John Reynolds, Governor 1831-1834, was born in Montgomery county, Pennsylvania, Feb. 26, 1788. His father, Robert Reynolds and his mother, nee Margaret Moore, were both natives of Ireland, from which country they emigrated to the United States in 1785, landing at Philadelphia. The senior Reynolds entertained an undying hostility to the British Government. When the subject of this sketch was about six months old, his parents emigrated with him to Tennessee, where many of their relatives had already located, at the base of the Copper Ridge Mountain, about 14 miles northeast of the present city of Knoxville. There they were exposed to Indian depredations, and were much molested by them. In 1794 they moved into the interior of the State. They were poor, and brought up their children to habits of manual industry.
In 1800 the family removed to Kaskaskia, Ill., with eight horses and two wagons, encountering many hardships on the way. Here young Reynolds passed the most of his childhood, while his character began to develop, the most prominent traits of which were ambition and energy. He also adopted the principle and practice of total abstinence from intoxicating liquors. In 1807 the family made another removal, this time to the “Goshen Settlement,” at the foot of the Mississippi bluffs three or four miles southwest of Edwardsville.
On arriving at his 20th year, Mr. Reynolds, seeting that he must look about for his own livelihood and not yet having determined what calling to pursue, concluded first to attend college, and he accordingly went to such an institution of learning, near Knoxville, Tenn., where he had relatives. Imagine his diffidence, when, after passting the first 20 years of his life without ever having seen a carpet, a papered wall or a Windsor chair, and never having lived in a shingle-roofed house, he suddenly ushered himself into the society of the wealthy in the vicinity of Knoxville! He attended college nearly two years, going through the principal Latin authors; abut it seems that he, like the rest of the world in modern times, had but very little use for his latin in after life. He always failed, indeed, to exhibit any good degree of literary discipline. He commenced the study of law in Knoxville, but a pulmonary trouble came on and compelled him to change his mode of life. Accordingly he returned home and recuperated, and in 1812 resumed his college and law studies at Knoxville. In the fall of 1812 he was admitted to the Bar at Kaskaskia. About this time he also learned the French language, which he practiced with pleasure in conversation with his family for many years. He regarded this language as being superior to all others for social intercourse.
From his services in the West, in the war of 1812, he obtained the sobriquet of the “Old Ranger.” He was ORderly Sergeant, then Judge Advocate.
Mr. Reynolds opened his first law office in the winter and spring of 1814, in the French village of Cahokia, then the capital of St. Clair County.
In the fall of 1818 he was elected an Associate Justice upon the Supreme Bench by the General Assembly. In 1825 he entered more earnestly than ever into the practice of law, and the very next year was elected a member of the Legislature, where he acted independently of all cliques and private interests. In 1828 the Whigs and Democrats were for the first time distinctively organized as such in Illinois, and the usual party bitterness grew up and raged on all sides, while Mr. Reynolds preserved a judicial calmness and moderation. The real animus of the campaign was “Jackson” and “anti-Jackson,” the former party carrying the State.
In August, 1830, Mr. Reynolds was elected Governor, amid great excitement. Installed in office, he did all within his power to advance the cause of education, internal improvements, the Illinois & Michigan Canal, the harbor at Chicago, settling the country, etc.; also recommended the winding up of the State Bank, as its affairs had become dangerously complicated. In his national politics, he was a moderate supporter of General Jackson. But the most celebrated event of his gubernatorial administration was the Black Hawk War, which occurred in 1832. He called out the militia and prosecuted the contest with commendable diligence, appearing in person on the battle-grounds during the most critical periods. He was recognized by the President as Major-General, and authorized by him to make treaties with the Indians. By the assistance of the general Government the war was terminated without much bloodshed, but after many serious fights. This war, as well as everything else, was materially retarded by the occurrence of Asiatic cholera in the West. This was its first appearance here, and was the next event in prominence during Gov. Reynolds’ term.
South Carolina nullification coming up at this time, it was heartily condemned by both President Jackson and Gov. Reynolds, who took precisely the same grounds as the Unionists in the last war.
On the termination of his gubernatorial term in 1834, Gov. Reynolds was elected a Member of Congress, still considering himself a backwoodsman, as he had scarcely been outside of the State since he became of age, and had spent nearly all his youthful days in the wildest region of the frontier. His first move in Congress was to adopt a resolution that in all elections made by the House for officers the votes should be given viva voce, each member in his place naming aloud the person for whom he votes. This created considerable heated discussion, but was essentially adopted, and remained the controlling principle for many years. The ex-Governor was scarcely absent from his seat a single day, during eight sessions of Congress, covering a period of seven years, and he never vacillated in a party vote; but he failed to get the Democratic party to foster his “National Road” scheme. He sais, in “My Own Times” (a large autobiography he published), that it was only by rigid economy that he avoided insolvency while in Washington. During his sojourn in that city he was married, to a lade of the place.
In 1837, while out of Congress, and in company with a few others, he built the first railroad in the Mississippi Valley, namely, one about six miles long, leading from his coal mine in the Mississippi bluff to the bank of the river opposite St. Louis. Having not the means to purchase a locomotive, they operated it by horse-power. The next spring, however, the company sold out, at great sacrifice.
In 1839 the ex-Governor was appointed one of the Canal Commissioners, and authorized to borrow money to prosecute the enterprise. Accordingly, he repaired to Philadelphia and succeeding in obtaining a million dollars, which, however, was only a fourth of what was wanted. The same year he and his wife made a tour of Europe. This year, also, Mr. Reynolds had the rather awkward little responsibility of introducing to President Van Buren the noted Mormon Prophet, Joseph Smith, as a “Latter-Day Saint!”
In 1846 Gov. Reynolds was elected a member of the Legislature from St. Clair County, more particularly for the purpose of obtaining a feasible charter for a macadamized road from Belleville to St. Louis, a distance of nearly 14 miles. This was immediately built, and was the first road of the kind in the State. He was again elected to the Legislature in 1852, when he was chosen Speaker of the House. In 1860, aged and infirm, he attended the national Democratic Convention at Charleston, S. C., as an anti-Douglas Delegate, where he received more attention from the Southern Delegates than any other member. He supported Breckenridge for the Presidency. After the October elections foreshadowed the success of Lincoln, he published an address urging the Democrats to rally to the support of Douglas. Immediately preceding and during the late war, his correspondence evinced a clear sympathy for the Southern secession, and about the first of March, 1861, he urged upon the Buchanan officials the seizure of the treasure and arms in the custom-house and arsenal at St. Louis. Mr. Reynolds was a rather talkative man, and apt in all the Western phrases and catch-words that ever gained currency, besides many cunning and odd ones of his own manufacture.
He was married twice, but had no children. He died in Belleville, in May, 1865, just after the close of the war.
Source: “Portrait and Biographical Album of Champaign County, Illinois,” Chapman Brothers, Chicago, 1887.