An accomplished short-timer

If someone wrote a book about the fifth Governor of Illinois and you went to the library to check it out, they would let you keep the book almost as long as William Lee Davidson Ewing kept the governorship.

Ewing never sought either of the state’s top two offices, but attained them both in the space of less than two years. His stay in the governor’s office in Vandalia was the shortest of any Illinois chief executive: just sixteen days.

Under the first Illinois State Constitution, the elected Lieutenant Governor also served as “Speaker of the Senate.” If the Governor were to leave office for any reason, the Lieutenant Governor would move up and “administer the government” (the first Constitution did not specifically say that the Lieutenant Governor would become Governor, as today’s Constitution states). The resulting vacancy in the office of “Speaker of the Senate” would then be filled from the membership of that body, and that person would also become acting Lieutenant Governor, and therefore next in line for Governor.

This strange line of succession became even stranger in 1833-34 when it went fully into motion. Lieutenant Governor Zadok Casey was elected to Congress and resigned his office to leave for Washington. Ewing, a former state militia officer, had just been elected to the Senate the year before. He was chosen by his colleagues for the leadership post, and thus became acting Lieutenant Governor.

At the election of 1834, the sitting Governor, John Reynolds, was himself elected to Congress. He chose to resign from the governorship on November 17 to prepare to take his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. The newly-elected Governor, Joseph Duncan, was not due to be sworn in until December 3, and so the acting Lieutenant Governor, Ewing, moved into the top office for the intervening sixteen days.

Ewing’s governorship was uneventful, and about the only action he took was to express support for the creation of a state bank to replace one that had failed miserably a few years before. He also paid homage to the leader of his party, President Andrew Jackson, by making a statement critical of a national bank. Sixteen days later, Duncan was sworn in, as scheduled, and Ewing went back to the Senate, having etched his name into the history books as Illinois’ shortest-tenured Governor.

But Ewing was far from a short-time non-entity. He came to Illinois in 1818 from Kentucky, and then made his way to Vandalia in 1820, the same year that city became Illinois’ state capital. He worked in the land office there, and also held a job as a surveyor. Ewing entered state government in 1826 when he became Clerk of the Illinois House, a body to which he was elected as a member in 1830. Two years later it was off to the Senate, with that unusual detour into unelected executive office.

Before he ascended to the governorship, Ewing had been re-elected to the state Senate. His second term began around the same time his governorship ended. But he apparently made quite an impression on his colleagues because after selecting him to fill a vacancy in the office of Lieutenant Governor in 1833, in 1835 they selected him to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate, replacing the late Elias Kent Kane. Ewing finished Kane’s term, but failed in an effort to be elected to a full term in his own right.

Ewing wasn’t through, however, and he returned to the state House in 1838. Having attained the offices of Governor, Lieutenant Governor and U.S. Senator without running for any of them, he would now run for and win his most notable election, the race for Speaker of the House of the 11th General Assembly.

Ewing had a reputation as a friendly character, but one legislative colleague he could not stand was a certain lanky, storytelling prairie lawyer from the Springfield area. When Ewing found himself up against Rep. Abraham Lincoln for Speaker in 1838, he blasted his colleague as a “coarse and vulgar fellow,” and called him “low and obscure.”

Ewing defeated Lincoln for the Speakership in 1838, and then bested him again in 1840. While history would not settle the question of which was more coarse, it did render a verdict on which would end up in obscurity. Lincoln perhaps had the last laugh in their contest. Ewing, as a longtime resident of Vandalia, opposed the efforts to move the state capitol to Springfield, efforts which were being led by Lincoln and eight of his fellow legislators from central Illinois. Despite Ewing’s opposition, Illinois’ state government moved into its new home at 6th and Adams Streets in Springfield (right across the street from Abraham Lincoln’s law office) in 1839.

The third building at Vandalia to be used as a State House before Springfield became Illinois' capital city.
Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum.

When Ewing died in 1846 he was serving as the Illinois State Auditor. He is buried in Springfield’s Oak Ridge Cemetery not far from Lincoln’s Tomb.

Today Ewing’s governorship is not much remembered by history. In fact, for more than a century it was barely recalled at all. Perhaps due to the brevity of his term, Ewing was denied the honor of a portrait in the State Capitol’s 2nd floor Hall of Governors. It was not until the state’s sesquicentennial in 1968 that this historical oversight was corrected when Allen Stults, the President of the American National Bank and Trust Company of Chicago had a portrait of the state’s fifth chief executive commissioned to hang in the Capitol’s gallery. The portrait was accepted by Governor Samuel Shapiro, himself a former Lieutenant Governor who had unexpectedly ascended to the top office.

Even this tribute, however, contains a wicked bit of irony. Gubernatorial portraits are arranged in chronological order down one wall of the 2nd floor’s south wing, and then back up the other side. Accordingly, Governor Ewing’s portrait hangs facing across the hall toward some of his late 20th-century successors. Among them is the portrait of Governor Jim Thompson, a four-term chief executive who holds the title of Illinois’ longest-serving Governor.