Well-connected socially and politically, William Rush Merriam rose through the legislative ranks to become governor of Minnesota by age thirty-nine.
Born in Wadhams Mills, New York, on July 26, 1849, Merriam moved to St. Paul with his family in 1861. At age fifteen, he left to attend school in Racine, Wisconsin, and graduated from Racine College in 1871 as valedictorian. In 1872, he married Laura Hancock, niece of Civil War General Winfield Scott Hancock. They eventually had five children.
Merriam returned to St. Paul after college and established himself in banking, becoming president of the Merchants' National Bank in St. Paul by 1884. Merriam, a Republican, was elected as a representative to the state legislature in 1882. He was not reelected in 1884, but at his reelection in 1886, he was chosen speaker of the house.
By 1888, there was a split in the state Republican Party that affected the governor's race. Instead of supporting the reform-minded Republican incumbent, Andrew McGill, a majority of Republicans rallied behind Merriam, who was thought to be more electable. Merriam carried the state by a large margin, becoming the eleventh governor of Minnesota on January 9, 1889.
Merriam's reelection campaign for governor two years later was affected by another, more widespread phenomenon, the Farmers' Alliance. The Alliance, a third party of dissatisfied Republicans and Democrats, was dedicated to promoting the interests of American farmers. Merriam defeated the Alliance candidate in 1890, but the upstart political party significantly lessened his margin of victory.
Merriam served as governor until January 4, 1893. As governor, he was more interested in limiting spending than in legislative reform. The most notable legacy of his administration was the adoption of the Australian ballot system, which allowed citizens to vote in comparative privacy.
In his private life, the sociable Merriam was keen on sports, owned horses, and was said by William Watts Folwell in his A History of Minnesota to possess "good nature, gracious manners, and [an] attractive personality."
In 1899, President William McKinley appointed Merriam director of the twelfth national census. Merriam later persuaded Congress to establish a permanent census bureau. He made his permanent home in Washington, DC, and never again lived in Minnesota. He retired to Florida, where he died on February 18, 1931, at age eighty-two.
"Ex-Governor Merriam Dies at Age of 82." St. Paul Dispatch, February 18, 1931.
Folwell, William Watts. A History of Minnesota. Vol. 3. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1969. First published in 1926.
Shippee, Lester B. "Merriam, William Rush." In Dictionary of American Biography, edited by Dumas Malone, vol. 6, 554–555. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1933.
In 1882, William Rush Merriam is elected as a representative to the state legislature and begins his rise to the Minnesota governor's office.