Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

William L. Wilson (1895–1897): Postmaster General

William Lyne Wilson was born in Jefferson County, Virginia (now West Virginia) on May 3, 1843. He attended school at Charles Town Academy and later went on to Columbian College (now George Washington University) in 1858. He graduated in two years and then studied as a graduate student at the University of Virginia until the outbreak of the Civil War.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Wilson enlisted in the Confederate Army and served in the 12th Virginia Calvary. He was present when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant in 1865. After the war, he returned to Columbian College to work as an assistant professor while attending law school. He returned to Charles Town to open a law practice in 1871. It was during that time that Wilson developed a strong interest in politics and became an active member of the Democratic Party. In 1882, he became president of West Virginia University in Morgantown, but had a short tenure as he was elected to the United States House of Representatives the same year. Wilson served in the House until 1895 and was chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

On February 24, 1895, President Grover Cleveland called Wilson to the White House and offered him the cabinet position of Postmaster General. This arrangement was kept secret until it was brought before the U.S. Senate four days later. Wilson was unanimously confirmed and sworn in as the 37th Postmaster General on April 3, 1895. President Cleveland appreciated Wilson’s devotion to the Democratic Party, and the appointment was largely a measure to reward his loyalty. As Postmaster General, Wilson placed a great emphasis on applying more efficient business methods and focused heavily on the civil service responsibilities of the Post Office Department.

Wilson left office at the end of Cleveland’s tenure in 1897. He retired to Lexington, Virginia, and served as president of Washington and Lee University until his death. He died on October 17, 1900, and was buried in Charles Town, West Virginia.