Thomas Ewing, Sr. was born in West Liberty, Virginia (now West Virginia). The date of his birth is uncertain. The Ewing family bible records it as December 28, 1789, but Ewing relates in an autobiography of his early life that “my Mother often told me it was a mistake, and that I was born the day after Christmas-the 26th.”
Ewing was the son of Revolutionary War veteran George Ewing and Rachel (Harris) Ewing. In 1792, the Ewing family moved to the Northwest Territory, near Marietta, in what is now southeast Ohio. In 1798, the family settled on a remote farm in Ames Township in Athens County. As Ewing recalled, “My Father’s little cabin was about fourteen miles from any inhabitants with whom we had associations . . .” Ewing’s sister taught her younger brother to read at an early age. Ewing also received some formal education during the winters when he was not working on the family farm.
In 1809, nineteen-year-old Ewing left the farm “for a few months in search of adventure.” He made his way to the Kanawha Salt Works in western Virginia, where he found work as a laborer for three months. While employed there, Ewing determined that he “could in a few years earn money enough to educate me for a profession.” The next spring, after helping his father put in the summer crop, Ewing returned to Kanawha and earned enough money to enroll at Ohio University in Athens. For the next few years, his work at the salt works provided sufficient funds for Ewing to complete his college education and to help pay off “a residue of my Father’s debts, and put his little farm in order.” In 1815, Ewing became one of the first two students to receive a bachelor’s degree from Ohio University.
After graduating from college, Ewing moved to Lancaster, Ohio, where he studied law with Ohio Congressman Philemon Beecher. Ewing passed the Ohio bar in 1816 and formed a partnership with his mentor. From 1818 to 1829, Ewing also served as prosecuting attorney of Fairfield County, Ohio.
Marriage and Family
On January 7, 1820, Ewing married Maria Wills Boyle, the niece of his law partner. The couple produced seven children, six of whom survived infancy. Three of their sons, Hugh Boyle Ewing, Thomas Ewing, Jr., and Charles Ewing, became general officers during the American Civil War. A fourth son, Philemon Beecher Ewing, later became his father’s law partner and a justice of the Ohio Supreme Court. The Ewing family also became the ward of William Tecumseh Sherman after this child’s father, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Charles R. Sherman, died unexpectedly in 1829.
In 1823, Ewing ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the Ohio General Assembly. Seven years later, the Ohio Senate elected him as an anti-Jacksonian United States Senator. Ewing served in the Twenty-second through Twenty-fourth United States Congresses from March 4, 1831 to March 3, 1837. When Ewing’s term expired in 1836, the Ohio Senate replaced him with Democrat William Allen.
U.S. Secretary of the Treasury
In 1841, President William Henry Harrison selected Ewing as his Secretary of the Treasury. Harrison died after only one month in office and John Tyler succeeded him. Ewing served under Tyler for only six months, resigning on September 13, because of a dispute over Tyler’s veto of a bill establishing a national bank.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior
In 1849, President Zachary Taylor selected Ewing to serve as the nation’s first Secretary of the Interior. Ewing held that position from March 8, 1849 until July 22, 1850. During his brief tenure, the press began referring to the secretary as “Butcher Ewing,” because of his brazen replacement of government employees with political supporters.
Return to the Senate
Following Ewing’s resignation as Secretary of the Interior, the Ohio Senate appointed him to fill a vacancy in the United States Senate created by the resignation of Thomas Corwin to become President Millard Fillmore‘s Secretary of the Treasury. Ewing served his second term in the Senate from July 20, 1850 to March 3, 1851. In 1851, the Ohio Senate replaced Ewing with Benjamin Wade, and Ewing returned to his law practice.
Washington Place Conference
In 1861, Ohio Governor William Dennison selected Ewing as one of Ohio’s delegates to the Washington Peace Conference, an unsuccessful attempt to avert the American Civil War.
After the Civil War began, Ewing supported the Union cause, and he served as an adviser to President Abraham Lincoln. Like the president, he was not a Radical Republican.
Following Lincoln’s assassination, Ewing endorsed President Andrew Johnson and his moderate Reconstruction policies. Johnson rewarded Ewing’s support by nominating him as Secretary of War after dismissing Edwin M. Stanton in 1868. The Senate, however, never confirmed Ewing’s nomination because of an ongoing clash with the president over the 1867 Tenure of Office Act.
In October 1869, Ewing collapsed while arguing a case before the United States Supreme Court. He lingered on in ill health for two years, before dying at his home in Lancaster, Ohio, on October 26, 1871. Although Ewing was born a Presbyterian, he was baptized as a Catholic just before his death. Ewing was buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery, in Lancaster, Ohio.