William Robert Taylor

Men of Progress. Wisconsin. (pages 49-81) A selected list of biographical sketches and portraits of the leaders in business, professional and official life. Together with short notes on the history and character of Wisconsin.

TAYLOR, William Robert.--Wisconsin has many strong characters who stand out among their contemporaries endowed with a personality, rugged strength and vigor peculiarly their own. These qualities were the product partly of inheritance and partly of a condition of affairs which has forever ceased to exist.

When Wisconsin was invaded by the pioneer, when society was scarcely organized and there were no graded schools in which the minds of the genius and dullard could be brought to fill the measure of mediocrity, there was room for development of a type of men that is, unhappily for us, fast passing away. They were strong, brainy, intense men, with whom to think was to act. Stronger men intellectually may be produced with our improved educational conditions, and, no doubt, will be; but it is doubtful if Wisconsin ever produced a class of men, of which Philetus Sawyer, William R. Taylor and Jeremiah Rusk are types, who can do the work which the times demanded better than they did the duty which was laid upon them.

Of all the various characters which have come to Wisconsin to assist in developing her matchless destiny, there is none stronger in native force, richer in solid self-acquired learning, or endowed with a greater versatility than Hon. William R. Taylor, better known from one end of Wisconsin to the other as the "Farmer Governor."

Though born in the United States, and in all his actions, sentiments and feelings a typical American and a most patriotic citizen, he, nevertheless, is of pure Scotch blood and possesses the sterling qualities of that hardy race. He was born in Connecticut, July 10, 1820. His advent into this world was particularly sad, for he was but three weeks old when his mother died. Thus, bereft of all maternal care, he reached the edge of six years, when his father, a sea captain, was lost on the ocean. Left entirely to strangers, his guardianship was entrusted to a family of pioneer farmers who moved to Jefferson county, New York, at that time a wild and sparsely inhabited section. Mr. Taylor spent his boyhood years there, under the care of unsympathetic strangers, who treated him with a degree of harshness that denoted an absence of love or sympathy.

The entire educational advantages of our subject consisted of the limited instruction obtainable in the district school, whither he daily walked during the severe winter months two miles distant. Without money, relatives or friends, his life was one of bitterness and cheerlessness, but the spirit which forfeited his efforts encouraged him to better his condition by leaving his unhappy surroundings and starting to make his own way in the world. Before reaching his sixteenth year he awakened to the necessity of an education, and for several years he alternated at chopping wood and working in the harvest field to obtain the requisite means to attend school. This unceasing effort resulted in his securing a certificate of admission to the third term of the sophomore class of Union College, at Schenectady, New York. But, thought he had secured a good academic education, he was not financially able to enter upon a collegiate course. On the day that the class of which he was a member left for college to complete its studies, Mr. Taylor went into the sugar bush, and, with his own hands and a team to haul the wood and sap, produced during the season eleven hundred pounds of sugar and two barrels of molasses, with which to pay tuition and board bills already contracted. Soon after he began teaching a select school, and later on an academy.

In 1840 he went to Elyria, Ohio, where he joined a class of forty-five young men who were purchasing themselves to teach school. At that time the school authorities of La Porte, Ohio, offered an extra price for any teacher who could manage their public school, it having become notorious for disorder and violence. The previous winter three teachers had undertaken the task and failed, so that the school was entirely broken up. This was an opportunity young Taylor coveted. During the third winter under his management it became the premium school of the county.

We next find him running a grist mill, a saw mill and cupola furnace, and he was regarded the best moulder of the foundry. Failing health from overwork caused him to devote his spare time to reading medicine, and in the winter of 1845-6 he attended a five months' course of lectures and clinical instruction in the medical college at Cleveland, Ohio. During his residence in Ohio he was elected captain of a company of Ohio uniformed militia, receiving every vote of the company. Later he was elected colonel. In the fall of 1848 Mr. Taylor came to Wisconsin and settled on a farm in Cottage Grove, Dane county, where he still resides. His life was for many years one of great activity and incessant toil.

Not content with the ordinary labors of the farm, he resorted to the pineries during the winter months, and as a workman became identified with the hardships of that enterprising class of our population, which has contributed so much to the wealth of the state. The result of the severe experience we have narrated is manifest in the whole character of the man.

During his boyhood and early manhood he was a pupil, teacher, miller, foundryman, raftsman and lumberman by turns, and, for nearly a third of a century a practical farmer; therefore his sympathies for the laboring classes and his interest in the prosperity of the industrial communities is intuitive and sincere.

Soon after Governor Taylor located at Cottage Grove his neighbors recognized his ability and began to bestow official favors upon him, and for forty years he has hardly been without some public duty to perform. At times he has received nearly all the votes cast, and twice all the votes for chairman of his tow. He has been superintendent of public schools; several times chairman of the county board of supervisors; for seventeen years was county superintendent of the poor until he resigned; was appointed deputy internal revenue collector, and was trustee, vice-president and a member of the executive board of the State Hospital for the Insane from the time of its reorganization in 1860 until he became governor in 1874. He has been a member of both branches of the legislature of Wisconsin. He was for seven years president of the Dane County Agricultural society; eight years chief marshal, and two years president of the Wisconsin State Agricultural society; and during the late war was the first man in Dane county to offer a bounty to volunteers for enlistment, which bounty secured four enlistments.

Although a Democrat, and but recently a member of the senate as a representative of that party, Mr. Taylor came out openly for a vigorous prosecution of the war for the Union upon the secession of the southern states, and he was appointed by Governor Randall as a special agent of the state of visit, St. Louis and confer with General Fremont, who was in command of the Department of the Missouri, with respect to raising and equipping troops to be sent from Wisconsin. His mission was entirely successful, but before the plans agreed upon were put into execution General Fremont was removed from command and a new order of management instituted by the general government.

In 1873 Governor Taylor was by acclamation placed in nomination for governor by a convention composed of "Democrats, Liberal Republicans and other electors favorable to genuine reform through equal and impartial legislation, honesty in office and rigid economy in the administration of public affairs." The state was strongly Republican, and his opponent was C. C. Washburn, then governor. He ws elected by a majority of 15,411. The popularity of Mr. Taylor as a political candidate is best demonstrated by the fact that he was the candidate of a minority party when elected chairman of the county board of supervisors, and also when elected member of the assembly, state senator and governor.

Mr. Taylor performed the duties of governor with remarkable skill and ability. He has rare qualifications for the executive function, coolness, courage and an underlying foundation of common sense and devotion to what he believes to be right. His appointments in respect to the educational-reformatory and penal institutions under the care of the state were more nearly non-partisan than it has been the good fortune of Wisconsin ever before or since to secure. His high aim was to secure men of peculiar fitness for the management of public affairs, particularly the educational institutions, and thus some of the best men in both parties, independent of pressure, importunity or attack, were commissioned by him. The appointment of the Hon. E. G. Ryan to be chief justice of the supreme court will forever redound to his credit. The action of the governor in the matter of this appointment will appear the more praise-worthy when the history of that eventful time is recalled. Then nearly every eminent lawyer in the state was under retainer for some one of the great railway corporations. This was especially true of most of the prominent attorneys whose personal and political relations to the governor caused their names to be generally regarded among the probable recipients of the executive favor. The great struggle for legislative control of the railways all foresaw must soon be carried upon appeal to the highest courts, state and national. Throughout the entire country all eyes were turned upon Wisconsin, under its granger governor, the conceded battlefield of the momentous conflict already begun. From the circumstances of the situation, the governor had an important, yet very delicate, duty to perform. He at once saw, however, that in his appointment of a chief justice he must find some one whose legal attainments, whose personal qualifications and whose high character would at once defy criticism. After long and mature deliberation, meanwhile keeping his own counsels, even from his most intimate friends, the appointment of Mr. Ryan was announced. The selection was universally commended in all quarters. It was hailed with expressions of general satisfaction by all parties whose interests were involved in the great legal conflict then coming on. In the subsequent opinion of the great chief justice sustaining the principle of legislative control of railroads, an opinion afterward affirmed by the supreme court of the United States, the wisdom of Governor Taylor's appointment finds fullest vindication.

As just indicated, the most important work of Governor Taylor's term was the enforcement of the so-called "Potter Law," which aimed to place the railways under state control, limiting charges for transportation of passengers and freight and the classification of freight.

At the outset the two chief railway corporations of the state served formal notice upon the governor that they would not respect the provisions of this law. Under his oath of office to support the constitution and to "take care" that the laws be faithfully executed, he promptly responded to the notification of the railroad companies by a proclamation, dated May 1, 1874, in which he enjoined compliance with the statute, declaring that all the functions of his office would be exercised in faithfully executing the laws. "The law of the land," said he, "must be respected and obeyed. While none are so humble as to be beneath its protection, none are so great or so strong as to be above its restraints." The result was an appeal to the courts, in which the governor and his advisers were forced to confront an array of the most formidable legal talent of the country. Upon the result in Wisconsin depended the vitality of similar legislation in other states, and Governor Taylor was thus compelled to bear the brunt of a controversy of national extent and consequence. The contention extended both to state and United States courts, the main question involved being the constitutional power of the state over corporations of its own creation. In all respects the state was fully sustained in its position, and ultimately judgments were rendered against the corporations in all the state and federal courts, including the supreme court of the United States, and establishing finally the complete and absolute power of the people, through the legislature, to modify or altogether repeal the charters of corporations.

It might be stated in this connection that Governor Taylor personally induced Judge David Davis, a member of the United States supreme court, to come to Wisconsin and preside at the trial of a test case. And thus was settled by Governor Taylor and his administration a momentous issue between the people and the corporations--an issue vitally affecting all the commercial and agricultural interests of the state.

Among the creditable acts of his administration were those securing $800,000 from the general government for the Fox and Wisconsin rivers improvement in the interest of commerce and navigation; dividing the state lands into districts, and making each timber agent responsible for his locality, by which he recovered largely increased sums to the trespass fund; compelling the Wisconsin Central Railway company to give substantial assurance that the promised line from Stevens Point to Portage should be constructed; and, by taking such prompt and decisive action against what he believed to be a fraudulent printing claim, that there was saved to the taxpayers of the state more than $100,000. Furthermore, in view of the recent important litigation on behalf of the state against the ex-treasurers for the recovery of interest money received by them from the banks, the wisdom and foresight of Governor Taylor are shown in a recommendation contained in both of his annual messages to the legislature favoring either the collection of taxes semi-annually without additional cost to the people, or providing for the loaning of the surplus in the general fund, obtained by taxation, at a fair rate of interest, thereby giving some compensation for advancing the money so long before needed in the public business. Had Governor Taylor's suggestion respecting the investment of the public funds been followed by the treasurers of the state, much individual mortification and public scandal would have been avoided during subsequent years. He was an active promoter of the agricultural department of the state university, and an ardent advocate of farmers' institutes--the educational benefits of which cannot be estimated.

In his last annual message Governor Taylor recommended the passage of some law rendering railway companies liable for injury to their employees resulting from the negligence of co-employees. His recommendation in this regard was embodied in a bill subsequently passed and known as the "Co-employee law," a wholesome measure designed to afford greater security to the lives of the railway employees and of the traveling public as well. He also recommended that in large cities the polls of election should be held open longer in the evening, so that working men could vote without much loss of time.

Governor Taylor instituted suit against a multi-millionaire lumber company to recover damages for its trespasses upon the public lands, and his agents secured proof which was deemed by able counsel ample and positive to recover several hundred thousand dollars; but the six years statute of limitation had already run against all but about $250,000. This great company, with its 2,000 employees, more or less, put forth strenuous efforts to prevent his re-election; that result having been attained, the suit was so defaulted and frittered away that little or nothing was ever realized by the state from the litigation. Within this time the conflict between Wisconsin and Minnesota as to the inlet to Superior harbor reached a crisis, and under his direction the suits involving certain rights in dispute were successfully prosecuted in the federal and supreme courts, but the advantages gained for the state were subsequently lost by compromise or neglect after the close of his term. All these are conspicuous examples of vigor and efficiency in the administration of public affairs during Governor Taylor's term, rarely equaled and never excelled in the history of the state.

His administration was a reformatory one. Its members started in by paying their own inauguration expenses--a privilege not exercised before in many years, if ever, in the state. Governor Taylor set another example by accepting no railroad passes or telegraph deadheads during his term of office. During his incumbency, and at his earnest recommendation, appropriations were cut down, the rate of taxation diminished, the number of department employee lessened, the expenses of government curtailed in many ways, and the total disbursements for state purposes reduced by many thousands of dollars below what they had been in many years (by careful computation, all other conditions being equal, the legitimate amount, from the records, was about $270,000 during his term), and yet no public interest suffered for the want of an expenditure of money.

It remains to be said that Governor Taylor devoted his undivided attention and energies to the public service, attending personally to minute details and the manifold labors of his office--he was governor in fact, not merely in name; and among the long roll of governors, none brought to the discharge of official duties a clearer integrity of purpose or more sturdy devotion to the public welfare than W. R. Taylor, the "Farmer Governor."

In 1842, he wedded Miss Catherine Hurd, by whom he has had three daughters, one of whom died at the age of four years, and another of whom became the wife of ex-State Senator Robert M. Bashford. The third daughter, who is still living, is the wife of I. W. Kanouse. Mrs. Taylor died some years ago. July 1, 1886, Governor Taylor married Viola Titus, a native of Vermont, but then living in Madison. They are the parents of one child, William Robert, Jr.

In concluding this biography, a brief history of his election and administration is proper. The contest in which his party was victorious and the criticism to which the election was subjected properly belong to history. It was indeed one of the most remarkable victories ever won in the state. On his election the Republican press of the state was, with few exception, exceedingly fair. In conceded his ability and disposition to make his administration an able one. But there were here and there, in this regard, exceptions that arose entirely from partisanship or personal interest. In the midst of this criticism there was a powerful current of public opinion which found expression alike in both Democratic and Republican newspapers in able support of the governor. Colonel C. D. Robinson, former secretary of state, the able editor of The Green Bay Advocate, made the following remark upon the election of Governor Taylor: "No man in the state exceeds him in personal independence, in ability to determine his own line of conduct on any question and in the sturdy determination to act according to his own judgement. It has been our good fortune to be connected with him in official service for many years--that of the management of the State Hospital for Insane. At Madison--and we have learned long ago to admire him for these qualities. That board consisted of fifteen members, a majority of whom were of opposite politics, and we do know that every one will endorse what we say of him. In practical ability, thorough honesty, steadiness of character and native independence, Governor Taylor will prove the peer of any governor which Wisconsin has ever had, and that is saying a good deal; for looking along the list of our chief executives since this state has had a being, it shows a record second at least to no western state, if indeed in the Union. He loses nothing in comparison with Dodge, Dewey, Farwell, Barstow, Bashford, Randall, Harvey, Salomon, Lewis, Fairchild or Washburn. Most, if not all, of these are illustrious names, remarkable, perhaps, more for their practical executive ability and sterling worth than exalted learning and brilliant attainments, and they form a record of which any state might be proud. When William R. Taylor's name shall have gone into the past with them, it takes an honorable place and second to none in the assembly." And now that the record has been made, what may we say of the emphatic prediction of Mr. Robinson? Have not all his words been more than fulfilled? and does not the name of William R. Taylor take an honorable place in the impartial history of Wisconsin? These questions may be best answered by the following editorial from The Milwaukee Daily News: "Parties and men of all opinions at Madison agree that Governor Taylor has made one of the best governors Wisconsin ever had. Called to the office in a great crisis in politics, at a time when a party, after being in power for more than fifteen years, had retired and a new party had taken its place, he was surrounded by obstacles, embarrassments, conflicting interests and novel situations from which the highest political skill and adroitness could hardly extricate him without his falling into some error or mistakes. But Governor Taylor, with a readiness, adroitness, adaptability and force hardly to be expected of one in his place, and surrounded by circumstances like his, has developed an executive of rare capacity, with an understanding of the most intricate public interests, and with grasp and comprehension of all the matters vital to the people, which shows a mind of the highest order and practical ability equal to that of the most distinguished of his predecessors."

Such is the life of one of Wisconsin's most illustrious men. His honorable enterprise and unselfish devotion to every public and private duty have wonderfully impressed the people of Wisconsin. When his term of office expired he was accorded a unanimous renomination by acclamation from the convention of his party. Through the efforts of the combined railroad interests, the corporate powers of the state acting with the opposite party, he was defeated at the polls by a bare plurality of a few hundred votes; but no one familiar with the history of that time will deny that the strength and popularity of his name among the people were the efficient means of electing his associates upon the Democratic ticket. The governor, however, retired from office with manifold assurances of the confidence and love of the common people, for the establishment of whose rights he had bravely fought and nobly won. It is meager praise to say, that no Wisconsin governor ever accomplished more for the people than he, and this, too, amidst the most adverse circumstances. More enduring than monumental brass or marble, his complete vindication can be read in the opinions of every court, state or national, that during those eventful years passed upon the question of the people's right to control the corporations they had created.--Columbian Biographical Dictionary.


The above transcription has been contributed to this site by Kelly Mullins

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