidates and Presidential electors.[13]

Virginius affair (1873)

In October 1873, a privateer gun running ship flying the American flag, the Virginius, secretly owned by Cuban insurgents during the Cuban Ten Years' War was captured by a Spanish warship. In November, a total of 53 crewmembers, including American and British seamen, were tried and executed by Spanish mercenary, Juan D. Burriel, in Santiago, Cuba. On December 17, the Virginius was turned over to the United States Navy according an agreement between the U.S. and Spain. On the same day, after investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, Attorney General Williams ruled that the Virginius had been purchased by fraud and did not have the legal right to carry the American flag, however, he argued that the Spanish did not have the right to capture it on open waters and execute American crewmen, since the United States only had the right to investigate if the Virginius had been legally registered in New York. Williams ruling on the ownership of the Virginius ship was a mixture of "pretense, legality, and bluff".[14] Through negotiations, 91 crewmembers were returned to New York and families of those Americans who were executed by Burriel were eventually awarded $80,000 reparations from Spain in 1875.[15][16]

Chief Justice nomination (1873)

File:Williams Withdrawal.JPG
President Grant's withdrawal of Williams's Chief Justice nomination

In December 1873, President Grant nominated Williams Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Initially, President Grant had Senator Roscoe Conkling's support for the Williams nomination.[17] However, rumor spread through Washington that William's had used Justice Department funds to pay for his wife's expensive carriage.[17] Williams had drawn on Justice Department funds, replaced by himself, when banks suspended payment on checks during the Panic of 1873.[17] Sen. Conkling believed under the circumstances the nomination should be revoked.[17] On January 9, 1874 an angered President Grant sent the Senate a letter that withdrew William's name from nomination.[17]

Honored by New York Bar (1874)

On January 31, 1874, prominent members of the New York Bar and Bench attend a reception given by Col. Eliott F. Shepard in honor of U.S. Attorney General Williams.[18] The extravagantly lighted party took place on No. 10 East 44 Street in New York from 8 pm to 10 pm. Williams had initially visited New York on vacation for a reunion with old friends.[18] The Bernstein Band performed a series of popular musical opera arrangements. Prominent New York judges attended, including Justice Louis B. Woodruff and Justice Noah Davis. Almost 800 persons showed up in attendance including a future President, Collector of New York, Chester A. Arthur.[18]

Resignation (1875)

President Grant forced Williams to resign in April 1875 upon a rumor in Washington, D.C., that William's wife had accepted $30,000 in payment in order for Williams to drop litigation against alleged fraudulent activities of a New York mercantile house Pratt & Boyd.[2] Senator Roscoe Conkling, Grant's ally in the U.S. Senate, had asked Grant that Att. Gen. William's step down from office.[2]

Later career

Mayor Williams at groundbreaking ceremony of the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. Williams is second from left holding hat in his right hand. 1904

After resigning Williams declined an offer from Grant to become the U.S. minister to Spain. George Williams campaigned for the election of Rutherford B. Hayes as President in 1876. During the controversial Presidential Election of 1876, Williams, now a private citizen, went to Florida to manage the Hayes ballot returns.[3]

After the 1876 U.S. Presidential election, Williams returned to his Portland private law practice. Williams supported women's suffrage and the Oregon "popular government" movement.[3] On October 11, 1901, the Episcopal Church of America met in San Francisco to decide whether Episcopal clergymen could remarry divorce persons and discipline any Episcopal members who remarried.[19] Former Attorney General Willams attended the meeting and opposed all restrictions by the Episcopal church on married and divorced persons and stated that such matters belonged in civil law as opposed to church law.[19]

Williams was elected Portland's mayor serving from 1902 to 1905.[3] On January 4, 1905 Mayor Williams, at the age of 83 years, was indicted by a grand jury in Multnomah County for allegedly refusing to enforce laws that regulated gambling .[20] Williams was charged for not closing down gambling facilities on July 13, 1904, that operated within four miles of Portland.[20] Portland's Chief of Police Charles H. Hunt's indictment was similar to Mayor William's indictment.[20] Williams, however, was acquitted and served out the rest of his term in office.

On May 28, 1905, Mayor Williams gave a speech in honor of the opening of the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition.[21] Vice President Charles W. Fairbanks was the key note speaker who attended the opening ceremony.[21] President Theodore Roosevelt officially mechanically opened the ceremony by pressing a button in Washington, D.C.[21]

Death and burial

Williams died April 4, 1910, in Portland and is buried at River View Cemetery in that city.[22]

Marriages and family

Williams married Kate Van Antwerp in Iowa in 1850, and they had one daughter.[7] He married a second time in 1867 to Kate Hughes George, and the couple adopted two children.[7][22]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Dumas Malone, ed. (1936). "Williams George Henry". Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 262–263. LCCN 44041895. Retrieved January 16, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Smith, p. 584.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 3.14 3.15 3.16 3.17 3.18 3.19 3.20 Yamhill County Circuit Court, Oregon Judicial Department (2009)
  4. Milner, Darrell. "Holmes v. Ford (1853)". African American History in the West. University of Washington. Retrieved July 30, 2007.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "Biographical Sketch of George Williams". Crafting the Oregon Constitution. Oregon State Archives. Retrieved 2014-06-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Oregon Blue Book: Supreme Court Justices of Oregon
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Corning, Howard M. Dictionary of Oregon History. Binfords & Mort Publishing, 1956.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Williams (1996), The Great South Carolina Ku Klux Klan Trials, 1871-1872, p. 123
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 "Alabama: The Compromise Proposed by Attorney-General Williams Accepted By The Republicans". The New York Times. December 13, 1872. p. 1. Retrieved January 15, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Norris-Milligin-Faulk, pp. 270-271
  11. 11.0 11.1 Norris-Milligin-Faulk, p. 271
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Norris-Milligin-Faulk, p. 272
  13. "Statement of the Attorney-General Williams on the Question". The New York Times. December 17, 1872.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Bradford, p. 102
  15. Bradford, pp. 106-107
  16. Bradford, p. 126
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 17.4 McFeeley, pp. 390-391
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 "Reception to Attorney General Williams". The New York Times. February 1, 1874. p. 8. Retrieved January 15, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. 19.0 19.1 "Episcopal Deputies Discuss Remarriage". The New York Times. October 12, 1901.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 "Portland Mayor Indicted". The Lewiston Daily Sun. January 5, 1905.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 "Oregon World's Fair Opened By President". The New York Times. June 2, 1905. Retrieved January 15, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. 22.0 22.1 "George Henry Williams". Office of the Attorney General. U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved 20 May 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>



  • McFeely, William S. (1981). Grant: A Biography. Norton. ISBN 0-393-01372-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Norris, L. David; Milligan, James C.; Faulk, Odie B. (1998). William H. Emory: Soldier-Scientist. The University of Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, The Arizona Board of Regents. ISBN 0-8165-1911-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Smith, Jean Edward (2001). Grant. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-84927-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • "George Henry Williams". Yamhill County Circuit Court, Oregon Judicial Department. 2009. Retrieved 2012-06-19.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
Legal offices
Preceded by
Orville Pratt
Associate Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court
Succeeded by
Aaron Waite
Preceded by
Thomas Nelson
Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court
Preceded by
Amos Akerman
United States Attorney General
Succeeded by
Edwards Pierrepont
United States Senate
Preceded by
Benjamin Harding
U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Oregon
Served alongside: James Nesmith, Henry Corbett
Succeeded by
James Kelly
Political offices
Preceded by
Henry Rowe
Mayor of Portland
Succeeded by
Harry Lane