Bissell, William H.

Born: 1811-04-25 Hartwick, New York

Died: 1860-03-18 Springfield, Illinois

Bissell graduated from Jefferson Medical College of Philadelphia in 1834. Three years later, he moved to Monroe County, Illinois, where he taught school and practiced medicine. In 1840, voters elected him to the Illinois House of Representatives as a Democrat. He studied law and gained admission to the Illinois bar in 1841. He formed a partnership with attorney James Shields in Belleville. Bissell served as colonel of the Second Regiment of Illinois Volunteers during the Mexican War. In 1848, voters elected him as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives. Congressman Jefferson Davis of Mississippi challenged Bissell to a duel in February 1850, after Bissell gave a speech discounting the actions of southern troops at the Battle of Buena Vista. The duel was averted, but the affair won Bissell national fame. Bissell was reelected to Congress in 1850 as a Democrat and, in 1852, as an Independent. He declined renomination in 1854 because of a physical disability that impaired his mobility and may have been the result of syphilis. In 1856, he became the first Republican elected governor of Illinois. He died while in office.

Illinois Daily State Journal, 19 March 1860, 2:1-2; David L. Lightner, "Bissell, William Henry," American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 2:843-44; Jack R. Trout, "William H. Bissell: Anti-Nebraska Democrat and First Republican Governor of Illinois" (Master's Thesis, Illinois State Normal University, 1962);Governors of Illinois: 1818-1918 (Springfield: Illinois Centennial Commission, 1917), 23; Robert P. Howard, Mostly Good and Competent Men: Illinois Governors, 1818-1988 (Springfield: Illinois Issues, Sangamon State University and Illinois State Historical Society, 1988), 109-15. Illustration courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, IL.