Augustus C. French, Governor of Illinois from 1846 to 1852, was born in the town of Hill, in the State of New Hampshire, Aug. 2, 1808. He was a descendant in the fourth generation of Nathaniel French, who emigrated from England in 1687 and settled in Saybury, Mass.
In early life young French lost his father, but continued to receive instruction from an exemplary and Christian mother until he was 19 years old, when she also died, confiding to his care and trust four younger brothers and one sister. He discharged his trust with parental devotion. His education in early life was such mainly as a common school afforded. For a brief period he attended Dartmouth College, but from pecuniary causes and the care of his brothers and sister, he did not graduate. He subsequently read law, and was admitted to the Bar in 1831, and shortly afterward removed to Illinois, settling first at Albion, Edwards County, where he established himself in the practice of law. The following year he removed to Paris, Edgar county. Here he attained eminence in his profession, and entered public life by representing that county in the Legislature. A strong attachment sprang up between him and Stephen A. Douglas.
In 1839, Mr. French was appointed Receiver of the United States Land Office at Palestine, Crawford county, at which place he was a resident when elevated to the gubernatorial chair. In 1844 he was a Presidential Elector, and as such he voted for James K. Polk.
The Democratic State Convention of 1846, meeting at Springfield Feb. 10, nominated Mr. French for Governor. Other Democratic candidates were Lyman Trumbull, John Calhoun (subsequently of Lecompton Constitution notoriety), Walter B. Scates, Richard M. Young and A. W. Cavarly,—an array of very able and prominent names. Trumbull was perhaps defeated in the Convention by the rumor that he was opposed to the Illinois and Michigan Canal, as he had been a year previously. For Lieutenant Governor J. B. Wells was chosen, while other candidates were Lewis Ross, Wm. McMurtry, Newton Cloud, J. B. Hamilton and W. W. Thompson. The resolutions declared strongly against the resuscitation of the old State Banks.
The Whigs, who were in a hopeless minority, held their convention June 8, at Peoria, and selected Thomas M. Kilpatrick, of Scott County, for Governor, and Gen. Nathaniel G. Wilcox, of Schuyler, for Lieutenant Governor.
In the campaign the latter exposed Mr. French’s record and connection with the passage of the internal improvement system, urging it against his election; but in the meantime the war with Mexico broke out, regarding which the Whig record was unpopular in this State. The war was the absorbing and dominating question of the period, sweeping every other political issue in its course. The election in August gave Mr. French 58,700 votes and Kilpatrick only 36, 775. Richard Eells, Abolitionist candidate for the same office, received 5,152 votes. By the new Constitution of 1848, a new election for State officers was ordered in November of that year, before Gov. French’s term was half out, and he was re-elected for the term of four years. He was therefore the incumbent for six consecutive years, the only Governor of this State who has ever served in that capacity so long at one time. As there was no organized opposition to his election, he received 67,453 votes, to 5,639 for Pierre Menard (son of the first Lieutenant Governor), 4,748 for Charles V. Dyer, 3,834 for W. L. D. Morrison, and 1,361 for James L. D. Morrison. But Wm. McMurtry, of Knox County, was elected Lieutenant Governor, in place of Joseph B. Wells, who was before elected and did not run again.
Governor French was inaugurated into office during the progress of the Mexican War, which closed during the summer of 1847, although the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was not made until Feb. 2, 1848. The policy of Gov. French’s party was committed to that war, but in connection with that affair he was, of course, only an administrative officer. During his term of office, Feb. 19, 1847, the Legislature, by special permission of Congress, declared that all Government lands sold to settlers should be immediately subject to State taxation; before this they were exempt for five years after sale. By this arrangement the revenue was materially increased. About the same time, the distribution of Government land warrants among the Mexican soldiers as bounty threw upon the market a great quantity of good lands, and this enhanced the settlement of the State. The same Legislature authorized, with the recommendation of the Governor, the sale of the Northern Cross Railroad (from Springfield to Meredosia, the first in the State and now a section of the Wabash, St. Louis & Pacific). It sold for $100,000 in bonds, although it had cost the State not less than a million. The salt wells and canal Lands in the Saline reserve in Gallatin County, granted by the general Government to the State, were also authorized by the Governor to be sold, to apply on the State debt. In 1850, for the first time since 1839, the accruing State revenue, exclusive of specific appropriations, was sufficient to meet the current demands upon the treasury. The aggregate taxable property of the State at this time was over $100,000,000, and the population 851,470.
In 1849, the Legislature adopted the township organization law, which, however, proved defective, and was properly amended in 1851. At its session in the latter year, the General Assembly also passed a law to exempt homesteads from sale on executions. This beneficent measure had been repeatedly urged upon that body by Gov. French.
In 1850 some business men in St. Louis commenced to build a dike opposite the lower part of their city on the Illinois side, to keep the Mississippi in its channel near St. Louis, instead of breaking away from them as it sometimes threatened to do. This they undertook without permission from the Legislature or Executive authority of this State; and as many of the inhabitants there complained that the scheme would inundate and ruin much valuable land, there was a slight conflict of jurisdictions, resulting in favor of the St. Louis project; and since then a good site has existed there for a city (East St. Louis), and now a score of railroads center there.
It was in September, 1850, that Congress granted to this State nearly 3,000,000 acres of land in aid of the completion of the Illinois Central Railroad, which constituted the most important epoch in the railroad—we might say internal improvement—history of the State. The road was rushed on to completion, which accelerated the settlement of the interior of the State by a good class of industrious citizens, and by the charter a good income to the State Treasury is paid in from the earnings of the road.
In 1851 the Legislature passed a law authorizing free stock banks, which was the source of much legislative discussion for a number of years.
But we have not space further to particularize concerning legislation. Gov. French’s administration was not marked by any feature to be criticized, while the country was settling up as never before.
In stature, Gov. French was of medium height, squarely built, light complexioned, with ruddy face and pleasant countenance. In manners he was plain and agreeable. By nature he was somewhat diffident, but he was often very outspoken in his convictions of duty. In public speech he was not an orator, but was chaste, earnest and persuasive. In business he was accurate and methodical, and in his administration he kept up the credit of the State.
He died in 1865, at his home in Lebanon, St. Clair Co., Ill.
Source: “Portrait and Biographical Album of Champaign County, Illinois,” Chapman Brothers, Chicago, 1887.