William Read Miller (1823–1887)
Twelfth Governor (1877–1881)
William Read Miller, the twelfth governor and a longtime state auditor, was the first governor born in Arkansas. The second Redeemer governor after Democrats overthrew the Republicans, Miller acted to preserve civil rights for African Americans and to advance the cause of public education.
William Miller was born on November 23, 1823, in Batesville (Independence County) to John and Clara Moore Miller. His father had built a log house north of Batesville that seems to have remained until the 1950s. The family settled on Miller’s Creek, and John Miller served as a Democratic elector in 1836 and 1840 and as registrar at the land office in Batesville from 1846 to 1848.
During the election of 1836, the young William Miller challenged local Whig leader C. F. M. Noland in public on the qualifications of Martin Van Buren, the Democratic nominee for president. At age seventeen, he told his father he wanted to be a lawyer. His father objected, saying he wanted no “jack-leg” or “shyster” lawyers in the family. He kept his son on the farm, and Miller only occasionally attended school. Upon turning twenty-one, Miller moved to Batesville, “without patrimony,” as his authorized biography phrased it. He was elected county clerk in 1848 and held that office until 1854. On January 27, 1849, he married Susan Elizabeth Bevens, daughter of Third Judicial District Judge William C. Bevens. Miller read law, perhaps under Bevens, but did not pursue a legal career until after the Civil War.
In 1854, Governor Elias Nelson Conway named Miller state auditor to succeed Christopher Columbus Danley, who had resigned. In 1855, Miller sought election to the post from the legislature but lost to Know-Nothing candidate Alexander S. Huey. Conway then named him one of the accountants reporting on the Real Estate Bank. That institution had gone bankrupt in 1841 and appointed receivers who tried to avoid embarrassing the bank’s creditors by their slow collecting procedures. Miller and William M. Gouge authored “Report of the Accountants… to Investigate the Affairs of the Real Estate Bank of Arkansas” (1856), which provided the first detailed look at the receivers’s method of debt liquidation. When Democrats regained control of the legislature in 1856, Miller returned to the auditor’s office. He remained there until the end of the Civil War. In 1865, he journeyed to Union-controlled Little Rock (Pulaski County) and surrendered the auditor’s books to James R. Berry, the auditor in the administration of Governor Isaac Murphy, who had been chosen by those in Union-occupied Arkansas.
The Union government created under the Constitution of 1864 when Murphy was governor held sway over Arkansas until 1868. In 1866, after a state Supreme Court ruling (Rison v. Farr, 1865) that removed obstacles to ex-Confederate voting, Miller was reelected to the auditor’s office. But congressional Reconstruction in 1868 interrupted his auditing career. Admitted to the bar that year, he returned to Batesville and stayed on the sidelines during the contested Reconstruction period. Elections that saw the adoption of the Constitution of 1874 also found Miller promptly reinstalled as auditor. His return prompted a second publication, “Digest of the Revenue Laws of the State of Arkansas” (1875). Miller remained in the office only two years. After Governor Augustus H. Garland moved on to the U.S. Senate, Miller became the winning Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 1876.
Miller served two two-year terms (he had no opposition in1878) but did not win a third. As governor, he scrupulously followed the Redeemer philosophy (also called New Departure Democrats) that emphasized economic growth with friendly relations between whites and African Americans as a way to further such growth. Evidence of Miller’s sincerity appeared in his first inaugural address, when he promised African Americans “to use the whole power of the state at my command to protect them, alike with all other citizens of the state, in all their legal and constitutional rights.” This put him at odds with racist extremists in his own party, most notably with the white leadership in Phillips County. Miller used the state militia to help keep order in Scott County, where family feuds turned into a small civil war, and in Union County, where outlaws operating along the Louisiana border were murdering African Americans indiscriminately. Democratic legislators responded by abolishing the office of adjutant general in order to render the governor powerless.
Miller also supported the plan to repay the state’s debts. William M. Fishback led the debt repudiation Democrats, while Augustus H. Garland was the most articulate spokesman for repayment. Ultimately, Fishback prevailed as voters repudiated ever paying the debt from the Real Estate Bank.
Miller was reluctant to use his pardoning powers, thus earning the nickname the “Hanging Governor,” the executive parallel of Arkansas’s “Hanging Judge,” Isaac Parker. Politically, Miller strongly supported public schools, but that, too, cost him support because Democrats, who had helped engineer the collapse of the public school system, often did not want it revived. He denounced paying teachers in depreciated state scrip, which would mean “our teachers must be half paid, or either half-rate teachers must be employed.” On higher education, then suffering from cutbacks, Miller observed, “liberality toward the university would be the best economy.” Besides calling for support for the state schools for the blind and deaf, at his second inaugural he endorsed building an insane asylum. He estimated that 300 insane people were housed miserably in jails around the state. All these stands helped contribute to his defeat, but one other issue came from those who believed in the George Washington precedent that two terms were enough. The two-term rule had operated in Arkansas before, but that was when the governor’s term was four years. Miller’s failure to secure a third term set a precedent that lasted into the twentieth century.
Unlike many politicians of his age, Miller seems not to have profited from his offices. Although he served as president of the Kansas City and New Orleans Railroad Company and was on the boards of other lines, he returned to work as deputy state treasurer in 1881–82. In 1886, he yet again was elected state auditor, mostly, it seems, because he “needed the position.” Among his clerks were his sons, William R. Miller Jr. and Hugh. He died on November 29, 1887. While his funeral at Little Rock’s Second Presbyterian Church was large and impressive, his grave at Mount Holly Cemetery remained unmarked until his wife died in 1905.
Miller had joined the Odd Fellows fraternal group in 1850 and became a Mason in 1859. A sanctioned biography referred to him as “a Methodist in principle,” although his wife and two daughters were Old School Presbyterians. By universal assessment, he was “the trusted man of trusted men” and did not cook the books. Nearly six feet tall, he presented “a business rather than professional appearance.” Granted an honorary degree in 1880 by Arkansas Industrial University (now the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County)), apparently the first granted to an Arkansas governor, he was known to have been outside the state only four times and then for short periods. Despite the length of his service, no collection of Miller papers exists, and he rarely corresponded with other politicians on the leading issues in his four decades of service.
For additional information:
DeBoer, Marvin E., ed. Dreams of Power and the Power of Dreams: The Inaugural Addresses of the Governors of Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1989.
Donovan, Timothy P., Willard B. Gatewood Jr., and Jeannie M. Whayne, eds. The Governors of Arkansas: Essays in Political Biography. 2d ed. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1995.
“Ex Governor Wm. R. Miller Passes Into Great Beyond.” Arkansas Gazette. November 30, 1887, p. 4.
Moneyhon, Carl H. Arkansas and the New South, 1874–1929. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, 1997.
Michael B. Dougan
Last Updated: 04/06/2018