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Thursday, March 4, 2010 01:50 pm

Giving immortality to their littleness

Gov. Thomas Ford’s history of Illinois politics

Illinois has a very short list of distinguished governors and a somewhat longer one of able historians. The list of distinguished governors who also are able historians is very short indeed. Only one name is on it, that of Thomas Ford.

Ford’s term in Springfield, from 1842 to 1848, was his first and only popularly elective office. He came into office faced with two armed insurrections — in western Illinois, where Mormons and locals were at each other’s throats like Sunni and Shia in Iraq, and in southern Illinois, which was plagued by posses of banditti. The state was convulsed by anti-abolition mob violence, and he had to shepherd through a fractious General Assembly a plan to ease a fiscal crisis that makes today’s budget shortfalls look like lost lunch money.

The man who saved Illinois from bankruptcy was unable to save himself. Ford practiced law in Peoria after he left office — former governors did not automatically receive pensions in those days — but failed to make a living. Dying of tuberculosis and needing money to support his children, Ford sat down to write a popular history of Illinois.

Freed from political ambition by his health and his poor public standing, he felt no need to kowtow to “balance” and “fairness.” Like Blagojevich’s The Governor, Ford’s History has been damned as self-serving, and so it is, the way a thug’s blackjack may be said to be self-serving. Illinois government was bad, Ford argued, because its politicians were a little too representative of its people, being as greedy as pigs at the trough and more ignorant. “Though respectable in other matters,” Ford wrote in a typical aside about the four legislators who opposed his plan to clean up the state banks, “to my certain knowledge [none] was capable of entertaining two ideas about public affairs at the same time [or] of tracing the connection between them.”

Historian Thomas Macaulay once observed that no man is fit to govern great societies who hesitates about disobliging the few who have access to him for the sake of the many whom he will never see. Ford was disobliging to a great many insiders; when a contemporary later wrote that Ford was wanting in tact, it was like calling Pat Quinn wanting in charisma. His friend and former colleague James Shields, in his introduction to the original edition, felt compelled to state, “I regret the severity of some of the author’s judgments, and the censure with which he assails the character of some of our public men, who are both my personal and political friends.”

His portraits of Illinois’s public types are all too recognizable today. About one circuit court judge he wrote: “As a judge he knew just enough of law and had practiced enough in its quibbles to obliterate from his heart the instinct in favor of natural justice. without supplying its place by the lights of science.” What he wrote about the Mormons of Nauvoo could be written about any group that defines politics in terms of the victimized and saviors. “All action of the government which bore hard on them, however legal, they looked upon as wantonly oppressive; and when the law was administered in their favor they attributed it to partiality and kindness” on the part of the administering officer.

Ford himself anticipated the charge that he was merely settling scores, and claimed a higher purpose for his book. History usually deals with events and results, he explained, but “the characters and motives of those who were the most active in bringing them about…is the hidden soul and most instructive part of history,” and he would unhide them. “It is believed that many public men in Illinois . . . were encouraged, by their insignificance, to hope for oblivion; and it is, perhaps, after all, not very fair to take them by surprise, by recording their miserable conduct, giving a small immortality to their littleness.”

The events of Ford’s Illinois make for a ripping yarn, but readers without a special interest in Illinois history may find much of it as incomprehensible as an account of the religious politics of Britain’s Stuart kings. Nor is it a comprehensive treatment; as Knox College scholar Rodney Davis has noted, nearly half the book deals with Ford’s administration as governor and all of it with Illinois history during his own lifetime. In any event his narrative stops in 1846, a generation before modern Illinois began to emerge. (If he wrote “about small events and little men,” he explained, it was because “there was nothing else in the history of Illinois to write about.”) Nonetheless it remains, after a century and a half, as contemporary a work on Illinois politics as there is on the shelf.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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