A Forward Thinker
An appreciation of Gov. Thomas Ford
Librarians should note that the published titled of this piece (for which I haven't room here) was Today’s Leaders Could Learn from a Forward Thinker from Yesteryear.
Thomas Ford, governor of Illinois from 1842 to 1846, wrote a history of Illinois still worth reading and ran the state in a way still worth emulating. I touted him in print wherever I could. The best edition of his book (History of Illinois from Its Commencement as a State in 1818 to 1847) was published in 1995 by the University of Illinois Press and includes annotations and an introduction by Rodney O. Davis.
You would think that a governor who restored the State of Illinois’ low reputation for creditworthiness while creating stable conditions for economic growth might be looked to by our perplexed state leaders as a model, if not worshipped as a saint. But today, Gov. Thomas Ford is remembered, if at all, for his role in suppressing the Mormon War of the 1840s, not for suppressing the rebellion of the state’s creditors set off by the Panic of 1837.
The members of the General Assembly of 1836–37 demonstrated—not for the last time—that as economists, they are good politicians. Each part of the state had an infrastructure project that it expected would make it rich, and its elected representatives happily agreed to approve similar projects that every other section wanted so they could get their own. The result was a recklessly extravagant program of internal improvements that called for constructing the Illinois & Michigan Canal, laying 1,300 miles of railroad track (in a state that scarcely had a mile of decent wagon road) and making suitable for navigation by steamboats “rivers” that until then floated only dead trees.
Work began in 1836, but a national financial panic in 1837 gutted the value of donated federal land whose sale was supposed to pay for most of it. The state government defaulted on its interest payments on the rest in 1841, and while stopgap financing kept the work going until 1842, not another shovelful of dirt was moved thereafter.
Public officials who call today’s fiscal problems a “crisis” have not read their history. When Ford took the oath of office in 1842, state-chartered banks had failed, and their notes, which constituted the common currency, were worthless. With no money in circulation, the state was in effect closed for business. The State of Illinois was $14 million in debt, the budget deficit was more than $300,000 and there was, Ford famously reported, not enough cash in the till in Springfield to buy a postage stamp. The state was in the same fix as the overextended house-buyer stuck with a home worth less than what he owes on it.
“Every one [sic] had a plan of his own to restore the State to prosperity,” Ford would write in his posthumous history of Illinois. The problem was most of those plans were impractical or imprudent. One faction wanted to raise cash by selling new grants of federal land, but Congress was in no mood to throw good acres after bad. Resorting to what Ford would call “oppressive and exterminating taxation” to pay off what the state owed was out of the question. The young state’s economy was as shaky on its feet as a toddler, and asking it to carry a heavy tax load would have caused it to collapse.
Others counseled that the state should simply walk away from the failed banks and the canal debt. Ford appreciated that the stink of default would carry to the East Coast and beyond, where the sensitive nostrils of money men would pick it up. He called default an “irretrievable infamy” that would expose Illinois to the rest of the world as “a confederated band of unprincipled swindlers.”
Ford saw that the first step out of this swamp was to reassure the people to whom the state owed money that they would get paid eventually. Ford also was canny enough to realize that it would be folly to surrender the canal because the I&M—that era’s O’Hare and interstate system combined—was the surest means to expand the economy. He also divined that for the same reason it was in the interests of the canal bond holders to extend the state more money to finish it.
It was this ability to judge the state's problems in a larger frame that distinguished Ford’s handling of the crisis, along with his adroit handling of the General Assembly in the face of obstructionism, sectionalism, partyism, and general do-nothingism. He scaled back the proposed building and borrowed $1.6 million from money men in New York and London. In return, the state conveyed to them the canal property in trust as security. The job of finishing the I&M Canal was wisely left in the hands of trustees, most of whom were selected by the bondholders. (“We have had enough in our history,” he wrote later, “of the management of money matters by public officers.”)
Putting the canal effectively into hock took care of the principal on the debt. To cover the interest, Ford proposed a new tax on property of one mill—or 0.1 cent—per dollar of assessed valuation in 1845, increasing permanently in 1846 to a mill and a half, the proceeds to be sacredly devoted to the payment of the interest on the debts of the state. The governor’s role here was crucial, Ford would write, because “the politicians on neither side, without a bold lead to the contrary by some one [sic] high in office, would never have dared to risk their popularity by being the first to advocate an increase of taxes to be paid by a tax-hating people.“
The effect of these measures on Illinois finances was like that of the princess’s kiss on the frog prince. Construction of the canal was resumed, and when it opened in 1848, goods and people invigorated an economy grown anemic from lack of trade. The debt load was lightened by $5 million down to $6 million, and sound money started circulating again. “This was the best that could be done,” Ford would write with pardonable pride, “and it is wonderful, under the circumstances, that so much could be accomplished.”
The last of the debts the legislators incurred in 1837 were paid off by their grandchildren in 1880.
As a result of the internal improvements fiasco, wrote historian Theodore Calvin Pease in 1918, “Illinois learned and learned much and had acquired
. . . political experience and judgment which were to fit it for active and efficient participation in the great affairs of the union.” Sadly, the lessons learned were quickly forgotten. Now, as then, lawmakers mistook a speculative boom as permanent and bet the house on it continuing. Now, as then, lawmakers blamed the near-bankruptcy on the current national recession rather than their own profligacy. Now, as then, lawmakers did not quite grasp that rebuilding state government’s balance sheet required rebuilding the state’s economy. In the 1840s, the state’s industrial economy was immature; today it is atrophied, but in neither era was it able to generate the funds needed to run the state at politically acceptable levels of taxation.
Now, as then, the state government’s fiscal problems have financial solutions. And now, as then, the political consensus needed to apply those solutions seems impossible to achieve. What is lacking now is what Illinois got in 1842—a bold lead to the contrary by someone high in office. We are obliged to speculate why Illinois so often had the leaders it needed in past fiscal crises but not today. Coping with extraordinary situations sometimes turns ordinary men and women into leaders—certainly no one would have pegged Ford to be the prophet who brought Illinois out of the wilderness during the state’s transition from frontier to industrial state—but not always.
Henry Horner—another judge-turned-pol—would keep a sick economy during the Depression from fatally infecting the social system. Why? Perhaps because he felt a personal responsibility for the plight of the poor that overwhelmed his political ambition. In 1933, when Horner was sworn in, relief for the state’s unemployed was supplied mainly by federal money—99 percent of it in the fiscal year ending in 1933—and the feds were demanding that the state do more to help its own.
Unfortunately, the state’s horse-and-buggy tax system was inadequate to the demands of crisis. Horner, like his predecessor, Louis Emmerson, borrowed against a return to prosperity, but the proceeds were spent within a year. Horner pushed for and got a new state tax, on retail sales, in the face of opposition from both the courts and the elected representatives of what were still a tax-hating people. Just as Ford shepherded state government from its frontier to the industrial age, so Horner helped it cope with the consequences of industrialism.
Is it possible that today’s crisis is not quite extraordinary enough? Is the problem that our politicians are inadequate to solve the crisis or that the crisis is inadequate to motivate the politicians? No one is quite starving in Illinois, unless you count voters hungry for grownup leaders. Bad bond ratings or bankrupt social service agencies that serve politically marginal populations are like the ominous rattle in the car engine — worrisome, but most drivers won’t tend to it until the car stops running. And the future does not have a representative in the General Assembly.
It would be nice if today’s leaders would learn from Ford’s forward thinking or Horner’s sense of responsibility and tried to act like fiscal architects rather than by-the-hour builders. Nice, but unlikely, as Ford himself knew. “It is lamentably true that communities in the aggregate scarcely ever profit by the lessons of experience,” he wrote. “The same evils and calamities, and from the same causes, occur again and again and find the people as little expecting them, every time they are repeated, as they were before; and they are every time just as blind about the remedy.” ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.
Politics & government
Arts & culture