AUGUSTUS E. WILLSON
Maysville native and Republican Augustus Willson became the 35th person to serve as Governor of the Commonwealth in the fall of 1911.
Prior to being orphaned at age 12, Augustus Willison lived in Covington and Indiana. After the death of his parents, he was raised by a grandmother in western New York and later lived with an older brother in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While in Cambridge, he attended Harvard where he earned two degrees. and spent some time at the law school.
Willson returned to Kentucky in the early 1870s after practicing law in Boston and Indiana to work in law firm of the future U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan in Louisville. Willson worked with Harlan until Harlan’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1877.
Willson’s first political position was that of Chief Clerk of the U.S. Treasury a position he held from 1875 to 1876 under Benjamin Bristow, a Kentuckian who was Secretary of the Treasury under President U.S. Grant. Prior to running for governor, Willson ran unsuccessfully once for the KY State Senate and four times as a Republican nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives.
On July 23, 1877, he married Mary Elizabeth Akin. They had one child who died in infancy.
Willson was nominated by the Republican Party for Governor in 1907. One of the major issues of the 1907 general election was the issue of temperance or the sale of alcoholic beverages. (According to Ken Burns’ “Prohibition” was America’s first wedge issue.) Both Willson and the Democratic nominee, State Auditor Samuel Hager supported the adoption of a uniform local option law which would allow each county to determine whether liquor would be sold within its borders. The candidates were in a tough spot. In 1900, Kentucky was the largest manufacturer of alcoholic beverages in the south and the third highest manufacturer of alcoholic beverages in the United States. Both candidates favored temperance but wanted each community to the ability to choose. The Democratic Party was split three ways on the issue of alcohol and many stayed home on Election Day. Being from Louisville, Willson was able to carry Jefferson County by 8,900 votes.
The other issue was the civil unrest and violence which continued to plague the Commonwealth particularly the “Tobacco Patch War” or “Black Patch War” in Western Kentucky which Governor Beckham seemed to ignore. Independent tobacco growers or common farmers attempted to halt the monopolistic price fixing of the James Duke’s “American Tobacco Company. Mediation between the farmers and tobacco company failed and farmers called “Night Riders” began of burning tobacco factories and warehouses in western Kentucky cities of Princeton, Elkton and Hopkinsville to retaliate against the price fixing of the American Tobacco Company. Upon assuming office on December 10, 1907, Willson attempted to mediate the dispute between the growers, the buyers and the residents of the Western Kentucky Counties. When Willson’s mediation failed he sent the Militia to Western Kentucky in an attempt to stop the violence and declared martial law in over 20 counties in Western Kentucky.
When the 1908 General Assembly came into session it was controlled by Democrats many unhappy with the declaration of martial law in the Democratic counties of Western Kentucky. While legislative Democrats were not willing to accept Willson’s leadership, they were split on many issues including prohibition or temperance which tempered the 1908 election of a U.S. Senator from Kentucky.
Gov. JCW Beckham had supported former Governor James B. McCreary when he was elected by the 1902 General Assembly to the U.S. Senate. However, in 1908 Gov. Beckham wanted the U.S. Senate seat. The Republican candidate was former Gov. William O. Bradley. With three candidates contending for the U.S. Senate seat the 1908 General Assembly spent seven weeks and 28 ballots trying to select a senator. Finally, “wet Democrats” and “wet Republicans” decided on former Gov. Bradley, a Republican.
Some of the legislation enacted in 1908 included the establishment of high schools in every county and establishment of juvenile court system.
Willson further alienated the General Assembly when he took pictures of the late Gov. Goebel off of state checks and pardoned former Gov. William S. Taylor and former Secretary of State Caleb Powers for their alleged parts in the murder of Goebel.
The 1910 General Assembly failed to achieve much either. The Democratic General Assembly failed to consider Willson’s proposals for redistricting and tax reform. The General Assembly did pass legislation making electrocution (or use of the electric chair) the method of public execution in the Commonwealth.
After leaving office in 1911, Willson sought election to the U.S. Senate for the first popular election after passage of the 17th Amendment. He was defeated by Gov. JCW Beckham in the general election.
Willson returned to his law practice in Louisville after serving as governor. He died in Louisville in 1931.