Thomas Corwin

With a political resume that includes Congressman, Senator, Governor and Secretary of the Treasury, Thomas Corwin is arguably the most influential figure in Lebanon's history.

Corwin was born in Bourbon County, Ky., on July 29, 1794. Four years later, his family moved to the future site of Lebanon. His father, Matthias, was the brother of Lebanon's first settler, Ichabod Corwin, who had arrived in 1796.

Four-year-old Thomas was an early student of Francis Dunlavy, the first teacher in the Miami Valley. Dunlavy ran a log-cabin subscription school west of town on Main Street where the city water department is now located.

But Thomas’s formal education was short-lived. His father was poor and believed that he could support the continued education of one son. So while the oldest son, also named Matthias, attended school, Thomas worked on the family farm. Despite the lack of a formal education, Thomas learned quickly and acquired skill as an eloquent public speaker, attributes that would serve him well later in life.

By the time he was 18, Corwin began driving wagon-loads of supplies to Gen. William Henry Harrison's army during the War of 1812. Corwin did this with such success and frequency, that he earned the nickname "Wagon Boy" or “Wagoner Boy.”

Corwin studied law in the office of Lebanon's first lawyer, Joshua Collett. By 1817 he was admitted to the Ohio bar and wasted no time entering politics. The following year he was elected Warren County prosecuting attorney and served for ten years, while at the same time serving three terms in the Ohio General Assembly.

As a representative in the Ohio House, Corwin was following in his father's footsteps. Matthias had been elected to 11 consecutive terms as a representative with two terms as House Speaker.

On November 13, 1822, Thomas married Sarah Ross, originally from Chester County, Pa. They had five children: Catherine (1827), William Henry (1829), Evalina (1831), Maria Louisa (1834) and Caroline, “Carrie,” (1836).

In 1830, Corwin was elected to Congress, where he represented his Ohio district as a member of the Whig Party. While in Washington, the Wagon Boy earned a new nickname: "the terror of the house," for his spirited and witty debate. Ten years later he retired from the legislature and was elected governor of Ohio.

The Democrats controlled both houses of the state legislature, making governing difficult for Corwin. The Whigs' plan for a state bank was shot down and Ohio remained in an economic downturn. After an unsuccessful bid for reelection in 1842 in which he lost by less than 4,000 votes, Corwin returned to Lebanon, where he and his wife, Sarah, raised their family in a house on Main Street built by Sarah’s brother, Phineas Ross. Corwin would not suffer political defeat again, he would return to Washington in 1845, this time as a Senator.

While on the campaign trail, Corwin became known for his eloquence and humor as a public speaker.

One example of Corwin's wit is illustrated in a story often told in the halls of Congress, although its truthfulness cannot be verified. While walking with Rep. John C. Calhoun, the two Congressmen observed a drove of Ohio mules moving through the streets of Washington. Calhoun quipped, "There goes some of your constituents." To which Corwin reportedly replied, "Yes, they are going down South to teach school."

Corwin was not one to abandon his principles, even in the face of heavy opposition. On February 11, 1847, Sen. Corwin spoke out against President James K. Polk's escalation of the Mexican War. In his speech against an appropriations bill that would supply American soldiers in the field, Corwin questioned whether the fighting was actually over U.S. soil.

Two years earlier, Congress had drawn Texas's border with Mexico at the Rio Grande. Mexico claimed that the border was 150 miles north at the Nueces River.

"What is the territory, [President Polk], which you propose to wrest from Mexico?" Corwin asked on the Senate floor. "His Bunker Hills and Saratogas and Yorktowns are there! ... The Senator from Michigan says ... we want room. If I were a Mexican I would tell you, 'Have you not room in your own country to bury your dead men? If you come to mine, we will greet you with bloody hand, and welcome you to hospitable graves."

Corwin spoke for two and a half hours and was afterwards labeled a traitor by newspapers and burned in effigy across the country.

But not everyone was offended by Corwin's pleas. A young Congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln was impressed, and delivered a similar speech of his own on the floor of the House of Representatives.

In 1850, President Millard Fillmore appointed Corwin Secretary of the Treasury, a position he held for three years. At the conclusion of Fillmore’s presidency, Corwin returned to his law practice in Cincinnati while maintaining his residence in Lebanon.

Corwin returned to Congress in 1858, this time as a Republican. While running for relection in 1860, Corwin also campaigned on behalf of another Lebanon figure: Western Star founder John McLean. After McLean's campaign fizzled before the Republican Party convention, Corwin threw his support behind its candidate, Abraham Lincoln.

In 1961, President Lincoln, remembering Corwin's sympathy for the nation, named him Ambassador to Mexico. Corwin helped the Union maintain a strong relationship with Mexico during the Civil War.

Corwin retired to Washington in 1864, where he continued to practice law.

Five days after President Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, Corwin served as one of the president's 22 pallbearers.

On December 18, 1865, Corwin died suddenly from a stroke at the age of 69. He is buried in the Lebanon Cemetery next to his wife, Sarah.

thomas corwin portrait

Thomas Corwin, circa 1840

“The Senator from Michigan says ... we want room. If I were a Mexican I would tell you, ‘Have you not room in your own country to bury your dead men? If you come to mine, we will greet you with bloody hand, and welcome you to hospitable graves.’ ”
Sen. Thomas Corwin, protesting the Mexican War on the Senate floor in 1847

By Charlie Zimkus