Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Alexander Ramsey (1879–1881): Secretary of War

Alexander Ramsey was born in 1815 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He worked as a store clerk and in the office of the city register of deeds. He then attended Lafayette College, studied law, and was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in 1839.

Before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1842, Ramsey served as secretary of the state electoral college and chief clerk of the state assembly. He spent two terms in Congress before declining to run for reelection in 1846. He then became chairman of the Whig Party Central Committee in Pennsylvania for Zachary Taylor’s 1848 presidential campaign.

Upon Taylor’s election as President, he tapped Ramsey to become the first territorial governor of Minnesota, a post Ramsey held from 1849 to 1853. During his tenure, he established legislative and judicial districts, arranged for elections, and called for a census, better roads and mail service, the development of mineral resources, and restrictions on land speculation and liquor traffic with Native Americans.

Though he retired from politics in 1853, Ramsey was nevertheless elected mayor of St. Paul that same year. He made a failed bid for the governor’s mansion in 1857, but was more successful in 1859. Ramsey served as governor until 1863, when he was elected to the U.S. Senate. He remained in the Senate from 1863 to 1879, at which time President Hayes tapped Ramsey to fill the vacancy in the War Department left by the resignation of George W. McCrary. Ramsey served from 1879 until the end of the Hayes administration in 1881.

For the next five years, Ramsey worked as chairman of the Edmunds Commission that explored claims of polygamy in Utah. Alexander Ramsey retired in 1886 and died in 1903.