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Fundamental Documents of Ohio







1874- 1876

William Allen's long political career spanned the ante-bellum and the post-Civil War periods. His Quaker ancestors were among the earliest settlers of Pennsylvania. Allen's branch of the family removed to North Carolina, separated from the Society of Friends, and took an active part in the Revolutionary War. His father, Nathaniel Allen, was an officer in the Revolutionary Army and later was a member of the North Carolina convention which ratified the federal constitution. His mother, Sarah (Colburn) Allen, was the third wife of Colonel Allen. Both parents died shortly after William's birth in 1803, and, through a technicality of the law, he was deprived of his share of the large estate of his father.

Allen was reared by his half-sister, a woman of strong character, who married the Rev. Pleasant Thurman. After a short residence in Lynchburg, Virginia, where Allen was apprenticed to a saddler, the young boy of sixteen determined to seek his fortunes in the West, whither his sister and her family had already gone. In the middle of the winter of 1819 Allen made the perilous journey on foot across the Alleghanies to his sister's home in Chillicothe, Ohio.

After two years of preparation at Chillicothe Academy, supple- mented by a course of general reading under the supervision of his sister, Allen began the study of law in Chillicothe in the office of Edward King, the son of Rufus King of New York. Three years later, at the age of twenty-one, Allen was admitted to the bar and began to practice as a partner of King. Allen, according to frontier custom, rode the circuit. His audacity, skill as a debater, and fluency of speech soon won for him a local reputation.

In 1832 Allen was nominated for representative to congress by the Jacksonian Democrats in a district normally Republican. After an exciting campaign, Allen won by a majority of one against General Duncan McArthur, whose daughter, Mrs. Effie Coons, Allen subsequently married in 1842.

Allen served one term in the house but was defeated for reelection. In 1837, however, at the age of thirty-four, Allen was elected by a Democratic state legislature to the United States Senate to succeed Thomas Ewing. In 1843 Allen was reelected for a second term. In the senate he acquired a national reputation as one of the leaders of the Northwest Democrats. He was a severe critic of John Bull and an ardent expansionist. He urged the annexation of Texas and was one of the vociferous advocates of "Fifty-four Forty or Fight" in the Oregon controversy with Great Britain. As chairman of the committee on foreign relations he was President Polk's spokesman during the war with Mexico.

Allen failed, however, to realize the importance and significance of the development of the Free-Soil element in the Democratic party. In 1848 he was suggested as a compromise presidential candidate when the followers of Cass and Van Buren clashed in the Democratic national convention at Baltimore. He refused to become a candidate and supported Cass. After the election he retired to private life. During the Civil War, Allen was a Peace Democrat and a bitter critic of the Lincoln adminis- tration.

In 1873 Allen made a spectacular reappearance in state politics. The maladministration of the Grant regime, together with the "hard times" caused by the Panic of 1873, gave the Democrats of Ohio a wonderful opportunity to win the gubernatorial election of that year, provided they could find a suitable candidate. They needed an old-time Democrat who stood high in the party and who was an orator and a man whose honesty was beyond reproach. At the suggestion of his nephew, Senator Allen G. Thurman, the Democrats nominated "Rise Up William Allen," a name given the candidate by a bit of doggerel verse attributed to Murat Halstead and published in the Cincinnati Commercial:

Come rise up William Allen and go along with me,

And I will make you Governor of Ohio's fair countrie.

The seventy-year-old Allen astonished his friends and foes by his vigorous campaign. In vitriolic language he attacked the Grant admin- istration for raising the taxes and "busying itself in making special laws for the benefit of corporations, cliques, and rings." "Defalcations," declared Allen, "is a soft word which means in plain English stealing." Allen won by a majority of 817 over his opponent, Governor Edward F. Noyes.

Governor Allen took his duties seriously. He rose early in the morning, breakfasted with his family, and by nine-thirty was in his executive offices. He conscientiously examined every official document before it received his signature. His health improved and he seemed to enjoy his work. In his messages to the legislature he stressed the need for economy, lower taxes, and the enforcement of the laws. In 1874, at his suggestion, more than 400,000 dollars were saved in the state's expenditures; and in 1875 the tax levy was reduced, thereby saving to the people more than 1,000,000 dollars.

The governor's appointments met with general approval, particularly his appointment of a practical miner as inspector of mines. The governor did not hesitate to call out the state militia to check disorders in Tuscarawas and Miami counties caused by a dispute between railroad officials and employees. He threatened to use troops in a coal dispute in the Hocking Valley region. The governor strove to regulate rather than coerce big business. He believed that the rights of property should be protected by law, but that the law must be respected.

Governor Allen's conservative, economical administration attracted national attention. Despite his age, Allen might have achieved still higher honors if he had not become the champion of inflation. He became a crusader for greenbacks while his nephew, Senator Thurman, stood for hard money. With dissension in the Democratic ranks, the Republican sound-money candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, with the help of Carl Schurz and other national Republican leaders, defeated "old Bill Allen" in the heated "rag-baby" election of 1875. Allen again retired to private life, and on July 11, 1879, he died at his home, Fruit Hill, Chillicothe, survived by his daughter.

William Allen was a man of striking personal appearance and an effective, fluent speaker with a voice like a foghorn. He was a fiery partisan and a vigorous exponent of what he believed were the aspirations and rights of his section and his country. He was an old-fashioned Jacksonian Democrat of unquestioned integrity who found it difficult to cope with new issues as they arose. Today his statue by the sculptor Charles H. Niehaus stands in Statuary Hall, across from that of James A. Garfield, in the national capitol, as one of Ohio's distinguished representatives. University of Cincinnati


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