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Biographical Sketch of Hon. Thomas Ewing
BY Hon. Henry Stanbery
(Printed in the Cincinnati Commercial, following the death of Thomas Ewing)

The family of Thomas Ewing resided, prior to the Revolutionary war, near Greenwich, Cumberland County New Jersey where the old family mansion is still to be seen. George Ewing, the father of the subject of this sketch, was born there in 1754. In 1775 he enlisted in the New Jersey Line, where he obtained the rank of Lieutenant. He was present at the battles of Germantown and Brandywine and spent the winter of 1777 at the memorable camp of Valley Forge. While in the army, he sold, on credit, the property which had descended to him, and, when his bonds became due, was paid in Continental money, then a legal tender, though rapidly depreciating, and which soon after became totally valueless. Thus reduced in circumstances, he removed to the western side of the Alleghenies in 1786, and settled on a small farm near West Liberty Ohio County, Virginia where Thomas Ewing was born on the 28th day of December 1789.

In April 1792 the family removed to the mouth of Olive Green Creek, on the Muskingum River. In the year 1792 the Indians rising in all directions, they were obliged to take refuge in a block-house at Olive Green, to avoid the danger of being massacred. An elder sister had taught young Ewing to read and while he was in the garrison, he very assiduously cultivated acquaintance with almost the only book it afforded-the Bible and acquired therefrom the cognomen of Bishop, which clung to him for many years.

In 1797, he was taken to West Liberty and there went to school about seven months, at the expiration of which time he returned to his father; who had then removed to the waters of Federal Creek, into what is now Athens County Ohio. The spot selected by his father was then in the wilderness and seventeen miles beyond the frontier settlements. Here, for nearly three years, they were shut out from any intercourse with the world. Young Ewing, during this time, read the " Vicar of Wakefield " and "Fool of Quality." These and the Bible were all the books which, up to that time, he had been able to procure. In the year 1800, a few other families from New England had settled on Federal Creek; and, in the winter of that year, a school was opened under the superintendence of Chas. Cutler a Cambridge graduate, who was succeeded by Moses Everett, from the same college.

Ewing studied, one quarter under each, the rudiments of a common English education, and this was the total of his schooling until 1812. This little enterprising community of New Englanders that were then settled upon Federal Creek had but few books; and to procure a further stock, they formed a library association, and raised a small fund by subscription. This literary fund (in all probability the first that was ever formed in the Northwestern Territory) was sent to one of the Eastern cities, and invested in books.

The whole collection was brought across the mountains on horseback in a sack. With the exception of Goldsmith's works the books were not well selected, consisting principally of the novels- then fashionable, such as Amanda the "Romance of the Forest," and dull treatises on controversial doctrines of divinity. Subsequent additions were made to the library, among which were Plutarch's "Lives," Stewart's "Philosophy" Darwin's "Zoonamia," and Locke's " Treatise on the Understanding."  Young Ewing fell upon these with a literary avidity none can understand but those who, under like circumstances, have felt it; and he devoured the whole, reading at all his leisure hours and principally at night by the light of hickory-bark.

From the age of thirteen, the life of Ewing was laborious; then he became a substantial assistant to his father upon his farm, and by-and-bye he had the principal management of it. Still, he found time to read, as all can find who have a thirst for knowledge; but as he grew older; he had less time to read than when a boy. The little he had learned, however, but influenced him with a desire of learning more. The love of knowledge was the prevailing and all-absorbing passion of his soul. To be a scholar was then the summit of his highest ambition. He felt that he had acquired all the knowledge within his reach; but this only taught him how little, in fact, he knew, and was far from allaying his burning thirst for knowing, more knowledge there was, he Knew, but how to reach it was more than he could tell. Poverty stared him in the face. The father and his farm anchored him at home but his buoyant spirits led him off on a thousand plans---through many aerial castles, and in many delightful visions. Calculations were made, but made in vain. Plans were formed, but they were soon but air. A world was abroad, but what it was the eager student hardly knew. And yet, the more he knew of it, the more he panted to act his part in it. But the more he thought of his situation, the more he despaired. Reflection at last ripened into actual suffering. His feelings became intensely interested. The bitter, melancholy conclusion at last was that he must abandon all hopes forever.

But in the summer of 1808, he was awakened from this stupor by a youth nearly of his own age, whom his father had hired for a few months to assist in farming, and who had rambled about and seen much of the world. The narrations of this young man and many he succeeded well-the profits of the season being about four hundred dollars, out of which he appropriated sixty to pay the balance due on his father's land. He spent the winter at Athens, then a flourishing academy, but irregular in the course of studies, as it left the student to pursue such a course as he might think proper. At the end of about three months, he left this academy, and returned to Kanawha, after receiving there such encouragement from the president of the institution, and such a stimulus from others, as fixed his determination to procure the means of obtaining an education. The next two years he devoted to this object; and he returned from the Kanawha in November, 1812, with about eight hundred dollars in money, and with his health considerably impaired with severe hard labor.

This sum he supposed would be sufficient to enable him to go through the preparatory studies and acquire a profession. His health, however, was so much injured that he was unable to commence his studies. But he again fell upon the library in the neighborhood of his home, which was now enlarged; and, from the repose given him, and the leisure spent in reading such works as Don Quixote he laughed himself into such good health and spirits that in December he was able to go back to Athens where he continued to be a most indefatigueable student until the spring of 1814. His progress during this time was very rapid. He became familiar with many of the best English authors; and, as his judgment matured, he easily obtained a knowledge of the adventures, awakened Ewing; and as money was what he wanted - in order to obtain the means of pursuing his studies he was induced to God with him to the Kanawha salines, in Western Virginia, in order there to try his fortunes. He obtained the consent of his Father and left home early in August, with his knapsack on his back, and but little spending-money in his pocket.  He got on board of a keel-boat at Marietta, bound for Kanawha, and made his way to the new El Dorado of his imagination. During the three or four months he was absent, he worked as a common hand at the salt wells, and was tolerably successful; but the greatest satisfaction he had was that he could do something in future.

He returned home in the winter, with about eighty dollars the amount of his wages, leaving his companion behind, whose roving disposition prompted him to rove still more. This money Ewing gave to his father, to assist him in paying for his land. The surrender of this little and hard-earned treasure to his father for the purpose of enabling him to save his lad from forfeiture was no ordinary sacrifice, as it postponed for a year all prospect of prosecuting his studies, and condemned him for a while to stifle the high hopes he then nourished in his bosom.

Early in the spring of 1809, Mr. Ewing set out again for the Kanawha salt-works. The whole of this season, until November, he spent in most assiduous labor, and English grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Mathematics, however, was his favorite study, for which he had a natural inclination, and hence Euclid was the favorite author. The philosophy which depended upon mathematical demonstration he studied with care and pleasure, and in it made much proficiency. He also studied the Latin, but determined to omit the Greek.

In 1814, Mr. Ewing became satisfied that his funds would not hold out, and he took a school in Gallipolis. Not liking this employment, at the end of a quarter he relinquished it, and returned to Kanawha, the old scene of his labors, to collect a small sum that was due him, and to see what could be done toward adding something to his funds. He threw off the dress of the student, and again went to work at the salines. He hired a furnace, and in one month of incessant toil, the severest he ever undertook, he improved the state of his finances so that he felt confident they would bear him through his studies.

At some period of his labors at the Kanawha salt works it was probably this-he labored twenty hours out of the twenty-four, and he was often found during the four hours allotted to sleep, working with open eyes, but still asleep, between the two rows of boiling salt kettles, where a false step would probably have destroyed life. With his hard-earned treasure, be returned to Athens, where he continued till the spring of 1810.

At the examination in May, 1815, the trustees of the institution rated him the degree of A.B., being the first, with one other, upon whom this degree was conferred by a college in Ohio.

The circumstances which decided Mr. Ewing's choice of profession were probably these. In 1810, he took a boat-load of salt to Marietta. While there, accident led him to the Court-house The Court of Common Pleas was then in session, and he entered a court-house for the first time in his life. It happened that an interesting criminal trial was going on. The attention of the young salt-boiler was riveted to the scene; nor did he quit the room until the case was closed. He had witnessed a high intellectual effort. He had listened to an advocate (the late Elijah B. Merriam) of uncommon ability.

Hitherto he had not known or felt the power of eloquence. We may suppose that, along with his administration of intellect in another, there was associated a consciousness of his own mental powers, and a feeling kindred to that which caused the untutored Correggio, after gazing for the first time upon the pictures of Raphael to exclaim: " I, too, am a painter." In truth, this must have been so, for he turned away to pursue his toilsome occupation with the fixed purpose of becoming a lawyer.

After he left college he spent a few days with his relatives, and then began his legal studies in the office of General Beecher at Lancaster Ohio-a man of sense and intelligence, and for several years a member of Congress from Ohio. Gen. Beecher discovered the merit and approved the efforts of Mr. Ewing. He received him as a student in his office, and, immediately upon his admission to the bar, took him into partnership. While Mr. Ewing was pursuing his law studies, he was an indefatigable student, devoting to his books every hour that was not required for necessary repose.

Mr. Ewing's rise at the bar was rapid. He entered almost immediately into full practice in his region of the State. In keeping with the generous filial character he displayed in the appropriation of his first savings at Kanahwa he expended his first accumulation at the bar in the purchase of a fine tract of land in Indiana, on which he settled his father and family. As his powers and reputation grew apace, the area of his practice was extended to embrace and was chiefly confined to the Supreme Court of Ohio, the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Ohio, and the Supreme Court of the United States at Washington, in which he has been engaged with only occasional interruptions by high official duties down to a recent time. He was distinguished at the bar for his sound logical mind, a clear conception and mastery of the general principles that underlie the system of the law, and a most comprehensive power of analysis and array of the facts bearing upon his case; to which may be added an extraordinary general knowledge of the round of physical sciences great power in the hands of a lawyer which has contributed its share in placing him in the front rank of the profession in the United States.

Mr. Ewing finished his collegiate studies at so late a period, and was for some years thereafter so constantly devoted to his practice, that his attention was not early turned to political concerns. He entered upon political life in his election in 1830 to the Senate of the United States. Without family or political influence or affiliations, his election to this high place was prompted by a strong and just sense of his eminent qualifications, honorable alike to the Legislature and the new Senator.

In no period since the formation of the Government has the Senate Chamber been graced by a galaxy of minds more brilliant and powerful than in the first term that Mr. Ewing sat there. Webster, Clay, Calhoun, Benton, Wright, Preston, and other first names in the nation then filled the Senate, and it is no slight praise to say that the Ohio Senator lost nothing in the contrast; the reputation that won for him the place was but augmented by the new theatre on which his powers were displayed. He bore a not inconspicuous part in the exciting political contests of the sessions from 1830-37 as an opponent of the administration of General Jackson.

Under the operations of the strict party discipline, gaining force year by year, Mr. Ewing failed of a re-election and at the end of his term resumed the full practice of his profession. On the accession of General Harrison to the Presidency in 1841, Mr. Ewing was next called into public service by the invitation of the incoming President to a place in the Cabinet. The general voice of the country designated him as the proper man for the organization of reform in the administration of the important department of the General Post-Office, but he was ultimately assigned to the more conspicuous and important place of the Treasury. The death of General Harrison brought Mr. Tyler into the Presidency, and, on his special invitation, the Harrison Cabinet remained in office, until the developments of the memorable extra session of 1841 disclosed to the world the violation on the part of Mr. Tyler of all the pledges of the party that elected him to power, and the disappointment of the hopes grounded on its success.

Mr. Ewing was prompt among his associates in the Cabinet in his election between an adherence to the principles and promises of his party on the one hand, and the allurements of place and power on the other; and the scathing letter of resignation with which he surrendered the keys of office did much to mark the boundaries that separated the President from the true men of the party he had betrayed. In the formation of the Cabinet of General Taylor, in 1849 by common voice a prominent place was assigned to Mr. Ewing With a just appreciation of his qualifications for the important task, he was invited by the President to the charge of the new Department of the Interior, involving in its administration, beyond the ordinary duties of a Cabinet officer, the organization of a new department of many separate bureaus, and having charge of the public lands the Indian affairs, and the Patent Office. He filled this post with honor and ability until August 1850 when, after the death of General Taylor and the accession of Mr. Fillmore, the Taylor Cabinet, failing to harmonize on certain important questions with the new President resigned their offices.

Mr. Ewing was thereupon appointed by Governor Ford to a seat in the Senate vacated by the resignation of Governor Corwin who went into Mr. Fillmore's Cabinet), and continued in the Senate until March 4, 1801 when he retired from political life, and resumed the practice of his profession.

In person, Mr. Ewing was large and stoutly built, so that he was physically as well as intellectually a strong man In his early hard labor in felling the forests of the West, and in feeding, the furnace of the salt-works his figure must have been developed and strengthened much more than if in early life he had been devoted wholly to sedentary pursuits and at the same time was confirmed in habits of industry that he never lost.

His manner of speaking was not graceful, yet it commanded attention. He was powerful from his matter rather than his manner. Plain, open, straightforward fearless, with little or no attempt at oratorical display he laid hold with all his might upon whatever his hands found to do. His eye was fixed upon a point, and it was impossible to swerve him. Others there were more eloquent in manner than he, to whom nature had given finer voices or more captivating oratory; but few were more better powerful in thought few will more resources, or who had more or better weapons in any logomachy tilt. He seemed to be well informed on every point that arose in debate, whether a matter of history, of philosophy of poetry, or of criticism, thus showing that he had read much, and had not read in vain.

How instructive is the life of such a man and with what force does it commend itself to what every young American, not only arousing him to exertion, but admonishing him to fix his ambition high, and to gratify it only in the paths of virtue, integrity, and honor, and thus to win that reputation that abides and outlasts the corrosive rust of time!

Honors ever seek him in the Virtuous days of a republic who deserves them; but that is not honor which is won by meanness and intrigue at the cost of integrity and self-respect. Grovelling ambition tarnishes and stains whatever it touches; but an ambition like that which animated the bosom of Ewing dignifies and ennobles whatever it wins.




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