TBT: A club of 42

Gov. William Stratton meets with actor Howard Keel in 1957.  Photo from
 Illinois State Fair Museum Collection, Illinois Digital Archives – A service 
of the Illinois State Library and the Office of the Secretary of State
When Governor Joel Matteson moved his belongings into the brand new Executive Mansion on Jackson Street in Springfield in 1855, he was a member of a very exclusive club. In the first two hundred years of Illinois history, that club would grow to only 42 members. That membership would include Civil War Generals, members of Congress, state legislators (and not just from Illinois), farmers, lawyers, a prosecutor of Al Capone, and a personal secretary to the President of the United States.

Eleven years after Matteson left office, Illinois broke ground on a new state capitol building just a couple of blocks west of the Executive Mansion. Today, the second floor of the capitol building is decorated with portraits of the former Illinois governors. Here is a brief history that only scratches the surface of the stories surrounding this very interesting group of leaders.

Illinois’ governors have had a wide range of experience in education and in government. Early governors had little formal education.  On the other hand, Governor John Hamilton in 1885 became the first to enter office with a graduate degree. Some held many different offices at the federal, state and local level, while others’ only elected office was governor. One example is Illinois’ second governor, Edward Coles, whose first run for office was his successful 1822 race for governor. But Coles’ previous political experience had included several years in the White House as personal secretary to his former Virginia neighbor, President James Madison.

Some came from prominent political families, while others did not. Several governors had previously
served in the U.S. House of Representatives, and a few others would head to Washington after their governorship. Governor Edward Dunne became the only Mayor of Chicago to also serve as Illinois
Photo Source: Illinois Blue Book Collection
governor when he was chosen in 1912. Governor Ninian Edwards did not serve a single day in the Illinois legislature, but he did serve in the Kentucky House of Representatives in the 1790s before becoming Illinois’ territorial governor and later the third governor following statehood.

Illinois has picked Republicans, Democrats and even a Whig to be governor. The first few governors served before organized political parties were firmly established. Governors have come from all areas of the state. Twenty-two of Illinois’ 102 counties have been the home of at least one governor: from Governor John Stelle of Hamilton County in the south to Governor John Wood of Adams County in the west to Governor Adlai Stevenson of Lake County in the north to Governor Jim Edgar of Coles County in the east. Our governors also have had birthplaces as widespread as Virginia, Iowa, New York and even Germany and Estonia. In fact, only with the arrival of the 20th century did Illinois have its first Illinois-born governor: Richard Yates, Jr. who took office in 1901.

It wasn’t until the third state Constitution was enacted in 1870 that a governor could run for re-election; though they were allowed to seek non-consecutive terms, which Governor Richard Oglesby would successfully do three times. Under the 1870 Constitution, Governor Shelby Moore Cullom would become the first governor to be re-elected to consecutive four-year terms, doing so in 1880. Governor Augustus French was elected in 1846 to a two-year term under the original state Constitution, then he was elected to a four-year term under the 1848 state Constitution, making him the first governor to be re-elected, but doing so under two different Constitutions.

The term of office for a governor has always been set at four years, with two exceptions. The 1848 state Constitution created a single two-year term which moved gubernatorial elections to presidential years, then the 1970 Constitution did the same in moving them back to off years, starting in 1978. Because of that short 1976-78 term, Governor Jim Thompson was chosen four times, but served for 14 years, which still makes him Illinois’ longest serving Chief Executive. Thompson’s time in office works out to almost one year for each day of the administration of our shortest-termed governor, William Ewing, who held the office for 16 days in 1834.

Like Ewing’s, not all governorships have fit within that four year term. Two have ended tragically. Governor William Bissell was the first governor to die in office, in 1860, but not the last as Governor Henry Horner passed away in 1940. Others ended early for different reasons: Oglesby resigned ten days into his second term in 1873 to take a seat in the U.S. Senate. Cullom left for the same reason in 1883, going on to hold his Senate seat for 30 years. Governor Otto Kerner was appointed to the federal bench in 1968. In 2009 Governor Rod Blagojevich became the first Illinois governor to be impeached and removed from office.

Governor Otto Kerner in 1963
Photo from Sterling & Rock Falls Local History Collection, Illinois Digital Archives – A service of the Illinois State Library & Office of the Secretary of State 
Governor Dwight Green was a former federal prosecutor and was a member of the team of lawyers who sent Al Capone to prison. During Thompson’s time as a U.S. Attorney, one of the defendants he prosecuted was former Governor Kerner. Several governors, including Thomas Carlin, John Beveridge, John Tanner and Richard Ogilvie had been county sheriffs.

Future Illinois governors have been among the millions of Americans who have answered the nation’s call in times of war. Governor Joseph Duncan was a veteran of the War of 1812 and Bissell commanded an Illinois regiment in the Mexican War in the 1840s. During his time in Congress, Bissell gave a speech which included his account of the battle of Buena Vista – an account which so angered another veteran of that war, Jefferson Davis, that Davis challenged him to a duel. Bissell accepted, but cooler heads prevailed and the duel never happened.

It was during the Civil War that several Illinois governors achieved great military success. Oglesby was a brigade commander under Ulysses S. Grant and was wounded at the battle of Corinth in 1862, but returned to the Army. He was promoted to major general, holding important commands in Tennessee and Mississippi over the next two years. Future Governor John Palmer was a corps commander in Sherman’s Army during the Atlanta campaign. He ended the war as military governor of Kentucky, before he was elected governor of Illinois in 1868.

Governor John Wood left office in January 1861 and three months later was appointed to the post of Quartermaster General in charge of supplying food, weapons and equipment to the soldiers from Illinois. Beveridge fought in some of the major battles in the east, including Gettysburg, and then commanded a cavalry regiment in Missouri later in the war. Among the Illinoisans wounded during the fighting at Vicksburg was future Governor Joseph Fifer. Governors Hamilton and John Altgeld also served in the Army during the war. Lowden was an officer in the Illinois National Guard during the Spanish-American War in 1898, but his unit was not sent to the fighting.

Green served in the Army during World War I; as did Stelle, who was wounded in action; while Governor Adlai Stevenson joined the Navy but the war ended before he finished training. Governor William Stratton was a Navy officer in the Pacific during World War II, while Kerner served in the Army in North Africa and Italy. He went on to hold the rank of major general in the Illinois National Guard after the war. Ogilvie was wounded during the fighting in France and bore a scar on his face for the rest of his life. Governor Daniel Walker was a Navy officer in World War II and later during the Korean War as well.

On the day he became the Executive Mansion’s first resident, Matteson couldn’t have known all that was in store for those who would live under that roof. In all, 33 governors have had the honor of living in the mansion. Some of the mansion’s younger residents have gone on to achieve political success in their own right. Richard Yates, Jr., lived in the mansion as a small child in the 1860s and then returned as Governor Yates in the early 1900s, so far the only son of a governor to hold the office himself. John G. Oglesby, son of the three-term governor, was twice elected lieutenant governor in the early 20th century and was an unsuccessful candidate for the top post as well. Another young resident of the mansion was Governor Fifer’s daughter, Florence, who in 1924 would become the first woman elected to the Illinois State Senate.