William Henry Bissell (April 25, 1811 – March 18, 1860) was the 11th Governor of the U.S. state of Illinois from 1857 until his death. He was one of the first successful Republican Party candidates in the U.S., winning the election of 1856 just two years after the founding of his party. In addition to being the first Republican governor of Illinois, he was also the first Catholic and also the first to die in office.
Bissell was born in Hartwick, New York, near Painted Post, son of Luther Bissell and Hannah Shepard. He attended the public schools and was graduated from the Philadelphia Medical College in 1835. He moved to Monroe County, Illinois in 1837, where he taught school and practiced medicine until 1840.
From 1840 to 1842, Bissell was a member of the Illinois House of Representatives. He studied law, was admitted to the bar and commenced practice in Belleville, St. Clair County, Illinois. He was prosecuting attorney of St. Clair County in 1844.
Bissell was elected as a Democrat to the Thirty-first and Thirty-second Congresses and as an Independent Democrat to the Thirty-third Congress (March 4, 1849 – March 3, 1855); he was chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs (Thirty-second and Thirty-third Congresses). He was not a candidate for renomination in 1854.
Bissell, true to his anti-slavery convictions, held a very definite dislike for his Southern colleagues, whom he described collectively as "insolent, overbearing and bullying beyond all belief." A nearly hour-long speech on the House floor, in retaliation for distortive comments made by James A. Seddon (D-VA), regarding the Battle of Buena Vista, in which Bissell fought, won approval from Bissell's fellow Illinoisans, but inflamed Jefferson Davis, who felt personally slighted by the speech. Davis challenged Bissell to a duel, which Northern Congressmen were known to refuse. Bissell not only accepted the challenge, but in his rights as the party challenged, specified army muskets, loaded with ball and buckshot, at close range. Davis then cleverly accepted further explanation for the seemingly offensive comments in Bissell's speech, but lost face with some in backing down.
An interesting note is that this incident, though hostilities were never commenced on the field of honor, disqualified Bissell from holding state office in Illinois, according to the state Constitution of 1848. All state officials, as a part of their inauguration oath, had to swear as to never having participated in a duel, either by fighting in one, accepting a challenge or even acting as a second. Once back in Illinois, Bissell, who had broken ties with Stephen A. Douglas over the slavery extension issue, came under the wing of Lincoln and the Republicans. In the gubernatorial election of 1856, Abraham Lincoln determined that a former Democrat stood the best chance of defeating the Democratic candidate, William Alexander Richardson of Quincy, a subordinate of Douglas'. Bissell, by the mid-1850s, was partially paralyzed, able to walk only with use of a cane and "the aid of a friendly arm". He was nominated unopposed, on May 29, 1856, at Bloomington.
The Democrats made good work of the "duel" issue throughout the campaign and even after the election, which Bissell carried by 4,787 votes in a three-candidate field. The facts were plain: If Bissell took the anti-duelling oath, he was to therefore perjure himself. Bissell slipped the bonds of the charge by pointing out that the duel acceptance occurred in the District of Columbia, and was therefore not subject to the Illinois Constitution. The actual offense, of course, was the perjury itself, perpetrated when Bissell, with embarrassed but tacit approval from the Republicans, took the oath at Springfield.
Bissell, able only now to walk with crutches, has been the only governor of Illinois to be inaugurated in the Executive Mansion itself; he never entered the Capitol during the three-plus years he served. All official business was transacted from the second floor of the Executive Mansion. Bissell served as governor from January 12, 1857, until his death. He died at the Illinois Executive Mansion in Springfield and was interred in Oak Ridge Cemetery. He was the first Illinois governor to die in office.
- Howard, Robert (1988). Mostly Good and Competent Men. Springfield, Illinois: Illinois Issues and the Illinois State Historical Society. pp. 397. ISBN 0-912226-22-6.
- United States Congress. "William Henry Bissell (id: B000492)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
- This article incorporates public domain material from the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress website http://bioguide.congress.gov.
- This article incorporates facts obtained from: Lawrence Kestenbaum, The Political Graveyard
|Party political offices|
|First|| Republican nominee for Governor of Illinois
|U.S. House of Representatives|
| Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Illinois's 1st congressional district
Elihu B. Washburne
| Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Illinois's 8th congressional district
James L. D. Morrison
Joel Aldrich Matteson
| Governor of Illinois