This Week In Illinois History: The Governor Who Nearly Dueled Jefferson Davis (Feb. 21, 1850)

Feb 22, 2021

Illinois Gov. William H. Bissell.
Credit Courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum

William H. Bissell was Illinois’ 11th governor, elected in 1856 and endorsed by Abraham Lincoln. He is known for many Illinois firsts: first Catholic governor, first Republican governor  -- the party was only two years old at the time of his election -- and first governor to die in office.

But before he was governor, Bissell had worked as both a doctor and lawyer. He’d begun dabbling in state politics when the Mexican-American War called him to service. General Zachary Taylor later praised Bissell’s bravery, noting that at the Battle of Buena Vista he was the only surviving colonel of Illinois’ three regiments.

After the war he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. It was on Feb. 21, 1850 that Bissell stood before the house and delivered his most famous speech.

“The public mind has become agitated and anxious,” he warned, “and oppressed with apprehensions of impending calamity.” He claimed his southern counterparts had created these conditions through baseless accusations of northern aggression.

He accused them of being extremists, of riling up their base with lies and conspiracies to sow fear, of deceiving patriotic Southerners into believing that not only the North, but the union itself was their enemy.

Despite Bissell’s admonishments, it was not his criticism of southern “fake news” that caused the most consternation. Near the end of his speech, he accused a southern congressman of exaggerating a Mississippi regiment’s contributions during the Mexican War. The Mississippi unit in question had been under the command of U.S. Sen. Jefferson Davis. When Davis got word of the speech, he challenged Bissell to a duel.

Jefferson Davis in 1853, when he was Secretary of War under Pres. Franklin Pierce.

To the surprise of many, possibly Davis himself, Bissell accepted the challenge. “I had borne the intolerable insolence of these disunionists and gasconaders as long as I could stand it,” he later recalled. Dueling rules allowed the challenged party to choose the weapons, so Bissell chose army muskets loaded with balls and buckshot.

A mutual acquaintance, Illinois Sen. James Shields, intervened and convinced both men to call off the duel. It is also believed Pres. Zachary Taylor may have gotten involved. He had been both men’s commanding officer in Mexico and was also Davis’ former father-in-law. Whatever compromise the men came to, Bissell was praised at home and throughout the North for standing up to Southern bullying, with one Springfield newspaper calling him “the Gallant Bissell.”

Incidentally, in one of those great historic ironies, Sen. James Shields had nearly fought in a duel himself once, with no less than Abraham Lincoln. In 1842, he had challenged Lincoln to a duel over a critical editorial the young lawyer had written about him. Lincoln accepted, choosing cavalry broadswords as the weapons. The would-be duelists even went as far as appearing at the field of combat, but Lincoln’s long arms, tall stature and practice swings of the broadsword made him an imposing challenger. As with the Bissell-Davis conflict, cooler heads intervened and the duel never took place.

Official governor's portrait of William H. Bissell.

But that wasn’t the end of it for Bissell. Illinois had an anti-dueling law. When elected officials were sworn into office, they had to pledge that they had never taken part in a duel or accepted a challenge to duel, even if the duel never took place. When “Gallant” Bissell ran for governor in 1856 as a Republican, Democrats challenged his eligibility because of his widely documented confrontation with Davis. Republicans argued, however, that because Bissell had been challenged outside of Illinois, the law was not applicable. Bissell was sworn in as Governor in 1857. He died in office three years later.

Top image of William H. Bissell provided courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum.