When Edward Tiffin resigned the governorship of Ohio in March 1807 to take a seat in the United States Senate, Thomas Kirker, then speaker of the Ohio Senate, became acting governor until December, when Tiffin's term expired. In the election of October 1807, Return J. Meigs, Jr., received a majority of the popular vote over Nathaniel Massie, but the general assembly ruled that Meigs was ineligible because he had not resided continuously in the state for four years prior to the election, as required by the constitution. As a result of the decision Kirker continued as acting governor for the 1807-8 term.
Ohio's second governor was born in Tyrone County, Ireland, in 1760. His father, being unable to make a living for a large family on the poor soil of his native county, brought the family to America when Thomas was nineteen. They settled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where in a few years the father died. There is no further record of Thomas until 1790 when he married Sarah Smith, a young woman from a good Lancaster family. Not long thereafter they moved to Kentucky in spite of the hazardous journey and frontier conditions at the journey's end. One account states that they were targets for Indian arrows during the trip.
Kirker left Kentucky (whether for economic reasons or because of opposition to slavery is uncertain) and moved to Manchester, Ohio, around 1793. About two years later he settled on a farm in Liberty Township, Adams County, which was his home for the rest of his life. This is said to have been the first settlement in the county outside a stockade. According to family tradition, the future governor and his wife, leaving their children at home, would take a gun and walk twelve miles through the woods to church and back. From 1808 until his death Kirker was a ruling elder in the Presbyterian church at West Union, as also were four of his five sons. In 1809 he was one of three appointed to receive subscriptions for a stone church building, and his name heads the subscription list.
Kirker became a leading citizen of his community, often called upon by common consent to arbitrate disputes among his neighbors. He was appointed by Governor Arthur St. Clair as a justice of the peace and was therefore a member of the first court of quarter sessions which met at Manchester in 1797. His reputation spread throughout the county, and he was chosen as one of the delegates from Adams County to the first constitutional convention. He represented his county in the lower house of the first general assembly, which met in March 1803. In the fall of 1803 he was elected to the state senate and was reelected to that body for eleven consecutive general assemblies (1804-15), serving as speaker for seven terms.
After the close of the thirteenth general assembly Kirker was absent from the legislature for one term. He was then elected to the house of representatives for the fifteenth and to the senate for the twentieth through the twenty-third general assemblies (1816-17, 1821-25), serving as speaker of the house in the fifteenth. It was while serving as speaker of the senate in the fifth general assembly that he became acting governor.
During Kirker's first year as acting governor the settlers in the western section of the state were alarmed by the threat of an Indian uprising. In order to provide for the security of the outlying settlements, in September 1807 Governor Kirker issued general orders calling up the first and second divisions of the Ohio militia. At the same time he sent Thomas Worthington and Duncan McArthur on a mission to Greenville and other towns on the frontier to ascertain whether there was danger of an attack by the Indians. They reported that there was no indication of hostility on the part of the tribes and brought one of the chiefs to Chillicothe to convince Governor Kirker of their peaceful intentions. Kirker thereupon countermanded his orders mobilizing the militia.
In 1808 there were three candidates in the gubernatorial race: Kirker, Worthington, and Samuel Huntington, all nominally Democratic Republicans. The main issue in the contest was the question of judicial review of legislative acts. Huntington, who was chief justice of the state supreme court, favored the power of the courts to declare laws uncon- stitutional, while Worthington was the chief advocate of the supremacy of the legislature. Kirker held a position similar to Worthington's and divided the vote of those who opposed a strong court; Kirker and Worthington received 3,397 and 5,601 votes respectively to 7,293 for Huntington.
After his defeat Kirker returned to his duties as a legislator and to other public services. From January to October 1821 he was an associate judge of the court of common pleas in Adams County, and in 1824 he served as a presidential elector, casting his vote for Henry Clay. At the end of his career as a public servant he retired to his Liberty Township farm. His wife had died in 1824. He lived on until 1837, and upon his death was buried in the family burial plot on the farm.
Thomas Kirker rose from an uneducated Irish immigrant to a leading citizen of his adopted state largely by his own efforts. He possessed a fine physical appearance and was generally popular with his neighbors and colleagues. Although most historians agree that Kirker was not a brilliant statesman, he was conscientious and exercised good judgment in the execution of his public duties. He played an important part in the state's early history and served her honorably and well. The Ohio Historical Society
S. WINIFRED SMITH
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