Bissell, William Henry

William Henry Bissell was a lawyer and Mexican War hero who helped found the Republican Party in Illinois and was the first Republican to sit as governor of the state. He was born to a poor farming family in upstate New York in April 1811, studied medicine, and went west to open a practice in Monroe County, Illinois in 1837. He was seduced by politics and the law, however, and was elected to the Illinois house in 1840. That same year he married Emily Susan James and had two daughters before Emily’s death in 1844. When the Mexican War broke out, he was elected colonel of Volunteers and served with distinction at Buena Vista in February 1847. Tall, slender, and of erect military bearing, with dark brown hair and grey eyes, he was elected immediately after his return as a Democrat to the U.S. Congress and served three terms. While in Washington, Bissell married Elizabeth Kane, daughter of the late Senator Elias Kane, who secretly converted him to Catholicism. He also began to suffer greatly from a debilitating illness, possibly secondary syphilis. He broke with the Democrats in 1854 over the Kansas-Nebraska Act and accepted the Republican nomination for Governor. His election was an important coup for the new Republican Party but his term was dogged by fierce Democratic opposition in the legislature and his failing health. He died of pneumonia in March 1860, in the final year of his term, the first Illinois governor to die in office. (By John Osborne)
Life Span
    Full name
    William Henry Bissell
    Place of Birth
    Birth Date Certainty
    Death Date Certainty
    Sectional choice
    Free State
    No. of Spouses
    No. of Children
    Luther Bissell (father), Hannah Shepherd Bissell (mother), Emily Susan James (first wife), Elizabeth Kintzing Kane (second wife) 
    Other Education
    Philadelphia Medical College
    Attorney or Judge
    Doctor, Dentist or Nurse
    Relation to Slavery
    White non-slaveholder
    Church or Religious Denomination
    Catholic (Roman or Irish)
    Political Parties
    US House of Representatives
    State legislature
    Local government
    US military (Pre-Civil War)

    William Harrison Bissell (Congressional Biographical Directory)

    BISSELL, William Harrison, a Representative from Illinois; born in Hartwick, Otsego County, N.Y., on April 25, 1811; attended the public schools, and was graduated from the Philadelphia Medical College in 1835; moved to Monroe County, Ill., in 1837; taught school and practiced medicine until 1840; member of the State house of representatives 1840-1842; studied law; was admitted to the bar and commenced practice in Belleville, St. Clair County, Ill.; prosecuting attorney of St. Clair County in 1844; served in the Mexican War as colonel of the Second Regiment, Illinois Volunteer Infantry; 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); chairman, Committee on Military Affairs (Thirty-second and Thirty-third Congresses); was not a candidate for renomination in 1854; elected Governor of Illinois in 1856 and served from January 12, 1857, until his death; died in Springfield, Sangamon County, Ill., March 18, 1860; interment in Oak Ridge Cemetery.
    "Bissell, William Harrison," Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774 to Present,

    William Henry Bissell (American National Biography)

    Throughout his six years in Congress, Bissell championed liberal land policies such as homesteads, bounties to veterans, and grants to railroads. Although in 1850 he favored the Fugitive Slave Act and other compromise measures, in 1854 he broke with his party's leadership and refused to support the Kansas-Nebraska Bill because it repealed the Missouri Compromise. In May 1854 he was incapacitated by an illness of some years' standing, probably secondary syphilis affecting the sacrum. While acutely ill, he converted secretly to his wife's Roman Catholic faith. Unable to attend the final vote on the Kansas-Nebraska Bill on 22 May (although he declared his willingness to be carried into the House on a stretcher were his presence crucial to the outcome), or to participate at all in the second session of the Thirty-third Congress, he did not seek reelection in 1854.

    Because Abraham Lincoln and other founders of the Republican party of Illinois believed that only an antislavery Democrat had a prayer of leading their ticket to victory in the state elections of 1856, the party convention that met at Bloomington on 29 May unanimously nominated Bissell for governor. Despite his failed health, Bissell had declared himself available because, he said, "Slavery demands more room--more scope and verge. Shall she have it? . . . I say a thousand times, No!" Although unable to do much campaigning, he won the November election by a plurality of nearly 5,000 votes, drawing support from Democrats, Whigs, abolitionists, and (his Catholicism not being known) nativists.
    David L. Lightner, "Bissell, William Henry," American National Biography Online, February 2000,

    William Henry Bissell (Notable Americans)

    BISSELL, William Henry, statesman, was born at Hartwick, Otsego county, N. Y., April 25, 1811. He obtained an education through his own efforts, earning the money in winter that enabled him to attend school in the summer. He was graduated at the Philadelphia medical college in 1835, practised for two years in Steuben county, N. Y., and for three years in Monroe county, IL., and was elected to the Illinois legislature, where he made quite a reputation as a ready and able debater. He turned his attention to the study of the law, was admitted to the bar, practised in Belleville, IL., and was elected prosecuting attorney of St. Clair county in 1844. During the Mexican war he served as captain of a company in the 2d Illinois volunteers, and took an active part in the battle of Buena Vista. He represented Illinois in the national house of representatives in the 31st, 32d and 33d congresses, from December, 1849, to March 3, 1855, and hia emphatic opposition to the Missouri compromise involved him in a controversy with southern Democrats. The question as to the bravery of the soldiers from the north as compared with that shown by the south in the Mexican war led to a debate with Jefferson Davis, and resulted in Mr. Bissell being challenged by Mr. Davis. He accepted the challenge, and chose muskets as the weapons to be used at thirty paces. The friends of Mr. Davis interfered at this juncture and the duel was never fought. On the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill, Mr. Bissell separated from the Democratic party and was elected governor of Illinois on the Republican ticket, serving by re-election from 1856 until his death, which occurred at Springfield, IL., March 18, 1860.
    Rossiter Johnson, ed., "Bissell, George William," The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans, vol. 1 (Boston: The Biographical Society, 1904).

    William Harrison Bissell (New York Times)

    Gov. Wm. H. Bissell, of Illinois was born near Cooperstown, in this State, April 25, 1811. He studied medicine at the Jefferson Medical College, in Philadelphia, whence he graduated in 1835. After practising [practicing] medicine for several years, he was elected to the State Legislature from Munroe County, in 1840. He studied law, was admitted to practice, and removed to Belleville, St. Clair County. There the Mexican War found him. In 1846 he was elected Colonel of the Second Regiment of Volunteers, and gave up the position of State Attorney for the Second Judicial District to go to Mexico. He distinguished himself in the campaign of Buena Vista, and, returning, was chosen to represent the Eighth District of Illinois in Congress. He was twice a member of the House of Representatives, but declined to serve a third term on account of ill-health. In 1856 the Republican State Convention unanimously nominated him for Governor, and he was elected by a large majority.
    “Gov. Wm. H. Bissell,” New York Times, March 20, 1860, p. 5: 1.
    Chicago Style Entry Link
    Lightner, David L. "Ten Million Acres for the Insane: The Forgotten Collaboration of Dorothea L. Dix and William H. Bissell." Illinois Historical Journal 89, no. 1 (1996): 17-34. view record
    How to Cite This Page: "Bissell, William Henry," House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College,