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William Lyne Wilson


U.S. Postmaster General William Lyne Wilson (May 3, 1843-October 17, 1900) was born in Smithfield, Jefferson County. He was educated at Charles Town Academy and graduated from Columbian College (now George Washington University) at age 17. Following graduate study at the University of Virginia, he joined the Confederate army. After serving throughout the Civil War, Wilson became professor of Latin at Columbian College, where he also studied law, graduating in 1867.

Wilson returned to Charles Town in 1871 to practice law. He prospered as a lawyer and became active in politics and education. Soon after Wilson’s selection as president of West Virginia University in 1882, he accepted the Democratic nomination for House of Representatives and was elected. Continuing as WVU’s president until June 1883, Wilson entered Congress, where he served six terms.

Wilson’s expertise on tariff reduction, a fundamental principle of the Democratic majority, led to his appointment as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Responding to the economic depression of 1893–94, Wilson prepared a revolutionary bill to reduce tariffs, but Senate modifications neutralized its effect. The failure of this legislation and the Democrats’ apparent inability to deal with the depression led to the widespread defeat of Democrats, including Wilson, in the 1894 election.

Wilson joined President Cleveland’s cabinet as postmaster general in 1895. In the following year, he introduced Rural Free Delivery in Jefferson County, an experiment which was quickly instituted nationwide. At the end of the Cleveland administration in March 1897, Wilson became president of Washington and Lee University. He died in Lexington, Virginia.

Written by Harold Malcolm Forbes


  1. Summers, Festus P. William L. Wilson and Tariff Reform. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953.

  2. Wilson, William L. A Borderland Confederate, Edited by Festus P Summers. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 1962.

  3. Wilson, William L. The Cabinet Diary of William L. Wilson, 1896-1897, Edited by Festus P. Summers. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957.