REPRESENTATIVE AND LEADING
MEN OF THE PACIFIC
GEORGE L. WOODS
By CALVIN B. McDONALD.
Governor Woods is one of the most distinctive representative men in the rising commonwealth of Oregon. Indeed, he may be regarded as the most noted and conspicuous among the many really brilliant and able men who give character to that State, possessing that wonderful sorcery of speech which Nature bestows on but a few of her children, and which can so easily advance its possessor to renown. Whatever be his other qualifications, Governor Woods is unquestionably the most eloquent orator now living in the Pacific States, and as such is entitled to a conspicuous place among the representative men of the nation.
George Lemuel Woods, the present Governor of Oregon, was born in Boone county, Missouri, July 30th, 1832. He is of Scottish descent, his ancestors having come over to this country in the latter part of the seventeenth century and settled in Virginia. His father was born in Kentucky; his mother in Tennessee; the former removed to Missouri, and settled there in 1808. The subject of these remarks is the second of four sons, two of whom are dead. He removed from Missouri to the Territory of Oregon in 1847, when only fifteen years old, and has resided there ever since, much of the time in what is known as Eastern Oregon, that portion of the State lying east of the Cascade mountains. In April, 1852, he was married, and began life without means, relying wholly upon his own exertions; taking a homestead upon unimproved Government lands, which he cultivated by his own labor, building houses and barns, fencing and plowing, after the manner of settlers on the border.
In 1856, having determined to enter a different sphere in life, with a family to be supported, and only a limited common-school education, young Woods sold his property and entered school, intending to prepare himself for the study of the law, and continued his earnest and successful studies until his means were exhausted. Having thus prosecuted his preparatory studies under difficulties, he purchased a small law library; paid for it by working at a carpenter’s bench during the day; and studied its contents by night, until ready to be admitted to practice. His success at the bar corresponded with his indomitable resolution, and he soon rose to distinction in his district.
In July, 1863, Gov. Woods’ public life commenced by his appointment to the Judgeship of Wasco county, in which capacity he served a year with satisfaction to the community and honor to himself. In March, 1864, he was nominated on the Union Presidential Electoral ticket, and took an active part in that campaign, making known the remarkable powers as a popular orator and stump speaker which have since given him a national distinction. His boldness and eloquence of speech made him the particular mark for his political adversaries in that State, where election campaigns are conducted with great vigor and in the true Western style. In Oregon, opponents, whether candidates or campaigners, travel together, meet face to face, and discuss the issues from hand to hand, sometimes before vast throngs; and for that sort of discussion Woods was admirably prepared through his rapid flow of language, ready wit, and graceful conduct as a speaker. In that memorable campaign, the Democracy selected the Hon. Aaron E. Wait, late Chief Justice of the State, and a gentleman of commanding abilities, while the Union party chose the young and then unknown George L. Woods as their champion. The conflict was fierce and exciting, and Wait was vanquished at every encounter.
Two years after, Woods was appointed, by the President, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Idaho; but before the arrival of his commission, he was nominated for Governor by the Union State convention of Oregon. The opposing candidate on the Democratic side was the Hon. James L. Kelly, an old and experienced politician, and an eminent lawyer. Again young Woods had a foeman worthy of his steel; the struggle was the most exciting in the history of Oregon politics, and occurred just at the time of President Johnson’s rupture with his party, and when the whole country was in a state of unusual excitement. The conflict between the rival champions was resolute and deadly beyond all precedent; but, as in the previous campaign, and notwithstanding the formidable character of his adversary, Woods was equal to the great occasion, discomfited his opponent at every turn, and was elected.
During the gubernatorial campaign in California, in 1867, the Republican State Central Committee invited Gov. Woods to come to their assistance; and although in feeble health, he responded at once, traveled and labored incessantly, making thirty speeches in thirty-five consecutive nights, of which twenty-six were in the open air and before immense audiences. His popularity was everywhere established; no public speaker in that State ever created greater enthusiasm, or won brighter laurels. His speech in the great Union Hall in San Francisco was considered one of the most excellent and powerful ever heard in that city. It is true that on account of an unfortunate division, his party was defeated; but it is believed that the enthusiasm created by the eloquent Oregonian, as much as any other cause, saved the Republican party of California from utter demoralization through division and disaster.
In the winter of 1868, at the solicitation of the Republican State Central Committee of New Hampshire and Connecticut, Gov. Woods went to the East and assisted in canvassing those States. His success and popularity were as great in classic New England as they had been in the distant west of Oregon and California. While more than fifty of the most distinguished orators and stump-speakers of the nation took part in that exciting and desperate canvass, the leading journals of those States referred to the Oregonian as being the most eloquent and brilliant of them all; and through such grave testimony, and in the presence of such competition, it was there demonstrated that his fame and popularity are not things belonging only in the Far West.
In person, Gov. Woods is tall, graceful, and commanding, with a handsome, cheerful face, which is set off by a full, flowing beard, and manifesting the utmost mental activity. He is one of those positive and magnetic men who draw around them a great number of intimate and devoted friends, and possess about an equal number of very decided enemies; but, in his case, these last are the result of political antagonism. His political adversaries in Oregon regard him as their most dangerous and destructive foe, and on the other hand, his political friends consider him their most steadfast and indomitable champion, who never loses a battle. His manner of speaking is rapid, but distinct and impressive, never using long or high-sounding words or indulging in any extravagance or impropriety of metaphor. He seems to depend on the natural forces of ideas rather than upon the sonorousness of words; and although never written, unless by some swift reporter at the time of their delivery, his speeches would be considered well adapted to the most refined of lecture-rooms. Although they may be at times insupportably severe, his remarks are never coarse or personally offensive. Perhaps no American orator is capable of a quicker or keener retort, but it is a cut from a rapier, rather than a stroke with a bludgeon. This peculiar style of political fence is one of Wood’s strongest points, and is an essential of popular stump speaking in Oregon, where political meetings are actually debates before both sides, of the question, and where the orator is subject to frequent interruptions by his opening or by some questioner in the audience. Such a thing as a set speech at a political meeting in that State would be one of the most grotesque of absurdities, and an orator without presence of mind and the capacity to turn an unexpected question to good account, would be a gentleman to be pitied and a person suitable for immediate emigration. Notwithstanding his rapid utterance, and their sometimes great length, Woods’ speeches cannot be called diffuse in style; on the contrary, they seem to be each an exhaustive argument—an oration complete in all its parts, with a beginning, a middle and an ending, and often containing passages of lofty and surprising beauty, but never extending to empty declamation or the transgression of rhetorical laws.
The writer of this has heard Gov. Woods many times both in California and Oregon, and is of opinion that as a popular orator, he is the most brilliant and effective now living in either of those States. As an orator, as a patriot, citizen, and man, he is entitled to a high place, not only among the representative men of the Pacific, but of the whole country. The distinction which he has attained under great disadvantages at home, he is capable of maintaining anywhere in the Republic; and if life and circumstances permit, his friends may hope to see him in a position as nationally distinctive as that is individual and distinguished which he now bears to his own State.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Shuck, Oscar T., “Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific”, Bacon & Co., Printers & Publishers, San Francisco, 1870. Pages 271-275.
© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.