Watertown’s Leonard Farwell: A Short Political History

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Leonard J Farwell 01A few weeks ago, I wrote here about Joel Aldrich Matteson, a Watertown native who became governor of Illinois―and among other things, established a level of corruption perhaps matched by recent governor/inmate Rod Blagojevich.

To balance the scale, here’s a look at another Watertown native who, during Matteson’s tenure, served as governor of Illinois’ neighbor to the north, Wisconsin. Though there was plenty of corruption in Wisconsin’s government during that time, the governor was not believed to be directly involved.

At worst, the wrongdoings of others may have soiled his good reputation, but he left plenty of accomplishments behind as well. He also became tied to a pair of signature events in American history.

Leonard J. Farwell was born in Watertown in 1819, and was orphaned by age 11. After attending school for the next three years, he went to work in an area store. Preferring a different type of work, Leonard became a tinsmith in a local shop, where he also learned much about operating a business.

In 1838, he moved to Lockport, Illinois, opening his own hardware store and tin shop. Business was good, and two years later, he moved to Milwaukee, where he established a hardware store. The firm prospered, and as hard work paid off, Farwell invested his profits in land purchases, particularly in the Madison, Wisconsin area, to which he moved in 1849.

Expending vigorous effort and lots of money, he built sawmills, gristmills, roads, and other structures, securing his place in the city’s and Wisconsin’s history. Farwell’s story of rising from poverty to great financial wealth soon attracted political party leaders, who urged him to run for governor.

His opponents seized on the very same story to prove he was hardly worthy of the position. Attempting to diminish his accomplishments, they referred to Farwell derisively as a “mechanic.” High-profile editorials wondered, “… how many are there of that class … who pretended they had the requisite talents, experience, or qualifications for such an office?”

Editorials in support of the political newcomer ripped into the term “that class,” countering with dripping sarcasm: “Who is Mr. Farwell? Only a mechanic, a merchant, and businessman. Never held office … or wriggled like a crawling worm in the slime and filth of the party sewers to get votes!”

The scathing rebuke continued, portraying Farwell as “a mechanic … by the sweat of his brow and the labor of his own hands … has risen from poverty to comparative wealth, and for enterprise and business capacity stands second to no man in the state.”

They called for electing a self-made man who would pursue the state’s interests, “… instead of being the mere tool of the party.” By a narrow margin, Leonard Farwell, the man from “that class,” was elected Wisconsin’s second governor in 1852, just four years after the territory had attained statehood.

His inauguration came on Leonard’s 33rd birthday. The state’s new leader took a common-sense approach to the job, acting against monopolistic banks, and foiling insurance companies who were indulging in financial practices that risked catastrophe for many. (Sound familiar?  It was similar to the recent AIG debacle.) He also signed a bill granting land “to aid in the education of deaf, dumb, blind, and insane persons in the state.”

When Leonard left office in 1854, the Racine Advocate noted, “It will be a long time, we fear, before Wisconsin has another governor so impartial, so independent, and so capable as Governor Farwell.”

His legacy also included public works―among other things, helping to organize the State Historical Society, the public school system, and the state university.

A financial crisis, the Panic of 1857, drained his fortune, but Farwell managed to recover. After working in a soldier-relief program during the early years of the Civil War, he was appointed by Abraham Lincoln as Assistant Examiner in the Patent Office. He journeyed to Washington in a move that would have historic ramifications.

Two years later, an April evening of theater entertainment was interrupted by gunfire. Chaos ensued as Farwell and other patrons of the Ford Theater learned the horrible truth―President Lincoln had been shot.

Amid the bedlam that followed, the shooter made his escape as cries of the name “Booth!” echoed through the building. Farwell was reminded that a southern newspaper had offered a reward for anyone who killed the president, vice-president (Andrew Johnson), and other administration men.

Immediately, he rushed to the Kirkwood House, roused the vice-president from his bed, and informed him of the shooting. Farwell then extinguished the room light and summoned a guard to protect Johnson from attack. An assassin had, in fact, been assigned to kill the vice-president. In another room, a gun and knife were found hidden in the bed of the planned assailant, but he never acted. Farwell’s speedy intervention was credited by many with having saved the life of Johnson.

Leonard Farwell left Washington after the war, returning to the business world. In 1870, he established a successful patent office in Chicago and shared in several other ventures with his brother James. A year later, the Farwells suffered huge losses in perhaps the most famous conflagration in the nation’s history, the Great Chicago Fire.

In a remarkable link to the governor’s life, a noted survivor of the devastation, rescued from the flames somewhere in the city, was a painting titled The Last Hours of President Lincoln, preserving for posterity one of the most dreadful scenes imaginable. Depicted was the dying chief executive, surrounded by many prominent politicians and military men. Among them was Leonard Farwell.

Leonard later relocated to Missouri, where he regained financial prosperity through banking and real estate. Grant City in northwestern Missouri became his home, where continued success once again led politicians to his door, urging him to seek the governorship of Missouri in 1880. Farwell declined, preferring to pursue his interests in the world of business.

Four years later, in a terrible bit of irony, a theater once again became linked to great tragedy in his life. While visiting San Francisco with his three sons, Leonard and the youngest boy returned from a show to find that the oldest son had committed suicide. Barely alive when they found him, he died within an hour.

Leonard Farwell―Watertown orphan, Wisconsin governor, witness to Lincoln’s assassination, and victim of the Chicago Fire―died at Grant City, Missouri, in April 1889, at the age of 80.

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