Gov. WILLIAM E. SMITH
WILLIAM E. SMITH, of Milwaukee, was born in Scotland June 18, 1824; came to the United States in early childhood; received a public school education; is by occupation a merchant; came to Wisconsin in 1849, and settled at Fox Lake, having previously resided in New York city, and Oakland county, Michigan; removed to Milwaukee in 1872, where he has since continued to reside; was member of assembly in 1851 and in 1871, and was speaker of the assembly during the latter year; was state senator in 1858 and 1859, and also in 1864 and 1865. Served as state treasurer in 1866, 1867, 1868, and 1869; was a member of the board of regents of normal schools from 1858 to 1876, and was a director of the state prison from 1874 to 1878. He was elected governor of the state in 1877, as a Republican, receiving 78,739 votes, against 70,486 for James A. Mallory, Democrat, and 26,216 for Edward P. Allis, Greenbacker; and re-elected in 1879, receiving 100,535 votes, against 75,030 for James G. Jenkins, Democrat, and 12,996 for Reuben May, Greenbacker. [Source: Blue Book of Wisconsin (1880) transcribed by Rhonda Hill]
William E. Smith
Here is a man distinguished as much for being always the same even-tempered, genial kindly and courteous gentleman, as for his real ability and sterling worth. To him also belongs the unusual honor of being the only citizen of foreign birth who was ever elected to be chief executive of Wisconsin; not only so, but he received a greater majority than was ever cast for any other candidate for that office. He was born June 18, 1824, near Inverness, in the North of Scotland, where his father was a well-educated and prosperous gentleman. His mother's family name is Grant. In 1835 the family came to America, and settled at Commerce, Oakland Co.-"County of Lakes"-Mich. His brothers luring chosen professions, William, after some further education in this country, early decided to adopt a mercantile life, and after an experience of a few years in Michigan in this direction, went to New York City and entered the great-at least great for those days-wholesale dry-goods house of Ira Smith & Co., for a period of five years.
In 1849 at the age of twenty-five years, he came to Wisconsin, first settling in Racine County, but a little later moved to Fox Lake, Dodge County, and established himself in the mercantile business, which he followed at this place for twenty three years. In 1850 he married Mary, daughter of the famous Rev. John Booth, of Michigan, and returned to Fox Lake, whereupon he was elected to the State Assembly. In the following year he was nominated for Assemblyman but declined to run, and kept out of politics until 1857-58, when he served as a member of the State Senate. During the same year he was appointed Regent of the State Normal Schools, by Gov. Randall, and held the position uninterruptedly until he himself became Governor, a period of twenty years.
In 1864-65 Mr. Smith again served as State Senator, but in 1865, before his term had fully expired, was elected State Treasurer on the ticket headed by Lucius Fairchild for Governor, and was re-elected in 1867. In this office Mr. Smith added largely to his already substantial reputation, by the exceedingly careful and thrifty manner in which he handled the uninvested "trust funds" of the State. The public did not seem to care to give to Mr. Smith much time for attention to his private business, for in November, 1870, he was elected to the Legislature, and in January, 1871, chosen Speaker of the Assembly. This position about which apparently the people generally seem to know or care but little, is one in which a public man may, and very likely will, either "make or break" himself. It is one in which quick, sure and fair judgment, patient and courteous conduct, accurate measurement of men, ability to detect tricks and subterfuges, and firmness to do right independent of scores of conflicting interests and contending factions are absolutely essential to success. Mr. Smith was more than successful; he largely widened the circle and increased the strength of his friendships. In 1872 he removed to Milwaukee, and formed a co-partnership with Judson A. Roundy and Sidney Hauxhurst, under the firm name of Smith, Roundy & Co., and engaged in the wholesale grocery trade. In 1874 he was appointed a Director of the Wisconsin State Prison, by Gov. Taylor, and held the position, to which he gave a great deal of time and thought, until his election as Governor compelled him to resign.
In 1877 Mr. Smith received the Republican nomination for Governor. At this time the "fiat" money party, styling themselves Greenbackers were very numerous and very talkative. They nominated a wealthy manufacturer, named Edward P. Allis, as their candidate for Governor, and went up and down the country appealing to those who were in debt, and especially to those who were so poor they could not get into debt, "to vote for cheap money;" "vote for an increase in the volume of the currency;" "vote to dethrone the baron bondholders;" "vote to remove the mortgages from your farms!" There was a very large number, as the election proved, whose votes were to be caught with bait of this kind and as the Democrats had nominated a strong, old-fashioned member of their party in the person of Judge James A. Mallory, Mr. Smith's campaign was one of numerous hardships and perplexities. The masses, not fully enlightened in the problems of a sound public finance, and suffering from a general depression in business, were more likely to be aroused by appeals to passion and prejudice, and to some extent having been so aroused, were more easily led by the seductive sophistry of "cheap money," "cheap interest," and "no mortgages."
But he adopted as his platform, instead of the rather uncertain party platform conjured up by the convention by which he was nominated, an address to the people setting forth the fallacies and danger is of the fiat-money theory, and the lasting benefits to individuals and to the State of a sound and stable currency, a currency in which our creditors, as well as ourselves, could put confidence and know that none would be cheated.
The campaign was far more educational in its character than any that had preceded it, and therefore of inestimable value to the people, who by a plurality of over 8,000 votes, made Mr. Smith Governor. Perhaps it should be mentioned that no man before him had been made Governor by a plurality vote, in fact, that of 1877 was the first triangular gubernatorial contest in the history of the State. From the first there was an air of quiet dignity and conservative respectability about Gov. Smith's administration that made it very popular. Besides, his appointees were selected from the able and honorable men of the State, and public business generally was conducted in a careful and thrifty manner. While the people were never dazed or amused by any pyrotechnical displays of statesmanship, they felt certain that everything connected with public affairs was in safe and honorable hands. It was practically a faultless administration. When, therefore, in 1879, he was placed before the people for re-election, they showed their appreciation of his qualities by an endorsement more flattering than was ever accorded to any other Governor-returned him to the executive chamber by a plurality of 25,455, and a clear majority over all of 12,509. Perhaps the chief feature of his administrations was the adjustment of long-pending claims against the United States for lands, by which hundreds of thousands of acres were secured and recorded to the State.
On retiring from the office of Governor, in January, 1882, Mr. Smith returned to Milwaukee, and having retired from the firm of Smith, Roundy & Co., on his election to the Governorship, in company with Henry M. Mendel and his own son Ira, established a large wholesale grocery house, under the name and style of Smith, Mendel & Co. To this he gave his time and attention, except such as must unavoidably be devoted to the public duties of a private citizen at once so popular and well known, and the business prospered largely.
On the 10th of January, 1883, the Newhall House in Milwaukee was destroyed by fire and with it about fourscore human lives. The entire city, a house of mourning, was resolved into committees, either to honor deeds of heroism, commemorate the dead or relieve the survivors of the holocaust. Gov. Smith was made Chairman of the Relief Committee, and while in energetic and effective service in that capacity contracted so severe a cold that it attacked his lungs in the form of pneumonia, and resulted fatally Feb. 13, 1883.
Thus the death of Governor Smith became almost as much an actual part of the horrors of that heart sickening morning in January, as if he had been burned or mangled with the others, with the additional honor, that though occupying a high and honorable place in the community, he lost his life in the service of the poor and humble. His funeral was a wide demonstration of sorrow and respect, the Legislature and State officers, with other public officials and numerous civic societies attending in formal bodies for the purpose of testifying the public esteem and public loss. William E. Smith was in every respect a good man. [Source: "Portrait and Biographical Album of Green Lake, Marquette and Waushara"; By Acme Publishing Co., Chicago; Publ. 1889; Pgs. 172-174; Transcribed by Andrea Stawski Pack]
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