In the election year of 1850 the Whig party in Ohio was embarrassed by President Fillmore's failure to continue President Taylor's antislavery policy and by his support of the Clay compromise of that year. The Democrats, at first, likewise attempted to evade the slavery question; they nominated Reuben Wood, however, who was from the Western Reserve and generally thought to hold antislavery views. A Democratic faction, of which Salmon P. Chase was the leader, was disgruntled by the failure of the convention to endorse the Wilmot Proviso, but Wood conciliated some of them by taking a strong antislavery position in his only public speech in the campaign. The result of the campaign was Wood's election by a plurality over William Johnston, the Whig candi- date, and Edward Smith, a Free Soiler; his vote was 133,093 to 121,105 and 13,747 respectively for his opponents.
The new governor, the first Democrat to be elected to the office since 1842, was a native of Vermont. Born at Middletown in Rutland County in 1792 or 1793, he was the oldest son of the Rev. Nathaniel Wood, who had served as a chaplain in the continental army during the Revolution. Reuben received his early education at home, but after his father's death he went at the age of fifteen to live with an uncle in Canada, where he pursued studies in the classics and the law. At the outbreak of the War of 1812 he was conscripted into the Canadian army but made his escape in a hazardous crossing of Lake Ontario in a small boat with another American. He served for a short time in the American army and at the close of the war returned home to aid his widowed mother on the farm. He also taught school and completed his legal studies under James Clark of Middletown.
In 1816 Wood married Mary Rice, a daughter of Truman Rice of Clarendon, Vermont, and two years later moved to Cleveland, Ohio. He is said to have arrived in the town with his wife and infant daughter and only a dollar and a quarter in his pocket. So poor was he that, when qualified for admission to the bar, he walked from Cleveland to Ravenna, where the supreme court was in session, to receive his certificate. Cleve- land at that time was a village of six hundred and probably had only two other practicing attorneys, Alfred Kelley and Leonard Case.
Through his energy and ability Wood soon gained a wide reputation and was drawn into politics. His first public office was that of state senator, to which he was elected three times, serving continuously from 1825 through 1830. In the latter year he was elected by the general assembly president judge of the court of common pleas for the third judicial circuit, which included Cuyahoga County. In 1832 and again in 1839 Wood was elected a judge of the state supreme court, thus serving two terms (February 1833 to February 1847). There was some objection by the radical antibank Democrats to his reelection in 1839. but they withdrew opposition when they learned that he believed the United States Bank unconstitutional, favored an independent treasury, and held that bank charters were not in the nature of contracts and could be revoked for cause. The Whigs defeated his reelection to a third term in 1847.
When Wood was inaugurated governor in December 1850, the constitutional convention was in progress. The convention completed its work the following March, and the new constitution was adopted at a popular election on June 17 and became effective on the first of September. This document provided for the electing of officials in odd-numbered years, thus limiting the incumbent governor's term to one year. Governor Wood was reelected in the fall of 1851 for a second term with a wide margin over Samuel F. Vinton, the Whig candidate. The Free Soil candidate, Samuel Lewis, polled only 16,914 votes to 119,596 for Vinton, and 145,604 for Wood. The Free Soilers, however, held the balance of power in the general assembly, which was nearly evenly divided between the two major parties.
Governor Wood took a firm stand on the questions of the day. He was strongly opposed to the fugitive slave laws but would not countenance acts of violence in circumventing them. In general he favored the hard-money platform of his party and believed that banks should be taxed at the same rates as individuals, but was not a radical antibank man. Several noteworthy events mark his administration: the burning of the old statehouse, February 1, 1852 (the present building was under construction); the visit to Ohio of Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale; the triumphal tour of the state by Louis Kossuth and his official reception by the Ohio General Assembly on February 7, 1851, on which occasion Kossuth, Governor Wood, and others made addresses.
Of great significance is the mass of new legislation passed by the assembly during his second term to carry into effect the provisions of the constitution of 1851. Among the more important laws were those reorganizing the courts, the need for which was urged by Wood in his first annual message.
In 1853 Governor Wood resigned to become the American consul at Valparaiso, Chile, where he remained until 1855, when he returned to Cleveland to practice law. Soon thereafter he retired to his beautiful farm, "Evergreen Place," near Rockport, Cuyahoga County, and engaged in farming until his death on October 1, 1864. He was a strong Union man and had been scheduled to preside at a Lincoln rally held a few days after his death. He was buried in a lovely spot on his farm, but the body was later removed to Woodlawn Cemetery, Cleveland. His wife and two daughters survived.
As an individual, Reuben Wood was energetic and forceful. He was a capable lawyer, a conscientious legislator, and an excellent trial judge. His tall, lean frame gave him the nickname, "Old Chief of the Cuyahogas." As judge and governor during a critical period in the state's history, he served Ohio well. The Ohio Historical Society
S. WINIFRED SMITH
Ohio History Center 800 E. 17th Ave. Columbus, OH 43211 © 1996-2012 All Rights Reserved.