Single Party Politics in Knox County, 1869

by Rex Cherrington

Judge A. M. Craig had an active and successful public life at a time when Knox County Democrats generally did not fare well. In reviewing an old Illinois Blue Book, Craig was listed as a member of the Constitutional Convention of 1870 as a Republican. First thinking this was a mistake, further research revealed an interesting and obscure election in which there was officially but one political party in Knox County.

Valuable insights into local history can be obtained from the study of those years in which only local elections are held. During general election years the local issues and personalities are overshadowed by the interest in national issues and candidates.

In 1869 an election was held to elect county officials that included a Member of the Constitutional Convention, Judge, Clerk, Treasurer, Surveyor and School Superintendent.

In the Friday, October 8, 1869 edition of the Galesburg Free Press, a prominent notice was placed by the Secretary of the Republican Central Committee, John Winters advising Republicans of Knox County to hold meetings in their respective towns to select delegates on Saturday, October 18th. These delegates were then to attend a nominating meeting on October 20th. The notice advised that 104 delegates would be entitled to attend the meeting on the 20th, with 26 being from the City of Galesburg, 2 from Galesburg Township and but 9 from all of Knox Township, including Knoxville. Ontario Township was allocated 7 delegates; this was at a time when Oneida was more populous and important than it has been since. In comparison to Ontario, Cedar received only 5 delegates.

In spite of Galesburg's apparent advantage, Free Press editor and publisher J. S. McClelland wrote sabre-rattling articles warning Galesburg residents and others about Knoxville's alleged conspiracy to dominate the nominating convention with the help of democrats posing as republicans. McClelland wrote, "The republican majority of Knox county is ponderous and overwhelming, and, as old politicians know, large majorities are apt to beget apathy and carelessness. The democracy, though outnumbered heavily in numbers here, as elsewhere, endowed with inordinate craft and cunning. The leaders anxiously watching the result of the approaching convention, ready to take advantage of the slightest mistake Š Let it be the wise policy of the convention to counteract these plans Š The coming election is specially important to us of Knox county in many respects, and it is now the time to commence healing and harmonizing the conflicting interests which have so long distracted and agitated our county."

The Free Press reported on October 22nd that the Knoxville convention was held: "Pursuant to call issued from Knoxville, but containing no signatures, a convention assembled in Knoxville, yesterday to nominate candidates for the county offices, to be voted for this fall. As to the personel (sic) of the assemblage, we will have but little to say. A goodly number of the motley assemblage were democrats but the crafty wire working politicians who run the Knoxville machine, were in the majority. The attendance was slim. George A. Charles of Knoxville presided and F. Christianer of Abingdon acted as secretary. A call of the towns were made, and delegates reported from all, except Ontario and Maquon. A delegate moved that if any person present from the unrepresented towns be entitled to cast the votes of such town. But owing to the fact that everybody from everywhere had been scraped up in the `list,' none could be found willing to cast the vote, and the towns remained unrepresented. A.B.Sweeney, who had been placed upon the list of delegates from Rio, by the committee on credentials, without his knowledge or consent, refused to have anything to do with the proceedings."

The underlying cause of the problem was revealed at the nominating convention. Further quoting McClelland's Free Press, "A rich scene was now enacted. After other nominations for County Judge, Squire Richey, of Abingdon, recommended Major Thomas McKee, of this city."

This was not in the programme[sic] of the Knoxville managers. The major (McKee) was questioned as to his repentance of his position on the county seat question. The major said he had nothing to repent of. He had always acted for the best interests of himself and the people among whom he lived, and there he stood to day. He did not know that issue had aught to do with the convention. Kretzinger, of Knoxville, said this convention was called to keep the county seat where it is. There is no party lines, but all were in favor of Knoxville, and her interests. The whole issue is on the county seat question."

Thomas McKee was among the first inhabitants of Knox County, settling in Henderson Grove in 1828. A lifelong Democrat, even after moving into Galesburg, McKee held elective office in a very Republican community. This goes against McClelland's contention that the democrats among the republicans were all working to benefit Knoxville. Kretzinger's most visible moment came a few years later when the court appointed him as one of two attorneys to defend John Marion Osborne, the only man to be hanged in Knox County. A. M. Craig was the successful prosecutor in the case.

Rather than publish the list of candidates selected by the Knoxville convention, a different list appeared. Knoxville's convention had selected A. M. Craig as nominee for the state constitutional convention, John Winters for County Clerk, Rufus P. Miles for Judge, E.T. Ellett for Treasurer, F. Christianer for Superintendent Of Schools and David Wiltsee for Surveyor. On the same page which reported on the meeting an article headed, "Republican Nominations" listed J. M. Holyoke of Sparta for the constitutional convention member, Dennis Clark of Indian Point for Judge, Samuel L. Charles of Knox for County Clerk, Daniel J. Ockerson of Walnut Grove for Treasurer, J. S. Foster of Salem for school Superintendent and Ralph Voris of Ontario for Surveyor.

Who selected these "Republicans" is not revealed but the paper contended they were the "regular republican" ticket, in other words they were the real republicans and called the Knoxville candidates the opposition ticket. The Charles family of Knoxville had long been Democrats and had always stood for the interests of Knoxville, particularly with respect to the county seat issue. Samuel Charles was enticed to be on the Galesburg Republican ticket. The opposing forces within Knoxville and Galesburg were using similar strategies, pointing fingers at the other and crying foul. It is unfortunate we do not have the corresponding Knoxville newspapers for comparison.

The Galesburg Free Press made much about the Knoxville slate not having any Civil War veterans and capitalized on A. M. Craig's alleged confederate leanings with the following characterization of Craig: "He is the first rate type of the conservative democracy at `X Roads, Kentucky' as described by the Reverend Petroleum V. Nasty, and is a consistent and somewhat earnest and noisy advocate of peace in time of war, and exceedingly hostile and pugnacious in time of peace. As might be expected, he was bitterly opposed to the suppression of the late rebellion, and, of course, vilified the union soldiers as `Hessians and hirelings.' One Sunday he contributes money for church purposes, and the same day is found sneaking around the back-doors of saloons, with doubtful characters. Hypocrisy is his forte, democracy is his ticket, and whisky-straight his beverage, all the time; and, consequently, his election­­ to stay at ­­ is certain". Think of the words that could have been saved if McClelland had merely called Craig a drunk and cowardly confederate hypocrite rather than all the innuendo and the reference to Nasby's "Confederate X Corners" lifted from a humorous work of popular fiction. The only Civil War veteran on the Galesburg Republican ticket was Ockerson.

Election day was Tuesday, November 2nd. Craig lost heavily in Galesburg by 1,100 votes, though amazingly he found 121 persons in the city to vote for him, but won the race by 252 votes. Galesburg Republican candidate Clark from Abingdon won by 189 votes, Knoxville's Winter won the clerkship by a majority of 213 votes, Ellett became treasurer by 633 votes, Willtsie became surveyor by a slim margin of 81 votes and Christianer became the school superintendent by a majority of 94 votes. Galesburg succeeded in getting the incumbent judge, Clark, reelected but otherwise failed.

The Galesburg Free Press contained McClelland's editorial on the election entitled "A Bore" which blamed Galesburg apathy for the losses. "The upshot of the whole affair is, that the Knoxville folks panned out better than we did­­ that they voted early and kept on voting, and that we have suffered a partial defeat through stagnant apathy and selfish mismanagement."

This election would not be half as interesting if it had not been for the agitation of the county seat issue. In 1869, W. Selden Gale defeated Rufus Miles for a seat in the Illinois House of Representatives. Gale got a bill through the lower and upper houses that allowed an election in Knox County calling for the removal of the county seat from Knoxville to Galesburg. The election was held in April 1869 and Knoxville had prevailed by 247 votes. The outcome was challenged by Galesburg through the courts on basis of election fraud. In late 1872 the Illinois Supreme Court decided that fraud in Knoxville had exceeded that in Galesburg and that Galesburg had more legal votes. This confirmed the Circuit Court of McDonough County decision made by Judge Higbee.

A period of 13 years went by when Knox County was without a Courthouse. A. M. Craig moved to Galesburg, McClelland left. Craig became an Illinois Supreme Court Justice. Whether Galesburg residents viewed Craig with suspicion or found him acceptable and respectable is not recorded. When the cornerstone was laid for the new Courthouse in 1885, A. M. Craig arranged for this to be done by the Illinois Grand Lodge of the Ancient and Accepted Freemasons. Considering Craig's anti-Galesburg past and the anti-Masonic stance of Galesburg's early settlers, the entanglement of ironies becomes bewildering. Politics does indeed make for strange bedfellows. We should be careful what we say of our political foes today for they may be our much needed allies tomorrow.

This article posted to Zephyr online October 23, 1996
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