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
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
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 Whiteside Co., Ill.; Chicago: M. A.
Leeson & Co., 1887, pages 143-144
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