illiam English was born in Lexington, Indiana, the son of Elisha and Mahala (Eastin)
English. Elisha English was active in Democratic politics, serving as Scott
county sheriff, state representative and senator, and U. S. marshal. William
English studied law for three years at Hanover College (Indiana) before being
admitted to the Indiana bar at the age of eighteen. That same year (1840) he was
selected as a delegate to the Democratic party's state convention. English was
appointed Lexington's postmaster by President John Tyler, then elected clerk of
Indiana's House of Representatives in 1843, followed by a position in the U. S.
Treasury Department from 1844-1849, and clerk of the U. S. Senate Committee on
Claims in 1850. Returning to Indiana, he served as secretary of the 1851 state
constitutional convention and as speaker of the state House of Representatives,
which readjusted state laws and institutions to reflect the new constitution.
In 1852 Indiana's second district elected English to Congress, where he voted
for the Kansas-Nebraska Bill which opened the western territories to slavery
based on "popular sovereignty." He was reelected for three additional
terms. In the late 1850s, he joined Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas in
opposing statehood for Kansas under the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution, the
document crafted by a rump legislature and ratified in a vote boycotted by
anti-slavery men. English played a key role in fashioning a compromise which
bore his name, the English Bill. The law allowed for a fair vote on ratification
of the Lecompton Constitution, which the Kansas electorate rejected.
In 1860, English decided not to run for reelection. Before his term ended, he
spoke out on the floor of the House, imploring his Congressional colleagues from
the South not to support secession. When the Civil War started, he declined an
offer from Indiana's governor to be a regiment commander, but backed the Union
cause and opposed Confederate sympathizers in Indiana, like the Knights of the
Golden Circle. In 1863 he moved to Indianapolis and opened the First National
Bank, serving as its president until 1877. He was one of the city's key business
leaders, and eventually became a millionaire.
In 1880, the Democratic National Convention selected English to be their party's
vice-presidential running mate of Winfield Hancock. The Hancock-English ticket
lost in the general election to the Republican slate of James Garfield and
Long interested in science and history, English had served as a regent for the
Smithsonian Institute while he was in Congress, and later as president of the
Indiana Historical Society. He authored a two-volume set on the early Northwest
Territory, Conquest of the Country Northwest of the River Ohio, 1778-1783, and
Life of Gen. George Rogers Clark, published the same year he died, 1896.