Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men in Chicago, Photographically Illustrated by John Carbutt, 1868, Pages 25-34
Jonathan Young Scammon was born in Whitefield, Lincoln County, Maine, in the year 1812. He is descended from an honorable stock on the sides of both parents. His father, the Hon. Eliakim Scammon, who now lives in Gardiner, Maine, is well known and esteemed in the State, and during many years of his long and useful life represented Pittston and Kennebec counties in the two houses of the Legislature. His mother was the daughter of David Young, a pioneer of East Pittston, and, when Maine was included in Massachusetts, he represented his neighborhood in the General Court of the State. He was a soldier in the army of the Revolution, and accompanied the expedition against Quebec.
Mr. Scammon was educated at the Maine Wesleyan Seminary, Lincoln Academy, and Waterville College. He read law in Hallowell. As soon as he was admitted to the bar in Kennebec County, he left his home for a tour of observation in several States. In the course of this journey he reached Chicago in September, 1835. He made the voyage on a steamer from Buffalo, via Green Bay, and the passengers were landed at Chicago by means of small boats, the steamer being unable to enter the harbor. He put up at the old Sauganash Hotel, which was reached from the landing by a devious path through prairie grass and deep mud. The hotel was crowded, the weather horrible, and large numbers of the people were sick with bilious fever. Chicago presented no very inviting prospect to the stranger. At that time the late Col. Richard J. Hamilton was Clerk of the Courts of Cook County, and Mr. Henry Moore, an attorney, was his deputy. When the weather had improved sufficiently to justify his traveling, Mr. Scammon made ready to depart; but on the very eve of his leaving, Mr. Moore called upon him, stating that the Circuit Court had commenced its session, that he could no longer serve as deputy, that the person employed in his place had been stricken down with fever, and therefore he desired Mr. Scammon to assist Col. Hamilton during the term. The request was complied with under the circumstances, they promising the opportunity of becoming acquainted with the. forms of practice in this State, and it was this accidental combination of events that resulted in the permanent residence here of a gentleman whose name has become identified with every step of the progress of Chicago since then.
The services of young Scammon during the term were so satisfactory that he was offered, and accepted, the office of deputy Clerk, with the privilege of using the Clerk’s office as his own, for such law business as he might have. At that time Col. Hamilton was Judge of Probate, Clerk of the Circuit Court, Clerk of the County Commissioner’s Court, School Commissioner, Eecorder of Deeds, Notary Public and Bank Commissioner, and the business of all these offices was transacted in the same small brick building, which was located at the northeast corner of the present Court House Square. In one of the rooms of this building Mr. Scammon performed the duties of Clerk of the Court, received his clients, and lodged at night. In 1836, he entered into partnership with B. S. Morris, Esq., in the law business, which continued for eighteen months. year later, he formed a law partnership with Norman B. Judd, which continued until 1847. At that time, Mr. Scammon had become largely interested in the Galena Railroad enterprise, and devoted his time principally to that business.
The men of the present day can hardly be expected to comprehend fully the courage and enterprise necessary at that time to keep alive the project of a railroad extending westward from Chicago. The construction at the present day of two or more railroads across the continent, with branches and cross-roads, is not one half so imposing and startling an enterprise as that which in those days was projected by Messrs. Ogden and Scammon. When these gentlemen came to Chicago, Illinois was in the full glow of excitement upon the grand system of internal improvements. This system, which, so far as railroads were concerned, excluded Chicago, culminated in 1837, and sunk rapidly. most disastrous torpidity of enterprise followed. Capitalists avoided Illinois, and the hope of any railroads was abandoned by even the most sanguine. Messrs. Scammon and Ogden stood almost alone, amid the ruins, unappalled by the overwhelming disaster. The Michigan Central Railway eventually extended its line to Lake Michigan, at New Buffalo, and there it had stopped. Messrs. Ogden and Scammon, after a long effort, succeeded in reviving an abandoned Indiana charter, giving the exclusive right to construct a railroad from Michigan City to Chicago, and to this law was Chicago indebted for its first continuous railroad communication eastward.
Previous to this, these gentlemen had traveled repeatedly from Chicago to Galena, holding meetings in every village, and at every cross-roads, urging the people to a united effort to secure a railroad communication from the Mississippi to Chicago and thence east. They both had invested largely in the enterprise, and they, by personal pledges, eventually succeeded in obtaining subscriptions to stock to an amount sufficient to authorize the commencement of the railroad—being the pioneer railroad in the vast combination of roads which now bring the treasures of the West to the lap of Chicago.
The vast labor necessary to accomplish even a commencement of this work may be understood, when it is stated that the majority of the stockholders took only single shares, and that the aggregate of the stock was held by over fifteen hundred persons. These shares were taken in many cases by persons having no faith in the success of the work, and were continually surrendered to either Mr. Ogden or Mr. Scammon, upon whose personal pledges they were subscribed. Even after the work was under way, so little confidence was felt in it by the general public, that the Board of Directors, with few exceptions, abandoned all hope. Applications at the East were responded to by reference to the lack of confidence at the West; yet, in the face of all these depressing circumstances, the two gentlemen persevered, until they had demonstrated a partial success, and thereby enlisted confidence among Eastern capitalists.
In 1837, Mr. Scammon was selected as the attorney of the State Bank of Illinois, and two years later was appointed Reporter of the Supreme Court of the State, which office he held until 1845. His volumes of Reports, the first ever published in Illinois, were issued in a style that was superior to anything of the kind previously produced in the Western States.
Mr. Scammon was one of those early agitators to whose efforts Illinois, and Chicago especially, is indebted for its system of public schools. An act was obtained from the Legislature for the establishment of public schools, applicable only to the city of Chicago, which act was conditional upon its acceptance by the people of the town, by a vote of the majority, at an election held for that purpose. The vote was taken in 1836, and the law was rejected—the residents who were mere speculators outnumbering those who had families and had made the town their permanent home. His efforts in favor of free schools did not relax in consequence of this failure. The first charter of the city of Chicago soon followed, and in that charter he procured the insertion of a clause providing for free schools. The schools established under this law were valueless. Public opinion had not been educated up to that point. In 1839, Mr. Scammon became one of the Inspectors, and by his efforts the schools were revived and provided with a systematic government. In 1844 the Dearborn School an eyesore to the erected on Madison Street, near State, and its cost and dimensions were furiously denounced. The Mayor of the city, in 1845, in his inaugural, recommended that the big school house should be sold or converted into an insane asylum, and one more suitable to the wants of the city provided. Mr. Scammon that year entered the Board of Aldermen as a friend of the schools, and he not only protected the “big school house,” but secured the erection of a similar one (Kinzie) in the North Division, and another (Scammon) in the West Division. Thus, owing to the persistent efforts of one man, was inaugurated the Chicago system of schools and school buildings, which is not surpassed by that of any other city in the country.
Mr. Scammon has always taken an active part in national politics, though never as an office seeker. He was a member of the Whig party until that party was abandoned, and was always a leading member of it in Illinois. While a member of that party, he always was an advocate of the principles of human freedom, and opposed slavery in every legal and rational manner. Though a Freesoiler, he voted for Clay as against Polk, and for Gen. Taylor as against Cass. Since 1852 he has voted with the Republican party, in which he has always been an active and leading member. He utterly repudiated all association with the party known in 1844 as the “Native American,” or “Know Nothing” party. He has avoided all nominations for office, and except upon three occasions has refused all requests to be a candidate. The exceptions were, first, in 1845, when he was elected Alderman, that he might promote the school system; second, in 1848, when he accepted the Whig nomination for Congress in an overwhelmingly Democratic district, when he obtained a majority in Chicago, however, although his party was in a minority of over one thousand votes; third, in 1860, when he was elected to the Legislature.
In 1836, the Chicago Marine and Fire Insurance Company was chartered, with banking privileges; subsequently, it suspended business. In 1849, Mr. Scammon became a large stockholder, and the company was revived, and newly organized with Mr. Scammon as its President. It commenced with an actual cash capital of $25,000. During the ensuing ten years the institution grew in wealth and credit, until in 1857 it had a capital of half a million of dollars, and was at the head of the monied institutions of the State and of the Northwest.
In 1857, Mr. Scammon, with his family, visited Europe, leaving his bank in the prosperous and commanding condition we have described. He returned in 1860, to be informed that, during his absence, a great defalcation had taken place in the institution, but that the directors had hopes that they had secured the ultimate repayment of the greater part of the missing funds. This hope would probably have been realized but for the rebellion which followed in the succeeding winter and spring, and which destroyed the value of the securities, and compelled him to suspend the operations of the bank. On examination it appeared that the entire capital of the bank had been used by the defaulters during his absence in Europe. Mr. Scammon at first thought that as he had been in Europe during the entire period of the defalcation he would not go into the bank again; but upon examination of its affairs, and yielding to the demands of his associates, he concluded, as a matter of duty, to resume his position, hoping thereby to avert still greater losses to the public and stockholders. Again he buckled on his financial armor, and both in the bank and the Legislature, (to which he had in the meantime been elected), labored incessantly to improve the currency and arrest the financial crash that soon after came, when the Illinois banks, whose circulation was largely based upon the stocks of the Southern States, went to the wall. In no wise daunted by this second disaster, under which so many others sunk to rise no more, he remained at his post, enduring patiently the opprobrium which belonged exclusively to others, dealing out to all the customers of the bank equal and exact justice.
In the mean time, while thus engaged in adjusting the affairs of the Marine Company, he opened a private banking-house in his own name, which was subsequently merged into the Mechanics National Bank, of which he is President, and having eventually paid off all the indebtedness of the institutions which had been robbed in his absence, and ruined by the financial crisis of 1860-’61, he restored them to capital and credit, and again opened theni to business. He now presides over the Marine Company of Chicago, at its banking-house, corner of Lake and LaSalle streets, where, with a capital of $500,000, is transacted a large foreign as well as domestic banking business, the bank being the correspondent of several important banking-houses in England, France and Germany.
As a banker, Mr. Scammon has always been opposed to a depreciated currency. When the new States and Territories of the West began to fill up with population and recuperate after the disasters of 1837, the development and business of this part of the country demanded greater facilities in the shape of a circulating medium. The new States had all prohibited banks of circulation by constitutional provisions. The consequence was, that from the necessities of the case there grew up an illegal and depreciated currency. This was tolerated and used because there was no other. This currency had its centres mainly at Milwaukee, St. Louis and Chicago. In 1851, under the new Constitution of Illinois, a general banking law was enacted, and Mr. Scammon, in establishing the first bank under that law, endeavored to get such a construction of its terms as would prevent the establishment of any bank without a bona fide capital of at least $50,000. This was the manifest intention of the act, but those who wanted banks without capital opposed and defeated his effort. He succeeded, however, in securing the passage of a law prepared by himself, which absolutely prohibited all illegal currency, and banished it from the State. Those engaged in it then obtained bank charters from the Legislature of Georgia and flooded the Northwest with Georgia bank notes, which necessarily were depreciated. The success of this scheme tempted others to evade and pervert the general banking law of the State, by establishing banks of mere circulation at inaccessible points, without, actual capital, and from the difficulty, delay and expense attending the presenting of their notes for redemption, the latter became sufficiently depreciated to compete successfully with the Georgia bank notes.
On Mr. Scammon’s return from Europe, in 1860, he found from $8,000,000 to $10,000,000 of depreciated Illinois bank notes in circulation, they having driven out of general use the bills of such of the other Illinois banks as were accessible to demands for redemption. Much of this circulation was secured by the deposit of bonds of the Southern States, which had also become depreciated. Mr. Scammon zealously endeavored, through the Bank Commissioners and otherwise, to diminish this circulation and get rid of the doubtful currency. He at length succeeded in getting an order for that purpose, which would have accomplished the desired end if it had not been rescinded or postponed by the subsequent action of the Commissioners.
On taking his seat in the Legislature, January, 1861, he introduced a bill which, after having been opposed during all the early weeks of the session by those interested in the ” wild cat ” or depreciated currency, was substantially adopted and became a law. This act, by requiring a central redemption, would have restored a good currency, had not the depreciation of the bonds of the Southern States, under the impending danger of rebellion, destroyed the principal security for the redemj^tion of the notes of all the Illinois banks. Those of the banks which survived the crash, under the provisions of that law, furnished a satisfactory currency until the national banking-law supplanted all other bank bills by a national currency. The enemies of Mr. Scammon endeavored to place the odium of bank failures in Illinois upon him, and to identify him with a depreciated currency, when, in point of fact, nearly every amendment to the banking law increasing the security of the bill-holders and of the public, and the entire law against illegal currency in this State, originated and was prepared by him.
While engaged in banking and railroad matters, he never failed to contribute his full share to the development and improvement of the city of Chicago. He has expended hundreds of thousands of dollars in substantial improvements, and always responds liberally to every demand for the advancement of the permanent prosperity of the city.
Since the disasters of 1860-61, Mr. Scammon, though constantly doing a large business, seems to have devoted his energies more to the preservation and maintaining of his institution than to an extension of its business, and he has made no effort for new customers, contenting himself with pursuing the even tenor of his way.
As a lawyer, Mr. Scammon has always had a commanding position at the bar of Illinois. From the day he first hung out his shingle in the Clerk’s office until this time, though engaged in a variety of other and engrossing pursuits, he has maintained his identity as a leading member of the legal profession, and the firms of which he has been a member have enjoyed a large and lucrative business. When he first commenced business in Chicago every one was a speculator, and the majority looked forward to riches acquired in that manner rather than by assiduous labor. He declined all offers to enter that business, and applied himself arduously to his profession. His ability soon won for him the attention of the public, and his fidelity and promptness in paying over his collections were followed by the unlimited confidence of his clients—a confidence which was subsequently of great value to him as a banker, and which he has retained under all circumstances since then. He has made integrity the first consideration in all his dealings with his fellow men; his word is as sacred as his bond, and his credit as a banker and as an attorney he has made superior to all mere personal advantages or conveniences. His approval or endorsement of a financial scheme is sufficient to give it character with the public, and this, because he has never swerved on any occasion from the strict line of scrupulous fidelity to the trusts and confidence reposed in him.
After his association with Mr. Judd as a law partner had been dissolved because of his engagement in the railroad business, he, in 1849, took Mr. Ezra B. McCagg, who had been his confidential law clerk for some time, into partnership, and since then the firm has been enlarged by the introduction of Mr. Samuel W. Fuller. The firm now does a large business under the style of Scammon, McCagg Fuller, although Mr. Scammon has not been for some time actively engaged in the profession of the law.
He has always been a friend as well as preceptor to young men, and students who have been called to the bar from his office have entered upon the profession as thoroughly versed in the details of practice and principle as it was possible for them to become.
As a general business man, his success is sufficient evidence of his ability. He has made money, but none by speculation. He has accumulated his wealth by the exercise of judicious business qualities. His policy has been to invest his surplus earnings in the most promising offer. He has, therefore, never wasted, but has continually added to his stock. His real estate was bought from his surplus earnings, which in that form have proved an immensely valuable investment.
He is a scholar, of refined culture and great attainments. In all his varied and complicated business engagements he has had time to bestow upon letters and the arts. He has written much on political economy, and has also given repeated expression to his views upon religious subjects. He has been a frequent contributor to the newspaper press, both editorially and otherwise. He reads and speaks several languages, and in social intercourse is always the refined, instructive and courteous gentleman. He is benevolent and charitable. Though his name and his subscriptions are familiar in connection with all public charities, he is known more generally to the humble poor, to the needy and suffering, and as the aider and supporter of industry crippled by poverty. His benevolence is as broad as the human family. Color, race, nationality nor creed are known or asked when he extends relief. He aids his fellow man as he would a member of his own family—as a child of the same and common Father.
One of the early settlers of Chicago, he has been one of the early founders of many of its institutions. He was the first of the New Church or Swedenborgian body of Christians in Chicago. He and his wife and one other person were the founders of that body in Northern Illinois; and he has lived to see himself surrounded by a numerous circle of religious associates, and worshipping in one of the finest church buildings in the city. He organized the Church of the New Jerusalem in Chicago. He was also the first man of any prominence in Chicago who favored the practice of the medical school of Hahnemann. He was, as we have seen, a pioneer in the railroad system ; he established the first bank under the general banking law of this State; he was one of the original founders of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, and of the Chicago Astronomical Society, and is the President of the Board of Trustees of each of these societies. The Dearborn Tower, the western tower of the grand edifice of the Chicago University, in which is placed the Alvan Clark Telescope, the largest refracting telescope in the world, was built at his expense, and named in honor of his deceased wife, whose maiden name was Dearborn. He was elected one of the Trustees of the Chicago University on his return from Europe, and one of its professorships was endowed by his munificence. The family of Mr. Scammon consists of one son and two daughters.
While in Europe in 1857-1860, he was bereft of his wife, a lady every way qualified to be his companion, and to intensify the happiness of home. She was buried in the cemetery in Soden, near Frankforton-the-Main, in Germany, where her resting-place is marked by an appropriate marble monument. His son, Charles T. Scammon, Esq., in partnership with Robert Lincoln, is engaged in the practice of law in Chicago.
Mr. Scammon, though yet in the prime of life, is one of the fathers of this city of giant progress. With right aims, good objects, battling all obstacles, and overcoming every difficulty, he has won enduring friendship of his fellow-citizens, and no man is more universally respected than he for his qualities of head and heart.
Although the monuments of progress upon which his name is indelibly inscribed are many, and such as he may well be proud of, yet he is as actively engaged in business as ever, and no doubt will live to see the day when a still greater degree of eminence will be attained, as time, with its countless changes, gives him opportunity.
The great success of Mr. Scammon may be attributed—first, to his strong determination at the commencement of his business career to avoid speculation, and trust to a legitimate and steady progress; secondly, to his straightforward method of conducting all transactions, thereby securing the lasting confidence of those with whom he dealt. In these respects, we see a model for young men just pushing out into active life, which, if imitated, will certainly insure success.
Excerpted from The Inter Ocean, March 18, 1890
Mr. Scammon’s eldest daughter, Florence R. D. Scammon, was married to Joseph S. Reed, of Boston, and now resides at Buford, S. C. The other daughter, Ariana E. Scammon, is unmarried and has for some years resided with her sister at Buford, S. C.
Inscribed on frontispiece of Chicagology’s personal copy of “Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men of Chicago,” from Jonathan Young Scammon to his daughter, Ariana E. Scammon.
Historical Encylopedia of Illinois, 1901
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
With another incident of an amusing character this article may be closed: Hon. J. Young Scammon, of Chicago, being accused of conniving at the escape of a slave from officers of the law, was asked by the court what he would do if summoned as one of a posse to pursue and capture a fugitive. “I would certainly obey the summons,” he replied, “but I should probably stub my toe and fall down before I reached him.”