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William F. Vilas

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William F. Vilas
United States Senator
from Wisconsin
In office
March 4, 1891 – March 3, 1897
Preceded byJohn Coit Spooner
Succeeded byJohn Coit Spooner
17th United States Secretary of the Interior
In office
January 16, 1888 – March 6, 1889
PresidentGrover Cleveland
Benjamin Harrison
Preceded byLucius Lamar
Succeeded byJohn Willock Noble
33rd United States Postmaster General
In office
March 6, 1885 – January 6, 1888
PresidentGrover Cleveland
Preceded byFrank Hatton
Succeeded byDonald M. Dickinson
Member of the Wisconsin State Assembly
from the Dane 1st district
In office
January 5, 1885 – March 9, 1885
Preceded byDexter Curtis
Succeeded byMichael J. Cantwell
Personal details
William Freeman Vilas

(1840-07-09)July 9, 1840
Chelsea, Vermont, U.S.
DiedAugust 27, 1908(1908-08-27) (aged 68)
Madison, Wisconsin, U.S.
Resting placeForest Hill Cemetery
Madison, Wisconsin, U.S.
Political party
Anna M. Fox
(m. 1866⁠–⁠1908)
  • Cornelia Vilas
  • (b. 1867; died 1893)
  • Henry Vilas
  • (b. 1872; died 1899)
  • Mary Esther (Hanks)
  • (b. 1873; died 1959)
EducationUniversity of Wisconsin, Madison (BA)
Albany Law School (LLB)
Military service
AllegianceUnited States
Branch/serviceUnited States Volunteers
Union Army
Years of service1862–1863
RankLieutenant Colonel, USV
Unit23rd Reg. Wis. Vol. Infantry

William Freeman Vilas (July 9, 1840 – August 27, 1908) was an American lawyer, politician, and United States Senator. In the U.S. Senate, he represented the state of Wisconsin for one term, from 1891 to 1897.[1] As a prominent Bourbon Democrat, he was also a member of the cabinet of U.S. President Grover Cleveland, serving as the 33rd Postmaster General and the 17th Secretary of the Interior.

He was a major donor to the University of Wisconsin, leaving $30,000,000 to the school at his death in 1908. He is the namesake of Vilas Hall on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus, as well as Vilas County, Wisconsin, and the towns of Vilas, Colorado, and Vilas, South Dakota.[2]

Early life and education[edit]

Statue of Vilas at Vicksburg National Military Park

Vilas was born in Chelsea, Vermont, the son of Esther Greene (Smilie) and Levi Baker Vilas, a politician. His grandfather was Nathan Smilie, a Democratic politician who ran for Governor of Vermont in 1839.[3] Vilas moved to Madison, Wisconsin with his family in 1851. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1858, and from the Albany Law School in 1860.


He enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War and was a captain in the 23rd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment and later served as the lieutenant colonel of that regiment.[4]

Following the war, Vilas was a Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and a regent of the University from 1880 to 1885 and 1898 to 1905. Vilas served as a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1885, until he was appointed the Postmaster General between 1885 and 1888, and as Secretary of the Interior from 1888 to 1889, both under President Grover Cleveland.[4]

After leaving the cabinet, he led Wisconsin German Americans in the protest against the Bennett Law of 1889 which required schools to only use the English language. From 1891 until 1897, he was a member of the United States Senate, in which, during President Cleveland's second term, he was recognized as the chief defender of the Administration, and he was especially active in securing the repeal of the silver purchase clause of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act.[5] He was unsuccessful in an 1896 reelection bid, having been defeated by Senator John Coit Spooner, who held the seat before him and whom Vilas had defeated for reelection in 1890.

Vilas was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention of 1896, but withdrew after the adoption of the free-silver plank. He then became one of the chief organizers of the National Democratic Party, attended the convention at Indianapolis, and was chairman of its committee on resolutions.[5] He was also the main drafter of the National Democratic Party's platform. Vilas, a favorite of the delegates, refused to run as the party's sacrificial lamb.

Back in Wisconsin, he was from 1897 to 1903 a member of the commission that had charge of the erection of the State Historical Library at Madison, and from 1906 to 1908 of the commission for the construction of the new state capitol.[5]

Anna M. Fox

Personal life[edit]

Vilas's grave at Forest Hill Cemetery

He married Anna M. Fox, who had been born in the territory of Wisconsin. Their younger son died in early childhood and their elder daughter, Nellie, died in 1893. The surviving children were Henry and Mary Esther.[6]

He is interred at the Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison, Wisconsin.[7]


Vilas County, Wisconsin, is named for William F. Vilas.[8] Senator Vilas is also the namesake of the towns of Vilas, Colorado[9] and Vilas, South Dakota.[10] His childhood home in Madison is located in what is now the Langdon Street Historic District. His family donated land to the city of Madison to build a public park, which later became a part of the Henry Vilas Zoo.


  1. ^ "Vilas, William Freeman 1840-1908". Wisconsin Historical Society. August 3, 2012. Retrieved September 22, 2022.
  2. ^ "William Vilas". University of Wisconsin–Madison. July 6, 2020. Retrieved September 22, 2022.
  3. ^ Merrill, Horace (1954). William Freeman Vilas: Doctrinaire Democrat. Madison, Wisconsin: State Historical Society of Wisconsin. p. 7.
  4. ^ a b Chisholm 1911.
  5. ^ a b c  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Vilas, William Freeman". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 28 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 66–67.
  6. ^ Hinman, Ida (1895). The Washington Sketch Book, Supplement. Washington, DC: Hartman & Cadick. p. 11.
  7. ^ "Vilas, William Freeman". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Retrieved October 7, 2022.
  8. ^ "Vilas County History". Archived from the original on November 7, 2012. Retrieved August 23, 2008.
  9. ^ Dawson, John Frank (1954). Place names in Colorado: why 700 communities were so named, 150 of Spanish or Indian origin. Denver, CO: The J. Frank Dawson Publishing Co. p. 50.
  10. ^ Chicago and North Western Railway Company (1908). A History of the Origin of the Place Names Connected with the Chicago & North Western and Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha Railways. p. 134.


External links[edit]

Military offices
Preceded by Command of the 23rd Wisconsin Infantry Regiment
June 5, 1863 – August 25, 1863
Succeeded by
Lt. Col. Edgar P. Hill
Wisconsin State Assembly
Preceded by Member of the Wisconsin State Assembly from the Dane 1st district
January 5, 1885 – March 9, 1885
Succeeded by
U.S. Senate
Preceded by United States Senator (Class 3) from Wisconsin
with Philetus Sawyer (1891–1893)
John L. Mitchell (1893–1897)
Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by United States Postmaster General
Served under: Grover Cleveland

Succeeded by
Preceded by U.S. Secretary of the Interior
Served under: Grover Cleveland

Succeeded by