Giving immortality to their littleness: Gov. Thomas Ford’s history of Illinois politics

From the Illinois Times (Springfield, Ill.):

llinois 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….

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.