Governor Williams was a Democrat who succeeded Governor Hendricks. Williams was a farmer from Monroe City, Indiana and cultivated a “man of the people” persona. His affinity for denim earned him the nickname “Blue Jeans Bill.” Howard Burnett, writing in 1926, said of Williams, “Of the sixteen governors who served Indiana before 1877, fourteen were lawyers, one a gunsmith, and one a newspaper man. James D. Williams, who was inaugurated January 8, 1877, was the first farmer and last pioneer governor of the state.”
He served in the legislature from 1843 to 1872, so his wife Nancy carried a good bit of the load running the farm. At the first State Fair at Indianapolis in 1852, Williams took first prize for the best wheat grown in the state, and in 1855, he produced the best timothy and the best clover in the state. For a time, Williams apparently had an interest in a pork packing plant, facilitated by the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad. But, what the railroad gives, it also takes away. The railroads contributed to the consolidation of pork packing in Cincinnati and Chicago, and Williams’ local pork packing business dried up in the early 70s.
During his long service in the legislature, Williams developed a reputation for frugality. His first vote in the legislature was against a measure that would have had the State pay for each member of the General Assembly to have two copies each of the Indianapolis Sentinel and the Indianapolis Journal. He was opposed to Governor Morton and accused of being a Copperhead. In 1865, he introduced the legislation taking advantage of the Congressional land grant legislation which lead to the founding of Purdue. In 1874, Williams was elected to Congress and gained notoriety by continuing to wear his Kentucky homespun, earning him the nickname of “Blue Jeans Williams”. The story goes that this epithet was used more in mockery but soon became a nickname that Williams used to great benefit.
In 1876, Williams won a close race for governor against Benjamin Harrison, future President and grandson of William Henry Harrison. Upon his nomination, the Democrats had hailed Williams as the “Great Lincoln Democrat of the Centennial Year.” During the campaign, the race was often framed as being Williams’, the man of the people versus Harrison, the remote patrician. Harrison was, however, assisted by reminders of Old Tippecanoe (Benjamin was “Young Tip”) and the “bloody shirt” of Republican supporters of the Union which shamed Democratic supporters of the Confederacy. The bloody shirt was losing its power however. Williams won with a difference in the vote of 5,000 out of 430,000 cast.
The Great Railroad Strikes of 1877 tied up freight and passenger traffic in July of 1877. Williams at first announced that he would interfere in no way with the strike or the strikers, but after some destruction of property by the strikers had led to bitter criticism of his inaction, he called out the militia.
In March 1877, a law providing for the construction of a new state house was passed and $2 million appropriated for the purpose. Williams received credit for the construction coming in under budget.
In February of 1880, Williams’ wife of 49 years took a fall from which she never recovered. She died on June 27 of that year. Reportedly some weeks after her death, his daughter found him hidden in a hay mow “while great sobs of grief shook his frame and tears coursed down his cheeks.” He returned to Indianapolis, but his own health rapidly declined and he died on November 20, 1880.
Benjamin Harrison, Williams former political opponent said of him:
If there were nothing to be said of Governor Williams’s relation to the public affairs of Indiana at all, his life would be an honorable and successful one. I have always felt that the successful pioneer, one of those who pressed forward toward the edge of civilization in the early days, and made a successful fight with the wilderness, and cleared the primitive forest and made of it a meadow, and of the marsh a dry field, and who built up around him and for himself and for the family that God gave him, a competence, elevated them, that that life was an honorable life and worthy of mention in any assembly. This work Governor Williams has done conspicuously.
Williams’ lieutenant governor, Isaac Gray became governor and served the remainder of Williams term. However, this was only about three months and Gray would become governor in his own right in 1884, so we’ll cover him next time.