In his 12 years in office as Secretary of State, Louis Emmerson (1917-1929) oversaw the move of the State Library to the Centennial Building and the reorganization of the library into three divisions. But, largely due to poor planning in the design of the Centennial Building, library growth slowed noticeably during Emmerson’s tenure.

One of the few influential state leaders from southeastern Illinois, Emmerson was born in Albion on Dec. 27, 1863. One of 14 children born to farming parents, Emmerson’s grandfather, Allan, was also a farmer who had served two terms in the Illinois House beginning in 1838. Among those in the legislature at that time was Abraham Lincoln. Several writers have compared Louis Emmerson’s looks – a tall, thin man with angular features – as bearing some resemblance to Lincoln’s. As Governor in 1931, Emmerson signed the first appropriation bill for $50,000 for the restoration of New Salem, Illinois, the early home of the 16th President. 1

Emmerson eventually worked as a storekeeper in Mount Vernon, Illinois, until 1901, when he organized the Third National Bank of Mount Vernon. He served as President of the Bank until 1929, which included his entire term as Illinois Secretary of State. His ascent in Republican politics took Emmerson from precinct worker to county chairman with a spot on the State Central Committee. He served on the State Board of Equalization in 1904 and was appointed to the board of commissioners of the state penitentiary at Chester in 1908. 2

In 1912, Emmerson unsuccessfully sought nomination as State Treasurer. In 1916, he ran for Secretary of State and defeated the incumbent, Lewis Stevenson, son of former Vice President Adlai Stevenson and father of the future Illinois Governor, also named Adlai. Among the chief concerns of the Secretary’s office at that time was an explosion in motor vehicle traffic. Registration for motor vehicles increased nearly five-fold between 1917 and 1928. 3

Elected to two more terms, Emmerson brought tens of millions of dollars into the coffers of the state. He raised nearly $100 million in motor vehicle fees during his time in office. Licensing fees in that time jumped from $1.5 million in 1917 to $15.5 million 11 years later. Corporation fees also increased from $1.8 million to nearly $10.8 million in that same span. Illinois government was streamlined during Emerson’s tenure under the Civil Administrative Code, which consolidated 125 boards into nine departments. 4

Emmerson was in office during the construction of the Centennial Building and oversaw the move of the State Library and other departments into the new facility. However, he did nothing to prevent the poor planning design of the Centennial Building, which crippled State Library growth with its lack of space almost from the outset. In 1921, the State Library was reorganized into three departments: the General Library Division, the Library Extension Division, and the Archives Division. It was the largest administrative shift in the history of the library up to that time. Emmerson encountered resistance when he dismissed assistant librarian Eva May Fowler, who used her influence with the legislature and the American Library Association to criticize Emmerson upon her departure. 5

Emmerson managed the Presidential nomination campaign of Illinois Governor Frank Lowden in 1920, but came under scrutiny when it was learned that Emmerson gave $2,500 checks to a pair of St. Louis politicians who later became delegates to the convention. Opponents quickly jumped on this use of campaign funds, and Lowden struggled to gain delegates in rural states. After a lengthy deadlock, the nomination eventually went to Warren G. Harding. 6

In 1928, Emmerson was elected Governor of Illinois, the oldest man to hold that office. He presided during the Great Depression and suffered personal financial reverses in the resulting wave of bank failures. As Governor, he cut $6 million from the state budget and called many special sessions to deal with the financial crisis. 7

Emmerson also supported the continuance of prohibition and was touted as a vice-presidential candidate by prohibitionists as a result. Due in part to his health, he announced in 1931 that he would not seek a second term, one of the few men to voluntarily decline a run for reelection as Governor. 8

In the 1932 election, Emmerson, a former grand master of the Masonic lodge in Illinois, made it known that he favored the Democratic nominee, Henry Horner, another high-ranking Mason. Emmerson spent a retirement in relative wealth in Mount Vernon until his death at home on Feb. 4, 1941. 9

  1. Howlett 117; Howard, Mostly Good and Competent Men, 2nd ed., 233-234; Moses II-1170; Illinois State Journal Feb. 5, 1941.
  2. Howlett 118; Howard, Mostly Good and Competent Men, 2nd ed., 234.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Howlett 118.
  5. Norton Interview 2.
  6. Howard, Mostly Good and Competent Men, 2nd ed., 221, 234; Howlett 119.
  7. Howard, Mostly Good and Competent Men, 2nd ed., 235; Howlett 119; Illinois State Journal Feb. 5, 1941.
  8. Howard, Mostly Good and Competent Men, 2nd ed., 237; Howlett 119.
  9. Howard, Mostly Good and Competent Men, 2nd ed., 236-237.