French was born on August 2, 1808 in Hill, Merrimack County, New Hampshire. His father died when he was a child, and he struggled to obtain an education, finally leaving Dartmouth College due to lack of funds. Studying at home, he was admitted to the bar in 1823 at the time, law school graduation was not a prerequisite for becoming a lawyer). He then travelled to Albion, Edwards County, Illinois but soon moved to Edgar Courthouse (later renamed Paris, Illinois) in the newly established Edgar County, where he acquired a successful law practice. On his mother's death, he assumed responsibility for his younger siblings.
French entered politics, at 29 years of age, in 1837, first serving a term in the Illinois legislature, then becoming the Receiver of Public Monies (i.e., the receiver of money paid to the U.S. government for land) at Palestine in Crawford County, Illinois, where he took up residence.
In 1844 he was a presidential elector for James K. Polk (the winner in that election), and became popular in Illinois politics through his advocacy of a war with Mexico.
French was nominated for governor by his party and won the election for governor, taking office as the ninth Governor of Illinois on December 9, 1846.
French immediately pushed for the funding to retire the state's debt, an attitude that characterized his entire tenure in office. He saw many of the Mormons leave Illinois in February of 1846 after their city charter at Nauvoo had been revoked the previous year.
Two events significant to the growth of Chicago occurred during French's term of office: the Illinois and Michigan Canal was completed, and the construction of the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad had begun. The canal connected the Illinois River (and thus, the Mississippi River) with the Great Lakes, while the railroad connected Chicago with the lead mines in Galena, Illinois (it would be completed in 1853).
A new state constitution was adopted in 1848, and among its changes from the 1818 constitution were new provisions for the election and terms of office for the state governor. French was unanimously renominated for the office by his party, and easily won re-election. He continued his efforts to reduce the state's debt, and by the time he left office on January 10, 1853, the entire deficit had been eliminated.
After his retirement from government, French taught law and would continue his public service as a bank commissioner (appointed to that position by his successor, Governor Matteson), and then relocated to Lebanon in St. Clair County, Illinois, where he became a Professor of Law at McKendree College (thus the new house in Lebanon).
In 1858 he ran for State Superintendent of Public Instruction as the nominee of the Douglas wing of his party, but was defeated. He was a delegate to the unproductive Illinois Constitutional Convention of 1862, which became known as the "Copperhead Convention" for its anti-war stance during the Civil War.
Augustus French died September 4, 1864 in Lebanon, Illinois and was buried there in College Hill Cemetery.
The Augustus French house still stands today at 1213 Belleville Street, Lebanon, Illinois. It received a Landmark Award from the St. Clair County Historical Society in 1984.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.