As I write this, folks all over the country are voting for the next President of the United States. Here at the Matile Manse, we cast our votes a week or so ago at the Oswego Village Hall, so our ballots are already part of the results of this historic election.
And historic it is, with the first woman representing a major U.S. political party possibly on the way to winning office. If Hillary Clinton does indeed prevail, she’ll be the second trendsetter in a row, following Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American President.
If we’re lucky enough to see a Clinton Presidency, the Republic will be safe for at least four more years as opposed to the existential danger to Constitutional government posed by her erratic, seemingly mentally unbalanced opponent.
The thing is, elections have consequences, and this election has more real consequences than any in the nation’s history. There have been other elections with major consequences, although none of them posing as dire a threat to our freedom as the current one. A case in point was the election of Andrew Jackson.
Political patronage armies are taken for granted these days—and looked upon with a good deal of well-deserved suspicion, for that matter. But when patronage was introduced, it was hailed by many as an innovative reform of the political process in the U.S. It also had an important impact on the settlement of the Old Northwest, including Illinois in general and Kendall County in particular.
Prior to the election of Andrew Jackson in 1829, the reins of political power in the United States were held by what amounted to an oligarchy of rich Northern intellectuals and even richer Southern planters. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all belonged to the Virginia aristocracy while the two Adamses, John and John Quincy, were New England patricians.
Jackson was the first person born poor to become President and he was determined (as only Jackson could be) to work hard to represent what he saw as the interests of the common man—as long as that man was white and, you know, a man.
One of the first things Jackson noted when he took office was that the government bureaucracy was dominated by representatives of the oligarchy of landed and moneyed classes typified by the first six presidents. Jackson was a very good politician in his own right, and he quickly realized that information and communication is power in any government—especially in a democracy. In order to solidify his power and also to make government more responsive to the people instead of the landed and wealthy, Jackson essentially invented patronage.
“Office is considered a species of property, and government rather as a means of promoting individual interests than as an instrument created solely for the service of the people,” he complained upon assuming office.
Not only did he vigorously weed out the oligarchs in Washington, but working closely with his old friend Amos Kendall, whom Jackson eventually named Postmaster General, the new President proceeded to make local U.S. Post Offices his eyes and ears in every community in the nation.
When Jackson was elected, settlement was just beginning in Kendall County. The earliest pioneers arrived starting in 1826, settling in the southern part of the county in that area south of the old Indian Boundary Line. After the Black Hawk War of 1832, intense settlement began north of the line as pioneers flooded into the county in violation of treaties with Native American tribes.
The village of Oswego is an example of how settlement occurred in Kendall County in the 1830s. William Wilson and Daniel, John, and Walter Pearce and their families settled the area in 1833. In 1835, Levi Arnold and Lewis Judson laid out a village where the Fox River narrows and a good limestone ford across the stream was located, calling it Hudson. As soon as it was laid out, the town’s developers and the area’s early settlers began promoting their investment.
Settlers wanted to promote their areas for two major reasons during the pioneer period—financial gain and political power. Certainly those who were first to claim land in a fast-growing area stood a good chance of making money from their investment. But most early town builders—at least those in Kendall County—had financial gain second on their list of hopes for the future. Their real goal was political power, and that is why they encouraged settlement and the growth of pioneer industries.
With population growth came the possibility of representation, first at the local level. Local governments were the first to be formed, and often their first goal was to make sure the town acquired a road. A branch of the Chicago-Galena Trail and one of three branches of the Chicago-Ottawa Trail, ran through Oswego when it was established. The Galena Road was soon lost to enterprising businessmen in Montgomery, who in turn soon lost it to Aurora.
The Ottawa Trail remained, however, and in 1837 local interests achieved a major political victory when they succeeded in persuading the government to establish a post office in Oswego. With the post office came a direct pipeline to Washington D.C. via President Jackson’s patronage army via postmaster Levi Arnold.
But the acquisition also resulted in another watershed: Up until 1837, Oswego was known informally as Hudson. The post office, when it was granted, was named Lodi by the U.S. Postal Service. With two competing names, it was clear something needed to be done to avert confusion, so, according to an account in the Sept. 5, 1855 Kendall County Courier, six pioneer residents of the village met to choose a name. Votes were cast and four names received votes. “Oswego,” which received two votes, won.
Oswego’s Federal connection came early; gaining local control took a couple more years. When Oswego was settled, it was part of Kane County. By 1840, in the throes of the effects of the Panic of 1837, residents of Oswego Township, along with those in Bristol and Little Rock Township, combined with residents in six other townships then part of LaSalle County (NaAuSay, Kendall, Fox, Big Grove, Lisbon, and Seward) lobbied the Illinois General Assembly, and in February 1841 a new county was authorized, named after that same Amos Kendall who was Andrew Jackson’s political fixer. It’s always seemed a source of high irony to me that Kendall is named after one of the most powerful Democratic politicians of his day, given that the county, ever since the Republican Party was established, has been rock-ribbed GOP territory.
But anyway, the result of getting that new county established was retaining county-level political power close at hand, instead of ceding it to either Ottawa, the LaSalle County seat, or Geneva, the Kane County seat, both miles away. And in the early 19th Century, that distance was not trivial given the generally abominable state of the region’s road system.
The establishment of Oswego’s post office not only created that political pipeline to Washington, D.C., but it also connected the growing village to the national political and economic conversation via the newspaper slips carried free as part of the U.S. Mail. The slips, with their local, national, and international news items, were reprinted in the local press keeping local residents informed about everything from European wars to the latest political outrages in the nation’s capital.
Settlement continued to be promoted during the 1800s as area leaders sought direct representation in both state and Federal legislatures.
After a quiet period in the early 1900s, Kendall County’s population ballooned again beginning in the late 1950s as economic development drew new residents to the area. After pausing in the 1970s and early 1980s, another residential boom began in the late 1980s that was only stopped by the Great Recession and deflation of the huge housing bubble in 2008.
Along the way, patronage came into ill repute, and laws were passed severely limiting it. Even so, we managed to have our voices heard in both Washington, D.C. when a former area resident served as the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and another Oswego resident served as minority leader of the Illinois General Assembly. Our relatively brief fling with national power came to a bad end when former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert was convicted of financial misdeeds and suspected of worse things, although I think that despite his ignominious fall, he did an awful lot of good for Kendall County.
Today, there’s nothing like the Jackson-created direct pipeline from every crossroads post office in the nation directly to Washington, D.C., which may or may not be a good thing. Certainly, it seems a lot more efficient not to have every postmaster in the nation replaced when a different party assumes the Presidency, which is what happened for many, many years during the 19th Century.
But, still, one thing we’ve come to see during recent years is the bubble that Washington politicians seem to live in where they interact only with themselves and other members of the power structure in the nation’s capital, including those giant, vampire bat-like swarms of lobbyists and members of the national media. Maybe a direct connection from every local post office directly to the Oval Office to keep the President current on what regular folks are thinking might not be all bad.