Appointed by President Grover Cleveland
Richard Olney served as secretary of state in the difficult last two years of Grover Cleveland's second administration. Born in Oxford, Massachusetts, on September 15, 1835, he was the son of Wilson Olney and Eliza Butler. His grandfather, an ambitious, demanding entrepreneur, had founded the small town's first textile mill and bank. The family descended from Thomas Olney, a follower of Roger Williams in the seventeenth century. Richard was most profoundly influenced by his Rhadamanthine and disciplined grandfather and his ambitious and proud mother in making his career choices.
Olney was educated at Leicester Academy, Brown University (1851-1856), and Harvard Law School (1856-1858). Admitted to the bar in Massachusetts, he found employment in the law firm of Judge Benjamin F. Thomas. In 1861, he married the judge's daughter, Agnes, and inherited the lucrative law practice at the death of the judge in 1876. The Olneys had two children.
Olney cultivated the friendship of Boston's upper-class corporate community. Increasingly, his hard-nosed negotiations on behalf of corporate clients and his penchant for tireless work established him in the highest reaches of Boston society. Encouraged by friends in the Democratic Party, he ran successfully for one term in the state legislature in 1873. However, his cold demeanor, forbidding mien, and stern dark eyes restricted his appeal to many voters. He was defeated for reelection and henceforth concentrated on corporate law, especially on railroad law. In the early 1880s, he forged the legal groundwork for the Eastern Railroad Company's near monopoly over rail traffic in the northern half of the state. In the latter half of the 1880s, he served as general counsel for the Chicago, Burlingame and Quincy Railroad and successfully fended off state efforts to regulate and control rates.
To represent New England in his second administration's cabinet, Cleveland appointed Olney to be his attorney general in 1893. During his two years as attor-ney general, Olney's command over details and driving ambition to master the details of diverse events led him to know the issues in other cabinet departments.