Biography of Governor William Woodbridge

William Woodbridge
William Woodbridge

William Woodbridge, second Governor of Michigan, was born at Norwich, Conn., Aug. 20, 1780 and died at Detroit Oct 20, 1861. He was of a family of three brothers and two sisters. His father, Dudley Woodbridge removed to Marietta, Ohio, about 1790. The life of Wm. Woodbridge, by Chas. Lanman, from which this sketch is largely complied, mentions nothing concerning his early education beyond the fact that is was such as was afforded by the average school of the time, except a year with the French colonists at Gallipolis, where he acquired a knowledge of the French language. It should be borne in mind, however, that home education at that time was an indispensable feature in the training of the young. To this and to a few studies well mastered, is due that strong mental discipline which has served as a basis for many of the grand intellects that had adorned and helped to make our National history.

Mr. Woodbridge studied law at Marietta, having as a fellow student an intimate personal friend, a young man subsequently distinguished, but known at that time simply as Lewis Cass. He graduated at the law school in Connecticut, after a course their of nearly three years, and began to practice at Marietta in 1806. In June, 1806, he married, at Hartford, Connecticut, Juleanna, daughter of John Trumbell, a distinguished author and judge; and author of the poem McFingal, which, during a dark period of the Revolution, wrought such a magic change upon the spirits of the colonists. He was happy in his domestic relations until the death of Mrs. Woodbridge, Feb. 19, 1860.

Our written biographies necessarily speak more fully of men, because of their active participation in public affairs, but human actions are stamped upon the page of time and when the scroll shall be unrolled the influence of good women upon the history of the world will be read side by side with the deeds of men. How much success and renown in life many men owe to their wives is probably little known. Mrs. Woodbridge enjoyed the best means of early education that the country afforded, and her intellectual genius enabled her to improve her advantages. During her life, side by side with the highest type of domestic and social graces, she manifested a keen intellectuality that formed the crown of a faultless character. She was a natural poet, and wrote quite a large number of fine verses, some of which are preserved in a printed memorial essay written upon the occasion of her death. In this essay, it is said of her, “to contribute even in matters of minor importance, to elevate the reputation and add to the well being of her husband in the various stations he was called upon to fill, gave her the highest satisfaction.” She was an invalid during the latter portion of her life, but was patient and cheerful to the end.

In 1807, Mr. William Woodbridge was chosen a representative to the General Assembly of Ohio, and in 1809 was elected to the Senate, continuing a member by re-election until his removal from the State. He also held, by appointment, during the time the office of Prosecuting Attorney for his county. He took a leading part in the Legislature, and in 1812 drew up a declaration and resolutions, which passed to two houses unanimously and attracted great attention, endorsing, in strongest and most emphatic terms, the war measures of President Madison. During the period from 1804 to 1814 the two law students, Woodbridge and Cass, had become widely separated. The latter was Governor of the Territory of Michigan under the historic “Governor and Judges,” plan, with the indispensable requisite of a Secretary of the Territory. This latter position was in 1814, without solicitation on his part, tendered to Mr. Woodbridge. He accepted the position with some hesitation, and entered upon its duties as soon as he could make the necessary arrangements for leaving Ohio. The office of Secretary involved also the duties of collector of customs at the port of Detroit, and during the frequent absences of the Governor, the discharge of his duties, also including those of Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Mr. Woodbridge officiated as Governor for about two years out of the eight years that he held the office of Secretary. Under the administration of “Governor and Judges,” which the people of the Territory preferred for economical reasons, to continue some time after their numbers entitled them to a more popular representative system, they were allowed no delegate in Congress. Mr. W., as a sort of informal agent of the people, by correspondence and also by a visit to the Nation’s capital, so clearly set forth the demand for representation by a delegate, that an act was passed in Congress in 1819 authorizing one to be chosen. Under this act Mr. Woodbridge was elected by the concurrence of all parties. His first action in Congress was to secure the passage of a bill recognizing and confirming the old French land titles in the Territory according to the terms of the treaty of peace with Great Britain at the close of the Revolution; and another for the construction of Government road through the “black swamps” from the Miami River to Detroit, thus opening a means of land transit between Ohio and Michigan. He was influential in securing the passage of bills for construction of Government roads from Detroit to Chicago, and Detroit to Fort Gratiot, and for the improvement of La Plaisance Bay. The expedition for the exploration of the country around Lake Superior and in the valley of the Upper Mississippi, projected by Governor Cass, was set on foot by means of representations made to the head of the department by Mr. W. While in Congress he strenuously maintained the right of Michigan to the strip of territory now forming the northern boundary of Ohio, which formed the subject of such grave dispute between Ohio and Michigan at the time of the admission of the latter into the Union. He served by one term as delegate to Congress, declining further service on account of personal and family considerations. Mr. W. continued to discharge the duties of Secretary of the Territory up to the time its Government passed into the “second grade.”

In 1824, he was appointed one of a board of commissioners for adjusting private land claims in the Territory, and was engaged also in the practice of his profession, having the best law library in the Territory. In 1828, upon the recommendations of the Governor, Judges and others, he was appointed by the President J. Q. Adams, to succeed Hon. James Witherell, who had resigned as a Judge of what is conventionally called the “Supreme Court” of the Territory. This court was apparently a continuation of the Territorial Court, under the “first grade” or “Governor and Judges” system. Although it was supreme in its judicial functions within the Territory, its powers and duties were of a very general character.

In 1832, the term of his appointment as Judge expiring, President Jackson appointed a successor, it is supposed on political grounds, much to the disappointment of the public and the bar of the Territory. The partisan feeling of the time extended into the Territory, and its people began to think assuming the dignity of a State government. Party lines becoming very sharply drawn, he identified himself with the Whigs and was elected a member of the Convention of 1835, which elected a member of the State Senate.

This sketch has purposely dealt somewhat in detail with what may be called Judge Woodbridge’s earlier career, because it is closely identified with the early history of the State, and the development of its political system. Since the organization of the State Government the history of Michigan is more familiar, and hence no review of Judge W’s career as Governor and Senator will be attempted. He was elected Governor in 1839, under a popular impression that the affairs of the State had not been prudently administered by the Democrats. He served as Governor by little more than a year, when he was elected to the Senate of the United States.

His term in the Senate practically closed his political life, although he was strongly urged by many prominent men for the Whig nomination for Vice President in 1848.

Soon after his appointment as Judge in 1828, Governor Woodbridge took up his residence on a tract of land which he owned in the township of Spring Wells, a short distance below what was then the corporate limits of Detroit, where he resided during the remainder of his life. Both in his public papers and private communications, Governor Woodbridge shows himself a master of language; he is fruitful in simile, and illustration, logical in arrangement, happy in the choice and treatment of topics, and terse and vigorous in expression. Judge W. was a Congregationalist. His opinions on all subjects were decided: he was earnest and energetic, courteous and dignified, and at times exhibited a vein of fine humor that was more attractive because not to often allowed to come to the surface. His letters and addresses show deep and earnest affection not only for his ancestral home; but the home of his adoption and for friends and family.


Source: Chapman Brothers. Portrait and biographical record of Genesee, Lapeer and Tuscola counties, Michigan. Chicago: Chapman brothers, 1892.


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