William Allen (December 1803 - July 11, 1879)

Updated: November 19, 2010

In the mid to late nineteenth century, one of the most important political leaders in Ohio was William Allen. Born in Edenton, North Carolina in December 1803, Allen had Quaker ancestors in Pennsylvania.

In the mid to late nineteenth century, one of the most important political leaders in Ohio was William Allen. Born in Edenton, North Carolina in December 1803, Allen had Quaker ancestors in Pennsylvania. Allen's family in North Carolina disassociated itself from the Society of Friends. Allen's participation in politics is not surprising, as his family was active in governmental affairs, including Allen's father, Nathaniel Allen, who served as a colonel in the Continental Army during the American Revolution and was a member of North Carolina's convention that ratified the United States Constitution.

Allen's parents died shortly after his birth. He was raised by his half sister and her husband, the Reverend Pleasant Thurman. Allen moved to Ohio in 1819, after spending part of his teenage years apprenticing for a saddler in Lynchburg, Virginia. He settled in Chillicothe, where his sister had moved a few years earlier. For two years, Allen attended the Chillicothe Academy. After his time at the Academy, he studied law under Edward King. Three years later, Allen passed the Ohio bar exam and became King's partner. He became well known for his debating skills.

Leaders of the Democratic Party convinced Allen to run for Congress in 1832, with him winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, narrowly defeating his competitor Duncan McArthur. Despite this political rivalry between McArthur and Allen, in 1842, Allen married Mrs. Effie Coons, McArthur's daughter. Allen returned to Ohio to resume his legal career after serving only one term in the House (1833 to 1835), failing to be reelected in 1834. In 1837 Allen became one of Ohio's United States Senators, when the Ohio legislature appointed him to this position. The youngest man to become a senator up to that point in time, Allen served two terms, from 1837 to 1849. In 1848, the Ohio legislature chose not to reappoint him.

During his Senate term, Allen became a major advocate of westward expansion. He strongly believed in Manifest Destiny--that God wanted the United States of America to expand territorially. He supported the U.S. Mexican War, and some sources credit Allen with developing President James K. Polk's campaign slogan "Fifty-four forty or fight!" In the Election of 1844, this slogan was Polk's pledge to the American people that the United States would claim all of the Oregon Territory, leaving Great Britain, which had jointly ruled the territory with the United States for almost thirty years, with no influence in this geographic region. Polk won the election but eventually split the Oregon Territory in two with the British.

In the presidential election of 1848, some members of the Democratic Party asked Allen to run for the presidency. Allen refused, preferring to support Lewis Cass in the Democratic primary versus former United States President Martin Van Buren. Allen favored Cass because of his support of popular sovereignty. Under popular sovereignty, voters in a state or territory would vote whether or not to have slavery. Van Buren strongly opposed slavery's expansion even if the people desired the institution. In the end, Cass defeated Van Buren for the Democratic nomination but lost the presidential election to Zachary Taylor.

Upon losing reelection to the Senate in 1848, Allen returned to Chillicothe. He forsook his legal career, preferring to become a farmer. He remained out of politics for the next twenty-five years, although during the American Civil War, he strongly opposed Northern attempts to subdue the South militarily. As a Peace Democrat, Allen strongly opposed President Abraham Lincoln and most of his policies.

It was not until the Panic of 1873 that William Allen reentered politics. Because of Ohioans' disappointment in the economic condition of the state, the Ohio Democrats were able to gain more political power, breaking Republican control of the Ohio government. The Democratic Party asked Allen to be its gubernatorial candidate in the 1873 election. Despite being seventy years old, Allen agreed, winning by 817 votes, beating the reigning governor, Edward F. Noyes. Hoping to reinvigorate Ohio's economy, during his term, Allen reduced taxes and decreased state expenditures. Although most Ohioans welcomed these efforts, Allen eventually alienated many of the state's inhabitants by supporting the owners of businesses rather than the actual workers when they struck for better wages and increased benefits. Allen even threatened to use the state militia to quell some strikes.

Politicians tend to lose popular support throughout their political careers, and Allen was no different. His most unpopular act as governor was his support of greenback printing. Without backing in gold or other precious metals, greenbacks (paper money) were a risky financial endeavor during the nineteenth century. Allen believed that greenbacks would help to ease Ohio's economic problems, making money more readily available for all people. Ultimately this support lost him public popularity in 1875, as prices and inflation increased with the larger amounts of printed money available. Trying to redeem himself, he ran and lost against Rutherford B. Hayes in 1875 for the governor's position.

After Allen's defeat, he returned to Fruit Hill, his home in Chillicothe, where he again engaged in farming. He died four years later, on July 11, 1879, after having had a full political life. He was laid to rest in Chillicothe's Grand View Cemetery.

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