William R. Merriam Biography

By 1888 a split had developed in the state Republican Party. Instead of supporting the reform-minded incumbent, Andrew McGill, for re-election, a majority of party stalwarts rallied behind William Merriam, an ambitious St. Paul banker (he was president of Merchants’ National Bank) and two-term member of the Minnesota House of Representatives, where he served as speaker in 1887. Merriam was thought to be more electable, and he won by a large margin.

Merriam’s re-election campaign was affected by another, more widespread phenomenon: the Farmers’ Alliance. This third party of disaffected Republicans and Democrats was dedicated to promoting the commercial and social interests of agrarian America. Merriam defeated the Alliance candidate in 1890, but the upstart party significantly eroded his plurality.

As governor, Merriam was a thrifty executive who 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 to possess “good nature, gracious manners, and an attractive personality.”

Merriam’s final accomplishment was appropriate for a banker and businessman who could work well with both people and numbers. He was director of the twelfth national census, serving from 1899 to 1903, and he later persuaded Congress to establish a permanent census bureau. Merriam never returned to Minnesota, but retired instead to Florida, where he died at age 82.