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William Wilkins (1844–1845) - Secretary of War

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William Wilkins was born in 1779 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He attended Dickinson College, studied the law, and was admitted to the state bar in 1801. Five years later, he was censured by the bar for his role as a second in a duel. Wilkins then turned his attention to business, helping found the Pittsburgh Manufacturing Company (later chartered as the Bank of Pittsburgh) and serving as president of the Monongahela Bridge Company.

He pursued an interest in politics as well, serving as a member of the city common council and in 1819, heading to the lower house of the Pennsylvania state legislature as a Federalist. By 1820, Wilkins had left that position to become the presiding judge of the Fifth Pennsylvania Judicial District. In 1824, he began serving as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the western district of Pennsylvania before making an unsuccessful bid for the United States Congress in 1826. He succeeded two years later but resigned before even taking his seat.

By 1831, Wilkins was finally serving as a member of Congress, doing so as a Democratic senator and firm supporter of President Andrew Jackson. Three years later, however, he again resigned his congressional seat to become President Jackson’s minister to Russia. By 1836, he was back in the United States, and within another two years was running for Congress. Though he was unsuccessful in 1840, he was triumphant in 1842.

In 1844, Wilkins became President Tyler’s secretary of war, a post he held from 1844 until the end of Tyler’s administration in 1845. For the next two decades, Wilkins focused on his business ventures, served in the Pennsylvania State Senate from 1855 to 1857, and in 1862 became major general of the Pennsylvania Home Guards. William Wilkins died in 1865.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

William Freehling

Professor Freehling is a senior fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the emeritus Singletary Professor of the Humanities at the University of Kentucky. His writings include:

The Road to Disunion, 1776–1861 (2 volumes; Oxford University Press, 1990 and 2007)

The Reintegration of American History: Slavery and the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1994)

Prelude to Civil War: the Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816–1836 (Oxford University Press, 1992)