William Henry Bissell-First Catholic Governor of Illinois

Monday, October 17, AD 2011

Part of my ongoing series on the governors of Illinois down to the end of Reconstruction at the blog Almost Chosen People that I run with Paul Zummo.  William Henry Bissell, the eleventh governor of Illinois, was the first Catholic governor.  Bissell was born on April 25, 1811 near the town of Painted Post in New York.  Studying medicine, he opened a practice in Monroe County in Illinois.  Eventually at the age of 30 he shifted careers from medicine to the law.  In 1840 he was elected to the state legislature as a Democrat.  Passing the bar he was appointed by the legislature as prosecuting attorney for the judicial circuit in which he lived.

During the Mexican War he was elected as Colonel of the Second Illinois infantry regiment and commanded that unit at the battle of Buena Vista.  He earned the praise of General Zachary Taylor that day: “Colonel Bissell, the only surviving colonel of the three (Illinois) regiments, merits notice for his coolness and bravery on this occasion (Buena Vista).”

After the War he was elected as a Democrat to Congress.  He was an ardent foe of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and became identified with the new Republican party.  In 1850 he almost fought a duel with Jefferson Davis.  Bissell had defended the courage of Northern troops who fought at Buena Vista and accused Southerners of attempting to hog the glory of that day.  Davis, who had commanded the Mississippi Rifles at Buena Vista, thereupon challenged him to a duel.  Bissell, who never lacked courage, accepted and designated the weapons for the duel as army muskets loaded with balls and buckshot.  President Taylor, the former father-in-law of Davis threatened Davis with arrest, and a peaceful resolution was reached between Bissell and Davis.

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April 25, 1861: Stephen A. Douglas: “Protect the Flag”

Monday, April 25, AD 2011

Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the great antagonist of Abraham Lincoln, gave many eloquent speeches in his career, but the finest one he delivered was at the end of that career on April 25, 1861 to a joint session of the General Assembly of the State of Illinois.  In broken health, his coming death on June 3, 1861 already foreshadowed, he summoned the energy to help save his country.  Always first and foremost a patriot, Douglas was intent on rallying members of his party to the cause of the Union.  After one of the most vitriolic presidential contents in the history of the nation, it was an open question as to whether most members of the Party of Jackson would stand in support of the efforts of the Lincoln Administration to fight to preserve the Union.  Douglas, putting country above party, helped ensure that they would.

Immediately after the election of Lincoln he made it clear that he would make every effort in his power to fight against secession.  At the inaugural speech of Lincoln, he held the new President’s hat, giving a strong symbol of his support.  Illinois was a key state for the Union in the upcoming conflict.  Pro-Southern sentiment was strong among Illinois Democrats in the southern portion of the State, with even some talk that “Little Egypt”, as the extreme southern tip of Illinois is called, should secede from the rest of the state and join the Confederacy.  To rally his supporters for the Union, and at the request of President Lincoln, Douglas returned to Illinois and on April 25, 1861 had his finest hour. 

The speech he delivered that day has gone down in Illinois history as the “Protect the Flag” speech.  It was received by both Republicans and Democrats with thunderous applause and cheers throughout.  Although there would be much dissension in Illinois during the War, Douglas helped ensure that Illinois would be in the forefront of the war effort, with its quarter of a million troops, among whom was Ulysses S. Grant, who would ultimately fight under the Stars and Stripes being absolutely crucial to Union victory.

Here is the speech, interspersed with comments by me:

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7 Responses to April 25, 1861: Stephen A. Douglas: “Protect the Flag”

  • Didn’t his daughter convert and become a nun? (n/r to the interesting post)

  • Douglas was friendly to Catholics throughout his career. After the death of his wife he married a Catholic, Adele. Although he never joined the Church, he had his two sons by his first wife baptized and raised Catholic. Douglas had two daughers also, one by each of his wives, but tragically both daughters died after a few weeks of life.

  • Douglas was also, due to the influence of his wife, given a Catholic burial that was presided over by the Bishop of Chicago.

    Stephen Douglas was undoubtedly a great man, but he was wrong on the most important issue of his day. And that’s because he was wrong in failing to identify it as the most important issue of his day.

    Douglas thought that national expansion was the most important thing, and devoted virtually all his immense political energy to it. But he was wrong. The most important issue was that of slavery, and that was the issue that came most closely to de-railing his dream of an America that stretched from coast to coast and into the islands of the Pacific.

    And it is what he was wrong about, rather than the good that he did, that he is best remembered for today.

    This is a lesson that many in both parties would profit from.

  • Quite right Paul. I think that Douglas realized that the abolition of slavery could only occur after a huge Civil War. During the Lincoln-Douglas debates Douglas accused Lincoln of being in favor of policies that would inevitably lead to warfare between the States. Lincoln hotly denied this, saying that he had never proposed interfering with slavery where it existed. Both men were correct. Lincoln never proposed actions against slavery where it existed prior to the Civil War, and Douglas was right in that public opinion in the South was so inflamed that the election of even a moderate anti-slavery man like Lincoln to the Presidency, was enough to lead to war. Douglas of course, with his pernicious Kansas-Nebraska Act and his theory that territories should be able to choose whether they would be free or slave, set the stage for bleeding Kansas and helped fan the flames of the oncoming war himself.

  • I was under the impression that Douglas converted to the Faith through the efforts of the great Jesuit mission giver, Father Arnold Damen. Damen converted 10,000 Protestants, and I thought Douglas was one of them. Moreover, he never would have been buried in a Catholic cemetery just because his wife was Catholic, not in 1861, nor had his funeral presided over by a bishop, if he was not a Catholic. I wish I had a source at hand to verify this, but I have certainly read it in my studies of Catholic American history and it is most probably found in the biography of Father Arnold Damen.

  • His wife wanted him to convert on his death bed. Some accounts say he did:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=hpYOAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA292&lpg=PA292&dq=stephen+a.+douglas+deathbed+conversion&source=bl&ots=ZAhetftign&sig=OdKkgoDy5YSkvzNVZcFbc-J-Ax4&hl=en&ei=XDS3Tdm9FoLAgQeMmPBc&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBoQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=stephen%20a.%20douglas%20deathbed%20conversion&f=false

    Other accounts differ. Adele Douglas had the funeral conducted by Bishop Duggan on the grounds that Douglas had never affiliated with any particular faith. Douglas had been a mason and the masons of Chicago were somewhat irked that Bishop Duggan would be conducting the funeral and they turned out in force at the funeral of Douglas, although I believe they were well-behaved and respectful.

  • The biography I read said that he refused an effort by the bishop to convert him on his deathbed. He never practiced Christianity.