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William H. Bissell, Governor 1857-1860

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Governor of Illinois, 1857-1860.
John Wood, Lieutenant Governor.


William H. Bissell the first Republican Governor of the State of Illinois, was horn near Painted Post, Steuben County, N. Y., April 25, 1811. He received a fair education, graduated at Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia in 1835. He then removed to Monroe County, Illinois, where he practiced his profession as a physician. In 1840-42 he was a representative in the General Assembly. He studied law and was admitted to the bar, and practiced at Belleville. In 1844 was elected prosecuting attorney of St. Clair County. From June 20, 1846 to June 18, 1847, he served as Colonel of the Second Illinois Volunteer Infantry in the War with Mexico and served with distinction, especially at Buena Vista. From 1848-53 he represented the First Illinois District in Congress and was a conspicuous and valuable member. He was challenged by Jefferson Davis to fight a duel on account of the fact that Mr. Bissell in a speech in Congress resented the attitude of Southern members who claimed for Southern troops the entire credit for the successes of the Mexican war. The duel was prevented by the intervention of President Taylor the father-in-law of Jefferson Davis. On May 29, 1856, Mr. Bissell was nominated for Governor of Illinois by the coalition of the Whig party with the Anti-Nebraska Democrats. This was the first Republican State Convention in Illinois. He was elected and was inaugurated January 12, 1857, and continued in office until his death, March 18, 1860. Governor Bissell is the only governor who died in office. He is buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, where the State has erected a monument to his memory.

Governor Bissell was married in 1839 to Miss Emily James. His second wife was Elizabeth Kane, the daughter of Elias Kent Kane.


Source: "The Governors of Illinois, 1818-1918"; Issued by the Illinois Centennial Commission



WILLIAM H. BISSELL — 1857—1860.


WILLIAM H. BISSELL, the eleventh governor of Illinois, was, at the same time, the first man to fill that office elected upon any other than the Democratic ticket. He was born April 25, 1811, near Painted Post, New York. Here he received a limited education and later studied medicine.

In his early manhood, he was attracted to the west, and coming to Illinois, located in Monroe County. But he was not an enthusiastic practioner, and early neglected his profession that he might exercise the singular power of public speech which he developed. Drifting into politics he was sent to the Legislature from Monroe County as a Democrat, in 1840.

Returning, he read law and rapidly rose in that profession on account of his power as an advocate. He carried every jury. He had a captivating oratory. His diction was pure, his gestures inimitable and expressive, with all of which he had a clearness of statement and remarkable vein of sly humor. He was chosen prosecuting attorney for the circuit in which he lived, and he seldom failed to convict an offender.

He was colonel of the Second Illinois, in the war with Mexico, acquitting himself with great credit. Upon his return at the close of the war, he was elected to Congress, where he served two terms. He was an ardent politician and vigorously opposed the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Bill. During his first term in Congress, Jefferson Davis challenged him to a duel, which Col. Bissell accepted. This was because Col. Bissell was defending the Northern troops when Jefferson Davis was claiming all the credit for success at Buena Vista to be given the Mississippi troops.

In 1856, when the “Anti-Nebraska” press called the convention at Bloomington to nominate a state ticket, it was a foregone conclusion that it must be headed by the name of William H. Bissell. The election of this ticket put the state under control of the new party, thenceforth, to be known as the Republican Party, but as yet in Illinois, called the Anti-Nebraska Party.

Governor Bissell was a man of commanding presence. He was tall and slender, dark of complexion, with a well-poised head. His straight military bearing made him distinguished in appearance. He had a pleasing address and winning manner. His habits were exemplary, and his home life always pleasant, he being a devoted husband and a kind parent. He was twice married. His second wife was a daughter of Elias Kent Kane. He died during his term of office, March 18, 1860.

The events of importance during the administration of Gov. Bissell were: The bringing to light of the notarions canal scrip fraud implicating Ex-Gov. Matteson, and the Lincoln-Douglas debates. There were two attempts at re-apportionment of the state, both of which were lost by the vote of the chief executive. The state penitentiary at Joliet was built. The State Board of Education was created and the State Normal School at Normal was established, during this administration.

Two new counties were created during Gov. Bissell’s administration. Douglas county was created from Coles with present boundaries, and Coles was reduced to present limits. Ford county was formed with present boundaries from unorganized territory which had been attached to Vermilion. Ford County was the last county to be formed.


Source: Decisive Dates in Illinois History, A Story of the State, By Lottie B. Jones. Danville, Illinois: Illinois Printing Company, 1909.

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