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Fundamental Documents of Ohio







1860 - 1862

William Dennison, Jr., Ohio's twenty-fourth governor and the first to hold office during the Civil War, was born at Cincinnati November 23, 1815. He was descended from a New England family named Carter through his mother, Mary, while his father, William, was a native of New Jersey. The couple migrated from the latter state to Ohio a decade before their son's birth and settled at Cincinnati where the elder Dennison became a successful business man.

As a student at Miami University, the son displayed outstanding ability in the fields of history, government, and literature. Having been graduated at the age of nineteen, Dennison entered the office of Nathaniel G. Pendleton, the father of George H. Pendleton, and began the study of law. In 1840 he was admitted to the bar, whereupon he became a practicing attorney. After a short time, the young lawyer moved to Columbus and married the eldest daughter of William Neil, a well-known promoter of stage transportation. Dennison's popularity grew apace with his legal practice, and by 1848 he had become so prominent that the Whigs of Franklin and Delaware counties elected him to the Ohio Senate. His colleagues in the upper house nearly succeeded in elevating him to the speakership but finally failed after a bitter two-week struggle during which the senate was unable even to organize. Dennison appeared on the political scene at a time when the slavery controversy was rapidly approaching a critical stage. The intensity of the struggle demanded partisanship from everyone in public life-there -was no neutrality on the issue of slavery-and Dennison put himself indelibly on record four years before his election when he opposed the admission of Texas and the extension of slavery. This action delineated the course he was to follow during the next twenty years.

His record as a legislator was founded firmly on Whig doctrines, with the emphasis on antislavery principles. He was especially vocal in advocating abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia and application of the Ordinance of 1787 to all United States territories. Ohio's notorious "Black Laws," however, were the target of his most vigorous onslaughts. These measures imposed upon Negroes discrimina- tory qualifications for residence and denied them certain rights and privileges. Dennison participated in the campaign to repeal these statutes. Success came in 1849 but only through a political bargain as a result of which the "Black Laws" were repealed and Salmon P. Chase, the prominent opponent of slavery was elected to the United States Senate, while two posts on the state supreme court went to Democrats.

After one term in office Dennison returned to his private practice. For a half dozen years his political activities were subservient to other considerations, although in 1852 he was a presidential elector on the Whig ticket. His attention during this period turned to the spheres of finance and transportation, leading to his selection as president, first of the Exchange Bank of Columbus and then of the Columbus and Xenia Railroad. His interest in railroads continued throughout his life.

Dennison was drawn back into politics in February 1856, when, as one of the first prominent Whigs to become a Republican, he attended the new party's preliminary convention at Pittsburgh and served on the committee on resolutions. In June he acted as chairman of the Ohio delegation to the nominating convention at Philadelphia which chose John C. Fremont as its candidate. Dennison's star continued to ascend, reaching a new height in 1859 with his nomination by acclamation for the governorship. Formidable opposition was provided by Supreme Court Judge Rufus P. Ranney, a man of unquestioned character and integrity. The candidates conducted a constructive campaign during which they engaged in a series of public debates throughout the state. Affairs were further enlivened by the appearance of both Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, each of whom addressed audiences in three Ohio cities. The temper of the times was reflected in the outcome, which saw Dennison victorious by a margin of 13,000 votes.

An administration which began auspiciously enough on January 9, 1860, was destined to become one fraught with greater problems than those of any previous governor. Dennison had served little more than half his term when the nation was plunged into civil war. Recognizing that speed was imperative he assumed emergency powers and acted unhesitatingly and decisively-his critics said dictatorially. He virtually commandeered railroads, express companies, and telegraph lines; ignoring the advice of his attorney-general, he used funds with which the state had been reimbursed by the federal government for military expenditures without first turning the money into the treasury; and he dispatched youthful George McClellan to western Virginia with a body of state troops to help drive out the Confederates.

His wisdom and foresight were appreciated by few and condemned by the majority. Despite his victory at the polls, Dennison lacked the confidence of the people once the war began. A courteous and refined gentleman, he was an authority on railroad operation and on banking but totally unequipped to cope with military problems. His faults were exaggerated and many of the blunders made were committed by subordinates. Although as chief executive, Dennison accepted responsibil- ity for all shortcomings, perhaps his only serious personal error was. his failure to reorganize his administration immediately. It is doubtful whether any of his predecessors could have met the issues any more successfully.

Dennison's renomination, a virtual certainty before the outbreak of hostilities, became a political impossibility. The party leaders, seeking the cooperation of the War Democrats, chose David Tod as their standard-bearer in the 1861 election. Dennison accepted this turn of events with stoic equanimity. His loyalty to the party did not waver, and Governor Tod constantly called upon him for advice and assistance. Recognition of his contributions came in 1864 when he was named chairman of the Republican national convention. A few months later President Lincoln appointed him postmaster general, a post which he held until he found himself in serious disagreement with President Johnson's policies in 1866. Although he occupied no other elective or major appointive position, Dennison long remained a figure to be reckoned with in state and national politics. He was a potential vice- presidential nominee in 1872, and eight years later he unsuccessfully opposed Garfield for the Republican senatorial nomination. Also in 1880, the former governor captained the Sherman forces in Ohio and at the national convention.

Business and civic interests claimed much of Dennison's time in his declining years. In addition to his fiscal and transportation operations, he made his influence felt in other fields through his position as city councilman, organizer of the Franklin County Agricultural Society, and promoter of such industries as the Columbus Rolling Mills. Dennison acquired considerable wealth from his several investments and, despite losses as a result of the Panic of 1873, he lived out his remaining years in easy circumstances.

When death came on June 15, 1882, after an eighteen-month illness, Dennison was regarded as Columbus' leading citizen. His wife and seven children survived him. His life had been a constructive and useful one. While he excelled in the economic field, he was perhaps only adequate as a statesman but his honesty was never questioned. To a great extent the victim of circumstances as governor, Dennison has been treated with more sympathy by later generations than by hi5 contemporaries. The Ohio Historical Society


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