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Williams, George Henry


George Henry Williams served as U.S. attorney general from 1871 to 1875. A state and territorial judge, as well as a U.S. senator, Williams was nominated to be chief justice of the United States by President ulysses s. grant in 1873, but he was never confirmed.

According to the justice department's publication, Attorneys General of the United States, Williams was born on March 23, 1823 (some sources cite March 22 or March 26), in New Lebanon, New York. He received an academic education, studied law, and was admitted to the New York bar in 1844. Williams moved to Fort Madison, Iowa, and established a law practice, but in 1847 he was elected as a state district judge. In 1853 he moved west again, becoming chief justice of Oregon Territory, remaining on the bench until 1857.

In 1865 Williams was elected to represent Oregon in the U.S. Senate. He aligned himself with the Radical Republicans, who opposed President andrew johnson's programs for the South during reconstruction following the end of the u.s. civil war. The animosity between Congress and Johnson led to articles of impeachment against Johnson. Williams supported the impeachment of Johnson, but the Senate attempt to convict Johnson failed by one vote.

After Williams lost his Senate seat, President Grant appointed Williams attorney general in 1871. His term as attorney general was unremarkable, but his reputation was damaged by the events surrounding his failed nomination as chief justice in 1873. There were allegations that Williams had participated in fraudulent activities involving voting in Oregon, but the organized bar on the East Coast also feared that as a frontier lawyer from Oregon, Williams was illprepared to preside over a Court that decided many complex commercial cases. A man of little formal education, Williams appeared too undistinguished to serve on the Court. It is likely, however, that the many political scandals involving corruption in the Grant administration unfairly tarnished Williams's nomination.

"I believe I have lived longer and happier than if I had been raised to [the] exalted office [of Chief Justice]."
—George Henry Williams

When it became clear that his nomination was doomed, Williams asked President Grant to withdraw his name from consideration. He continued as attorney general for two more years, resigning in 1875. Williams abandoned national politics after his resignation and returned to Oregon, where he practiced law for many years in Portland. His last public position was as mayor of Portland from 1902 to 1905. He died on April 4, 1910, in Portland, Oregon.

further readings

Kaltman, Al. 2000. Cigars, Whiskey, and Winning: Leadership Lessons from Ulysses S. Grant. Paramus, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

Justice Department. 1985. Attorneys General of the United States, 1789–1985. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.


Grant, Ulysses Simpson.

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