Joseph R. Williams

For other people named Joseph Williams, see Joseph Williams.
Joseph Rickelson Williams

Joseph R. Williams, President Agricultural College of the State of Michigan, 1857–1859
(Acting) 14th Lieutenant Governor of Michigan
In office
April 3, 1861  June 15, 1861 (death)
Governor Austin Blair
Preceded by James M. Birney
Succeeded by Henry T. Backus
Member of the Michigan Senate
In office
Personal details
Born (1808-11-14)November 14, 1808
Taunton, Massachusetts, US
Died June 15, 1861(1861-06-15) (aged 52)
Constantine, Michigan, US
Political party Whig
Republican Party
Spouse(s) Sarah Rowland Langdon Williams
Children Charlotte Langdon Williams Kumler
Sibyl Williams Hamilto
Rebecca Williams Cooper
Alma mater Harvard University
Profession Farmer
Newspaper Publisher

Joseph Rickelson Williams (November 14, 1808 – June 15, 1861) was an American politician, a Republican Michigan Senate Senator, and 14th Lieutenant Governor of Michigan. He was also the first president for the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan, the first Land-Grant Institution to be established in the United States and now one of the largest universities in the United States,[1] Michigan State University.

Early life

Williams was born in Taunton, Massachusetts, attended Sandwich Academy where he studied under Luther Lincoln, and graduated from Harvard in 1831 with distinguished honors. He then studied law with John Davis in Worcester, was admitted to the bar and practiced in New Bedford. In 1839, he moved to Constantine, Michigan, where he resided for the rest of his life.[2]


Because of ill health, Williams left his law practice and traveled to Toledo, Ohio, and served as the agent of a New England company seeking land investments until 1839 when he moved to Constantine, Michigan, where he invested in the construction and operation of flour mills, and was a member of the state constitutional convention of 1850, twice the Whig candidate for Congress, and twice the Whig candidate for the United States Senate against Lewis Cass. In May, 1853, Williams returned to Toledo and purchased the Toledo Blade, a local newspaper which under his management, became the leading advocate of Republican principles in Northern Ohio. In 1856, Williams sold the paper to Clark Waggoner and G.T. Steward in order to assume the duties of the first President of the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan when it opened in May, 1857. Williams resigned the position after serving for two years.[3]

Williams was a self-made gentleman farmer, and a prominent lawyer and politician. He was a charismatic and passionate promoter of higher education for the farming and working classes. In accord with Williams' philosophy, the College offered a unique blending of practical and theoretical academics. Williams' curriculum balanced liberal arts, science and practical vocational studies. However, Williams excluded Latin and Greek studies from the early curriculum, which meant that these classical languages were not tested for admission given the College's overwhelmingly rural applicant base. Nevertheless, under Williams the College did require three hours of daily manual labor. The labor requirement helped students defray expenses, and cheaply clear and develop the campus while learning scientific principles from faculty-supervisors.

Despite these innovations, Williams ran into conflict with the State Board of Education, which managed the College at the time. The Board saw the College as being elitist and extravagant, despite William's eloquent defense of higher education for the masses. Indeed, many farmers began protesting against the College and calling for its dissolution. They saw the Agricultural College's strong scientific curriculum as educating boys away from the farm. After just two years at the helm, Williams resigned in 1859 under pressure, and the Board reduced the curriculum to a two-year, vocation-oriented farming program.

In 1860, Williams was elected as a Republican to the Michigan Senate and chosen as president pro tempore of the state senate when he took office in 1861. After the resignation of Lieutenant Governor of Michigan James M. Birney, Williams took on the duties as the 14th Lieutenant Governor under Austin Blair.

During his brief time in office he helped pass the Reorganization Act of 1861. Williams' law mandated that the College return to a four-year curriculum and, additionally, have the power to grant degrees comparable to those of the University of Michigan — that is, master's degrees (and much later, doctoral degrees). Under the act, a newly created body known as the State Board of Agriculture took over from the State Board of Education in running the institution, giving the College the autonomy that it retains to this day. With the College's future secure, Williams went to Washington D. C. to lobby for the passage of the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act, which would make the Agricultural College a national model for institutions across America.

Death and legacy

Williams died suddenly of influenza at the age of fifty-two with only 73 days as acting lieutenant governor. President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill the following year. Eight years after his death, Joseph Williams was memorialized on the campus of State Agricultural College with the 1869 construction of Williams Hall, a men's dormitory. The building burned on January 1, 1919. The university replaced it with the current Williams Hall in 1937 as a women's dormitory named for his wife Sarah.

Family life

Captain Richard Williams, a highly respected shipmaster, and Rebecca (Smith) Williams were his parents, and on May 28, 1844, he married Sarah Rowland Langdon, a daughter of John Langdon, in Buffalo, New York. They had three daughters, Charlotte Langdon Williams Kumler, Sibyl Williams Hamilto, and Rebecca Williams Cooper.


  2. Bingham, Stephen D. (2005) [1888]. "s.v. Joseph R. Williams". Early history of Michigan, with biographies of state officers, members of Congress, judges and legislators. Pub. pursuant to act 59, 1887. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Library. p. 699. Retrieved 2007-07-30.
  3. "Joseph R. Williams". 2014 Michigan State University Board of Trustees. Retrieved 13 June 2014.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Joseph R. Williams.

Political offices
Preceded by
James M. Birney
(acting) Lieutenant Governor of Michigan
April 3 – June 15, 1861
Succeeded by
Henry T. Backus
Academic offices
Preceded by
President of Agricultural College of the State of Michigan
Succeeded by
Lewis R. Fiske
This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 7/7/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.