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George H. Williams (1871–1875) - Attorney General

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George Henry Williams was born in 1823 in New Lebanon, New York. He studied the law, was admitted to the state bar of New York in 1844, and then moved to Iowa, where he established a law firm. Williams practiced for three years before becoming judge of the First Judicial District of Iowa, where he served from 1847 to 1852.

In 1853, President Franklin Pierce tapped Williams to become chief justice of the supreme court of Oregon Territory, where he served for four years. A Democrat, Williams opposed slavery, especially in Oregon Territory, and was a member of the 1858 constitutional convention that helped the territory become a state in 1859. Because of his antislavery stance, Williams left the Democrats to join the Union Party. But it was as a Republican that Williams was elected in 1864 to represent Oregon in the United States Senate, where he served until 1871, having been unable to secure reelection thereafter.

Williams served on a special commission for President Ulysses S. Grant in 1871 before becoming Grant’s third attorney general. He remained at that post from 1872 to 1875, during which time Grant put forth Williams’s name for chief justice of the Supreme Court. Since it was clear that the Senate would fail to confirm his appointment, Williams withdrew his name in 1873 and continued to serve as attorney general for another two years before resigning in 1875. He then declined an offer from Grant to become the U.S. minister to Spain.

George Williams campaigned for the election of Rutherford B. Hayes as President of the United States in 1876, established a law practice in Portland, Oregon, and ultimately served as mayor of Portland from 1902 to 1905. He died in 1910.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Joan Waugh

Professor Waugh is a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her writings include:

U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth (University of North Carolina Press, 2009)

Wars within a War: Controversy and Conflict over the American Civil War (editor with Gary W. Gallagher, University of North Carolina Press, 2009)

The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture (editor with Alice Fahs, University of North Carolina Press, 2004)

Unsentimental Reformer: The Life of Josephine Shaw Lowell (Harvard University Press, 1998)