Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Richard A. Ballinger (1909–1911): Secretary of the Interior

Born in Boonesborough, Iowa, on July 9, 1858, Richard Achilles Ballinger followed the path of his father into law, graduating from Williams College in 1884, joining the bar two years later, and gaining talent in the field of public land law. Settling in the then-Washington Territory in 1886, Ballinger would serve as mayor of Seattle from 1904 to 1906.

Ballinger was brought to Washington by his old classmate at Williams, Theodore Roosevelt's secretary of the interior James Garfield, who employed Ballinger as commissioner of the General Land Office in 1907. Ballinger then returned to the private sector until President William Howard Taft appointed him secretary of the interior in 1909. Taft's move irritated Gifford Pinchot, who ran the Department of Agriculture's Forest Service. This antagonism would escalate into a heated confrontation between the two. Pinchot claimed that Ballinger was corrupted by coal interests in Alaska; moreover, he charged that Ballinger betrayed the conservationist legacy of Theodore Roosevelt by declaring illegal Pinchot's handover of private lands to the public sector.

While Ballinger was cleared of corruption charges by President Taft and Congress, Pinchot won over public opinion, challenging Ballinger's integrity and Taft's adherence to the Roosevelt legacy. The rift would come to be known as the Ballinger-Pinchot controversy, a tangle which served to divide the Republican party, contributing to the 1912 presidential victory of Woodrow Wilson. Ballinger would leave office in 1911 and return to his law practice in Seattle, where he died on June 6, 1922.