William Lyne Wilson

Extracted From Prominent Men of West Virginia
by George W. Atkinson and Alvaro F. Gibbens (Wheeling: W. L. Callin, 1890)


Hon. William L. Wilson, LL. D., was born in Jefferson county, Virginia, May, 3, 1843. He was the only child of Benjamin Wilson by his second wife, who was Mary Whiting Lyne. Benjamin Wilson was a native of King and Queen county, Virginia, and Mary Lyne, although born in Jefferson, was a resident of that county from early infancy to the time of her marriage with him. Benjamin Wilson lost his father in childhood but enjoyed the training of one of the foremost teachers of Virginia at that day, the Rev. Dr. Robert Baylor Semple, at his classical school, Mordington, in King and Queen. His scholarship and character were such that when Dr. Semple was requested by his kinsman William Baylor, of Jefferson, to send him a tutor for his children he selected young Wilson. Benjamin Wilson henceforward made Jefferson county his home, and for some years made teaching his profession. He died before hia son William was four years old, leaving the injunction that he should be thoroughly educated. Mrs. Wilson who was as marked by shrinking modesty as by devoted piety, gave herself to this duty with a singleness of purpose only equaled by her faith in the future usefulness and distinction of her son. He was first taught by a maiden aunt, Miss Lucy Lyne, who was scarcely less devoted to him than his mother, and then attended the Charlestown Academy, where he was noted for his quick mind and studious habits. By the age of fifteen he had read more Latin, Greek and French than is required of college graduates, although mathematics was his favorite study. He then entered the junior class of Columbian College, D. C., and graduated in 1860 at the age of seventeen, one of his classmates being Colonel Daniel D. Johnson, of Tyler county. He was offered a tutorship in the college, but preferred to go at once to the University of Virginia, expecting to remain there several years. The outbreak of the war thwarted this expectation, and Mr. Wilson left school and entered the Confederate army as a private in Co. B, Twelfth Virginia Cavalry. He served the last years of the war and was Sergeant-Major of the regiment at the time of the surrender at Appomattox.

In June, 1865, he was offered the place of assistant professor of ancient languages in Columbian College, Washington, D. C., which he accepted, and while teaching there also attended lectures the law department. He graduated in law in 1867, but being promoted to the full Chair of Latin, continued in his professorship until 1871, when he resigned and began the practice of law in Charlestown. He soon formed a partnership with his cousin George Baylor, and had, almost from the start, a full practice, being not only prominent as an advocate, but largely entrusted with judicial business.

He took little active part in politics until 1880, when he was a delegate to the rational Democratic Convention which nominated General Hancock for President, and he subsequently made a canvass of his State as candidate for Elector-at-Large on the Hancock ticket, which attracted much attention from his party friends.

June, 1882, he was chosen by unanimous vote of the Regents, President of the West Virginia University, and rather reluctantly accepted the position, entering on his duties September 6, 1882. September 20, of that year, he was nominated by acclamation, as the Democratic candidate for Congress from the Second Congressional District, and the second Tuesday in October following, was elected.

At the beginning of his Congressional term, March 4, 1883, he resigned the Presidency of the University, but at the request of the Regents and students, served until the end of the session in June - refusing pay however for this period.

Mr. Wilson has been three times re-nominated for Congress - each time by acclamation - and elected. From his first entry in the House he was recognized as a diligent, hard-working member, and in his second Congress was placed upon the Committee of Appropriations, the second highest committee, and attracted much attention by a speech on the Pension Bill, before the House.

Mr. Wilson was from the beginning of his public career an advocate of tariff reform; and when President Cleveland by his message to the Fiftieth Congress made that the issue of the coming campaign, Mr. Wilson was placed by the Speaker on the Ways and Means Committee, the highest in the House, and was one of the framers of the "Mills Bill." His speech on the tariff, May 3, 1888, was received with great enthusiasm both in the House and in the country by tariff reformers, and was probably more widely reprinted and circulated than any other speech made in that famous debate.

In the Presidential campaign of 1888, Mr. Wilson was in great demand on the hustings and spoke in many States. He was one of the speakers selected to open the campaign at the great Cheltenham Beach meeting near Chicago, together with Allen G. Thurman, and subsequently to open the campaign in New York city, at the great business men's ratification, together with Secretary of the Treasury Fairchild. Besides his political prominence, Mr. Wilson has been honored in the field of scholarship. He is honorary member of many literary and scientific associations; has delivered a large number of college addresses, and has received the degree of Doctor of Laws from Columbian University and Hampden Sidney College, Virginia. He was appointed a Regent of the Smithsonian Institute in 1883, and again in 1885, on the part of the House of Representatives, and while holding this position was chosen by the Board of Regents, together with Professor S. F. Baird, Secretary of the Smithsonian, and Professor Asa Gray, of Harvard, to supervise the publication of the scientific writings of Professor Joseph Henry.

In 1868 Mr. Wilson married Miss Nannie Huntington, daughter of Rev. Dr. Huntington, of Columbian University, and has six children.

In the organization of the Fifty-first Congress, Mr. Wilson was necessarily omitted from the Committee of Ways and Means, as his party being in the minority, was entitled to but five representatives, whom Speaker Reed naturally appointed in the order of their service; but he handsomely recognized Mr. Wilson by assigning him to the Judiciary Committee, always a post of dignity and prominence; to the Committee on Manufactures, which is temporarily important as dealing with proposed Trust legislation; and also as one of the two Democratic members of the Special Committee appointed to investigate the ballot-box forgery matter in the Ohio campaign of 1889.

As a lawyer he stands among the first in the State. Not only versed in the principles of the law, he has the ability to present them effectively. As a public representative he joins the wisdom of the schools to practical experience, and thus far has shown that he has the courage of his convictions. His constituency endorse his official course, and have kept him in the halls of Congress continuously from March 4, 1883. His present term expires March 3, 1891.

As well as a pleasant speaker, he is a classic and fluent writer. His educational addresses, miscellaneous essays, and contributions to political literature are numerous and scholarly. He is the author of a volume entitled, "The National Democratic Party," and of a series of articles for the Baltimore Sun on "Trusts and Monopolies," which will appear in book form.

In personal appearance Congressman Wilson retains a good many youthful characteristics in face and figure. Rather slightly built, he is wiry and muscular in his development and quick and active in his movements, and his whole physical organization indicates ability for sustained effort. He has a good-natured, but resolute face, and his keen grey eyes change readily from searching glances to twinkles of humor. A prominent nose and chin are marked features of his countenance, his well-developed head is fairly covered with light brown hair and a moustache of the same color partly conceals the mouth. His lack of stature might enable him to pass unnoticed in a crowd, but a physiognomist would be likely to designate him as the possessor of intellectual force and vigor. In his manner he is modest and unassuming, easily approached, friendly without familiarity, a good conversationalist, with a fund of humor that frequently asserts itself, and a disposition naturally genial, kindly and courteous.

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