MICHIGAN TRAILS
GENEALOGY and HISTORY
 

William Woodbridge
Governor (1840)

 William Woodbridge, Detroit, Michigan, Governor and Senator, was born at Norwich, Connecticut, August 20, 1780; and died at Detroit, October 20, 1861. He was of a family of three brothers and two sisters. HIs father, Dudley Woodbridge, removed to Marietta, Ohio, about 1790. The Life of William Woodbridge. by Charles Lauman, from which this sketch is largely compiled, mentions nothing concerning his early education beyond the fact that it was such as was afforded by the average school of the time, except a year with the French colonists at Gallipolis, where he acquired a knowledge of the French language. It should be borne in mind, however, that home education was, at that time, an indispensable feature in the training of the young. To this, and to a few studies well mastered, is due that strong mental discipline which has served as a basis for many of the grand intellects that have adorned, and helped to make, our national history. Mr. Woodbridge studied law at Marietta, having as a fellow-student and intimate personal friend, a young man subsequently distinguished, but known at that time simply as Lewis Cass. He graduated at the law school at Litchfield, Connecticut, after a course there of nearly three years; and began to practice at Marietta, in 1806. In June, 1806, he married, at Hartford, Connecticut, Juliana, daughter of John Trumbull, a distinguished lawyer and judge, and author of the poem "McFingal" which, during a dark period of the Revolution, wrought such a magic change upon the spirits of the colonists. He was happy in his domestic relations, until the death of Mrs. Woodbridge, February 19, 1860.

Our written biographies necessarily speak more fully of men, because of their active participation in public affairs; but human actions are stamped upon the page of time, and, when the scroll shall be unrolled, the influence of good women upon the history of the world will be read side by side with the deeds of men. How much success and renown in life many men owe to their wives is probably little known. Mrs. Woodbridge enjoyed the best means of early education that the country afforded, and her inherited intellectual genius enabled her to improve her advantages. During her entire life, side by side with the highest type of domestic and social graces, she manifested a keen intellectuality that formed the crown of a faultless character. She was a natural poet, and wrote during her life many fine verses, some of which are preserved in a printed memorial essay written on the occasion of her death. In this essay, it is said of her: "To contribute, even in matters of minor importance, to elevate the reputation and add to the well being of her husband in the various stations he was called upon to fill, gave her the highest satisfaction." She was an invalid during much of the latter portion of her life, but was patient and cheerful to the end. "The simple story of her life, from her marriage to her death, was one of love and devotion around the hearthstone of home," said Lauman. Some further reference to the family of this lady can be found in the biographical sketch of Mr. W. W. Backus, in this work. In 1807 Mr. Woodbridge was chosen a Representative to the General Assembly of Ohio; and, in 1809, was elected to the Senate, continuing a member, by re-election, until his removal from the State. He also held, by appointment during the time, the office of Prosecuting Attorney for his county.

He took a leading part in the Legislature; and, in 1812, drew up a declaration and resolution, --which passed the two houses unanimously, and attracted great attention, -- endorsing, in the strongest and most emphatic terms, the war measures of President Madison. During the period from 1804 to 1814, the two law students, Woodbridge and Cass, had become widely separated. The latter was Governor of the Territory of Michigan, under the historic "Governor and Judges" plan, with the indispensable requisite of a Secretary of the Territory. This latter position was, in 1814, without solicitation on his part, tendered to Mr. Woodbridge. He accepted the position with some hesitation, and entered upon its duties as soon as he could make the arrangements necessary for leaving Ohio. The office of Secretary involved also the duties of Collector of Customs at the port of Detroit, and, during the frequent absences of the Governor, the discharge of his duties also, including those of Superintendent  of Indian affairs. Mr. Woodbridge officiated as Governor for about two out of the eight years that he held the office of Secretary. Under the administration of the Governor and Judges, -- which the people of the Territory preferred, for economical reasons, to continue some time after their numbers entitled them to a more popular representative system, --they were allowed no delegates in Congress. Mr. Woodbridge, as a sort of informal agent of the people, by correspondence, also by a visit to the national capital, so clearly set forth the demand for representation by a delegate, that an act was passed in Congress, in 1819, authorizing one to be chosen. Under this act, Mr. Woodbridge was elected, by the concurrence of all parties.

His first action in Congress was to secure the passage of a bill recognizing and confirming the old French land titles in the Territory according to the terms of the treaty of peace with Great Britain, at the close of the Revolution; and another for the construction of a Government road through the "Blank Swamp," from the Miami River to Detroit, thus opening a means of land transit between Ohio and Michigan. He was influential in securing the passage of bills for the construction of Government roads from Detroit to Chicago, and Detroit to Fort Gratiot, and for the improvement of La Plaisance Bay. The expedition for the exploration of the country around Lake Superior, and in the valley of the Upper Mississippi, projected by Governor Cass, was set on foot by means of representations made to the needs of the departments by Mr. Woodbridge. While in Congress, he strenuously maintained the right of Michigan to the strip of territory now forming the northern boundary of Ohio, which formed the subject of such grave dispute between Ohio and Michigan at the time of the admission of the latter into the Union. He served but one term as delegate, during the Fifteenth Congress, declining further service on account of personal and family considerations. Mr. Woodbridge continued to discharge the duties of Secretary of the Territory up to the time its government passed into the "Second Grade," in 1824. He was then appointed one of a Board of Commissioners for adjusting private land claims in the Territory; and was engaged also in the practice of the profession, having the best law library in the Territory. In 1828, upon the recommendation of the Governor, Judges, and others, he was appointed, by President J. Q. Adams, to succeed Hon. James Witherell, who had resigned, as a Judge of what is conventionally called the "Supreme Court" of the Territory. This court was apparently a continuation of the Territorial Court under the "First Grade" or, "Governor and Judges" system.

Although it was supreme in its judicial functions within the Territory, its powers and duties were of a very general character. In 1832 the term of his appointment as judge expiring, President Jackson appointed a successor, -- it is supposed on political grounds, -- much to the disappointment of the public, and the bar of the Territory. The partisan feeling of the time extended into the Territory, and its people began to think of assuming the dignity of a State Government. Party lines becoming very sharply drawn, Judge Woodbridge identified himself with the Whigs. As a representative of that party, he was elected a member of the convention of 1835, which formed the first State Constitution; he was the only Whig elected from the district he represented. In 1837 he was elected a member of the State Senate, taking an active part in its proceedings. This sketch has purposely dealt somewhat in detail with what may be called Judge Woodbridge's earlier career, because it is closely identified with the early history of the State, and the development of its political system. Since the organization of the State Government, the history of Michigan is more familiar, and hence no review of Judge Woodbridge's carrier as Governor and Senator will be attempted. He was elected Governor, in 1839, under a popular impression that the affairs of the State had not been prudently administered by the Democrats. He served as Governor but little more than a year; he was inaugurated on the 1st of January, 1840, and was elected to the Senate of the United States, in the winger of 1841, for the full term of six years. His term in the Senate practically closed his political life, although he was strongly urged for the Whig nomination for Vice-President in 1848.

Soon after his appointment as Judge, in 1828, Governor Woodbridge took up his residence on a tract of land which he owned in the township of Springwells, a short distance below what were then the corporate limits of the city of Detroit, where he resided during the remainder of his life. His last years were somewhat embittered by persistent and finally successful efforts on the part of the city to extend its corporate limits over his property, thereby subjecting it to city taxation and improvements, and tending to rob it of the rural beauty upon which he wished his closing eyes to rest undisturbed. Both in his public papers and private communications, Governor Woodbridge shows himself a master of language; he is fruitful in simile and illustration, logical in arrangement, happy in the choice and treatment of topics, and terse and vigorous in expression. Judge Woodbridge was a Congregationalist. His opinions on all subjects were decided; he was earnest and energetic, courteous and dignified, and at times exhibited a vein of fine humor, that was the more attractive because not too often allowed to come to the surface. His letters and addresses show a deep and earnest affection, as well for his ancestral home, as for friends and family. writing to a young man who had solicited his influence in obtaining an office, Mr. Woodbridge says: "I am very sorry you should have become discouraged in your former and most laudable project of obtaining a competency by your own individual efforts and systematic industry.

He who is dependent upon office for support in our country, in my opinion, depends upon an employment of all others the pitiably servile."  And to another: " Absolute subordination among the officers of the departments at Washington; strict, unmitigated discipline; a blind and prompt  obedience to orders, -- are undoubtedly necessary in the prop;er and successful conduct of the affairs there; but, while I admit the probable necessity, I can not but deprecate the injurious influence of such despotism upon that generous spirit, and proud and manly independence of mind, which tend so much to give dignity and elevation to the character of man. Unreasoning obedience to our superiors in authority is the parent of adulation and fawning sycophancy; and it is fit to be remembered that, in all transactions of this life, habit, whether we will or not, almost invariably becomes our master."

American Biographical History of Eminent and Self-Made Men with Portrait Illustrations on Steel, Vol I-II 1878

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