1809 — 1885
Among the old settlers and prominent men, who have for many years been identified with Madison county, is Joseph Gillespie. He is to-day perhaps the most conspicuous figure in her history. He is one of the connecting links between this and the pioneer era of Illinois, and comes down to us from a former generation. In his active life he was the contemporary, associate, and friend of men who have grown great and added a page to the world's history. He is of Scotch-Irish parentage,and the son of David and Sarah Gillespie, who were born, raised and married in county Monaghan, Ireland. The ancestors of the Gillespie family were originally Scotch. They left left their native country two years after the battle of the Boyne and settled in Ireland. They were Presbyterians in religion, and, it might be said, Republicans in their politics. Mrs. Gillespie even belonged to the "United Irish Society," which had for its object the liberation of the Irish people from the yoke of British tyranny; and her brother was so particularly active in the rebellion of 1789, that he had to make his escape to the United States in order to save his life. The parents of Mr. Gillespie were warmly attached to America and her people, and, when the opportunity offered, quickly embarked for this country. They landed in New York in 1807, and located in New York city, where they remained until 1819, when they removed west and settled in Madison county, Illinois. Here Mr. Gillespie followed the occupation of tilling the soil. In 1831 his wife died. In 1834 he moved to Grant county, Wisconsin, and died there in 1855. There were two sons born to David and Sarah Gillespie — Matthew and Joseph. Matthew died in 1861. Joseph, the subject of this sketch, was born in New York city, August 22, 1809. His education in schools was limited, and ceased entirely in his eleventh year. In those days schools were the exception, and at best were provided with incompetent teachers. His mother, however, who was well-informed and extremely fond of reading, in a measure supplied the want of suitable opportunities. She gave her sons all the instruction she could impart, procured the best reading matter that the county afforded, and by her endeavors awakened in them a thirst for knowledge. She gave them her views upon what they had read, which strengthened their their recollection, created habits of reflection, and made amends for the lack of early scholastic advantages,[sic] Joseph remained at home until 1827, when he went to the lead mines at Galena, and spent that season and also the seasons of 1828-29. A change in the tariff about that time made the sale of lead difficult, and the business of mining it became unprofitable. He returned home and remained there until 1831, when he went to Edwardsville. The same year he was invited to read law with Hon. Cyrus Edwards, as his residence on Wood River. This kind offer he hesitated to accept, on account of his lack of early educational training, but Mr. Edwards overcame his (Gillespie's) fears, and persuaded him to accept the offer. He lived in the family of Mr. Edwards for two years, and in that time read law under the direction and tuition of his generous benefactor.
During that time the Black–Hawk War broke out. He volunteered and made the campaign of 1831 and 1832. About the time he was ready to commence the practice of his profession, he was elected probate judge of the county, which position he held for two years. After the expiration of his term as probate judge, he began to travel the circuit. The bar of this circuit at that time, as well as the bench, consisted of an array of learned and talented men. Judge Breese was on the bench, and such men as Alfred Cowles, Gustave Koerner, J. M. Krum, George T. M. Davis, A. P. Field, Abraham Lincoln, James Shields, William H. Underwood, Governor Bissell, J. L. D. Morrison, Lyman Trumball, U. F. Linder, and others, composed the bar. There were, indeed, giants in those days, and it required courage and confidence to enter the list against such an array of talent; but, nevertheless, Mr. Gillespie did enter, and proved himself a foeman worthy of their intellectual steel.
In 1840 he was elected on the Whig ticket to represent Madison county in the State Legislature. His colleagues from this county were his preceptor, Mr. Edwards, and James Reynolds. The Whigs being in a hopeless minority, there was but little to do. After his return, he again went to the practice of his profession, in which he was not disturbed until 1847, when he was elected a member of the State Senate, in which body he continued until 1857. During that time the bill for chartering the Illinois Central Railroad came up. It was managed by Mr. Rautoul of Boston, the company's agent. It had passed the house as he had drawn it up, to wit: That the company should pay to the State seven per cent. of its gross earnings and no taxes. Thirteen senators, among whom was Gillespie, determined to preserve the principle of taxation, and they struck out "seven per cent." and inserted "five per cent.," providing that the company should pay State taxes at the rate of seventy-five cents per hundred dollars; and if that did not equal two per cent. of its gross earnings, the company should make it up to that figure, — so that it was not to pay less than seven per cent. in the shape of bonuses and taxation; but as they understood it, it might pay more. Mr. Gillespie, and the other senators were favorable to, and desired to charter the road; but desired, above all things, to retain the principle of taxation, and by no act of theirs show that they in any manner surrendered that principle. Their action was misunderstood at the time, and no little abuse was heaped upon them; but time has proved that they were right, and their position well taken. The Supreme Court afterward decided that seven per cent. was the maximum the company was to pay. During his time in the Senate, what was called the "State Policy" originated. The Terre Haute and Alton Railroad had been chartered, and about $1,000,000 were invested in its construction, when a charter for the Atlantic and Mississippi Railroad, between nearly the same termini, was asked for. More than two-thirds of the district represented by Mr. Gillespie were in favor of the Terre Haute and Alton road, and he saw that the chartering of the Atlantic and Mississippi Railroad would forever destroy the former road, unless the latter were first built (as the Atlantic and Mississippi was a much shorter and straighter route), after which the second could be constructed, — maintaining that you could build a straight road after building a crooked one but never a crooked one after a straight one was completed between substantially the same termini. He was then, and is yet, in favor of building all the roads possible, and letting competition reduce rates and regulate traffic, without the interference of legislative bodies. In 1861 he was elected to the office of Judge of the Twenty-fourth Judicial Circuit of Illinois, and occupied that position for twelve years. While upon the bench his judicial opinions were marked by great clearness, exhibiting thorough research, careful analysis and a sound knowledge of the principles of elementary law. Since his retirement from the bench he has practiced his profession.
In matters of religion, Judge Gillespie is inclined to a liberal belief. Politically, he was originally an old line Whig, and remained a member of that party until its organization was abandoned. He was opposed to slavery, and the intimate friend of men who were the acknowledged leaders of the advanced thought upon that question in that day; and, so soon as an organized opposition was formed against slavery, that had in it the elements of success, he joined its ranks, and of necessity became a Republican, with which political organization he as remained to the present. He was always opposed to the dogma of State Rights, which was one of the cardinal principles of the Democratic party.
In 1845, at Greenville, Illinois, he was united in marriage to Miss Mary E. Smith. There have been eight children born to them, five of whom are living. Their names are — Cyrus E., Mary J., Charles S., Frank K., and Maria L. Gillespie. His wife was born at Harper's Ferry, Va., and is of English and German descent. Her father's family were England, and her mother's from Hanover, Germany. Her step-father (Thomas Keyes) and her mother came to Illinois in 1832, and settled near Greenville, in Bond county, where Mrs. Gillespie resided at the time of her marriage.
Source: History of Madison County, Illinois; Illustrated; With Biographical Sketches Of Many Prominent Men And Pioneers (Edwardsville, Illinois: W. R. Brink and Company, 1882) pages 351-352.