Minnesota Historical Society M-Flame Logo

William Merriam Biography

By 1888 a split in the state Republican Party was reflected in an unorthodox selection of a gubernatorial candidate. Instead of supporting the reform-minded incumbent, Andrew McGill, a majority of party stalwarts rallied behind William Merriam, an ambitious St. Paul banker and speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives.

Merriam's re-election campaign two years later 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 and 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.