William H. Bissell, Governor 1857-60, was born april 25, 1811, in the State of New York, near Painted Post, Yates County. His parents were obscure, honest, God-fearing people, who reared their children under the daily example of industry and frugality, according to the custom of that class of Eastern society. Mr. Bissell received a respectable but not thorough academical education. By assiduous application he acquired a knowledge of medicine, and in his early manhood came West and located in Monroe County, this State, where he engaged in the practice of that profession. But he was not enamored of his calling; he was swayed by a broader ambition, to such an extent that the mysteries of the healing art and its arduous duties failed to yield him further any charms. In a few years he discovered his choice of a profession to be a mistake and when he approached the age of 30 he sought to begin anew. Dr. Bissell, no doubt unexpectedly to himself, discovered a singular facility and charm of speech, the exercise of which acquired for him a ready local notoriety. It soon came to be understood that he desired to abandon his profession and take up that of the law. During terms of Court he would spend his time at the county seat among the members of the Bar, who extended to him a ready welcome.
It was not strange, therefore, that he should drift into public life. In 1840 he was elected as a Democrat to the Legislature from Monroe County, and was an efficient member of that body. On his return home he qualified himself for admission to the Bar and speedily rose to the front rank as an advocate. His powers of oratory were captivating. With a pure diction, charming and inimitable gestures, clearness of statement, and a remarkable vein of sly humor, his efforts before a jury told with irresistible effect. He was chosen by the Legislature Prosecuting Attorney for the Circuit in which he lived, and in that position he fully discharged his duty to the State, gained the esteem of the Bar, and seldom failed to convict the offender of the law.
In stature he was somewhat tall and slender, and with a straight, military bearing, he presented a distinguished appearance. His complexion was dark, his head well poised, though not large, his address pleasant and manner winning. He was exemplary in his habits, a devoted husband and kind parent. He was twice married, the first time to Miss James, of Monroe County, by whom he had two children, both daughters. She died soon after the year 1840, and Mr. B. married for his second wife a daughter of Elias K. Kane, previously a United States Senator from this State. She survived him but a short time, and died without issue.
When the war with Mexico was declared in 1846, Mr. Bissell enlisted and was elected Colonel of his regiment, over Hon. Don Morrison, by an almost unanimous vote,—807 to 6. considering the limited opportunities he had had, he evinced a high order of military talent. On the bloody field of Buena Vista he acquitted himself with intrepid and distinguished ability, contributing with his regiment, the Second Illinois, in no small degree toward saving the wavering fortunes of our arms during that long and fiercely contested battle.
After his return home, at the close of the war, he was elected to Congress, his opponents being the Hons. P. B. Fouke and Joseph Gillespie. He served two terms in Congress. He was an ardent politician. During the great contest of 1850 he voted in favor of the adjustment measures; but in 1854 he opposed the repeal of the Missouri Compromise act and therefore the Kansas-Nebraska bill of Douglas, and thus became identified with the nascent Republican party.
During his first Congressional term, while the Southern members were following their old practice of intimidating the North by bullying language, and claiming most of the credit for victories in the Mexican War, and Jefferson Davis claiming for the Mississippi troops all the credit for success at Buena Vista, Mr. Bissell bravely defended the Northern troops; whereupon Davis challenged Bissell to a duel, which was accepted. This matter was brought up against Bissell when he was a candidate for Governor and during his term of office, as the Constitution of this State forbade any duelist from holding a State office.
In 1856, when the Republican party first put forth a candidate, John C. Fremont, for President of the United States, the same party nominated Mr. Bissell for Governor of Illinois, and John Wood, of Quincy, for Lieutenant Governor, while the Democrats nominated Hon. W. A. Richardson, of Adams County, for Governor, and Col. R. J. Hamilton, of cook County, for Lieutenant Governor. The result of the election was a plurality of 4,729 votes over Richardson. The American, or Know-Nothing, party had a ticket in the field. The Legislature was nearly balanced, abut was politically opposed to the Governor. His message to the Legislature was short and rather ordinary, and was criticized for expressing the supposed obligations of the people to the incorporators of the Illinois Central Railroad company and for reopening the slavery question by allusions to the Kansas troubles. Late in the session an apportionment bill, based upon the State census of 1855, was passed, amid much partisan strife. The Governor at first signed the bill and then vetoed it. A furious debate followed, and the question whether the Governor had the authority to recall a signature was referred to the Courts, that of last resort deciding in favor of the Governor. Two years afterward another outrageous attempt was made for a re-apportionment and to gerrymander the State, but the Legislature failed to pass the bill over the veto of the Governor.
It was during Gov. Bissell’s administration that the notorious canal scrip fraud was brought to light, implicating ex-Gov. Matteson and other prominent State officials. The principal and interest, aggregating $255,500, was all recovered by the State excepting $27,500. (See sketch of Gov. Matteson.)
In 1859 an attempt was discovered to fraudulently refund the Macalister and Stebbins bonds and thus rob the State Treasury of nearly a quarter of a million dollars. The State Government was implicated in this affair, and to this day remains unexplained or unatoned for. For the above, and other matters previously mentioned, Gov. Bissell has been severely criticized, and he has also been most shamefully libeled and slandered.
On account of exposure in the army, the remote cause of a nervous form of disease gained entrance into his system and eventually developed paraplegia, affecting his lower extremities, which, while it left his body in comparative health, deprived him of locomotion except by the aid of crutches. While he was generally hopeful of ultimate recovery, this mysterious disease pursued him, without once relaxing its stealthy hold, to the close of his life, March 18, 1860, over nine months before the expiration of his gubernatorial term, at the early age of 48 years. He died in the faith of the Roman Catholic Church, of which he had been a member since 1854.
Source: “Portrait and Biographical Album of Champaign County, Illinois,” Chapman Brothers, Chicago, 1887.