Photograph of a portrait of William Allen, who served as governor of Ohio from 1874 to 1876.
William Allen was an important Ohio political leader in the mid to late nineteenth century.
Allen was born in Edenton, North Carolina in December 1803. His ancestors had been Quakers who lived in Pennsylvania, but the branch of the family that had moved to North Carolina was not associated with the Society of Friends. Allen's father, Nathaniel Allen, had served as a colonel in the American Revolution and he had been a member of North Carolina's convention to ratify the United States Constitution. William Allen's mother was Sarah Colburn Allen. Both Nathaniel and Sarah Allen died soon after William's birth. His half-sister and her husband, the Reverend Pleasant Thurman, cared for Allen following his parents' deaths.
At the age of sixteen, William Allen became a saddler's apprentice in Lynchburg, Virginia. Allen was not satisfied with this position and decided to move to Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1819, where his sister had moved. There he attended the Chillicothe Academy for two years before studying law in the office of Edward King. After three years of study, Allen was admitted to the Ohio bar and he became King's law partner. Although he was only twenty-one when he began to practice law, Allen soon gained a reputation for his skills as a debater and public speaker.
In 1832, local members of the Democratic Party persuaded Allen to run for Congress. He ran against Duncan McArthur. In a very close race, he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. William Allen ultimately married McArthur's daughter, Mrs. Effie Coons, in 1842. Allen only served in the House for one term, from 1832 to 1834 and failed to be reelected. Afterwards he returned home to Ohio and resumed his career as a lawyer.
His departure from politics was brief. In 1837, Ohio's legislature elected Allen as one of the state's U.S. Senators, replacing Thomas Ewing. He was the youngest senator ever elected to that point. He served two terms as senator, from 1837 to 1849 and ran unsuccessfully for a third term in 1849. By the 1840s, the Democratic Party was already becoming divided along sectional lines because of the issue of slavery. Allen became a prominent leader of the Northern Democrats in the Senate. He advocated the westward expansion of the United States and supported President James K. Polk during the Mexican-American War. Allen was influential as the chairman of the foreign relations committee in the Senate. Some accounts credit Allen with originating the slogan "Fifty-four forty or fight!" The slogan referred to the desire of some in the U.S. to annex the entire Oregon Territory in the 1840s.
As the presidential election of 1848 approached, Allen became active in his party's politics. Both Martin Van Buren and Lewis Cass were competing to become the Democratic Party's candidate in the election. Some party leaders asked Allen to enter the contest as a compromise candidate, but he refused to run for the presidency. Instead, Allen chose to support Cass, who lost the election in spite of Allen's enthusiastic campaigning. Allen supported Cass due to the two men's mutual support of popular sovereignty. After his second term as senator ended in 1849, Allen returned to Fruit Hill, his home in Chillicothe. He worked in agriculture and livestock breeding and remained out of formal politics until the 1870s. During the American Civil War, Allen identified himself as a Peace Democrat. He was a vocal critic of Abraham Lincoln's administration throughout the war.
Allen reentered politics after the Panic of 1873. Ohio Democrats gained ground because of Ohioans' disappointment with economic conditions in the state. The Democrats asked Allen to serve as the party's gubernatorial candidate in the election of 1873. Allen ran against the incumbent governor, Edward F. Noyes, and won the election by 817 votes. Although Allen was seventy years old, he ran an energetic campaign. He served one term as governor from 1874 to 1876.
As governor, Allen worked to reduce the state government's budget and was able to lower taxes in 1875. Not all of his actions were as popular as his tax cut. Ohio, like other parts of the nation in the 1870s, experienced a number of labor disputes. Allen tended to be more supportive of managers and business owners than of workers, although he still believed that big businesses must respect state laws. If necessary, the governor was willing to call out the state militia to enforce order in labor disputes. His most unpopular measure was his support of the printing of greenbacks. Greenbacks were money without backing in gold or other precious metals, Allen believed they would help alleviate the economic problems that Ohio faced at this time. This issue cost him public support in 1875.
Allen ran against Rutherford B. Hayes in the gubernatorial election of 1875 and lost. After his term ended, Allen returned to agriculture at his home in Chillicothe. He died at Fruit Hill on July 11, 1879, and he was buried at Chillicothe's Grand View Cemetery.