Dayton, William L.

Born: 1807-02-17 Basking Ridge, New Jersey

Died: 1864-12-01 Paris, France

William L. Dayton was a lawyer, state legislator, judge, U.S. senator, and diplomat. Having received his pre-collegiate education at Trenton Academy, Dayton matriculated to the College of New Jersey (Princeton), graduating in 1825. He taught school and read law in Somerville, earning admission to the New Jersey bar in 1830 and commencing the practice of law in Freehold, New Jersey. Dayton married Margaret Elmendorf Van Der Veer in 1833, with whom he had seven children. Dayton entered the Whig Party, and in 1837, capitalizing on the Panic of 1837 and the concomitant economic collapse, won election to the New Jersey General Assembly. Dayton left the General Assembly only after a few weeks to become an associate judge of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Finding his salary insufficient to support his growing family, Dayton resigned in 1841 to return to private law practice in Trenton, New Jersey. In May 1842, Governor William Pennington appointed him to the U.S. Senate to fill the unexpired term of Samuel L. Southard. Dayton won reelection in his own right in 1845, serving in the Senate until March 1851. With the Whigs out of power and Dayton a naturally quiet, self-effacing man, he made few contributions to the legislation coming out of the Senate, but he did make his presence known regarding the extension of slavery, supporting the Wilmot Proviso and opposing the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, and the Compromise of 1850. At the end of his term in the Senate, Dayton resumed practicing law. In 1856, he joined the Republican Party, and delegates at the first Republican National Convention nominated him as their vice presidential nominee alongside John C. Fremont, Dayton beating Abraham Lincoln for the nomination. After the failed campaign, Dayton became the New Jersey attorney general and remained in that office until 1861, when President Lincoln appointed him ambassador to France. Although he did not speak French, Dayton effectively pressured Napoleon III to refrain from intervening in the Civil War. He remained ambassador until his death.

Norman B. Ferris, “Dayton, William Lewis,” American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 6:280-81; Biographical Directory of the American Congress 1774-1949 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1950), 1067-68; Gravestone, Riverview Cemetery, Trenton, NJ.