John Mesinger, the first Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, was one of the important early politicians in Illinois. He was unique among the delegates to the Illinois Constitutional Convention of 1818 because he was the only New Englander who can be documented. The vast majority were from the southern states. Although Mesinger is not as well known or mentioned as frequently as Bond, Edwards, Cook, and Pope, one learns from studying Mesinger's life that he was thought of highly by the people of St. Clair County, especially those in the Belleville area.
Mesinger was born in 1771, in West Stockbridge, Berkshire County, Massachusetts. His parents were direct descendants of passengers on the May flower. His father, Roderick Mesinger, was a soldier in the American Revolution.
While living in Massachusetts, Mesinger received an excellent education. This was true for many young people in Massachusetts because New Englanders valued formal education. Mesinger enjoyed English and read literature extensively. He was also very talented in mathematics. A neighbor, William Cort, was Mesinger's teacher. Because Mesinger lived on a farm, he also took an interest in science and agriculture.
When he was twelve, he and his family moved to Jericho, Vermont. There he learned the trade of a carpenter and millwright. While still living in New England he became a teacher, builder, and farmer. When he arrived in Illinois, he was one of very few people who were skilled in the manual arts as well as formally educated.
In 1796 he married Anne Lyon, the daughter of Colonel Matthew Lyon, a newspaper publisher who was prosecuted for violating the alien and sedition laws during the presidency of John Adams. Lyon was also a member of the United States House of Representatives that voted on the thirty-sixth ballot electing Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800. To Mesinger's dislike, his father-in-law was a slave trader. Lyon had also served as a "Green Mountain Boy" under the command of Ethan Allen.
In 1799 Colonel Lyon, his family, and Mesinger moved to Kentucky where Lyon founded Eddyville in Lyon County. Because Mesinger opposed Lyon's participation in the slave trade, Mesinger moved to Illinois in 1802.
John and Anne Mesinger lived near the abandoned Fort de Chartres for two years. They then moved to New Design in Monroe County where they bought a farm and an unfinished mill. Because of his carpentry skills, he was able to complete construction of the mill.
Later, he bought a farm north of Belleville, which he named Clinton Hill. This was his family's final move. While he lived on the farm he taught many people, especially his neighbors, to read and write. He founded one of the earliest schools in Illinois. For those who were unable to write, he wrote their wills and prayers.
During the first decade of the 1800s, more and more people were settling in central St. Clair County. Since the nearest post office was in Cahokia, about nineteen miles away, Mesinger lobbied Congress for the establishment of a post office closer to home. With the help of his father-in-law, who was a United Stales representative, Clinton Hill received its post office.
Mesinger was active in his faith. He organized St. Clair County's first protestant church, known as the Clinton Hill or Richland Creek Baptist Church. By 1809 church services were no longer held in homes but in a church built on Mesinger's property. A year later Mesinger surveyed three-and-a-half acres of land surrounding the church as a burial ground. Mesinger was later buried there.
Well known for his surveying abilities, Mesinger, in 1806 helped to survey much of the land in St. Clair and Randolph counties into townships. Nine years later, he was appointed Deputy Surveyor of the United States, working under Edward Taylor, the Surveyor General of Ohio. Mesinger's job was to survey the military tract at the forks of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. In 1832 and 1833 he was also selected to help establish the boundary between Illinois and Wisconsin. He did this by using astronomical and mathematical calculations.
Mesinger, with the help of John Mason Peck, made the first sectional map of Illinois, which showed all existing townships. The map was published in 1835. This was not the first time that Mesinger had worked with Peck. In 1827, when Peck organized what is considered the first school of higher education in Illinois—Rock Springs Seminary—Mesinger was appointed professor of mathematics.
Mesinger created several surveyor's instruments. Because of his great gift in mathematics, he and his
friend, Philip Creamer, created a surveyor's compass. The compass was a very dependable instrument, considered to be one of the best in the United States. Mesinger was also known to make his own surveying equipment.
Mesinger used his mathematical and surveying skills to write and publish A Manual or Handbook Intended for Convenience in Practical Surveying. It contained a mathematical table of calculations that made it easier to figure the area that was to be surveyed.
While Mesinger was not interested in getting involved with politics, the people of St. Clair County had a different idea. In 1808 he was elected representative to the Indiana Territorial legislature of which Illinois was a part. As a member of the legislature, he worked towards separating the Illinois Territory from the Indiana Territory. In 1809 the two territories were separated. Mesinger was one of the thirty-three delegates who met in Kaskaskia to write the state constitution when Illinois was applying lor statehood in 1818.
While slavery was on the minds of many delegates, they realized that if a proslavery clause was put into the constitution, this would violate the Northwest Ordinance and could cause Congress to reject Illinois' application for statehood. Therefore, the slavery issue was not completely settled when the state constitution was written. The delegates decided not to allow any new slaves to be brought into Illinois. However, those who were slaves remained so and the indenture system was retained. While Mesinger was opposed to slavery, he did vote with those who wanted to keep the indenture system. With this slavery compromise, Illinois was admitted into the Union.
Mesinger was elected representative to the first session of the Illinois House of Representatives. Apparently, other members recognized his leadership and organizational abilities, and they chose him to be Illinois' first Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Mesinger ran again for the Illinois House of Representatives in 1826 on an antislavery platform. In 1824 a proslavery group in Illinois had tried to change the Illinois Constitution to legalize slavery; however, their effort failed. By 1826 the antislavery organization, which had successfully blocked the attempt to change the state constitution, had disappeared. Consequently, Mesinger and the other members of the antislavery group were defeated in the 1826 election.
For the next twenty years, Mesinger continued teaching, surveying, and helping his neighbors. In 1846 Mesinger died and was buried on his Clinton Hill estate near Belleville. The cemetery where he is buried is now maintained by the St. Clair County Historical Society.—[From John Allen, It Happened in Southern Illinois; John D. Barnhart, "The Southern Influence in the Formation of Illinois," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 1939; Richard V. Carpenter, "The Illinois Constitutional Convention of 1818," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 1913; Merton Lynn Dillon, "The Antislavery Movement in Illinois: 1824-1835," Journal of the Illinois Stale Historical Society, 1954; Robert P. Howard, Illinois: A History of the Prairie State; Journal of the St. Clair County Historical Society, 1971; Alvin Nebelsick, A History of Belleville; John Reynolds, The Pioneer History of Illinois; Robert M. Sutton, The Heartland; Darsey Whiteside, "A Brief Biography of John Mesinger."]