About Robert Lee Williams
Robert Lee Williams (December 20, 1868 – April 10, 1948) was an American lawyer, judge, and politician who served as the third Governor of Oklahoma. Williams would also play a role in the drafting of the Oklahoma Constitution. Beyond his term as Governor, Williams would serve Oklahoma as the first Chief Justice of Oklahoma and would serve the United States as a District and Circuit Judge.
Williams was born on December 20, 1868, near Brundidge, Alabama. Williams earned a number of degrees, one included a study of Methodist doctrines, entitling him to become a certified minister. Earning a Doctor of Laws degree, Williams passed the Alabama bar exam in 1891 at the age of 23 and began his practice in Troy, Alabama.
At the age of 25, Williams, in 1893, moved to the Cherokee Outlet in Indian Territory following its opening where he briefly practiced law in Orlando. After a brief return to Alabama, Williams permanently return to Indian Territory and settled in Durant where he became increasingly involved in local politics. Williams became a driving force behind the Democratic Party in modern day eastern Oklahoma in his role as the national committeeman from Indian Territory.
Oklahoma Statehood and Chief Justice
Selected to represent Durant and the surrounding area at the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention, Williams traveled to Guthrie where he would meet two men that would have profound effects on both his and Oklahoma’s future: Charles N. Haskell and William H. Murray. Through their labors, Oklahoma’s Constitution was established and Oklahoma became a state on November 16, 1907. On that same day, Charles Haskell was inaugurated as the first Governor of Oklahoma.
Through his friendship with Haskell and his own skill as an attorney, Williams was appointed by Haskell to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Once on the Court, Williams was selected to serve as the Court’s first Chief Justice. He was reappointed that post again in 1908 and would serve in that office until 1914, the only position he would hold on Oklahoma’s highest court.
In 1914, before the end of Oklahoma’s second governor’s term, Governor Lee Cruce, Williams resigned from his position as Chief Justice in order to place his name in the Democratic primaries for Governor of Oklahoma. His fame as Chief Justice easily won him the Democratic nomination. Despite being a Democrat, Williams was fiercely conservative and possessed an assertive personality and held a high sense of duty. Williams’s Republican opponent was John Fields, the editor of a farm related newspaper based in Oklahoma City. Williams faced a difficult fight for the governorship with Fields’s paper granting him the majority of the farm related voters’ vote. Despite this Williams’s popularity won him the victory by a narrow margin. He was inaugurated as the third Governor of Oklahoma on January 11, 1915.
Governor of Oklahoma
What Governor Haskell initiated and Governor Cruce started, Governor Williams finished. On January 1, 1917, Williams officially moved into the Oklahoma State Capitol before it was completed. On July 1 of that year the State officially took control over the Capitol. The next year on March 18, 1918, the Oklahoma Legislature would hold its first meeting in its new permanent home. Despite the State’s adoption of the building, the Capitol was not completed until 1919, however the building lacked a dome. This problem was solved when in 2000, Governor Frank Keating proposed that a dome be added. The Capitol was finally “completed” with the erection of the dome on November 16, 2002.
When Williams took office, Oklahoma was suffering terrible economic troubles. Hoping to save the State, implemented policies that he believed would solve these problems and bring improvement. First Williams proposed legislation levying new taxes while appropriations for all state institutions were decreased in order to reduce the State’s deficit in the budget.
One of William’s greatest advances in the state’s economy came when he instituted the Oklahoma State Board of Affairs, which provided central purchasing services to all state agencies. Through this Board, many of Oklahoma’s boards, agencies, and institutions were consolidated. Williams influenced Oklahoma’s budget by making appointments and setting salaries. Due to his direct administrative role and concentration of power, Williams would stem the drain of executive power that Cruce’s administration had left on the Governorship.
William’s main mindset throughout his administration was reform. Through legislative action and program policy changes, Oklahoma instituted a highway construction bill, a State insurance bond, created the office of pardon and parole and a State fiscal agency. Williams and the Legislature amended the laws regarding to impeachment of State officials, provided for the aid of agriculture, and created oil and gas divisions within the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. Also, Williams changed the composition of the Oklahoma Supreme Court from six justices total to nine.
Two things are remembered about William’s administration above all others. The first being the landmark Supreme Court of the United States case Guinn v. United States in 1915. When state officials enforced Oklahoma’s Jim Crow laws, an appeal was made to the Supreme Court of the United States. When the Court ruled that laws that “serve no rational purpose other than to disadvantage the right of African-American citizens to vote violated the Fifteenth Amendment,” many state officials were indicted and by sentenced for violation of federal election laws. This prompted Williams to call the Legislature into special session in 1916 to determine more constitutional methods of black suffrage. The result was the institution of a literary test to Oklahoma. However, the voters of Oklahoma voted the message down, enabling many African-Americans to right to vote for the first time.
The second major event in William’s governorship was that the United States was forced to deal with World War I in 1916. The Great War would cast its shadow over the remainder of William’s term in office. For the most part, many domestic policies were dropped in favor of the mobilization of Oklahoma in preparation for war. The Oklahoma military was swelled through local draft boards, the maximum food production was encouraged to feed the USA’s allies across the sea, promotion for fuel and food conservatism was enacted, and Williams personally acted as moderated between pro- and anti-war forces throughout the State.
By the time January 13, 1919 rolled around, Williams was happy to leave the Governorship behind him. Oklahoma had elected to replace him James B. A. Robertson, whom Williams had defeated in the 1914 Democratic primaries for Governor.
Return to the Judiciary
Following the end of World War I and his exit from office, Williams had found favor in US President Woodrow Wilson. Returning to his first love, Williams once again became a judge in the Oklahoma Judiciary. Appointed by President Wilson to serve as an District Judge on the District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma, William would, from 1919 onward, spend the remainder of his political career in the judicial branch. He continued his service as a District Judge until in 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed him to serve as a Circuit Judge on the Tenth Circuit Court. Williams would hold that position until his retirement in 1939, but he would continue to serve as needed for the remainder of his life.