William Martin Dickson's life and career echo the familiar American theme of the self-made man. He was born at Lexington, Ind., in 1827 and lost his father, a farmer, at the age of 8. Despite financial hardship, Dickson managed to graduate from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio -- by sweeping out classrooms to pay tuition, according to family history. He then studied law while supporting himself as a schoolteacher and was admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1848. Over the next two years the ambitious young man put himself through Harvard Law School. Returning to the midwest, he settled in Cincinnati and eked out a living as a teacher, tutor, and reporter for the Cincinnati Times. On October 18, 1852, he married Annie Marie Parker of Lexington, Ky., a first cousin of Mary Todd Lincoln.
Six months after his marriage, Dickson got his big break. Running as an underdog on the Independent ticket, he won election to prosecuting attorney of the Cincinnati police court. He resigned in April, 1854, to form a very successful law partnership with Alphonso Taft (father of the future President) and Thomas Marshall Key. At 31, he was appointed judge of the Common Pleas Court. Dickson maintained an active role in politics despite the fact that he never held elective office after his stint as public prosecutor. After serving as an Ohio presidential elector in 1860 he became part of inner Washington political circles, associating with Abraham Lincoln, Edwin M. Stanton, and Salmon Chase, and participating in the framing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In the fall of 1861 Dickson became acquainted with General McClellan, who offered him a position as assistant judge advocate. Dickson declined the appointment, however, after learning first-hand of McClellan's timidity as a military leader and of his contemptuous attitude toward President Lincoln. A memoir of the entire episode written later in Dickson's life features colorful characterizations of McClellan and his circle, Lincoln, and the Washington scene early in the war.
Within a year of the war's end, Dickson, only thirty-nine, became ill from "nervous prostration." He removed himself from the legal and political scene, but maintained a keen interest which he expressed in his private correspondence and in essays and letters written for publication on such topics as reconstruction, black suffrage, and civil service reform. Dickson considered himself a genuine Republican, one of the founders of the party, and despaired at the corruption and machine politics which increasingly characterized his party during the Gilded Age of late nineteenth century America. A semi-invalid the last twenty-three years of his life, Dickson died October 15, 1889 in an inclined-plane railway accident in Cincinnati.
William Dickson combined worldly success and influence with personal avoidance of the spotlight. Whether due to illness or reclusive personality, he stayed on the sidelines rather than pursue a prominent military or political career, and became a most perceptive observer and critic of the leading political characters and movements of his day. His correspondents and personal associations were many, and included some of the leading figures of the era. Long-time friend George Curtis eulogized Dickson in Harper's Weekly (folder 72) as "one of that most valuable class of citizens who take the most active and intelligent interest in the observation of public affairs, which they seek to influence by the pen."