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|Governor of Indiana
State House Rotunda
3rd floor, Facing north,
Oneida County, New York
Ashbel Parsons Willard was born on October 31, 1820 in Vernon, Oneida County, New York. His father, Erastus Willard, was a farmer and his mother Sarah Parsons Willard, provided his initial instruction for the first 10 years of his life. At the age of 10, Willard attended district school, participating in debating club. In 1835, Willard’s father became the sheriff of Onieda County, and soon after Willard began to attend Clinton Liberal Institute (1836-1837). After graduating from Clinton, Willard attended Hamilton College, graduating from there in 1842 as valedictorian of his class. At that time, Willard moved to Marshall, Michigan to settle the estates of two elder brothers and studied law there.1
Before Willard settled down in Indiana, he also lived in Texas and Kentucky, teaching school in both Carrollton and Louisville. While living in Kentucky, he began to campaign on behalf of James K. Polk during the 1844 presidential election. While campaigning, Willard made a stop in New Albany, where he impressed the citizens and was asked to settle there. Ashbel P. Willard moved to New Albany in the spring of 1845, where he opened up a law practice and worked for a short time in the office of the Floyd County Clerk.2 In 1847, Willard married Caroline C. Cook, and they went on to have three children.3
Willard’s interest in politics began soon after his move to New Albany, and he was elected to the city council of New Albany in 1849. One year later, Willard ran and was elected to serve as the Floyd County representative to the Indiana State Legislature. While serving as a state representative, Willard became chairman of the House Ways and Means committee (1851), and was an acknowledged leader of Indiana’s Democratic Party by the end of his first session in the Indiana House.4 This standing earned Willard a Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor in 1852, running with Joseph A. Wright, the Democratic candidate for governor.5 The pair ran a successful campaign, and Willard served for four years as the Indiana lieutenant governor.
At the end of his term as lieutenant governor, Willard became the Democratic candidate for governor, and his opponent was Oliver P. Morton. While campaigning, Willard’s strength in public speaking was his greatest asset. Morton and Willard participated in a number of debates, and slavery was an important issue. Willard supported slavery in the South and wanted to uphold the Fugitive Slave Law. Willard won the 1856 gubernatorial race in Indiana by nearly 6,000 votes.6 He was the youngest governor ever elected in Indiana.7
In 1859, the pro-Southern slavery governor ran into some trouble in the form of his brother-in-law, John E. Cook, who was a raider captured with the abolitionist John Brown at Harpers Ferry. Though Willard supported slavery in the South, he decided to assist Cook, asking the lawyer Daniel W. Voorhees to defend Cook at his trial in Charlestown. Willard testified at the trial on behalf of the abolitionist, which affected his popularity in Indiana. Despite the support of the Indiana governor and the counsel of Voorhees, Cook was ultimately hanged in 1859.8
Willard had suffered from tuberculosis for years.9 In order to treat his ailments, Willard had traveled to different climates at various times in his life, and in 1860 he made a trip to Saint Paul, Minnesota with the hope of regaining his health. He had experienced some hemorrhaging of the lungs while giving a speech at a state Democratic meeting in Columbus, Indiana. A month into his time in Minnesota, Willard relapsed and died on October 4, 1860. He was the first governor of Indiana to die in office.10 Following his death, the body of Governor Willard was brought to Indianapolis, where he lay in state for three days, on view in the Indiana State House.11 Willard was then brought to New Albany where he was interred at Fairview Cemetery.12
Henry Dexter was a sculptor who had worked to produce busts of state governors. On April 25, 1860, Governor Moses Wisner of Michigan wrote a letter to Ashbel P. Willard, suggesting that he enlist Dexter to create his bust. The original bust produced by Dexter in 1860 is held by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.13
Henry Dexter was born in Nelson, New York in 1806. Following his father’s death, the Dexter family moved to Connecticut, where Dexter became a blacksmith’s apprentice. In 1836, Dexter moved to Boston and opened his own studio, and he began to sculpt famous individuals. Between 1838 and 1875, Dexter sculpted over 200 busts. In the 1850s, Dexter had the goal of sculpting the busts of the President and all state governors. He was able to create 31 busts during this project, though they were not all displayed at the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. as had been planned, due to the secession of a number of Southern states. As a result of the significant costs that he incurred in travelling around the country creating these busts, Dexter spent a number of years in poverty. Dexter died on June 23, 1876.14