If one were researching the careers of highly accomplished New York natives, you might encounter the glowing, capsulized review of Joel Aldrich Matteson’s life as offered on a website titled, “National Governors Association: The Collective Voice of the Nation’s Governors.” Matteson was born in Watertown, New York, in 1803. As the website notes, he “taught school in New York, and built railroads in the South.”
Moving to Illinois, he “established a career as a heavy contractor on the Illinois and Michigan Canal [the canal connection will be key to this story], and opened a successful woolen mill.”
After attaining financial success through business endeavors and the sale of land to the state, Matteson became an Illinois state senator in 1842. After a decade in the senate, he took office as governor in 1853.
The website goes on to tout the improvements made during his four years in office: “the free-school system was initiated; the state deficit was reduced; railroad mileage was advanced; and Chicago’s population and commerce increased significantly. Also, the Maine liquor law was passed; construction [of] additional prison cells at the Alton penitentiary was sanctioned; and the incorporation of the State Agricultural Society was approved.”
After completing his four-year term, Matteson left politics and returned to the business world, including serving as president of the Chicago & Alton Railroad. The website closes his biography by noting Matteson’s death in 1873.
When I finished reading it, I was struck by similarities to the current “We report, you decide” claim while reporting the news. While it’s a nice sound bite, it’s used knowing full well that most people will not seek further information to “decide.” An organization with far-reaching news-gathering capabilities knows that viewers don’t tune in with the expectation of getting “part” of any story, so the report in effect becomes the full story for many people.
The Matteson story as presented on the National Governors Association website contains no blatant errors and presents an overview of the subject’s life. It’s basically a “we report, you decide” scenario, backed by the weighty title of the National Governor’s Association. Hey, if you can’t trust them, who can you trust? (Yes―technically it’s “whom.”)
The governor’s life is only briefly outlined, but one detail omitted from Matteson’s story changes the entire narrative. You’ll recall from Illinois the name Blagojevich, which conjures images of buffoonery, gall, arrogance, and a whole bunch of other stuff so often linked to politicians. When the details of ex-Governor Blagojevich’s transgressions were made public, he was convicted and sent to prison. Reporters rehashed other scandals of the state’s past, including the fact that four Illinois governors since the 1970s have served prison time.
While Joel Matteson didn’t do prison time, he remains among New York State’s contributions to corruption in Illinois politics. And if Matteson was as financially successful as his biography indicates, we can only wonder what possessed him to do what he did.
When Joel Matteson took office, voluminous paperwork addressing the financing of state debt was placed under his care. When those materials were sent to his Springfield office, a series of odd occurrences resulted in some of the stuff being packed in small boxes and placed on shelves.
Matteson became privy to the interesting contents of one such box: scrip once dedicated to paying for canal improvements. Basically, they were IOUs in the form of checks, which were used to fund the work. The companies later redeemed their government issued “IOUs” and received the agreed-upon fees. But Matteson was aware of a glitch in the system.
Records were loosely kept regarding those payments, which meant there was no way of knowing whether the scrip had already been redeemed. Shortly after he left office, Matteson began cashing in the scrip, taking “un-canceled” checks and cashing them for a second time. Some of it was 20 years old, and this time the money went into the former governor’s pocket.
Another box he accessed was similarly valuable. Each item inside looked like the average check, but when those notes were created long ago, the men of the treasury signed many in advance to make certain they had enough on hand. Many of them existed as extras that were never used, remaining under lock and key for decades.
Essentially, they were blank checks, already signed, and Matteson added them to his scheme, earning a fortune in the process. The exact amount will never be known, but at the minimum, it comes to about $5 million in today’s money before the fraud was uncovered.
During testimony, bank personnel were asked why their institution cashed checks that might seem questionable. Among the obvious reasons―the customer was the famed ex-governor, which was in itself reassuring―and in at least one case, he was also a bank shareholder. Another time, he and his wife made documented mortgage payments with scrip certificates.
Matteson’s unethical and illegal behavior was discovered a few years after he left office. Was this the first time, or was this the first time he was caught? Getting caught has a way of calling all else into question, leaving everyone to wonder if similar activity had been part and parcel of Matteson’s business and government dealings for decades.
According to House of Abraham by author Stephen Berry, Matteson was indicted by a grand jury, but the case was later dropped amid charges of bribery and jury tampering. Says Berry: “Matteson’s mansion was seized and sold by the state, but that only put a dent in the budget shortfall.” The luxurious mansion had been built with the scrip-redemption money.
During his tenure as governor, Matteson was certainly popular, but not with everyone, particularly Abe Lincoln, who made an unsuccessful Illinois senate run in 1854 (Matteson was also a candidate). As Lincoln’s position in the race weakened, he urged his backers to support Lyman Trumbull, which led to Matteson’s defeat. According to author Berry, Lincoln remarked: “His defeat gives me more pleasure than my own gives me pain.”
Matteson’s transgressions also caused immeasurable pain for his political party. After holding the governorship for 38 consecutive years, it was lost after he departed, and it was another 36 years before his party regained the office. In fact, after Matteson’s acts were discovered, his party held the position only twice in the next 76 years.
And now, if you’re so inclined, you can decide how you feel about Joel Aldrich Matteson’s career―without just hearing from one source, a website that painted a rosy picture indeed. Or keep digging. There’s a town named after him. There’s some good he did, and some bad as well, and there might be a third and fourth side to the story.
Remember that the next time you’re confronted with, “We report, you decide.” Whether it’s the governors’ website or a news outlet: usually the best decision is that you need to know more before reaching a fair and balanced conclusion.
After all, from the first few paragraphs of this piece, Joel Matteson appears to have been a visionary leader. Towards the end of the piece, perhaps not so much.
But in the end, I hope the Land of Lincoln appreciates New York State and Watertown for providing a fine forerunner to Blagojevich. Matteson could have been his role model!