Vilas, William Freeman 1840 - 1908 | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Vilas, William Freeman 1840 - 1908

Vilas, William Freeman 1840 - 1908 | Wisconsin Historical Society

lawyer, politician, U.S. Senator, cabinet officer, philanthropist, b. Chelsea, Orange County, Vt. He was the son of Levi B. Vilas (q.v.). He moved with his parents to Wisconsin in 1851, settling in Madison. He graduated from the Univ. of Wisconsin (B.A., 1858), and the Albany, N.Y., Law School (LL.B., 1860), returned to Wisconsin and set up a law practice in Madison. During the Civil War, Vilas was commissioned captain, Co. A, 23rd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry (Aug. 1862), participated in the Vicksburg campaign, and resigned with the rank of lieutenant colonel (July 1863). Returning to Madison, he resumed his law practice, also serving as professor of law at the Univ. of Wisconsin (1868-1885). A "doctrinaire Democrat," Vilas had for several years been active in politics, and was especially interested in tariff reform and the sound money issue. He presided at the national Democratic convention of 1884, and served in the cabinet of President Grover Cleveland, first as Postmaster General (1885-1888), and from 1888 to 1889 as Secretary of the Interior. In 1891 Vilas was chosen U.S. Senator by the Wisconsin legislature, and served one term (Mar. 1891 Mar. 1897), but broke with his party in 1896 on the issue of free Silver, joined the Gold Democrats, and was not a candidate for renomination to the Senate. After 1897, he devoted very little time to politics, but rather turned his interest to his law practice and his investments in pine lands and paper manufacturing. Vilas was a regent of the Univ. of Wisconsin (1881-1885, 1898- 1905), and at his death, bequeathed a major part of his fortune to that institution. H.S. Merrill, W. F. Vilas (Madison, 1954); Biog. Dir. Amer. Gong. (1928); Proc. State Hist. Soc. Wis., 1909 (1910); Milwaukee Journal, Aug. 27, 1908; W. F. Vilas Papers.

The Wisconsin Historical Society has manuscripts related to this topic. See the catalog description of the William F. Vilas Papers for details.

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[Source: Dictionary of Wisconsin biography]