Free State of Illinois: Gov. Coles calls for emancipation

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Previously in our ongoing Illinois Bicentennial series, we saw how the controversy over slavery affected the history and development of Illinois from the formation of the Northwest Territory in 1787 right up to Illinois statehood in 1818. In fact, the dispute between Illinois’ pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers played a role both in the breaking off of the Illinois Territory from the Indiana Territory in 1809 and in the race to achieve statehood for Illinois prior to Missouri.

This week we’ll recall how the issue flared up again during the tenure of Illinois’ second state governor Edward Coles (1786-1868).

About two years after Illinois became a state, the U.S. Congress agreed to admit Missouri and Maine to the Union simultaneously under the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which sought to defuse tensions between America’s pro-slavery and abolitionist parties by keeping the numbers of new “slave states” and “free states” balanced. The Missouri Compromise stipulated that slavery would be illegal in any new states formed from the areas of the Louisiana Purchase north of Parallel 36°30′ North.

Looking ahead, we can see that although the issue of slavery continued to simmer in the next three decades, at the national level the Missouri Compromise had moved the issue to the back burner. This arrangement endured until 1854, when Congress passed Illinois Sen. Stephen A. DouglasKansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and made slavery possible north of Parallel 36°30′ North.

Douglas’ rival Abraham Lincoln sharply criticized the Kansas-Nebraska Act in his Peoria speech on Oct. 16, 1854, an important step on the road that would take Lincoln to the White House. The resulting outrage over the act on the part of the free states and the abolitionists led to the dreadful violence of “Bleeding Kansas” and, ultimately, to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 and the final abolition of slavery in 1865.

In the great conflict over slavery, Illinois was ranged with the free states. As noted before, Article 6 the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had outlawed slavery in any territories or states that later would be formed from the Northwest Territory. But in its early history Illinois’ place among the slave states was somewhat dubious and precarious. Most of Illinois’ early settlers came from slave states and territories, and from 1796 to 1806 there were repeated attempts to legalize slavery in the Indiana and Illinois territories.

Although the pro-slavery forces in Illinois failed to legalize slavery, effectively the practice of slavery still went on in Illinois due to an indentured servitude law that made it possible for slave owners to pressure their slaves to agree to continue to serve their masters after coming to Illinois. In Jan. 1818, the Illinois Territorial Legislature sought to emphasize to Congress that Illinois would be a free state by approving a bill that would have reformed labor contracts to eliminate the practice of indentured servitude. However, Gov. Ninian Edwards (1775-1833), himself a wealthy aristocratic slave-owner, vetoed the bill, claiming it was unconstitutional – the only time Edwards ever exercised his veto power as territorial governor.

After Illinois achieved statehood, pro-slavery forces continued to strive to legalize it. In anticipation of Illinois’ admission to the Union, the territory framed a state constitution in Aug. 1818 – but it is significant that Illinois’ first constitution had a “loophole” of which pro-slavery leaders soon tried to avail themselves in order to legalize slavery. On the question of slavery, the 1818 constitution said, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall hereafter be introduced into this state otherwise than for the punishment of crimes.

In his 1933 history, “Illinois: the Heart of the Nation,” former Ill. Gov. Edward Dunne explained the loophole in Illinois’ first constitution in these words (pp. 240, 260, 262, emphasis added):

“The section of the constitution relative to slavery and prohibiting it in the state, as amended and finally passed, was a compromise between the pro-slavery and anti-slavery members of the convention. In effect, it practically admitted that the former indentured laws of the territory practically amounted to slavery, but provided that the children of indentured persons were to become free. Under that provision, no indentures made outside the state could be enforced within the state, but the constitution failed to bind the state not to make a revision of the constitution which would admit slavery. Notwithstanding that the constitution failed to have any provision in strict accordance with the Ordinance of 1787 relative to slavery, it was accepted and approved by Congress, . . .

“Slavery had already been introduced into the state. Slaves and indentured servants, who were in almost as abject a condition of service as slaves, were numerous in Illinois at the time this constitution was adopted and, noting the word ‘hereafter’ in the constitution, there was a rush to have indentured articles approved before the constitution went into effect. . . .

“To have framed a constitution favoring slavery, or one making no declaration on the subject, would have invited a denial by Congress of the application for statehood. Therefore, some declaration against slavery was necessary, but reserving a method of reopening the question, was devised and carried in the convention . . . .”

As expected, Dunne wrote, “That opportunity soon arose and was promptly seized by the pro-slavery element in the state.

It happened following the election of Virginia-born Edward Coles as Illinois’ second governor. In Virginia, Coles held a large estate and owned at least 20 slaves, and he served as President James Madison’s private secretary from 1809 to 1815 with a special assignment as ambassador to Russia. By 1814, Coles had come to oppose slavery, corresponding with ex-President Thomas Jefferson on the subject that year.

Edward Coles, 2nd Illinois governor, 1822-1826

After returning from his diplomatic work in Europe, Madison appointed Coles registrar of the federal land office in Edwardsville, Ill. After arranging matters at his Virginia estate, Coles struck out west for Illinois. On the way down the Ohio River, Coles made the decision to set his slaves free. “He promised them each emancipation from slavery,” Dunne wrote, “and 160 acres of land and help for farming, and they, of course, joyfully accepted their freedom and every one of them agreed to accompany him to Edwardsville. Before landing in Illinois Coles gave each of his slaves a written certificate of freedom and all settled around his home near Edwardsville.

Two years later, Coles and three other men entered the race to succeed Shadrach Bond as governor of Illinois. The other gubernatorial candidates were Illinois Supreme Court Justice Joseph Phillips, Associate Justice Thomas C. Brown, and Gen. James B. Moore – Phillips and Brown ran on pro-slavery platforms, while Coles and Moore were anti-slavery. Even though pro-slavery voters outnumbered those opposed to slavery, Coles managed to secure his election because the pro-slavery vote was split almost equally between Phillips and Brown, while Moore only won a few hundred votes.

Coles decided to force the issue of slavery on his very first day as governor in 1822, calling in his inaugural address before the Illinois General Assembly in Vandalia for the immediate emancipation of all slaves or indentured servants in Illinois. The pro-slavery members of the General Assembly responded by making plans to call for a new constitutional convention, with the unstated intention of crafting a constitution that would enshrine slave-owning as a right.

The resolution to put the question of calling a new convention to the people for a vote narrowly passed the Illinois House of Representatives by the slimmest of margins, and under extremely questionable circumstances. Initially the resolution failed by one vote when Nicholas Hansen of Pike County switched sides and voted against the resolution. But Hansen’s own election to the House had been marred by a vote-counting dispute – so his outraged pro-slavery colleagues expelled Hansen from the House and replaced him with his opponent in the election, John Shaw, who then obediently voted in favor of the resolution.

Even though the majority of Illinois voters and members of the General Assembly favored slavery, Dunne observed that, “The high-handed, arbitrary and unfair methods pursued by the House in evicting Hansen and securing thereby a two-thirds vote for the convention, disgusted many fair-minded citizens who had been tolerant of slavery.” Furthermore, although those who sought a new constitutional convention had the goal of turning Illinois from an officially free to an officially slave state, they were not forthright about their intentions, and that cynical approach probably cost them support.

Consequently, despite the numerical advantage and the initial momentum of those who wanted to call a constitutional convention, in the end their effort was resoundingly defeated on Aug. 2, 1824, by a vote of 6,640 to 4,972, “after a campaign of exceeding violence, lasting about eighteen months,” Dunne wrote. It had been an ugly fight, but Gov. Coles and his anti-slavery allies, including the influential journalists Morris Birkbeck and Daniel P. Cook (eponym of Cook County), managed to prevent the prospect of a pro-slavery constitution.

In retrospect, it can be seen that the very fate of the nation hung upon the outcome of Illinois’ convention battle – for if Illinois had switched from free to slave, the proponents of slavery would have gained permanent control of the U.S. Senate, “and no law thereafter could have been passed by Congress limiting or restricting slavery in the United States,” Dunne wrote.

The 1818 constitution limited governors to a single term, so Coles left office in 1826. Though he was able to defeat the convention movement, he was otherwise impotent against the pro-slavery General Assembly, which rejected all of his nominees to state office and ignored his legislative recommendations. Afterwards Coles was sued by the State for freeing his slaves without paying bonds of $200 to vouch for the good behavior of each freed slave. Even though he’d free his slaves before entering Illinois, the State initially won the politically-motivated suit – Coles would have had to pay $2,000, a great financial blow, but Coles appealed to the state Supreme Court and won on appeal.

Wearied by his bitter political experiences in Illinois, Coles returned to the East, finally settling in Philadelphia. His was gravely disappointed by his son Robert, who became a slave-owner and fought for the Confederacy – but he did live to see the abolition of slavery and emancipation of all slaves in the U.S. in the 1860s.

In 1929, a bronze portrait of Gov. Coles was erected in his memory in Valley View Cemetery in Edwardsville. Also, in recognition of Coles’ commitment to the abolition of slavery, the State of Illinois Human Rights Commission offers the Edward Coles Fellowship, a scholarship for law students.

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Remembering the Pekin Union League

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

On the east side of the Pekin National Bank, on the wall facing N. Capitol Street at the Corner of Court Street, is an informative plaque telling of an important event in Pekin’s history – the founding of the Union League during the Civil War.

This column on Feb. 4, 2012, briefly told of the founding of the Union League. In addition, an article in the Aug. 16, 1975 Pekin Daily Times that lacked a byline but was accompanied by two photographs not only told the story of the Union League but also related the history of Pekin’s historical plaques that have commemorated the Union League.

Shown in this photograph from the Aug. 16, 1975 Pekin Daily Times are Marty Perlman, left, and Gerald Conaghan, right, president of Pekin National Bank, holding a historical plaque commemorating the founding of the Union League. The plaque was first placed on the east wall of the old Smith Bank/Perlman Furniture building at the corner of Court and Capitol in 1920, but in 1975 was remounted in the lobby of the Pekin National Bank, which was built on the same site as the Smith Bank/Perlman Furniture building which burned down in 1968.

First, here’s the story of the Union League as reported in the Aug. 16, 1975 Pekin Daily Times:

“It was June, 1862, and the early summer weather in Pekin had taken a back seat to the bad news coming from such places as Shiloh, the valley of the Shenandoah and communities in Indiana and other northern states which had been hit by Confederate raiders.

“There were reports of sabotage by southern subversive groups like the Golden Circle and the Sons of Liberty, and these, plus inflation and the draft, were beginning to shake the faith in President Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War policies.

“It had become clear to a handful of Pekin leaders that something should be done to firm up the North’s support for the war and to strengthen their resolve to abolish slavery in the South.

“Then came the one bright spot: the capture of Ft. Donelson by Gen. U. S. Grant and the freeing of Tennessee, much of which had remained fiercely pro-union despite harsh Confederate measures to crush Union sympathizers.

“As a result, those Tennesseeans (sic) remaining true to the north had met secretly to encourage each other to oppose the Confederate government. These groups called themselves Leagues of Union men or Union Leagues. . . .

“The concept was brought to Pekin by the Rev. J. W. N. Vernon, the new minister of Pekin’s First Methodist church, who had just come to this community from Tennessee.

“And so it was that on June 25, 1862, Rev. Vernon and ten other Pekin men gathered secretly on the third floor of the old brick building at Court and Capitol known for many years as the Smith Bank building.

“From that meeting came the Union League, an organization which became one of the most influential and fast-growing movements in the nation’s history.

“Within a year of the original meeting, the League had 606 councils and 75,000 members in Illinois alone and eventually may have had 2 million members in councils in nearly every local township and village in the North.

“It was the basis, in fact, of the Union party which elected Lincoln and Johnson in 1864. At the close of the Civil War, the military councils of the League were to become the Grand Army of the Republic.”

As this column recounted over five years ago, in the initial stages of the Civil War pro-Confederacy and pro-slavery sentiment remained prominent even as far north as Peoria and Pekin (both communities having been founded by slave-owning families). Consequently, prior to the formation of the Union League “those who believed in the Union spoke often in whispers in Pekin streets and were wary and often afraid,” says the 1949 Pekin Centenary.

Besides Rev. Vernon, the founding members of the Union League were Richard Northcroft Cullom, former Illinois state senator; Dr. Daniel A. Cheever, abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor; Charles Turner, Tazewell County state’s attorney; Henry Pratt, Delavan Township supervisor; Alexander Small, Deer Creek Township supervisor; George H. Harlow, Tazewell County circuit clerk; Jonathan Merriam, stock farmer who became a colonel in the Union army; Hart Montgomery, Pekin postmaster; John W. Glassgow, justice of the peace; and Levi F. Garrett, Pekin grocery store owner and baker.

After the Civil War, the Union League became a Republican Party social club, but would carry on its abolitionist legacy through support of civil rights for African Americans.

But here in Pekin, the founding of the Union League was commemorated by a plaque placed on the side of the old Smith Bank building in 1920. Later the building housed Marty Perlman’s business, the Perlman Furniture Co., which was destroyed by a fire in Oct. 1968. But, the Daily Times reported, “Perlman pried the charred plaque off the east wall after the flames had been extinguished, had it reconditioned and saw that it was kept safely until it could be remounted in an appropriate place at a significant time.”

That time and place came on Tuesday, Aug. 19, 1975, when the old 1920 plaque was remounted in the lobby of Pekin National Bank (built on the site of the Smith Bank/Perlman Furniture Co. building) on the occasion of President Gerald R. Ford’s visit to Pekin to dedicate the Pekin Public Library and Everett M. Dirksen Center.

But a few days before that, the outside plaque on the east wall of the Pekin National Bank had already been mounted. That plaque, donated by the Union League of America and the Illinois State Historical Society, was formally dedicated at the same time as the remounting of the 1920 plaque.

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Eliza Farnham’s ‘Life in Prairie Land’

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

This column usually features resources from the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection. These are items that remain in the library and may not be checked out. But this week we’ll turn our attention to a book in the library’s regular collection – a biographical narrative titled “Life in Prairie Land,” published in 1846 by an early feminist and abolitionist writer from New York State named Eliza W. Farnham.

The book describes Farnham’s experiences living in Illinois during the 1830s, a period when most of the state was a part of America’s wild frontier. Her book’s relevance to the history of Tazewell County and Pekin may be discerned from the following passage on page 24, in which Farnham tells the story of her arrival in central Illinois in 1836:

“We worried on through the flood of water that was pouring down the bed of the Illinois and submerging its banks, till the night of the fifth day brought us to the landing place of our friends in the town of Pokerton. It was at that time the county seat of one of the largest and wealthiest counties in the state. Its name is faintly descriptive of its inhabitants in a double sense: one of their favorite recreations being a game at cards, which is indicated by the first two syllables of this name. . . .”

The county to which Farnham referred is none other than Tazewell County, and “Pokerton” is the disdainful monicker that Farnham invented for Pekin. It’s clear from the way Farnham describes Pekin and its residents that she was greatly unimpressed by Pekin, which was then hardly more than an undeveloped frontier village.

"Life in Prairie Land" (1846), by Eliza W. Farnham, reprinted in 1988 by University of Illinois Press, tells of the author's experiences while living in Tazewell County during the 1830s.

“Life in Prairie Land” (1846), by Eliza W. Farnham, reprinted in 1988 by University of Illinois Press, tells of the author’s experiences while living in Tazewell County during the 1830s.

Born Eliza Wood Burhans (but later called Eliza Woodson) on Nov. 17, 1815, at Rensselaerville, N.Y., she was the fourth of five children of Cornelius and Mary (Wood) Burhans. Farnham, still unmarried when she came to Tazewell County, had left New York to live with her sister Mary for a while. Mary and her husband, John M. Roberts, an abolitionist involved in the Underground Railroad, settled near Groveland in 1831, on a homestead that they named Prairie Lodge. Another likely reason Eliza moved to Groveland was to be near a young man she’d met back East, Thomas Jefferson Farnham, a Vermont lawyer who had purchased land near Groveland in the summer of 1835. Eliza and Thomas married on July 12, 1836, settling in Tremont, which became the county seat that very year. (Remarkably, she never mentions Tremont by name in her book, not even using an alias of her own invention.)

The Farnhams lived in Tazewell County until the spring of 1839. While here, Eliza experienced the double sorrow of the death of her sister Mary in July 1838, followed two weeks later by the death of her own firstborn child during an epidemic. In her book, Farnham tells of her meditations on her bereavement that in time led her to move from her youthful atheist views to “a religious state of mind.”

The Farnhams brief stay in Tazewell County ended when Thomas organized a trip to Oregon, exploring the possibility of leading a group of settlers to the Pacific Northwest. Eliza stayed behind in Groveland and Peoria while her husband led the expedition. Upon his return in August 1840, the couple moved back to New York. So ended her experiences of “Life in Prairie Land.”

Farnham would go on to write several articles and books, and in particular was an advocate of feminism (she held that women were morally and biologically superior to men). She also became matron of the women’s half of Sing Sing Prison in Mount Pleasant, N.Y., where she implemented a series of reforms that were oriented toward rehabilitation of the inmates. Due to strong opposition to her reforms, she resigned her position in 1848.

That same year, her husband Thomas died in San Francisco, Calif., which necessitated her own move to California to settle his estate. Those years in California were unhappy ones – she suffered the loss of two of her children, and her second marriage in 1852 to William Fitzpatrick ended with her divorcing him in 1856. Farnham returned to New York for a few years, promoting her feminist views, then moved back to California for a while, then back to the East to advocate for the abolition of slavery. In 1863, as a volunteer nurse at Gettysburg, she contracted tuberculosis. She died Dec. 15, 1864, in New York City and was buried in the Quaker Cemetery at Milton-on-Hudson, N.Y.

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