Mordecai Bartley, eighteenth governor of Ohio, was inducted into office on December 3, 1844, to succeed his son, Acting Governor Thomas Welles Bartley.
The Bartleys' English forebears settled in Loudoun County, Virginia, in 1724, whence Mordecai's father, Elijah, moved to Fayette County, Pennsylvania, where Mordecai was born on December 16, 1783. As a lad he attended district school between seasons of hard work on the farm. Married at the age of twenty-one to Elizabeth Welles, he moved to Jefferson County, Ohio, in 1809. During the War of 1812 he organized a company of volunteers and was elected their captain. He later was made adjutant of a regiment under General William Henry Harrison. After the close of the war Bartley selected a site for a home west of Mansfield in Richland County, a little in advance of the line of settlement.
A successful farmer, he engaged also in merchandising in Mansfield, whither he moved in 1834. In the meantime he had been elected to represent Licking, Knox, and Richland counties in the Ohio Senate (1816-18). In 1818 the assembly appointed him register of the Virginia Military District school lands with office at Mansfield. This position gave him an abiding interest in the public schools. He resigned the office in 1823 to take a seat in the lower house of congress, which he held four terms (1823-31). In his first congressional campaign he was opposed by the able and energetic Alfred Kelley, but so great was Bartley's popularity in his home town that his own vote was said to be the only one cast for Kelley at Mansfield. Two years later he again defeated Kelley, and in the two subsequent elections won over Eleutheros Cooke.
While in congress Bartley did not often take part in the debates, but he was alert to the interests of his district, which comprised a large part of northern Ohio, including Sandusky and Cleveland. He was the first to propose to congress a land grant to Ohio for the benefit of the common school fund and was instrumental in securing a federal grant for the improvement of several Lake Erie harbors. In the presidential election of 1824, which was decided in the house of representatives, Bartley, although an ardent supporter of Henry Clay, voted with the Ohio delegation for John Quincy Adams. Declining renomination for a fifth term, he supported Cooke as his successor in congress.
Upon retiring from congress Bartley resumed his agricultural and mercantile pursuits at Mansfield. In 1844 he was nominated for governor at the second of two Whig state conventions, after David Spangler of Coshocton, who had been nominated at the first, declined to run. The Democrats nominated David Tod. Although the state campaign was somewhat confused by the presidential campaign of that year, in which the question of the annexation of Texas and Oregon predominated, the matter of the state banking system was again paramount in Ohio. Tod's position was unsatisfactory to both the anti-bank radicals and the conservative Democrats. This and other factors contributed to Bartley's election by a small majority. The Whigs were successful also in returning a plurality for Henry Clay in the presidential race and in securing control of both houses of the general assembly.
The Whigs proceeded at once to carry out their state banking program. A bill sponsored by Alfred Kelley was enacted into law on February 24, 1845. Known as the Kelley Bank Act, it repealed the earlier Latham and Bartley acts and remained the basic banking act of the state for the next two decades. The statute provided for inde- pendent banks as well as a state bank which should be organized when seven branches had been established; it imposed upon stockholders a limited collective liability (instead of the full individual liability advocated by the Democrats), and it placed certain restrictions upon the issuance of bank notes. In his message to the legislature in December 1845, Governor Bartley declared that the effect of the law had been to restore confidence and contribute to the "rising prosperity of the State."
Another important financial measure of his administration was the Kelley Revenue Act of March 2, 1846, which equalized taxation and placed several classes of property, formerly exempt, upon the tax duplicate.
The conflict with Mexico which broke out in the spring of 1846 placed Bartley in a difficult position. Although the Ohio governor was opposed to the war, he felt it his duty to comply with President Polk's request for troops, and personally supervised the organization of Ohio's quota. In reference to the war he declared to the assembly: "If it be the object of our people to extend the influence of free institutions to other nations of the world, far more can be done by the moral influence of example, than by the conquest and force of arms."
The governor was involved also in a controversy with the governor of Virginia over the enforcement of the fugitive slave law. His position on the slavery issue is indicated by the fact that in his annual message to the general assembly in December 1845 and again in 1846 he advocated the repeal of Ohio's "Black Laws," which placed restrictions upon the free Negroes in the state, denying them the right to testify in the courts against a white man and requiring bond of them against their becoming public charges.
Bartley declined renomination for a second term and retired from public life to his home and business interests at Mansfield, where he lived out his eighty-seven years until his death on October 10, 1870.
Mordecai Bartley came into Ohio six years after its admission to the Union. He saw the population of the state grow from about 230,000 to over 2,500,000. The agricultural progress during this period is demonstrated by the fact that the farm which he hewed from the wilderness was, shortly before his death, the scene of a state-wide trial of mowers and reapers. A modest and unassuming man of high principle, his own statement of purpose and estimate of his career is found in his last message to the assembly: "In the humble part which I have taken in the public affairs of the State, I have been directed by an earnest desire to subserve the welfare of the people." The Ohio Historical Society
S. WINIFRED SMITH
Ohio History Center 800 E. 17th Ave. Columbus, OH 43211 © 1996-2012 All Rights Reserved.