When Reuben Wood resigned as governor on July 13, 1853, to accept a federal diplomatic appointment, Lieutenant Governor William Medill, according to the rule of succession established by the new state constitution, became Ohio's twenty-second chief executive.
William Medill was born at Whitely Creek Hundred in New Castle County, Delaware, in February of 1802. Of Irish extraction, his parents, William and Isabella Medill, had emigrated to the United States a few years before. Opportunities for the education of farm lads were not very plentiful, but young William completed preparatory studies satis- factorily for entrance in a nearby academy. He taught school and engaged in "other employments" for about six months to pay expenses to attend the Newark Academy (later Delaware College and now the University of Delaware) for the balance of the year. After graduation in 1825, Medill read, law on a part-time basis in the office of Judge Black in New Castle, and was admitted to the bar in Delaware in the summer of 1830. That winter Medill moved to Lancaster, Ohio. An Ohio law required a year's residence in the state, however, before a person could be admitted to practice. He spent most of the year reading in the office of Judge Philemon Beecher of that town and was admitted to the Ohio bar in early 1832.
The people of Fairfield County elected Medill as their representative to the state legislature in 1835, and reelected him for three succeeding terms. His ability as a presiding officer was recognized by his legislative colleagues when he was chosen as the speaker of the house in his third term. In 1838 Fairfield, Perry, Morgan, and Hocking counties elected Medill as their district representative in congress. Reelection in 1840 sent him back for a second term. In this session he committed himself as an antibank Democrat. He was defeated for a third term in 1842.
From President Polk, Medill received an appointment in 1845 as second assistant postmaster general. After a few months he resigned to accept appointment as commissioner of Indian affairs, a position in which he served for the remainder of the Polk administration. The Indians generally held him in high regard for his reforms and justice towards them. It was under his administration that Indian affairs were transferred from the war to the interior department.
Medill was chosen as a delegate to the state constitutional convention held in 1850-51. The strength of the Democratic party in the convention and his position of prominence within the party gained for him on the first ballot the important position as president of that body. As had Edward Tiffin, who presided over the first state constitutional convention a half century before, Medill later became the chief executive of the state. In fact, he was the only member of the 1850-51 convention who rose to that position. The convention produced a constitution which, although a great improvement over the previous one, did not recognize that agrarianism was being replaced by a new economic order.
Under the new constitution the position of lieutenant governor was created. Following the pattern of the federal government, he was also presiding officer of the senate. In the autumn election of 1851, Medill became the first person in Ohio to fill that post. He was chosen by a greater plurality than was Reuben Wood, who was reelected governor. As lieutenant governor, Medill presided over the regular and adjourned sessions of the senate in 1852 and 1853.
On July 13, 1853, Governor Wood resigned to accept a federal appointment as a consular officer in Chile. Upon the resignation of the chief executive, the new constitution provided that "the powers and duties of the office . . . shall devolve upon the lieutenant-governor." William Medill thus became governor.
The Democratic party was victor in the 1853 state elections, and Medill, who had been nominated by a bare majority of three votes, became governor in his own right. The other elective state officials, however, received greater pluralities than he. It is interesting to note that his Whig and abolitionist opponents were the last Whig and abolitionist candidates for governor in Ohio. Medill himself was the last Democratic candidate to be elected for twenty years.
Although there was a substantial majority of Democrats in both houses, no laws of great importance were enacted by the fifty-first general assembly. A resolution was adopted favoring construction of a railroad with Mississippi River and west coast termini. Medill believed that the state should withdraw from its many economic activities and advocated sale of all state-owned canal, turnpike, and railroad stock. No immediate steps were taken, but successive administrations used his position as a basis for action.
The mid-1850's witnessed considerable agitation against foreign and non-Protestant peoples in the United States. These movements found expression in the formation of minority parties which agitated and encouraged clashes and riots, especially in urban centers of foreign and Catholic strength. In city elections in Cincinnati in 1855, riots attained such proportions that the personal presence of the governor and a threat to call out the militia were necessary to quell the disturbance.
The newly formed state Republican party, opposed to the extension of slavery in the federal territories, entered the 1855 contest under the leadership of Salmon P. Chase, who had an antislavery record. Medill ran against him and was defeated by nearly sixteen thousand votes.
The new national Democratic administration appointed Medill as comptroller of the federal treasury. He served in this capacity for almost the entire term of President Buchanan. He performed a notable service by successfully resisting payment of about two million dollars for a claim he felt not justified, in spite of instructions from congress to the contrary and threats of impeachment.
His poor health precluded much activity, and at the end of the Buchanan administration he retired from politics and returned to Lancaster. In 1863, as a Peace Democrat, he presided over the state convention of his party. In spite of efforts to the contrary he was unable to prevent the gubernatorial nomination of Clement L. Vallandigham, whom he had himself defeated in the nomination for lieutenant governor in 1852. A "slowly consuming and painful but mortal disease" brought death on September 2, 1865. Medill, although "always something of a ladies' man and popular in society," had never married. Upon his death his estate passed to his nephew and namesake of Lancaster.
Medill devoted his life to public service and acquitted himself well. He was a man of strict integrity and high character who earned the respect of his political enemies as well as his political associates. Miami University
DWIGHT L. SMITH
Ohio History Center 800 E. 17th Ave. Columbus, OH 43211 © 1996-2012 All Rights Reserved.