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Altgeld, John Peter (30 December 1847–12 March 1902), governor of Illinois and leader of midwestern reform forces in the 1890s, was born in Nieder Selters in Nassau, Germany, the son of John Peter Altgeld, a wagon maker and farmer, and Mary (maiden name unknown). He was three months old when he and his parents immigrated to the United States and settled in Newville or Mansfield, Ohio. Raised in poverty by a stern and parochial father who saw no benefit in education, Altgeld received instruction only in a few terms of public school and Methodist Sunday school. Seeking to escape his father’s control, in 1864 he joined the Ohio Home Guards for a 100-day stint. This experience confirmed his desire for advancement, but he also contracted a disease, probably malaria, which recurred throughout his life....

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Andrew, John Albion (31 May 1818–30 October 1867), reformer, antislavery advocate, and Civil War governor of Massachusetts, was born in Windham, Maine, the son of Jonathan Andrew, a farmer and general store owner, and Nancy Green Pierce, a schoolteacher. Educated at private academies and then at Bowdoin College, from which he graduated in 1837, Andrews learned early about the evils of slavery and the religious necessity to oppose it. One of his contemporaries at Bowdoin was ...

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Bass, Robert Perkins (11 September 1873–29 July 1960), governor of New Hampshire, conservationist, and labor relations adviser, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Perkins Bass, a lawyer, and Clara Foster. Bass’s interest in politics was likely influenced by his father, who served as ...

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Salmon P. Chase. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-B8172-1747).

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Chase, Salmon Portland (13 January 1808–07 May 1873), statesman, antislavery leader, and chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was born in Cornish, New Hampshire, the son of Ithamar Chase, a glassmaker and tavernkeeper, and Janette Ralston. When Chase was nine years old, his father died. To ease the financial burden on his mother, Chase, the eighth of eleven children, moved to Ohio and lived with his uncle ...

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Coles, Edward (15 December 1786–07 July 1868), slavery opponent and second governor of Illinois, was born in Albemarle County, Virginia, the son of Colonel John Coles and Rebecca Tucker, wealthy, slaveholding planters. The eighth of twelve children, almost from the day of his birth Edward was associated with the great and near-great in revolutionary American society. One of the first families of Virginia, the Coles moved in a social circle that included national figures such as ...

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Fairbanks, Erastus (28 October 1792–20 November 1864), governor of Vermont, businessman, and antislavery and temperance leader, was born in Brimfield, Massachusetts, the son of Joseph Fairbanks, a farmer, carpenter, and mill owner, and Phebe Paddock. He received a limited public school education in Brimfield. Erastus taught school himself for a time before moving north with his family to St. Johnsbury, Vermont. In 1815 he married Lois C. Crossman, with whom he had eight children. Three years earlier, at the invitation of his uncle, Judge Ephriam Paddock, Fairbanks began reading the law in Paddock’s office. Fairbanks was soon compelled to quit his legal studies, reportedly owing to poor eyesight. He instead became a merchant, operating country stores in the towns of Wheelock, Barnet, and East St. Johnsbury for eleven years while establishing “a reputation for absolute integrity and for interest in anything that concerned the public welfare” (Ullery, p. 89)....

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Gifford Pinchot Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-3906).

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Pinchot, Gifford (11 August 1865–04 October 1946), forester, conservationist, and governor of Pennsylvania, was born in Simsbury, Connecticut, the son of James Wallace Pinchot, a wealthy merchant, and Mary Jane Eno. Proud of his French ancestry, James W. Pinchot raised his family in a primly decorous but brilliant social environment steeped in French culture....

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St. John, John Pierce (25 February 1833–31 August 1916), governor of Kansas and Prohibitionist, was born in Brookville, Indiana, the son of Samuel St. John and Sophia Snell, farmers. He attended country schools in Indiana, receiving a rudimentary education. Owing to his father’s fondness for alcohol, the family suffered economically, and during his teens he was forced to support himself by working in a store. Later in life St. John recalled, “Boy as I was, I hated the demon, Drink, that had made such a change in my father, had broken my mother’s heart, and darkened my boyhood’s home” (Headley, pp. 776–77). In 1847 he moved with his parents to Olney, Illinois, where at the age of nineteen he married Mary Jane Brewer. Two months after the marriage St. John left his wife and departed for California. This marriage produced one child and ended in divorce in 1859....