JOEL A. MATTESON, Governor 1853-6, was born Aug. 8, 1808, in Jefferson County,
New York, to which place his father had removed from Vermont three years before.
His father was a farmer in fair circumstances, but a common English education
was all that his only son received. Young Joel first tempted fortune as a small
tradesman in Prescott, Canada, before he was of age. He returned from that place
to his home, entered an academy, taught school, visited the principal Eastern
cities, improved a farm his father had given him, made a tour in the South,
worked there in building railroads, experienced a storm on the Gulf of Mexico,
visited the gold diggings of Northern Georgia, and returned via Nashville to St.
Louis and through Illinois to his father’s home, when he married. In 1833,
having sold his farm, he removed, with his wife and one child, to Illinois, and
entered a claim on Government land near the head of Au Sable River, in what is
now Kendall County. At that time there were not more than two neighbors within a
range of ten miles of his place, and only three or four houses between him and
Chicago. He opened a large farm. His family was boarded 12 miles away while he
erected a house on his claim, sleeping, during this time, under a rude pole
shed. Here his life was once placed in imminent peril by a huge prairie
rattlesnake sharing his bed.
In 1835 he bought largely at the Government land sales. During the speculative
real-estate mania which broke out in Chicago in 1836 and spread over the State,
he sold his lands under the inflation of that period and removed to Joliet. In
1838 he became a heavy contractor on the Illinois & Michigan Canal. Upon the
completion of his job in 1841, when hard times prevailed, business at a stand,
contracts paid in State script; when all the public works except the canal were
abandoned, the State offered for sale 700 tons of railroad iron, which was
purchased by Mr. Matteson at a bargain. This he accepted, shipped and sold at
Detroit, realizing a very handsome profit, enough to pay off all his canal debts
and leave him a surplus of several thousand dollars. His enterprise next
prompted him to start a woolen mill at Joliet, in which he prospered, and which,
after successive enlargements, became an enormous establishment.
In 1842 he was first elected a State Senator, but, by a bungling apportionment,
John Pearson, a Senator holding over, was found to be in the same district, and
decided to be entitled to represent it. Matteson’s seat was declared vacant.
Pearson, however, with a nobleness difficult to appreciate in this day of greed
for office, unwilling to represent his district under the circumstances,
immediately resigned his unexpired term of two years. A bill was passed in a few
hours ordering a new election, and in ten days’ time Mr. Matteson was returned
re-elected and took his seat as Senator. From his well-known capacity as a
business man, he was made Chairman of the Committee on Finance, a position he
held during this half and two full succeeding Senatorial terms, discharging its
important duties with ability and faithfulness. Besides his extensive
woolen-mill interest, when work was resumed on the canal under the new loan of
$1,600,000 he again became a heavy contractor, and also subsequently operated
largely in building railroads. Thus he showed himself a most energetic and
thorough business man.
He was nominated for Governor by the Democratic State Convention which met at
Springfield April 20, 1852. Other candidates before the Convention were D. L.
Gregg and F. C. Sherman, of Cook; John Dement, of Lee; Thomas L. Harris, of
Menard; Lewis W. Ross, of Fulton; and D. P. Bush, of Pike. Gustavus Koerner, of
St. Clair, was nominated for Lieutenant Governor. For the same offices the Whigs
nominated Edwin B. Webb and Dexter A. Knowlton. Mr. Matteson received 80,645
votes at the election, while Mr. Webb received 64,408. Matteson’s forte was not
on the stump; he had not cultivated the art of oily flattery, or the faculty of
being all things to all men. His intellectual qualities took rather the
direction of efficient executive ability. His turn consisted not so much in the
adroit management of party, or the powerful advocacy of great governmental
principles, as in those more solid and enduring operations which cause the
physical development and advancement of a State,--of commerce and business
enterprise, into which he labored with success to lead the people. As a
politician he was just and liberal in his views, and both in official and
private life he then stood untainted and free from blemish. As a man, in active
benevolence, social virtues and all the amiable qualities of neighbor or
citizen, he had few superiors. His messages present a perspicuous array of facts
as to the condition of the State, and are often couched in forcible and elegant
The greatest excitement during his term of office was the repeal of the Missouri
Compromise, by Congress, under the leadership of Stephen A. Douglas in 1854,
when the bill was passed organizing the Territory of Kansas and Nebraska. A
large portion of the Whig party of the North, through their bitter opposition to
the Democratic party, naturally drifted into the doctrine of anti-slavery, and
thus led to what was temporarily called the “Anti-Nebraska” party, while the
followers of Douglas were known as “Nebraska or Douglas Democrats.” It was
during this embryo stage of the Republican party that Abraham Lincoln was
brought forward as the “Anti-Nebraska” candidate for the United States
Senatorship, while Gen. James Shields, the incumbent, was re-nominated by the
Democrats. But after a few balloting in the Legislature (1855), these men were
dropped, and Lyman Trumbull, an Anti-Nebraska Democrat, was brought up by the
former, and Mr. Matteson, then Governor, by the latter. On the 11th ballot Mr.
Trumbull obtained one majority, and was accordingly declared elected. Before
Gov. Matteson’s term expired, the Republicans were fully organized as a national
party, and in 1856 put into the field a full national and State ticket, carrying
the State, but not the nation.
The Legislature of 1855 passed two very important measures,--the present
free-school system and a submission of the Maine liquor law to a vote of the
people. The latter was defeated by a small majority of the popular vote.
During the four years of Gov. Matteson’s administration the taxable wealth of
the State was about trebled, from $137,818,079 to $349,951,272; the public debt
was reduced from $17,398,985 to $12,843,144; taxation was at the same time
reduced, and the State resumed paying interest on its debt in New York as fast
as it fell due; railroads were increased in their mileage from something less
than 400 to about 3,000; and the population of Chicago was nearly doubled, and
its commerce more than quadrupled.
Before closing this account, we regret that we have to say that Mr. Matteson, in
all other respects an upright man and a good Governor, was implicated in a false
re-issue of redeemed canal scrip, amounting to $224,182.66. By a suit in the
Sangamon Circuit Court the State recovered the principal and all the interest
He died in the winter of 1872-3, at Chicago.
Source: Portrait and Biographical Album of Whiteside Co., Ill; Chicago: M. A.
Leeson & Co., 1887, pages 147-148
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