William Schley, a jurist, politician, and manufacturer, served as governor of Georgia from 1835 to 1837.
A descendant of German immigrants, he was born in Frederick, Maryland, on December 10, 1786, to Anna Maria Shelman and John Jacob Schley. His parents brought him to Jefferson County in Georgia when he was a child, and he completed his education in Louisville and Augusta. He was admitted to the bar in 1812 and practiced in Augusta for a dozen years before venturing into politics.
Schley was elected judge of the Superior Court of the Middle District in 1825 and representative to the state legislature from Richmond County in 1830. Beginning in 1832 he was elected as a Jacksonian Democrat for two successive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Having been nominated for governor as the Union Party candidate in 1835, Schley resigned from Congress and defeated the states’ rights candidate by a few thousand votes.
During his term as governor, Schley faced an array of issues, from Indian troubles on the frontier to improvement of Georgia’s infrastructure. Creek Indians along the Alabama border continued to attack white settlers in defense of their own lands. In 1836 Schley raised a volunteer force of militia and led it himself for six weeks in cooperation with regular army troops under General Winfield Scott. The Indians were quickly suppressed and eventually removed to the West.
On the issue of abolition, Schley defended the rights of slaveholders. He unsuccessfully confronted the leaders of Maine over extradition of men from that state who had helped enslaved people flee from Georgia, offered a reward for the arrest of abolitionist publisher William Lloyd Garrison, and denounced abolitionists in general. In 1837 a fugitive from slavery from Savannah was transported to Maine in a ship from that state. The enslaver pursued and regained possession of the self-emancipated person, then asked Schley to have the ship’s captain and mate extradited to Georgia to face charges. Efforts to that effect over a period of years by Schley and his successor, George R. Gilmer, were rebuffed by successive Maine governors. Previously, when the Georgia legislature in 1831 offered a $5,000 reward for the arrest of Garrison on a charge of inciting an insurrection by enslaved laborers through his newspaper, The Liberator, Schley gladly backed the measure, announcing that Garrison and other abolitionists were crazed enthusiasts. Garrison never faced that charge, although he was once threatened with arrest in Boston, Massachusetts, for transfer to Georgia.
Schley’s positions on state improvements were numerous. In 1836 he signed the act incorporating Emory College (later Emory University). His legislative package included state care for the insane, a geological survey, establishment of a state supreme court, and a digest of English law for use in Georgia. His own contribution, Digest of the English Statutes of Force in the State of Georgia (1826), showed him to be a strict constitutional constructionist. Schley worked for improved river navigation, signed the revised charter of the Central Railroad and Banking Company of Georgia, and supported state approval of the Western and Atlantic Railroad, the only line in Georgia built with public funds.
Schley lost his bid for reelection in 1837 to George Gilmer, a states’ rights candidate, by only 700 votes. He retired to his home in Richmond County and spent the next twenty years on his business pursuits. Before becoming governor, Schley, two of his brothers, and a brother-in-law organized the Richmond Factory in the 1830s for the manufacture of cotton textiles. One of the brothers, John Schley, had earlier set up Belleville Factory nearby. The two establishments were successful in producing large quantities of cotton and wool fabric and yarn for clothing distributed to enslaved laborers and other similar purposes. They were among the earliest cotton mills in Georgia.
Schley was married three times. His first wife was Charlotte Kirkley, with whom he had three children. In 1822 he wed Elizabeth Sarah Hargrove and had one more child. She died in 1845, and the following year he married Sophia Kerr.
Schley died at his home on November 20, 1858, and was buried in the family cemetery. At the time of his death he was president of the board of trustees of the Medical College of Georgia (later Georgia Health Sciences University). Schley was Grand Master of the Masonic Lodge of Georgia in 1828, 1830, and 1831, and a historical marker erected by the Georgia Masons indicates his grave. Schley County in west central Georgia was created in 1857 and named for him.