Thomas Ford, Governor from 1842 to 1846, and author of a very interesting history of Illinois, was born at Uniontown, Pa., in the year 1800. His mother, after the death of her first husband (Mr. Forquer), married Robert Ford, who was killed in 1802, by the Indians in the mountains of Pennsylvania. She was consequently left in indigent circumstances, with a large family, mostly girls. With a view to better her condition, she, in 1804, removed to Missouri, where it had been customary by the Spanish Government to give land to actual settlers; but upon her arrival at St. Louis she found the country ceded to the United States, and the liberal policy toward settlers changed by the new ownership. After some sickness to herself and family, she finally removed to Illinois, and settled some three miles south of Waterloo, but the following year moved nearer the Mississippi bluffs. Here young Ford received his first schooling, under the instructions of a Mr. Humphrey, for which he had to walk three miles. His mother, though lacking a thorough education, was a woman of superior mental endowments, joined to energy and determination of character. She inculcated in her children those high-toned principles which distinguished her sons in public life. She exercised a rigid economy to provide her children an education; but George Forquer, her oldest son (six years older than Thomas Ford), at an early age had to quit school to aid by his labor in the support of the family. He afterward became an eminent man in Illinois affairs, and but for his early death would probably have been elected to the United States Senate.
Young Ford, with somewhat better opportunities, received a better education, though limited to the curriculum of the common school of those pioneer times. His mind gave early promise of superior endowments, with an inclination for mathematics. His proficiency attracted the attention of Hon. Daniel P. Cook, who became his efficient patron and friend. The latter gentleman was an eminent Illinois statesman who, as a Member of Congress, obtained a grant of 300,000 acres of land to aid in completing the Illinois & Michigan Canal, and after whom the county of Cook was named. Through the advice of this gentleman, Mr. Ford turned his attention to the study of law; but Forquer, then merchandising, regarding his education defective, sent him to Transylvania University, where, however, he remained but one term, owing to Forquer’s failure in business. On his return he alternated his law reading with teaching school for support.
In 1829 Gov. Edwards appointed him Prosecuting Attorney, and in 1831 he was re-appointed by Gov. Reynolds, and after that he was four times elected a Judge by the Legislature, without opposition, twice a Circuit Judge, once a Judge of Chicago, and as Associate Judge of the Supreme Court, when, in 1841, the latter tribunal was re-organized by the addition of five Judges, all Democrats. Ford was assigned to the Ninth Judicial Circuit, and while in this capacity he was holding Court in Ogle County he received a notice of his nomination by the Democratic Convention for the office of Governor. He immediately resigned his place and entered upon the canvass. In August, 1842, he was elected, and on the 8th of December following he was inaugurated.
All the offices which he had held were unsolicited by him. He received them upon the true Jeffersonian principle,—Never to ask and never to refuse office. Both as a lawyer and as a Judge he stood deservedly high, but his cast of intellect fitted him rather for a writer upon law than a practicing advocate in the courts. In the latter capacity he was void of the moving power of eloquence, so necessary to success with juries. As a Judge his opinions were sound, lucid and able expositions of the law. In practice, he was a stranger to the tact, skill and insinuating address of the politician, but he saw through the arts of demagogues as well as any man. He was plain in his demeanor, so much so, indeed, that at one time after the expiration of his term of office, during a session of the Legislature, he was taken by a stranger to be a seeker for the position of doorkeeper, and was waited upon at his hotel near midnight by a knot of small office-seekers with the view of effecting a “combination!”
Mr. Ford had not the “brass” of the ordinary politician, nor that impetuosity which characterizes a political leader. He cared little for money, and hardly enough for decent support. In person he was of small stature, slender, of dark complexion, with black hair, sharp features, deep-set eyes, a pointed, aquiline nose having a decided twist to one side, and a small mouth.
The three most important events in Gov. Ford’s administration were the establishment of the high financial credit of the State, the “Mormon War” and the Mexican War.
In the first of these the Governor proved himself to be eminently wise. On coming into office he found the State badly paralyzed by the ruinous effects of the notorious “internal improvement” schemes of the preceding decade, with scarcely anything to show by way of “improvement.” The enterprise that’s deemed to be getting ahead more than all the rest was the Illinois & Michigan Canal. As this promised to be the most important thoroughfare, feasible to the people, it was well under headway in its construction. Therefore the State policy was almost concentrated upon it, in order to rush it on to completion. The bonded indebtedness of the State was growing so large as to frighten the people, and they were about ready to entertain a proposition for repudiation. But the Governor had the foresight to recommend such measures as would maintain the public credit, for which every citizen to-day feels thankful.
But perhaps the Governor is remembered more for his connection with the Mormon troubles than for anything else; for it was during his term of office that the “Latter-Day Saints” became so strong at Nauvoo, built their temple there, increased their numbers throughout the country, committed misdemeanors, taught dangerous doctrines, suffered the loss of their leader, Jo Smith, by a violent death, were driven out of Nauvoo to the far West, etc. Having been a Judge for so many years previously, Mr. Ford of course was non-committal concerning Mormon affairs, and was therefore claimed by both parties and also accused by each of sympathizing too greatly with the other side. Mormonism claiming to be a system of religion, the Governor no doubt was “between two fires,” and felt compelled to touch the matter rather “gingerly,” and doubtless felt greatly relieved when that pestilential people left the State. Such complicated matters, especially when religion is mixed up with them, expose every person participating in them to criticism from all parties.
The Mexican War was begun in the spring of 1845, and was continued into the gubernatorial term of Mr. Ford’s successor. The Governor’s connection with this war, however, was not conspicuous, as it was only administrative, commissioning officers, etc.
Ford’s “History of Illinois” is a very readable and entertaining work, of 450 small octavo pages, and is destined to increase in value with the lapse of time. It exhibits a natural flow of compact and forcible thought, never failing to convey the nicest sense. In tracing with his trenchant pen the devious operations of the professional politician, in which he is inimitable, his account is open, perhaps, to the objection that all of his contemporaries are treated as mere place-seekers, while many of them have since been judged by the people to be worthy statesmen. His writings seem slightly open to the criticism that they exhibit a little splenetic partiality against those of his contemporaries who were prominent during his term of office as Governor.
The death of Gov. Ford took place at Peoria, Ill., Nov. 2, 1850.
Source: “Portrait and Biographical Album of Champaign County, Illinois,” Chapman Brothers, Chicago, 1887.