A Letter From The 1st State Legislative Session – Iowa City.

Wright Williams – Born January 5, 1804 in Cayuga County, New York, Wright Williams married Phoebe Johnson in Shelby County, Indiana on September 10, 1829. Together, they came to Louisa County, Iowa in 1836, with Wright becoming the first county judge soon after. He was elected county commissioner in 1840 and held that office until September 30, 1844, when he became one of three Louisa County representatives to the first Constitutional Convention (1844) in Iowa City (see chart below). Read more here about the 1844 effort toward statehood.

Click here to read about Williams’ fellow Louisa County representative – William L. Toole.

When Iowa was finally admitted as a state in 1846, Wright Williams was chosen to represent Louisa County in both the First and Second State Legislative Assemblies (1846-1850).

Which brings us, now, to our rare postal cover and letter from January, 1848 (below) – just as the First Iowa State Legislative Fall/Winter 1847/1848 session was ending in Iowa City

(JP-079) Here’s a rare postal cover & letter from Rep. Wright Williams – written on January 8, 1848, and postmarked in Iowa City on January 10, 1848. The letter is addressed to Williams’ brother-in-law – Bruce Johnson, Esq. in Morristown in Shelby County, Indiana. According to Louisa County, Iowa records, Bruce Johnson lived there in the earliest days (1840) – probably moving there around the time when Williams and his wife Phoebe Johnson arrived in 1836. Apparently, Johnson decided to go back to the family homestead in Morristown in Shelby County, Indiana by the time this letter was written in 1848. Johnson died and was buried there in 1903.

Allow me, now, to take you through our Wright Williams two-page letter, written from Iowa City to his brother-in-law Bruce Johnson back in Indiana, just as the fall/winter session of the First State Legislative Session was coming to a close. His words (below) are in bold italic and edited to make for easier reading. Along the way, I’ll add a few comments that offer some extra facts on each subject at hand. Enjoy!

Iowa City – Jan. 8th, 1848

Dear Sir. I will inform you that the General Assembly are again assembled at this place (Iowa City) and are once more maneuvering for Senators & Supreme (Court) judges. There is a change in the House since the last session of two Democrats in place of Whigs – one Whig having deceased and another resigned. The House now stands 19 Whigs & 19 Democrats & one independent. The Senate is decidedly Democratic. This will give them a majority on joint ballots. The seats of two of the Democrats are considered by the Whigs as vacated, the members, or rather former members, having removed from their districts, but in the face of all illegality, the probability is that they will come in and elect Senators and Supreme Judges. A resolution to convene in this Hall for that purpose on Tuesday next was offered by them on yesterday.

It’s politics as usual – with the First Iowa State Legislature Session – which ran from November 30, 1846 through December 3,1848 – now pretty much divided between the Democrats and the Whigs. The House is deadlocked at 19 to 19, while the Senate finds the Democrats in the majority. It sounds much like today, with a bit of shenanigans surrounding the voting process when it comes to electing U.S. Senators and Iowa Supreme Court candidates. Keep in mind that those who would represent their state in the U.S. Senate, were not elected by the people, but appointed by the state legislature – a process that was used throughout the 19th century here in the U.S. So, here’s what happened in Iowa…
Once Iowa became a state in 1846, Iowa was given two U.S. Senate seats – with one of those seats having a shorter term to begin with (1846-1848), followed by the typical 6-year term (1848-1854). The second seat would begin with a full 6-year term (1846-1852), so that way, the two Iowa Senate seats would always be appointed in different years. While that all sounds nice and neat, this orderly process was messed up right at the beginning when, in 1846, the Iowa General Assembly – which was evenly split between Whigs and Democrats – was unable to choose Iowa’s first U.S. Senators, due to a three-way split that prevented any one candidate from earning the required number of 30 legislators’ votes. This, of course, left Iowans unrepresented in the U.S. Senate during the 1846-1848 Sessions, which angered nearly everyone, regardless of party, across the Hawkeye State!
The solution to this ‘no-Senator’ problem didn’t come until two years later, following the 1848 general elections – which gave the Democratic Party an even greater share of votes in the Iowa Legislature – greater than what was there when Williams wrote his January 1848 letter. You see, following the fall 1848 election, the second Iowa Legislature convened in Iowa City, and in late December of 1848, the log-jam was broken when two long-time friends and old-school Democrats – Augustus C. Dodge and George W. Jones – were appointed as Iowa’s first two U.S. Senators. You can read more about this story of Iowa’s first two U.S. Senators here.

They are making preparations for celebrating – this (January 8) the anniversary of the great battle of New Orleans.

Between the Revolutionary War (1776) and the Civil War (1861), the victories from the War of 1812 against Britain were celebrated much like July 4th is today. The Battle of New Orleans – in which Andrew Jackson became a national hero – was fought on January 8, 1815 between the British Army under Major General Sir Edward Pakenham and the United States Army under Brevet Major General Jackson. The battle was the climax of the five-month Gulf Campaign (September 1814 to February 1815) by Britain to try to take New Orleans, West Florida, and possibly Louisiana Territory.

The Whigs of the State held a convention on the fifth inst (January 5, 1848) and appointed delegates to a national convention expressing a preference for Gen. Taylor’s nomination for the Presidency.

The 1848 election for U.S. President was a political mess that reflected not only the divisiveness between the Whig and Democratic Parties but also the great division within each party as well. The Whigs, for example, at their national nominating convention that Williams mentions here, was torn in two over the issue of slavery. Many, like William Seward from New York and Abraham Lincoln from Illinois wanted a military hero with anti-slavery views to be nominated, but the majority of Whigs chose instead, the military hero from the U.S./Mexican War – Zachary Taylor – who claimed to have no political connections, but as a southern slave owner himself, stood more with the South than he portrayed publicly. Taylor won the nomination and in order to pacify the Northern Whigs, Millard Fillmore, an anti-slavery Whig was added to the ticket. Over on the Democratic side, the division over slavery was just as intense. The popular anti-slavery candidate – Martin Van Buren – had left the party to run under the Free Soil banner, thus leaving the Democrats with a split vote – running a slave-holder from Michigan – Lewis Cass – for president. The split-party issue ended up (see below) in Taylor’s favor.

So now, Rep. Williams moves from politics to religion…

Arthur Miller holds a discussion with Mr. Westfall of the Universal Church at this city to commence on Monday the 10th inst (January 10, 1848). The question between them is – Do the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments teach the Universal salvation of the whole human family? Westfall affirms & Miller denies.  Again – Do they teach the endless misery of any part of the human family? Miller affirms & Westfall denies. This discussion is to continue four days. I shall be pleased to hear as much of it as I can.

It appears from historical records that Rev. I.M. Westfall – the pastor of the Universalist Church in Iowa City – became quite the popular speaker around Iowa in the late 1840’s. An 1847 ad in the Iowa Capital Reporter indicates that Westfall was making the rounds debating other pastors over theological issues. The 4-day debate in Iowa City in January 1848 included Pastor Westfall, of course, debating Rev. Arthur Miller, who appeared to be the pastor of the Christian Church of Mt. Pleasant in Henry County. Wow – four days of heavy-duty theology- and Rep. Williams – who probably needed a break from politics – was ready to take it all in!

I will say that I left home on Sunday the second inst (January 2, 1848). The friends and connections were all well. Charles Williams wife died on the day before I left. I believe that I informed you in my last of the death of Lydia Ingham. She died on the 7th November. I saw Solomon in this place last evening. He is selling goods in a two horse wagon. As the bells are ringing for dinner, I will close. Please write soon. This session will probably not last more than a month, if so long I heard right from James and Manly. They are well.

Respectfully yours, Wright Williams

As we mentioned earlier, Wright’s brother-in-law – Bruce Johnson – lived in Louisa County for several years before returning to Indiana. Thus, the names Williams is discussing here are all, very likely, connections back in Louisa County – where Wright obviously spent the Christmas 1847 holiday before returning to Iowa City on the 2nd of January. Louisa County records indicate that a Charles Williams was married to a Mary Francis on May 17, 1848, so it’s very possible that this is the same Charles Williams who lost his first wife in December 1847. In the final sentence, it’s likely that Wright is referring to Manly Gifford, a state representative from Jasper County. The dinner bells that are ringing are obviously from one of the hotels/homes in Iowa City that hosted state representatives while they were in session with the legislature. Click here to read more about the hotels in Iowa City during this time. I wonder what’s for dinner?

Kudos to Representative Wright Williams and his letter back home to Indiana in January 1848. Records show that the Fall/Winter session in Iowa City did end later that winter, but picked up again in the fall – finally ending the First Session in December. During the elections of 1848, Williams was re-elected and came to Iowa City once again for the Second Iowa State Legislative Sessions that extended into 1850. In closing, allow me to share what one biographer wrote of our letter-writer – Wright Williams…

Wright Williams died at his residence in Wapello, on the 21st (November 1854) of congestion of the bowels, in the fiftieth year of his age. The death of such a man as Mr. Williams deserves more than passing notice. He had been a resident of this county for some sixteen years. During that period it was the good fortune of the writer of this to share his acquaintance and friendship. Few have lived among us in that time to whom his name and fame have not been familiar. Few men have enjoyed more largely the confidence of the people—always agreeable in his intercourse with his fellowmen, he had the happy gift of a discriminating mind, a sound and intelligent judgment and an honest heart. His excellent business qualifications enabled him to perform the duties of the various offices he held in such a manner as to justify their choice. His first appearance in the county seems to have pointed him out as a fit recipient of public trust. Accordingly, we find him as early as 1839 elected a member of the board of county commissioners in company with William Milligan and Israel L. Clark. Serving with credit in that capacity, we find him next, in 1844, after an animated canvass against strong competition, returned with W. L. Toole and the lamented Dr. Brookbank, a member of the first convention, for the formation of a constitution and state government. We next find him, in 1846, elected a member of the (Iowa) House of Representatives, to which place, after serving two sessions, he is re-elected in 1848. Lastly, upon the going into operation of the new code, by the provisions of which the old board of county commissioners was abolished, its powers vested in a single person, we find him in 1851, elected to the responsible post of county judge, which office he held up to the time of his decease. The difficult and arduous duties of this office he discharged with ability and to the general satisfaction of his constituents. When this can be said with truth of a man who has had to pass upon for two years and a half the various, difficult and delicate questions which belong to the county court, it will be considered as praise enough.

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Wright Williams, Chapter XVI, Personal Mention, History of Louisa County – Volume I, Arthur Springer, 1912, pp 267-268, IAGenWeb-LouisaCounty

Representative Wright Williams, Iowa Legislature

Battle of New Orleans, Wikipedia

1848 United States presidential election, Wikipedia

Rev. I.M. Westfall, The History of the Universalist Church in Iowa, 1843-1943, Elva Louise Tucker, Iowa Research Online, pp 56-57

Christian Church, Rev. Arthur Miller, The History of Henry County, Iowa, Western Historical Company, 1879, p 525

Religious Discussion, Iowa Capital Reporter, February 10, 1847, p 3

Louisa County, Iowa, David Rumsey Map Collection

Bruce Johnson, Find-A-Grave

Wright Williams, Find-A-Grave

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