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WILSON SHANNON

1838- 1840, 1842- 1844

The principal issue in the Ohio gubernatorial election of 1838 was the question of banking and currency. Wilson Shannon, the anti-bank Democratic candidate, defeated the incumbent, Joseph Vance, and became the fourteenth governor of the state.

Wilson Shannon was born near Mount Olivet in what is now Warren Township, Belmont County, on February 24, 1802, and was, therefore, the first governor of Ohio to be born in the state. He was the youngest of the nine children of George and Jane Shannon, an Irish family who had emigrated from Virginia to the Ohio country in 1800. His father was frozen to death while on a winter hunting expedition when Wilson was not quite a year old. The responsibility of providing for a family of nine fell to the widow and the older sons, several of whom became prominent in law and politics. By hard work and strict economy, the family was able to purchase an eighty-acre farm two miles west of their original home. As a boy Wilson helped his brothers on the farm and attended a one-room school in the district until he was eighteen. With the financial aid of two of his brothers, he apparently attended for a time both Ohio University at Athens and Franklin College at New Athens before trans- ferring to Transylvania University at Lexington, Kentucky. He left the university before graduation to study law in the office of his brother George at Lexington. Soon returning to Belmont County, he completed his legal studies under David Jennings and Charles Hammond. Being admitted to the bar in 1830, he formed a partnership with Judge Kennon of St. Clairsville.

As a young lawyer Wilson Shannon became ambitious for political office. In 1832 he was the Democratic candidate for congress from his district and was defeated by only thirty-seven votes. The following year he was elected for the first of two consecutive terms as prosecuting attorney for Belmont County (1833-37).

During the period of the early thirties the economic situation in Ohio as well as in the nation at large was deteriorating, partly as a result of the wild speculation and over-expansion in the West. After the issuance of Jackson's "Specie Circular" the New York banks suspended specie payment on May 10, 1837, and the banks of Ohio were soon forced to take the same action. Questions relating to banking and currency became the chief issue between the two major parties.

The Whigs, representing wealth and social position, defended the banks; the Democrats blamed the banks and the over-circulation of bank notes for the financial crisis. Under these conditions both parties prepared for the election of 1838. The Whigs renominated Vance and the Democrats named Wilson Shannon, then relatively unknown beyond his own district. Shannon made an active campaign throughout the state, advocating a limited program of internal improvements evenly distributed over the state and extensive reform of the state's banking system. He won the election by a majority of 5,738 and was inaugurated on December 13, 1838.

The Democrats, having secured also a majority in both houses of the general assembly, were able to enact legislation carrying out the governor's program. One of the most important of these measures was the bank commissioner act of February 25, 1839, which limited the circulation of bank notes, required the closing of banks which defaulted in payments after a thirty-day period, and provided for three commissioners to examine and report on the condition of the banks. The same month saw the passage, with the governor's approval, of a fugitive slave act with more stringent provisions than those of the federal law.

In the October elections of 1839 the Democrats increased their majorities in both houses, and the Democratic press hailed this as an indication of popular approval of the financial measures advocated by Governor Shannon and enacted by the general assembly. In his annual message in December 1839 the governor recommended the completion of internal improvements then under construction in order to arrest the mounting state debt. He also urged the continuance of the banking system established by the act of February 25, 1839, a policy which lost him the backing of the Locofoco Democrats of Cincinnati, who favored more drastic controls on banking than those provided for by that law. The conservative faction, however, came to Shannon's support, and he was renominated by acclamation at the Democratic state con- vention in January 1840.

The state campaign of that year was largely eclipsed by the furor of the national contest between Harrison and Van Buren. The Whigs, successful in both races, elected Thomas Corwin governor of Ohio by a plurality of 15,691. The tables were turned, however, two years later when Shannon defeated Corwin for reelection, the principal issue being banking and currency as in the last two gubernatorial contests.

Shannon's second term (1842-44) was characterized by a further breach between the Democratic factions, due in part to the relaxing of the stringent Latham bank act passed on March 7, 1842, and to the governor's support of Lewis Cass for the presidency.

In April 1844, Shannon resigned as governor to accept an appoint- ment by President Tyler as minister to Mexico. While he held the office, relations between Mexico and the United States became severely strained over the annexation of Texas, and Shannon, tactless in his communica- tions with the Mexican government, was recalled by Calhoun in March 1845 on the eve of the Mexican War.

Returning to Ohio from Mexico, the former governor engaged in the practice of law at St. Clairsville and Cincinnati until 1849 when he led a band of "Forty-Niners" to the California gold fields. On his return to Ohio two years later he again entered politics and was elected to the thirty-third congress (1853-55) from the district composed of Belmont, Guernsey, Noble, and Monroe counties. He was a member of the committee on foreign affairs, but did not become prominent. He voted with three other Ohio Democrats for the Kansas-Nebraska bill, which precipitated a struggle between the free-state and proslavery forces in Kansas.

Shannon was destined to cope with the war in Kansas, for in 1855 President Pierce appointed him governor of Kansas Territory. Although personally in sympathy with the proslavery forces, he attempted to serve as peacemaker between the two factions. Successful in one or two instances, he eventually failed and war broke out. He was removed as territorial governor on August 21, 1856, and retired from public life. He returned to Ohio for only brief visits, maintaining his home and practice of law in Kansas until his death on August 30, 1877. Shannon was said to be a very fine looking man, six and a half feet tall and "straight as a pole." He was twice married and had eight children, several of whom survived him. The Ohio Historical Society

S. WINIFRED SMITH

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