Joseph Duncan, Governor 1834-8, was born at Paris, Ky., Feb. 23, 1794. At the tender age of 19 years he enlisted in the war against Great Britain, and as a soldier he acquitted himself with credit. He was an Ensign under the dauntless Croghan at Lower Sandusky, or fort Stephenson. In Illinois he first appeared in a public capacity as Major-General of the Militia, a position which his military fame had procured him. Subsequently he became a State Senator from Jackson County, and his honorably mentioned for introducing the first bill providing for a free-school system. In 1826, when the redoubtable John P. Cook, who had previously beaten such men as John McLean, Elias Kent Kane and ex-Gov. Bond, came up for the fourth time for congress, Mr. Duncan was brought forward against him by his friends, greatly to the surprise of all the politicians. As yet he was but little known in the State. He was an original Jackson man at that time, being attached to his political fortune in admiration of the glory of his military achievements. His chances of success against Cook were generally regarded as hopeless, but he entered upon the campaign undaunted. His speeches, though short and devoid of ornament, were full of good sense. He made a diligent canvass of the State, Mr. Cook being hindered by the condition of his health. The most that was expected of Mr. Duncan, under the circumstances, was that he would obtain a respectable vote, but without defeating Mr. Cook. The result of the campaign, however, was a source of surprise and amazement to both friends and foes, as Mr. Duncan came out 641 votes ahead! He received 6,321 votes, and Mr. Cook 5,680. Until this denouement, the violence of party feeling smoldering in the breasts of the people on account of the defeat of Jackson, was not duly appreciated. Aside from the great convention struggle of 1824, no other than mere local and personal considerations had ever before controlled an election in Illinois.
From the above date Mr. Duncan retained his seat in Congress until his election as Governor in August, 1834. The first and bloodless year of the Black Hawk War he was appointed by Gov. Reynolds to the position of Brigadier-General of the volunteers, and he conducted his brigade to Rock Island. But he was absent from the State, in Washington, during the gubernatorial campaign, and did not personally participate in it, but addressed circulars to his constituents. His election was, indeed, attributed to the circumstance of his absence, because his estrangement from Jackson, formerly his political idol, and also from the Democracy, largely in ascendency in the State, was complete; but while his defection was well known to his Whig friends, and even to the leading Jackson men of this State, the latter were unable to carry conviction of that fact to the masses, as mail and newspaper facilities at that day were far inferior to those of the present time. Of course the Governor was much abused afterward by the fossilized Jackson men who regarded party ties and affiliations as above all other issues that could arise; but he was doubtless sincere in his opposition to the old hero, as the latter had vetoed several important western measures which were dear to Mr. Duncan. In his inaugural message he threw off the mask and took a bold stand against the course of the President. The measures he recommended in his message, however, were so desirable that the Legislature, although by a large majority consisting of Jackson men, could not refrain from endorsing them. These measures related mainly to banks and internal improvements.
It was while Mr. Duncan was Governor that the people of Illinois went whirling on with bank and internal improvement schemes that well nigh bankrupted the State. The hard times of 1837 came on, and the disasters that attended the inauguration of these plans and the operation of the banks were mutually charged on the two political parties. Had any one man autocratic power to introduce and carry on any one of these measures, he would probably have succeeded to the satisfaction of the public; but as many jealous men had hold of the same plow handle, no success followed and each blamed the other for the failure. In this great vortex Gov. Duncan was carried along, suffering the like derogation of character with his fellow citizens.
At the height of the excitement the Legislature “provided for” railroads from Galena to Cairo, Alton to Shawneetown, Alton to Mount Carmel, Alton to the eastern boundary of the State in the direction of Terre Haute, Quincy via Springfield to the Wabash, Bloomington to Pekin, and Peoria to Warsaw,—in all about 1,300 miles of road. It also provided for the improvement of the navigation of the Kaskaskia, Illinois, Great and Little Wabash and Rock Rivers; also as a placebo, $200,000 in money were to be distributed to the various counties wherein no improvements were ordered to be made as above. The estimate for the expenses for all these projects was placed at a little over $10,000,000, which was not more than half enough! That would now be equal to saddling upon the State a debt of $225,000,000! It was sufficient to bankrupt the State several times over, even counting all the possible benefits.
One of the most exciting events that ever occurred in this fair State was the murder of Elijah P. Lovejoy in the fall of 1837, at Alton, during Mr. Duncan’s term as Governor. Lovejoy was an “Abolitionist,” editing the Observer at that place, and the pro-slavery slums there formed themselves into a mob, and after destroying successively three presses belonging to Mr. Lovejoy, surrounded the warehouse where the fourth press was stored away, endeavoring to destroy it, and where Lovejoy and his friends were entrenching themselves, and shot and killed the brave reformer!
About this time, also, the question of removing the State capital again came up, as the 20 years’ limit for its existence at Vandalia was drawing to a close. There was, of course, considerable excitement over the matter, the two main points competing for it being Springfield and Peoria. The jealousy of the latter place is not even yet, 45 years afterward, fully allayed.
Gov. Duncan’s term expired in 1838. In 1842 he was again proposed as a candidate for the Executive chair, this time by the Whig party, against Adam W. Snyder, of St. Clair County, the nominee of the Democrats. Charles W. Hunter was a third candidate for the same position. Mr. Snyder, however, died before the campaign had advanced very far, and his party substituted Thomas Ford, who was elected, receiving 46,901 votes, to 38,584 for Duncan, and 909 for Hunter. The cause of Democratic success at this time is mainly attributed to the temporary support of the Mormons which they enjoyed, and the want of any knowledge, on the part of the masses, that Mr. Ford was opposed to any given policy entertained in the respective localities.
Gov. Duncan was a man of rather limited education, but with naturally fine abilities he profited greatly by his various public services, and gathered a store of knowledge regarding public affairs which served him a ready purpose. He possessed a clear judgment, decision, confidence in himself and moral courage to carry out his convictions of right. In his deportment he was well adapted to gain the admiration of the people. His intercourse with them was both affable and dignified. His portrait at the Governor’s mansion, from which the accompanying was made, represents him as having a swarthy complexion, high cheek bones, broad forehead, piercing black eyes and straight black hair.
He was a liberal patron of the Illinois college at Jacksonville, a member of its board of Trustees, and died, after a short illness, Jan. 15, 1844, a devoted member of the Presbyterian Church, leaving a wife but no children. Two children, born to them, had died in infancy.
Source: “Portrait and Biographical Album of Champaign County, Illinois,” Chapman Brothers, Chicago, 1887.