University of Notre Dame

Thomas Ewing Family Papers


Origination : Ewing, Thomas, 1789-1871
Extent : 35.5 linear feet. 5 linear inches of photographs.
Repository : University of Notre Dame Archives
Address : Notre Dame, Indiana 46556

Administrative Information


Estate of John G. Ewing

Preferred Citation

Thomas Ewing Family Papers (EWI), University of Notre Dame Archives (UNDA), Notre Dame, IN 46556

Scope and Content

Correspondence, letters, books, ledgers, and docket book of Thomas Ewing; correspondence of his wife Maria (Boyle) Ewing; letters and papers of Philemon B. Ewing, his sisters, his wife, Maria Rebecca (Gillespie) Ewing, and members of her family: her sister Eliza Maria Gillespie (i.e., Mother Angela), her brother, Neal Gillespie, her mother, Madeline Miers Phelan, and her stepfather, William Phelan. Also Phelan estate papers, diaries, sermons by Father Neal Gillespie, correspondence and business papers (1835-1896) of John G. Ewing, and photographs. (Philemon Beecher Ewing of Lancaster, Ohio, an Ohio Supreme Court judge, was Thomas Ewing's son. John G. Ewing, professor at the University of Notre Dame and lawyer, was his grandson.)

Available in microfilm (6 reels) for purchase from University of Notre Dame Archives, 607 Hesburgh Library, Notre Dame, IN, 46556. The Ewing Family Papers were acquired from the estate of John G. Ewing following his death in 1927.


Thomas Ewing (1789-1871), United States Senator from Ohio, Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents William Henry Harrison and John Tyler, Secretary of the Interior under Presidents Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore, trusted advisor to the President Andrew Johnson, and a highly successful lawyer, was born near West Liberty, Ohio County, Virginia on December 28, 1789, the sixth child and second son of George and Rachel (Harris) Ewing. He died on October 26, 1871. His father, a school teacher who had served in the Continental Currency, had migrated to Virginia from his home in Cumberland County, New Jersey. Around 1793, the family moved to Waterford, on the Muskingum River, and, in the Spring of 1798, moved once again, this time to Ames Township, now in Athens County, Ohio. Taught to read by an older sister, young Thomas soon demonstrated a healthy appetite for reading and a remarkable memory for what he had read. Until his twentieth year he labored on his father's farm. Nights, he devoted to the past time he enjoyed most -- reading.

In August 1808, anxious to secure the funds needed to further his education, he set out for the Kanawha Salt Works, near Charleston, Virginia. For the next sixty-three years there were only a few brief periods when he was not associated with salt-boiling, either as a worker or as an owner. Indeed, "Tom, Ewing, the Salt-Boiler" later became a Whig campaign cry. Returning home, he demonstrated his filial piety by using a portion of his earnings to help pay off the mortgage on his family's farm. With the remainder and subsequent earnings at the Salt Works, he financed his way through college. In May 1815, he and John Hunter became the first to receive B.A. degrees from Ohio University. He then returned home and in July went to Lancaster, Ohio, where, for the next thirteen months, he studied law under Philemon Beecher. In August of 1816, at the age of twenty-six, he was admitted to the Ohio Bar. In 1817 when "Pa" Beecher went to serve in Congress, Ewing was left in charge of the office and he soon had a large practice before the Ohio Supreme Court. From 1818 to 1829, he also served as Prosecuting Attorney for Fairfield County, in which capacity he was concerned primarily with the apprehension and prosecution of counterfeiters.

On January 7, 1820, Ewing, himself of Presbyterian stock but with no real church affiliation, married Philemon Beechers' niece, Maria Wills Boyle, a devout Roman Catholic and the daughter of Hugh Boyle, clerk of the court of Common Pleas of Fairfield County. They had seven children:

In addition to these children of their own, the couple helped raise several others: Charles, Abigail, and Rachel Clark, the children of Ewing's sister Rachel; Lewis Wolfley, whose father was Ewing's cousin; and, the most famous of all, William Tecumseh Sherman, who subsequently married Ewing's daughter Ellen and whose father, Charles R. Sherman, a judge of the Ohio Supreme Court, had died suddenly in 1829 leaving a widow and eleven children. A devoted family man, Ewing demonstrated a deep interest in both their education and their pastimes.

In 1823, he served as a member of a Committee appointed to revise the General Laws of Ohio. In the same year he also became a trustee of his alma mater, Ohio University, a post he held until 1832. Caught up in the canal building mania of the 1820's, he served as one of the seven commissioners, and for a brief period as President of the Board of Directors, of the Lancaster Lateral Canal Company. The young lawyer, like so many who followed the same profession, soon developed a taste for politics. Defeated in 1823 in a bid for a seat in the Ohio Legislature, for the next few years he devoted his attention to his law practice. However, in the Summer of 1827, he served as a delegate from Ohio to the Harrisburg Convention of Friends of Farming and Manufacturing which drew up a memorial requesting Congressional action to protect domestic industry. In December of the same year, he headed Fairfield County's delegation to the State Convention of Adams' Men at Columbus and served as a member of both the Resolutions Committee and the State Central Committee. Already recognized as a leader of the Ohio Bar, in January of 1828 he was admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court, joining the company of such brilliant practitioners as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Robert Young Hayne.

In the Fall of 1830, he decided to stand as a candidate for United States Senator from Ohio. He was elected on the sixth ballot. On March 4, 1831, Tom Ewing, who in his only other quest for political office had been defeated in a bid for a seat in the Ohio Legislature, took his seat as a member of the Whig Party in the United States Senate. He served until March 3, 1837. Among the most active of his fellow Senators were: Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Robert Young Hayne, William Campbell Preston, James Buchanan, George Mifflin Dallas, Silas Wright, Jr., Nathaniel Pitcher Tallmadge, John Jordan Crittenden, Thomas Hart Benton, William Rufus de Vane King of Alabama, John Forsyth, William Cabell Rives, John Tyler, Benjamin Watkins Leigh, Littleton Waller Tazewell, John Middleton Clayton, Felix Grundy, Alexander Porter, Willie Person Mangum, George Poindexter, Samuel Lewis Southard, Theodore Frelinghuysen, and Josiah Stoddard Johnston. He soon became one of the leaders of the opposition to President Andrew Jackson's administration. His keen intellect, demonstrated time and again in the speeches he delivered on the Senate floor, earned for him the title "Logician of the West." During his term in office he supported Clay's "American System" which called for protective tariffs and internal improvements, he advocated the re-charter of the United States Bank, he denounced Jackson's removal of deposits from that Bank as well as his "Specie Circular," he advocated reduced postal rates, and he brought about a revision of the land laws, a reorganization of the Post Office Department, and a bill for the settlement of the Ohio-Michigan boundary dispute. Despite his opposition to the Jackson Administration he supported the Force Bill as a remedy for nullification.

Within six weeks of entering the Senate he was elected a member of the important special committee set up to deal with the application of the Bank of the United States for a new charter. When the Ohio legislature "instructed" him to use his influence to prevent the rechartering of the Bank, he disputed their authority to so control his conduct as a Senator, insisting that Senators represented their State, the sovereign power, rather than the Legislature. As a member of the Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads which had been investigating irregularities in the Post Office Department, on June 9, 1834, he delivered to the Senate the majority report which vigorously assailed the abuses and corruption in that Department. In return, he was violently assailed by the administration press, which found a ground of attack conveniently at hand. As a member of a Committee on Revolutionary Claims, Ewing had favored the issuing of land warrants to claimants. However, before entering the Senate he had speculated in Virginia landscrip and thus stood to profit personally from his actions as a Senator. His opponents quickly took up the charge and, indeed, he was not free of such attacks until after the Civil War when he was past seventy.

His opposition to the Jackson Administration and his refusal to follow the "instructions" of the Ohio Legislators had helped to undermine his position back home in Ohio where a pro-Administration party had come to power within the Legislature. Consequently, in January 1836, he was defeated in a bid for re-election as a result of prior redistricting which gave only six representatives to five Whig Counties having a total voting population of 30,205 while it gave fourteen representatives to ten normally Democratic counties having a total voting population of 30,504. Upon this defeat, he returned to Lancaster and resumed his law practice. Although the Calhoun wing of the party was ready in 1837 to consider him a potential candidate for the Vice-Presidency in 1840, his defeat in 1838 in a bid for the Senate seat about to be vacated by Senator Thomas Morris ruined his chances for any such position on the ticket.

In 1840, he actively campaigned for the Whig candidate, William Henry Harrison, and gained for himself a national reputation as a stump orator under the name of the "Old Salt Boiler." Upon Harrison's inauguration in 1841, he was rewarded with a cabinet post as Secretary of the Treasury. He served in this capacity from March 5 to September 13, 1841. In addition to being entrusted with a distribution of a good deal of the patronage available to the Administration, he investigated and reorganized the New York Custom House, he saw to the expenditure of public funds for the care of disabled seamen, he supervised the investment of the funds left to the United States by Joseph Smithson of London for the establishment at Washington of an institution "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men" -- the origin of the Smithsonian Institute -- and he had a hand in the settlement of the McLeod affair, which grew out of a disturbance on the Canadian-American Border. In his first official report he proposed measures designed to diminish the national debt, he attacked the Independent Treasury Act which had been passed the previous year, and he advocated the establishment of a National Bank. Indeed, the chartering of a National Bank was his paramount concern. He played a major role in drafting two bills that would have chartered such a bank. However, both were vetoed by Tyler who had succeeded to the Presidency upon Harrison's untimely death. As a result of the second veto, Ewing submitted a scathing letter of resignation and, on September 13, 1841, he left the cabinet and entered into a law partnership with his oldest son, Philemon Beecher Ewing.

In 1844 he campaigned vigorously for Henry Clay's election to the Presidency. Although the Whigs carried the Ohio Legislature in that year -- the only time they were able to do so when a Senator was to be elected -- and Ewing hoped to return to the Senate, he was passed over and Thomas Corwin, who had become the idol of the Ohio Whigs by agreeing to sacrifice himself as candidate for governor in 1840, was chosen instead. By 1848, there were indications that Ewing was angling for the vice-presidential nomination. Although favored by the Taylor forces at the convention, his name was withdrawn, without either his assent or knowledge, by a fellow Ohioan, Lewis D. Campbell, who, chagrined at the failure of Henry Clay to secure the nomination for President, insisted that Ohio wanted no "sugar plums." The subsequent death of Taylor in office and succession of the Vice-President made this unauthorized withdrawal of Ewing's name especially significant. But for it, Ewing, instead of Fillmore, might have been our thirteenth President.

In the subsequent campaign he actively entered the lists for Taylor. Urged to accept a cabinet position upon Taylor's victory, he would not commit himself so long as there remained a chance for the Senate. However, the "Free Soil" Whigs of Ohio, who had resented his campaigning for Taylor, a slaveholder, refused to agree to his selection as Senator. Salmon P. Chase was chosen instead. At first considered seriously for the Post Office Department, he was eventually given the newly establish Department of the Interior. A man with organizational ability was needed and Ewing had demonstrated during his term in the Senate, at which time he had written laws reorganizing the Post Office Department and the General Land Office, that he was such a man. He served from March 8, 1849, to July 23, 1850.

However, his withdrawal from the Cabinet did not result in his immediate retirement from public life. When Thomas Cerwin became Secretary of the Treasury, Ewing was appointed by Governor Seabury Ford of Ohio to fill out Cerwin's unexpired term in the Senate. Thus, once again, Ewing found himself in the forum he loved so much. During this brief term he served on the Finance Committee, he opposed the Fugitive Slave Law and Clay's Great Compromise, and he advocated the establishment of a branch mint in California, a reduction in the postal rates, internal improvements, and various other measures of public importance. As the term was drawing to a close in 1851, he was defeated in a bid for re-election, once again because of the opposition of the "Free Soil" Whigs in the Ohio Legislature. With this defeat, he retired once again to private life and the practice of law. Although he thereafter maintained his interest in public affairs, he never again held public office.

During the last twenty years of his life, he spent his winters in Washington, arguing his cases -- his particular forte was Real Estate Cases -- before the Supreme Court, and the rest of the year, generally, at home in Lancaster, Ohio. In 1856, he refused to support any of the candidates for the Presidency. In 1860, although he preferred John Bell, the nominee of the Constitutional Union Party, he nevertheless supported Abraham Lincoln, a former Whig and political friend, because he felt that in Ohio only Lincoln could defeat Stephen A. Douglas whom he regarded as too reckless. He also felt that the Republican Party, in espousing the Tariff and other old Whig principles, had veered to a more conservative course than it had adopted originally. He did, however, take exception to the anti-slavery tendencies of the Republicans and in his Chillicothe, Ohio speech of September 29, 1860, he urged the party to drop its anti-slavery character.

As the Civil War loomed ever nearer on the horizon, Ewing hoped to make moderation and compromise prevail and thus to preserve the Union. In particular, he favored the extension of the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific Coast. To this end, he participated as a delegate from Ohio in the Peace Conference called by Virginia. The Conference met in Washington on February 4, 1861, and continued for twenty-three days with Ewing playing a conspicuous role. However, neither he nor the others who favored a policy of moderation were able to overcome the determined opposition of the Republican delegates. Once the war began he rendered loyal support to Lincoln's administration. Three of his four sons served as officers in the Union Army, and his son in law and former ward, William Tecumseh Sherman, was second only to Grant in the final stages of the struggle. Trusted by Lincoln for his advice on matters of public policy as well as upon points of law, it was he who urged upon the President the release of the captured Confederate agents, Mason and Slidell. Indeed, his influence with Lincoln was so great that on many occasions, often to the despair of Cabinet members, he was able to secure from the President pardons or other favors for friends and for clients.

During the winter of 1861-1862, when the Ohio Legislature was considering the choice of a successor to Ben Wade, whose term in the Senate was to expire in 1863, a movement was afoot in favor of Ewing; however, his Democratic and Conservative support was not sufficient to overcome the hostility of the Radicals. Eventually, Wade was re-elected. In 1864, Ewing supported Lincoln's re-election, fearing that the election of McClellan would signal the dissolution of the Union. As hostilities drew to a close, he once again turned to the advocacy of policies of moderation and conciliation. Eventually, he came to be one of President Andrew Johnson's principal advisors. For example, it was upon his advice that Johnson appointed Henry Stanbery, Ewing's former pupil and partner, Attorney General, and O.H. Browning Secretary of the Interior. Not only did he advise Johnson on situations, but he even furnished the President with veto messages. Eventually, he was considered for a Cabinet post. When Stanton was removed as Secretary of War and Lorenzo Thomas was prevented from taking office by Stanton, who barricaded himself in the War Office, it was Ewing's name that Johnson, on February 22, 1868, sent to the Senate for confirmation as Secretary of War. However, Congress and the Nation were in the midst of the impeachment crisis and no action was ever taken on the nomination.

Ewing's conviction that the country must be rescued from the grip of the Radicals, stemming from his dislike for their economic policies, as well as for their reconstruction policies, impelled him to take as active a party role as he could in the 1868 campaign. Unable to make speeches himself, the elderly statesman wrote several for his son, General Thomas Ewing, who was campaigning for the Democratic ticket. After the defeat of the Democrats, he continued to give advice, particularly on the Nation's finances. Although he had long been an advocate of the old Whig policy of high protective tariffs, he now saw that such tariffs, instead of protecting infant industries which he had conceived to be for the benefit of the entire country, were insuring to the benefit of a small class of monopoly minded capitalists. He therefore condemned them.

Meanwhile, he continued to devote considerable time and effort to his law practice and to the supervision of his salt works. Winters he still spent in Washington, arguing cases before the Supreme Court. However, old age was rapidly overtaking him. On October 22, 1869, he was stricken while arguing a case before the Supreme Court and for several hours his life was despaired of. Although he recovered and quickly resumed his activities, by the Spring of 1871 a gradual enfeeblement was evident. By October, he was bedfast. Received into the fold of the Roman Catholic Church, the Faith of his beloved wife, Maria, who had passed on in 1864, he breathed his last on October 26, 1871.

He died revered by his family and respected by his colleagues. Nine years of his adult life had been spent in public service. The remainder he had devoted to the practice of law. A self-made man, he had risen to great heights both in the service of his country and in the practice of his chosen profession. The decisions of the Supreme Court were greatly enriched by his arguments. Although his early education had been largely informal, he was noted not only for his knowledge of the law but also for the wide range of his genius which embraced the classics, history, poetry, the arts, architecture, and science -- all of which were arranged and classified in his mind with great order and exactness. Indeed, Daniel Webster once said of him that he was the best informed man he had ever met and that he had never conversed with him for five minutes without being wiser for having done so. The esteem in which he was held at the time of his death was amply attested to by the numerous letters and messages of condolence received by his family, as well as by the fact that the Supreme Court of the United States, in an unusual tribute, devoted several pages of their reports (12 Wallace, vii-ix) to an account of his life.

Bibliographical Note

The only full length biography of Thomas Ewing which has appeared to date is an unpublished doctoral dissertation entitled "Thomas Ewing, Last of the Whigs" and presented by Paul Ingersoll Miller at Ohio State University in 1933. Miller's dissertation also contains the most extensive bibliography on Ewing. Especially noteworthy among the published materials are: Ewing's own brief autobiographical sketch, unfortunately covering only the period up to his election to the Senate in 1830, which was written for his children and grandchildren in 1869, edited by Clement L. Martzolff, and published in the Ohio Archaelogical and Historical Society Publications XXII (January 1913), 126-204; and Ellen Ewing Sherman's A Memorial of Thomas Ewing of Ohio (New York: The Catholic Publication Society, 1873), which contains various items relating to Ewing's life and death. Valuable information is also provided by several biographical sketches which include: one by Charles B. Goddard of Zanesville, Ohio, a close personal, professional and political friend, entitled "Thomas Ewing," which appeared in The New England Magazine, XLVII (May 1835); and one by Henry Stanbery, a professional and political pupil of Ewing, which was first published several years before Ewing's death in the Cincinnati Commercial and subsequently republished in Ellen Ewing Sherman's Memorial of Thomas Ewing. A more limited but still very valuable source of information is a Diary kept by Ewing in August and September 1841 while serving as Secretary of the Treasury under President Tyler. It has been published in the American Historical Review, XVIII (October 1912), 97-110. Finally, there is a valuable account of the life of Ewing's father published by a later generation Thomas Ewing: George Ewing -- Gentleman -- A Soldier of Valley Forge (New York, 1928).


Ewing, Thomas, 1789-1871.
Ewing, Maria Boyle, 1801-1864.
Ewing, Philemon Beecher, 1820-1896.
Ewing, Maria Rebecca Gillespie, 1828-1892.
Gillespie, Angela, 1824-1887.
Gillespie, Neal Henry, 1831-1874.
Phelan, Mary Madeline, 1804-1887.
Phelan, William, 1793-1856.
Ewing, John Gillespie, 1860-1927.
Ewing family.
Sisters of the Holy Cross.

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