Noted for his “high integrity, great worth, and unchallenged humor,” Senator William George Hawkins was born on January 25, 1799 near Albert Gallatin’s estate at New Geneva, George’s Creek, Fayette County, the son of Maryland Quaker William Hawkins, Jr. and Jane Wilson Bullitt Hawkins. After his father’s death in 1810, William’s mother remarried General John Minor of Greene County, who moved the family to Greensboro. The senator married Ellen Hill in 1820, the daughter of two-time Speaker of the State House of Representatives Col. Rees Hill. She died in 1824, Hawkins marrying a second time to Margaret Dillinger, five years later.
William received a rural subscription education, studied law, gained admittance to the county bar, and received an appointment as attorney for the Greene County Court of Common Pleas in 1821. He later served as a school director in North Union Township, Greene County, advancing to the 1824 state Senate as Fayette-Greene’s Democratic-Republican choice in Harrisburg. He served eight years before losing his seat through redistricting. Hawkins served as Speaker from 1830 through 1832.
A major national issue confronted Hawkins on March 24, 1831, as the Senate addressed the “Maysville Resolution.” Hawkins supported Jackson’s veto of the national improvement program; and also advocated aggressive tariff legislation, communicating a warning to Congress to beware of commercial “foreign imposition.” The measure expressed Pennsylvania’s objection to any attempt to diminish the duty on iron, while in the process of considering the upcoming 1832 Tariff Act.
“Distribution of surplus treasury revenue” reflected another pressing matter before Congress. Hawkins believed in the proportionate allocation of funds by congressional delegation size, not simply divided into equal shares among states. The relevant sections passed easily, the body attaching a final “surprise” provision, urging the renewal of the charter of the Second Bank of the United States. The “Bank,” whether Jackson opposed its continued service or not, represented a Philadelphia-based federal institution and a source of great pride to some Pennsylvanians. For the moment, its re-chartering received the emphatic support of the Speaker, while stimulating the ire of opponents who regarded the institution’s 24 directors as “arrogant and reckless,” and the Bank itself as “the great corporate moneyed power of the Union.”
Other legislative initiatives promoted by Hawkins included a measure to save lotteries as a means to raise corporate capital, the construction of a slack-water and sluice navigation system down the Monongahela to the Virginia line, gratis education for the poor, and a state and county subsidized public education funding bill. Issues disfavored by Hawkins included any version of the fugitives from labor act that promised comity with slave-states.
Senator Hawkins retired from government service in 1833, moved to Pittsburgh, joined the Allegheny bar, and established a “large and lucrative” law practice. His passing lamented by fellow Pittsburgh Bar Association colleagues, some considered Hawkins “a man who had no false pretensions of character, and had no excuses or toleration” for liars and cheaters: “he was what other men desired to appear to be.” The Honorable William George Hawkins died at “Hawkins Station,” Pittsburgh, April 11, 1876, the oldest member of the city’s bar. Noting the senator’s remarkable humility, as he resigned the Speaker’s chair in 1832, he confessed:
“The only return which I have been able to make to you, has been the imperfect manner in which I have performed the duty, and though I am conscious that the services imposed upon me by the situation have not been as well performed as my friends had a right to expect, or I myself could desire, yet I can say with truth that the failure has not been willful … I shall return to the bosom of my constituents with a heart full of gratitude, and with feelings of attachment which such a length of social intercourse cannot fail to produce.”
Pittsburgh Gazette, April 13, 1876; History of Fayette County, Pennsylvania, (HFC) 139, 677, 696; Stephen Doell, “Provenance,” William George Hawkins File, WPHS; Pennsylvania (Harrisburg) Reporter, August 22, 1834; Note: The State Funding Bill passed in 1831 under Hawkins; however the final school system bill did not pass until 1836; Pittsburgh Gazette, April 13, 1876; second quote, Marshall Schwartzwelder, Daily Gazette; Pittsburgh Daily Gazette, April 12, 1876.