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Hon. Thomas Ewing (1789-1871)

Early Life

First Graduate of Ohio University

Marriage to Maria Wills Boyle

Legal Career

Senator from Ohio

Cabinet Positions

Later Life

In 1869, Thomas Ewing wrote an autobiographical sketch of his life which was published in the Cincinnati Commercial shortly after his death. He wrote about his early childhood in Athens County, Ohio, where his parents had settled in April, 1798. There were only a few families settled there at the time and no road or even pathway led to them. The distance between neighbors was about twelve miles. "We had wild fruits of several varieties, very abundant, and some of them exceedingly fine...we had a great variety of wild plums. We of course had no mills. The nearest was on Wolf Creek, about fourteen miles distant; from this we brought our first summer's supply of breadstuffs."

Early Life
During his first year in Athens, at age nine, he says he was very lonely. "My brother, George, eleven years older than I, was too much a man to be my companion, and my sisters could not be with me
generally in the woods and among the rocks and caves; but a small spaniel dog, almost as intelligent as a boy, was always with me. I was the reader of the family, but we had few books. I remember but one besides Watts's Psalms and Hymns" that a child could read -- "The Vicar of Wakefield," which was almost committed to memory; the poetry which it contained, entirely." As soon as a library evolved in the community of Athens, Thomas began his more scholarly pursuits. In his autobiography he says he once walked twenty miles to borrow a translation of Virgil's Aeneid.

First Graduate of Ohio University
In order to secure funds for a college education, Thomas obtained employment in the Kanawha salt works, where he sometimes labored as long as twenty hours a day. Later, he was to become an operator and substantial owner of salt works in the Chauncey area. In the course of two or three years he saved enough from his scanty earnings to free his father's farm of debt and with the meager surplus enrolled, in 1809, in Ohio University. After his funds were exhausted, he returned to the salt works to save more money. He later returned to the University and became its first graduate in 1815. It was the first B.A. degree ever granted by any college or university in the Northwest Territory.  He then returned home and in July went to Lancaster, Ohio, where, for the next thirteen months, he studied law under Philemon Beecher. In August of 1816, at the age of twenty-six, he was admitted to the Ohio Bar. In 1817 when "Pa" Beecher went to serve in Congress, Ewing was left in charge of the office and he soon had a large practice before the Ohio Supreme Court. From 1818 to 1829, he also served as Prosecuting Attorney for Fairfield County, in which capacity he was concerned primarily with the apprehension and prosecution of counterfeiters.

Marriage to Maria Wills Boyle                                                                                                           On January 7, 1820, Ewing, himself of Presbyterian stock but with no real church affiliation, married Philemon Beechers' niece, Maria Wills Boyle, a devout Roman Catholic and the daughter of Hugh Boyle, clerk of the court of Common Pleas of Fairfield County. They had seven children:

Philemon Beecher (November 3, 1820 - April 15, 1896)
George (August 23, 1822 - September 28, 1823)
Ellen Boyle (October 24, 1824 - November 28, 1888)
Hugh Boyle (October 31, 1826 - June 30, 1905)
Thomas (August 7, 1829 - January 21, 1896)
Charles (March 6, 1835 - June 20, 1883)
Maria Theresa (May 2, 1837 - May 11, 1910)

In addition to these children of their own, the couple helped raise several others: Charles, Abigail, and Rachel Clark, the children of Ewing's sister Rachel; Lewis Wolfley, whose father was Ewing's cousin; and, the most famous of all, William Tecumseh Sherman, who subsequently married Ewing's daughter Ellen and whose father, Charles R. Sherman, a judge of the Ohio Supreme Court, had died suddenly in 1829 leaving a widow and eleven children. A devoted family man, Ewing demonstrated a deep interest in both their education and their pastimes.

Legal Career                                                                                                                  
In 1823, Thomas Ewing served as a member of a Committee appointed to revise the General Laws of Ohio. In the same year he also became a trustee of his alma mater, Ohio University, a post he held until 1832. Caught up in the canal building mania of the 1820's, he served as one of the seven commissioners, and for a brief period as President of the Board of Directors, of the Lancaster Lateral Canal Company. The young lawyer, like so many who followed the same profession, soon developed a taste for politics. Defeated in 1823 in a bid for a seat in the Ohio Legislature, for the next few years he devoted his attention to his law practice. However, in the Summer of 1827, he served as a delegate from Ohio to the Harrisburg Convention of Friends of Farming and Manufacturing which drew up a memorial requesting Congressional action to protect domestic industry. In December of the same year, he headed Fairfield County's delegation to the State Convention of Adams' Men at Columbus and served as a member of both the Resolutions Committee and the State Central Committee. Already recognized as a leader of the Ohio Bar, in January of 1828 he was admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court, joining the company of such brilliant practitioners as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Robert Young Hayne.

Senator from Ohio
In 1830, Ewing was elected, on the Whig ticket, to the U.S. Senate in which he served until 1837 and in which he is said to have held his own in public debate with such renowned contemporaries as Webster, Clay and Calhoun.  He soon became one of the leaders of the opposition to President Andrew Jackson's administration. His keen intellect, demonstrated time and again in the speeches he delivered on the Senate floor, earned for him the title "Logician of the West." During his term in office he supported Clay's "American System" which called for protective tariffs and internal improvements, he advocated the re-charter of the United States Bank, he denounced Jackson's removal of deposits from that Bank as well as his "Specie Circular," he advocated reduced postal rates, and he brought about a revision of the land laws, a reorganization of the Post Office Department, and a bill for the settlement of the Ohio-Michigan boundary dispute. Despite his opposition to the Jackson Administration he supported the Force Bill as a remedy for nullification.

Within six weeks of entering the Senate he was elected a member of the important special committee set up to deal with the application of the Bank of the United States for a new charter. When the Ohio legislature "instructed" him to use his influence to prevent the rechartering of the Bank, he disputed their authority to so control his conduct as a Senator, insisting that Senators represented their State, the sovereign power, rather than the Legislature. As a member of the Committee on Post-Offices and Post-Roads which had been investigating irregularities in the Post Office Department, on June 9, 1834, he delivered to the Senate the majority report which vigorously assailed the abuses and corruption in that Department. In return, he was violently assailed by the administration press, which found a ground of attack conveniently at hand. As a member of a Committee on Revolutionary Claims, Ewing had favored the issuing of land warrants to claimants. However, before entering the Senate he had speculated in Virginia landscrip and thus stood to profit personally from his actions as a Senator. His opponents quickly took up the charge and, indeed, he was not free of such attacks until after the Civil War when he was past seventy.

His opposition to the Jackson Administration and his refusal to follow the "instructions" of the Ohio Legislators had helped to undermine his position back home in Ohio where a pro-Administration party had come to power within the Legislature. Consequently, in January 1836, he was defeated in a bid for re-election as a result of prior redistricting which gave only six representatives to five Whig Counties having a total voting population of 30,205 while it gave fourteen representatives to ten normally Democratic counties having a total voting population of 30,504. Upon this defeat, he returned to Lancaster and resumed his law practice. Although the Calhoun wing of the party was ready in 1837 to consider him a potential candidate for the Vice-Presidency in 1840, his defeat in 1838 in a bid for the Senate seat about to be vacated by Senator Thomas Morris ruined his chances for any such position on the ticket.

Cabinet Positions                                                                                                           
On the accession of General Harrison to the Presidency in 1841, Mr. Ewing was recalled into public service, accepting a place in the Cabinet as Secretary of the Treasury. The death of General Harrison brought John Tyler into office and, on his special invitation, the Harrison Cabinet remained in office. The next year, Mr. Ewing and many other cabinet members submitted their resignations, believing that Tyler had betrayed the Party. In the formation of the Cabinet of General Zachary Taylor in 1849, Thomas Ewing was invited to take charge of the new Department of the Interior. He filled this post with honor and ability until August, 1850, when after the death of President Taylor, President Millard Fillmore failed to harmonize with the current cabinet.

During his lifetime, Thomas Ewing was an advisor to four presidents. He knew Lincoln well, and while serving as Secretary of the Interior had offered him the office of Commissioner of the General Land Office, which Lincoln found it necessary to decline. It is believed that Ewing's advice to the great emancipator in the Mason-Slidell case prevented an estrangement, if not actual war, with England.

When Vice President Andrew Johnson succeeded Lincoln in the presidency, Ewing continued as an advisor to Johnson. In 1868, when he was 78 years old, he was nominated by Johnson to be Secretary of War. Under a technical ruling, however, the Senate refused to confirm the nomination on the grounds that no vacancy existed.

Later Life
During the last twenty years of his life, he spent his winters in Washington, arguing his cases -- his particular forte was Real Estate Cases -- before the Supreme Court, and the rest of the year, generally, at home in Lancaster, Ohio. In 1856, he refused to support any of the candidates for the Presidency. In 1860, although he preferred John Bell, the nominee of the Constitutional Union Party, he nevertheless supported Abraham Lincoln, a former Whig and political friend, because he felt that in Ohio only Lincoln could defeat Stephen A. Douglas whom he regarded as too reckless. He also felt that the Republican Party, in espousing the Tariff and other old Whig principles, had veered to a more conservative course than it had adopted originally. He did, however, take exception to the anti-slavery tendencies of the Republicans and in his Chillicothe, Ohio speech of September 29, 1860, he urged the party to drop its anti-slavery character. In the fall of 1869, while addressing the U.S. Supreme Court, Ewing was stricken and collapsed on the court floor. He remained in ill health from that day, bedfast most of the time. His death occurred at his home in Lancaster, Ohio, Oct. 26, 1871, at the age of 82. Following his death, both the Ohio and the U.S. Supreme Courts held and published memorial proceedings for him, unprecedented honors for any person not a member of the judicial bodies. Ewing Hall, erected on the campus of Ohio University, was named in his honor and the Alumni Gateway, erected in 1915, was constructed in memory of the centennial of his graduation from that institution.

He died revered by his family and respected by his colleagues. Nine years of his adult life had been spent in public service. The remainder he had devoted to the practice of law. A self-made man, he had risen to great heights both in the service of his country and in the practice of his chosen profession. The decisions of the Supreme Court were greatly enriched by his arguments. Although his early education had been largely informal, he was noted not only for his knowledge of the law but also for the wide range of his genius which embraced the classics, history, poetry, the arts, architecture, and science -- all of which were arranged and classified in his mind with great order and exactness. Indeed, Daniel Webster once said of him that he was the best informed man he had ever met and that he had never conversed with him for five minutes without being wiser for having done so. The esteem in which he was held at the time of his death was amply attested to by the numerous letters and messages of condolence received by his family, as well as by the fact that the Supreme Court of the United States, in an unusual tribute, devoted several pages of their reports to an account of his life.


Copyright 1998-2006 Marilyn Price-Mitchell.  Permission to copy all or part of this page granted for non-commercial use only.  Send mail to ewingfamily(at)sandcastles.net.  Instead of (at), use the @ symbol normally found in an email address. Last modified: September 16, 2006