During the dark days of the Revolution, the colonies had no defender more
loyal than Ebenezer Merritt, our subject's grandfather, who served with
valor until captured by the British when he was placed in an old hulk of a
ship in New York harbor. In after years he was wont to say that the sweetest
morsel of food he ever tasted was a rotten Irish potato, which he found in
The father of our subject, Hon. John W. Merritt, was born in the city of Albany, New York, July 4, 1806, and in his early youth evinced a very decided literary taste, contributing articles to many of the most prominent magazines of that day. Entering the practice of law, he built up a lucrative business in that line in connection with J. J. Brady. Meantime he also invested in real estate and so fortunate was he in his speculations that he became independent at a comparatively early period of life. However, the crisis of 1837 destroyed the value of his investments and made him a poor man once more. Deciding to seek a home in the West, Mr. Merritt came to Illinois in 1840, and settling in St. Clair county established The Belleville Advocate, which he successfully conducted from the year 1848 until 1851. Meantime he also superintended the management of his farm and contributed to eastern magazines and New York papers. He also wrote and published a novel called "Shubal Darton." Coming to Salem in 1851, he established The Advocate, of which he was proprietor and editor for many years.
In 1861 he was elected Assistant Secretary of the Constitutional Convention and in the following year became a member of the Legislature.
The State Register at Springfield having lost its prestige, Mr. Merritt with his son, Edward L., assumed editorial charge of the paper in January, 1865, and attempted to place it upon a substantial footing. The enterprise though not prudent proved a success. For some years Mr. Merritt conducted its editorial columns with great ability and during a portion of that time supplied The St. Louis Republican with its Springfield correspondence. As an editor he justly attained celebrity throughout the country and was one of the most successful journalists of the day. His county may well feel proud of his life and labors. He was modest, unassuming, never ambitious for worldly distinction and preferring the success of his friends to his own. In politics he was an old school Democrat and was one of the most influential workers in his party throughout the state. He was devoted to the doctrines of the Episcopal church and was a faithful member of that denomination. In disposition mild, he never used profanity and was also a man of temperate habits, never tasting intoxicating liquor throughout his life. He married in Rochester, New York, in August, 1827, Julia A. De Forrest, who was born in Oswego, New York, and there received a good education. Ten children blessed this union, of whom five are now living.
During his residence in New York, John W. Merritt served as Alderman and aided in formulating a new plat of the Fifth Ward, which he represented in the Council. In 1860 he was a member of the state delegation to the National Democratic Convention at Charleston, South Carolina, later was present at the recall of that convention in Baltimore, Maryland, where Stephen A. Douglas was nominated for the Presidency. He was president of the first Press Association held in the state of Illinois, and was at the time of his demise the oldest Odd Fellow in Salem. While uniformly successful in business enterprises, he nevertheless met with reverses and at one time lost by fire two valuable blocks of buildings in Brooklyn. By his long and virtuous life he left a name to which his descendants may point with pride and when, November 16, 1878, he departed this life, he left many warm friends to mourn their loss. The funeral services were largely attended by the citizens of Salem and Marion county, as well as many friends from a distance.
Thomas E. Merritt, our subject, was born in the city of New York, April 22, 1832. He was brought in childhood to Illinois and received a good education in the schools of Belleville. Before attaining his majority he went to St. Louis, where he learned the trade of carriage and omnibus painting in the shops of Theodore Salom, serving a three years apprenticeship at the trade. Afterward he followed the occupation for four years in St. Louis. He then came to Salem and in 1859 began to read law with P. P. Hamilton, an attorney of this place, now deceased. In 1862 he was examined before the Supreme Court and was admitted to the bar, after which he opened an office in Salem and has since made this city his home. Always a stanch Democrat, reared in the faith of that party, Mr. Merritt early became an active worker in its ranks. In 1860 in Romine township, Marion county, he made his first political speech and since then has participated in every campaign. Until 1875 he stumped every township in the county each campaign year.
The first National Democratic Convention that he attended was held in St. Louis when S. J. Tilden was nominated President in 1876. Later, he was sent as a delegate for the state-at-large to the convention that nominated Gen. W. S. Hancock, in 1880, and the night before the convention met he made a speech in favor of Col. W. R. Morrison on the steps of the Burnet House, Cincinnati. At the next national convention he was alternate-at-large, and as Col. W. R. Morrison, who was delegate-at-large, was appointed on the Committee on Resolutions, and obliged to give his entire time to the work of that body, Mr. Merritt took his place in the convention. It was this assembly that nominated Grover Cleveland at the time of his first term. Our subject was a delegate from the Nineteenth Congressional District to the convention at St. Louis that nominated President Cleveland the second term. In 1892, he attended as a citizen the convention at Chicago which nominated Cleveland the last time. During the three campaigns in which that famous man was the presidential candidate, our subject made fifty-six speeches in Illinois, and at the time believed that his party promised more than it could fulfill.
In 1868 Mr. Merritt was elected to the State Legislature and was a member of the House of Representatives for fourteen consecutive years. In addition he served as State Senator for eight years, from 1882 to 1890, thus making a legislative experience of twenty-two years. He was a member of the joint session which elected John A. Logan three times and defeated him once, also the joint session that elected Richard Oglesby United States Senator and those that elected Shelby M. Cullom and John M. Palmer. In 1875, he was a leading member of the House when the city judge of East St. Louis was to be impeached, and through his influence the measure was reconsidered and laid on the table. During the same year he secured the passage of the first coal mine bill through the legislature, which was the first act ever passed in the state in the interest of the coal miners. Hon. John M. Palmer, State Auditor and Secretary of the State, gave to Mr. Merritt the honor of passing the bill assessing the capital stock of corporations, and he was banqueted afterward. In 1871, he introduced and secured the passage of the bill compelling railroads to pay for burning property along their lines, which has since been warped by the construction placed on that act by the Supreme Court. He was prominent in the attack made upon state officials for extravagant expenditures, and in that way saved to the tax payers of Illinois more than enough to pay the entire expenses of that General Assembly. His services in that capacity were so greatly appreciated throughout the state, that many of the papers advocated his nomination as Governor of Illinois. Another bill introduced by Mr. Merritt was that of allowing parties to sue before the Justice of the Peace for killing stock along the railroads. The anarchist bill introduced by him in 1887, and passed June 16th of that year, was the cause of the greatest fight of his life. Afterward it was published by Great Britain, France and Russia, while at the meeting of the United States National Bar Association at Saratoga, New York, the President gave one hour to its consideration before that body. Mr. Merritt worked long and faithfully upon the bill which finally passed, receiving one hundred and eighteen votes in the House.
The Anti-Trust bill, January 22, 1889, was the first ever introduced in the state. This passed the Judiciary Committee by one majority, and the House by one hundred votes, but was hung up in the Senate by the two-thirds rule. While a member of the Senate, Mr. Merritt introduced a bill to compel insurance companies to pay the full value of the policy for destruction of property. This he passed twice through the Senate, and it was defeated in the House. He passed it twice in the House and it was as many times defeated in the Senate. In 1868 he introduced in the House a bill securing the investigation of the proceeds for the sale of lands and other moneys connected with Irvington Agricultural College. After investigation, the State Auditor and Secretary of State took possession of the institution, and from the wreck saved to the state a large amount of money.
In 1868 Mr. Merritt introduced a resolution calling upon the Secretary of State to account for the interest received by him on about three million dollars of surplus money that was lying idle in the treasury and could be used only to pay off the old state indebtedness which was held by English capitalists in the shape of state bonds, this money being set aside to pay the bonds as they became due. It had been collected from the Illinois Central Railroad as seven per cent of its gross earnings, and was invested in United States ten per cent gold interest-bearing bonds. The resolution introduced by Mr. Merritt was to the effect that the Governor and Attorney-General of Illinois should look after the interest of this money and report their action to the next session of the General Assembly. He passed the resolution through the House, but by a strong lobby it was defeated in the Senate. In 1872 three million dollars’ worth of these bonds became due and were paid in New York in gold, to the English bondholders, the Secretary of State having to purchase the gold in New York. He notified Gould and Fisk that he would require so much gold on that day. By bulling the market, gold advanced one-third of one per cent, so that the three million dollars paid that much premium. The State Treasurer making by this deal the interest on United States bonds that this money was invested in, came out four hundred thousand dollars ahead, which was a loss to the people of the state by the defeat of the resolution in the Senate.
During Mr. Merritt's entire legislative experience, covering a period of twenty-two years, it cannot be shown that he ever cast a vote against the interests of the people. As one of the delegates of the state-at-large, he attended the conventions at St. Louis in July 1892, and at New Orleans in February, 1893, in reference to the Nicaragua canal. At the latter place, he made a speech for Illinois before the convention. He was one of the commissioners to locate the Institute for the Feeble Minded at Quincy, Illinois (now at Lincoln), also the Asylum for the Incurable Criminal Insane at Chester. For ten successive years he served as Alderman of Salem.
From the above account it will be seen that Mr. Merritt has been one of the most prominent Democrats in Illinois, and he still occupies a foremost position among the leaders of that party. His work in behalf of the people of the state entitles him to a high place in their regard, and his name will be deservedly perpetuated in the annals of the state as a loyal, able and eminent man. From the press of the country he has received the highest of commendation for his unwearied services in the interests of the people as well as for his great ability.
The State Register said of him that, "The man who wields the keenest satire is Merritt, of Marion". The Mount Vernon Free Press paid him the following tribute: "He is always awake to the interests of southern Illinois, and no influence, let it come from what source it may, is ever able to swerve him from the path of duty to his constituents and the people generally". Another paper says of him: "Merritt is a wit, besides he is a good fellow and everybody likes him. He never rises but he commands the attention of the House. He is a Bourbon of Bourbons". In addition to his other services, previously mentioned, he was a member of various committees of importance. To him belongs the honor of having nominated both William R. Morrison and John M. Palmer for United States Senator.
On the 3d of February, 1862, Mr. Merritt was married to Alice McKinney, a native of Jefferson county, Illinois, and a daughter of William McKinney, who was killed in battle in the Civil war. Four daughters and three sons have blessed this union, as follows: Addis D., Frank F., Clara, Harriet, Lottie, Edith and Harold. In religious belief Mrs. Merritt is a devoted member of the Episcopal church.
Extracted 10 Jul 2017 by Norma Hass from 1909 Biographical and Reminiscent History of Richland, Clay and Marion Counties, Illinois, pages 347-351.