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 Stephen A. DouglasKansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and made slavery possible north of Parallel 36°30′ North.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. He 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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The county names of Illinois, continued

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

This week we’ll continue with our review of the names of the counties of Illinois, beginning with the three counties that the State Legislature established in 1824: Clay, Clinton, and Wabash counties.

Clay County was named after Henry Clay of Kentucky, a notable American leader during this period who served in both the U.S. House and Senate, best remembered for negotiating the important Missouri Compromise of 1820 that safeguarded the nation’s fragile equilibrium between slave and free states. Clinton County is named in honor of New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton (1769-1828), who spearheaded the building of the Erie Canal that bolstered the U.S. economy.

Wabash County takes its name from the Wabash River, which was in turn named by the Algonquin-speaking Miami and Illini tribes. The Wabash forms a part of the Illinois-Indiana border. The Native American name for the river, Waapaahšiiki, means “water over white stones,” a reference to the limestone river bottom in Huntington County, Indiana.

In 1825, the Illinois General Assembly established 10 new counties – the most that had been founded in Illinois history up till then. The counties were Adams, Calhoun, Hancock, Henry, Knox, Mercer, Peoria, Putnam, Schuyler, and Warren counties.

This map, from the “Origin and Evolution of Illinois Counties,” shows the boundaries of Illinois’ counties in 1825 — one year after the arrival of Jonathan Tharp at the future site of Pekin.

Adams County is named in honor of John Quincy Adams, sixth U.S. president. Calhoun County is named after U.S. Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who also became the seventh U.S. vice president. Hancock County is named for Founding Father John Hancock of Massachusetts, famous for his over-sized signature on the Declaration of Independence. Henry County is named after another Founding Father, Gov. Patrick Henry of Virginia who reportedly declared, “Give me liberty or give me death.”

Five of 1825’s new counties were named after men who fought in the Revolutionary War. Knox County is named for Gen. Henry Knox, who became the first U.S. Secretary of War. It is noteworthy that there had formerly been a Knox County that included parts of Illinois, back in the days of the Indiana Territory – but with the formation of the Illinois Territory in 1809, the original Knox County became an Indiana county. Illinois’ Knox County of 1825 was never a part of the original Knox County.

Mercer County is named for Gen. Hugh Mercer. Putnam County – the smallest Illinois County, covering only 160 square miles – is named in honor of Gen. Israel Putnam, U.S. commander at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Schuyler County is named after Gen. Philip Schuyler, who also served as a U.S. Senator from New York. Warren County is named for an American patriot who was killed very early in the Revolutionary War, Joseph Warren.

Peoria County was, of course, named for the Peoria tribe of the Illiniwek, who formerly lived on the shores of Lake Pimiteoui (Peoria Lake).

Only two new counties were founded in 1826: McDonough and Vermilion counties. McDonough County is named after Commodore Thomas Macdonough, who commanded U.S. naval forces at the Battle of Plattsburgh in New York, where the U.S. thwarted Britain’s final invasion of the northern states during the War of 1812.

Vermilion County is named for the Vermilion River, a tributary of the Wabash River. This tributary was called the Piankeshaw by the Miami tribe, but European settlers renamed the river from the reddish color of the earth or chalk found in the bluffs above the river, which the Native Americans used for face paint.

Besides Tazewell County, three other counties were established in 1827: Jo Daviess, Perry, and Shelby counties. Jo Daviess County is named after Joseph Hamilton Daveiss, who commanded the Indiana Dragoons at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. Curiously, although his last name was spelled “Daveiss,” in all of the places named for him the misspelling “Daviess” is used instead. Perry County is named for Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, who led American naval forces to victory at the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812. Shelby County is named after Kentucky Gov. Isaac Shelby, a veteran of both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.

Two counties were founded in 1829: Macon County, named after Nathaniel Macon (1758-1837), sixth Speaker of the House of Representatives and a U.S. Senator for North Carolina; and Macoupin County, which is named from an Algonquin word that is believed to mean “white potato.”

The Illinois General Assembly formed two new counties in 1830. One of them, Coles County, was named for Edward Coles, second Governor of Illinois (1822-1826), who devoted his political career to the cause of the abolition of slavery, striving mightily to prevent the legalization of slavery and end the practice of indentured servitude in Illinois.

The other, McLean County, formed from Tazewell County the same year that Pekin was founded, was named for Illinois Congressman and Senator John McLean. McLean is geographically the largest county in Illinois, covering 1,184 square miles.

Illinois’ most populous county, Cook County (with a current population of about 5.2 million), was established in 1831, and is named after Illinois’ first Attorney General Daniel Pope Cook (1794-1827), a newspaper owner and editor who had advocated for Illinois statehood in his newspapers.

Also founded in 1831 were Effingham County, named for Thomas Howard, 3rd Earl of Effingham, who resigned from the British Army rather than fight against the 13 colonies; Jasper County, named for Revolutionary War hero Sgt. William Jasper (c.1750-1779); LaSalle County, named after the French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle; and Rock Island County, named for Rock Island, a notable island in the Mississippi where Fort Armstrong was built in 1816 and an arsenal was established in the 1880s.

In 1833, the year after the Black Hawk War – Illinois’ final war against its Native American population – two more counties were added: Champaign County, named after Champaign County, Ohio, from which pioneers of the county had come (“champaign” in French means “battlefield”), and Iroquois County, named after the New York-based League of the Iroquois that had controlled the Illinois Country during their expansionist wars of the 1600s.

By this time Illinois had been subdivided into 60 counties. Another 42 counties would be established over the next 26 years. We will continue down the roll of Illinois counties next time.

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Illinois’ race to statehood: 1813-1818

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

It was less than a decade from the creation of the Illinois Territory in 1809 until Illinois entered the Union as the 21st state. During those years, as we saw last time, the nation would go to war once more against Britain – the War of 1812.

Despite some impressive successes in battle, the U.S. soon found that it had bit off more than it could chew – the British sacked and burned down the nation’s capital in 1814, destroying the original White House. In the Old Northwest, Britain and its Native American allies were able to seize parts of Michigan and Illinois and the entirety of Wisconsin (lands then a part of the Illinois Territory) and maintain control until the war’s end. The British Navy also had the U.S. blockaded, ruining the economy.

With the U.S. facing further humiliation and Britain preoccupied with the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, both sides in the war agreed to cease hostilities. The war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, which the U.S. ratified on Feb. 17, 1815. The treaty called for Britain and the U.S. to restore the territory they had seized from each other – effectively the war ended in a stalemate.

In practical terms, however, the War of 1812 left the U.S. poised to expand further into Native American lands of the Old Northwest. The destruction of Tecumseh’s confederacy in 1813 had brought an end to effective Native American resistance to the encroachment of land-hungry U.S. settlers who had been pouring into Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Although the Treaty of Ghent called for the U.S. to respect the rights and territories of the American Indians, the U.S. never honored that article of the treaty – and Britain, which abandoned its former allies at the negotiating table, did not wish to go to war again to enforce it.

Even with Native American resistance in the Old Northwest effectively neutralized, however, there were still legal and economic obstacles that slowed the settlement of the Illinois Territory. As former Illinois Gov. Edward Dunne explained in his 1933 history of Illinois, “Up to this time (1812) there had been but little immigration unto Illinois. Fear of Indian atrocities was one cause, but the greater and more far-reaching one was the inability of settlers to gain legal title to the land upon which they located.” In the eyes of the law, most of the settlers in Illinois were squatters, since the laws up till then discouraged white incursion in a region that the British king had formerly set aside as an Indian Reserve.

Shadrach Bond, first state governor of Illinois, is shown in this image from Edward Dunne’s 1933 Illinois history, “Illinois — The Heart of the Nation.”

That was soon to change. Dunne wrote, “Shadrach Bond, upon his election as delegate to Congress for Illinois Territory in 1812, exerted himself vigorously in securing a preemption law that would enable a settler to secure a quarter-section of land, and thus attract settlers to the territory.” In 1813 Congress approved Bond’s proposed law, which stipulated that if a settler made improvements to the land he’d secured, then he had the first right to buy that land at government sale.

Due to that law, Illinois soon saw a dramatic influx of settlers. According to Dunne, “The passage of this law, the ending of the war with Great Britain, and the subsequent treaties of peace with the Indians in 1815 under which they conveyed their titles to the United States, opened wide the doors in Illinois for rapid settlement and growth for the first time in its chequered history. From now on the condition of Illinois ceased to be static and became dynamic. Its population in 1810 was 12,282; in 1820 it was 55,162.”

Continuing, Dunne observed, “The dammed-up waters of immigration and civilization had sapped and undermined the walls of war, isolation and law that had surrounded Illinois, and the waves began to overflow the fertile prairies of all the section. Riding on these waves came not only men and women from the Southland, as heretofore, but from all over America and from foreign lands.”

By 1816, editorials were appearing in Daniel Pope Cook’s newspapers, the Kaskaskia Herald and the Western Intelligencer, advocating in favor of Illinois statehood and showing the advantages of self-government that statehood would bring. The chief obstacle to statehood was the Northwest Ordinance’s stipulation that a territory’s population must be at least 60,000 before it could be admitted as a state. Nevertheless, Congress had waived that requirement when it admitted Ohio as a state – and Cook argued that Illinois should be granted the same leniency.

As it happened, the simmering controversy over slavery helped to unite the people of Illinois, both pro- and anti-slavery, in support for statehood. As Dunne explained in his history, support for statehood in Illinois was promoted by the fact that a Congressional bill was already pending for Missouri statehood, and everyone expected Missouri to be a slave state.

“The fear that the Missourians would anticipate the men of Illinois in securing admission of their state into the Union caused prompt action,” Dunne wrote. “The anti-slavery element feared that if Missouri was admitted as a slave-state, that it would be used as a precedent for slavery in Illinois. On the other hand, the pro-slavery element feared the admission of Missouri to statehood before Illinois because, as they believed, it would attract immigration from the South and prevent settlers from coming to Illinois. It developed that both discordant elements, from different motives and activated by different fears, were united in favoring the admission of Illinois to statehood before the pro-slavery crowd in Missouri could secure statehood from Congress.”

Although Illinois would not become a state until 1818, the bill to admit Illinois to the Union was first introduced in Congress on Jan. 23, 1812, by Illinois’ territorial delegate (and former territorial secretary) Nathaniel Pope (1784-1850). According to Dunne, in its original form the bill would have set Illinois’ northern boundary “at a line drawn east and west from a point drawn ten miles north of the most southerly part of Lake Michigan in an attempt to approach compliance with a provision of the Ordinance of 1787.” That would have given Illinois only a very small amount of Lake Michigan shoreline.

Nathaniel Pope, Illinois territorial delegate to Congress who submitted the petition for Illinois statehood in early 1818, is shown in this image from Edward Dunne’s 1933 Illinois history, “Illinois — The Heart of the Nation.”

But while the bill was still in committee, Pope had the proposed northern boundary moved 41 miles north, to the position where it is today. The members of the committee accepted the new proposed boundary because it would make the new state more economically viable and, through the Great Lakes system, would firmly link Illinois to New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. How very different Illinois history would have been if Chicago had instead developed as the largest and wealthiest city of Wisconsin!

On Jan. 16, 1818, the Illinois Territorial Legislature formally petitioned Congress to become a state, sending the petition by the hand of Delegate Pope. The same month, the Legislature, seeking to emphasize to Congress that Illinois would be a free state, approved a bill that would have reformed labor contracts to eliminate the practice of indentured servitude whereby slavery was able to exist in Illinois despite being illegal. However, Gov. Ninian Edwards (1775-1833), himself a wealthy aristocratic slave-owner, vetoed the bill, claiming it was unconstitutional. It was the only time Edwards ever exercised his veto power as territorial governor.

The issue of slavery would remain at the forefront of Illinois political issues in the early years after statehood, as pro-slavery forces strove to legalize it. In anticipation of Illinois’ admission to the Union, the territory framed a state constitution in August – but it is significant that, whereas the Ohio and Indiana state constitutions explicitly forbade any amendments or the writing of new constitutions that would legalize slavery, Illinois’ first constitution had no such provision, a “loophole” of which pro-slavery leaders soon tried to avail themselves.

After the ratification of the constitution, Illinois held elections to fill the state offices. Maryland-born Shadrach Bond (1773-1830), former territorial delegate to Congress, was elected the first Illinois governor, taking office on Oct. 6, 1818, about two months before Illinois became a state. The march to statehood proceeded apace throughout the remainder of 1818, until at last, on Dec. 3, 1818, President James Monroe signed the bill granting Illinois admission to the Union as the 21st state. The new state’s population was tabulated in an 1818 census at 40,258.

The territorial capital at Kaskaskia on the Mississippi River now became the first state capital, even as it formerly had been the seat of government reaching back to the days of Virginia’s vast Illinois County during the Revolutionary War. Flooding of the Mississippi led to the removal of the state capital to Vandalia in just two years, however.

The Illinois State House at Kaskaskia, where the first state legislature convened in 1818, from an image in Edward Dunne’s 1933 Illinois history, “Illinois — The Heart of the Nation.”

At statehood, Illinois already had 15 counties, but within a year four more counties were added. At that time the yet-future Tazewell County’s lands were included in the oversized Bond and Madison counties which then extended all the way to Illinois’ northern border.

The Illinois General Assembly established Tazewell County a mere nine years after statehood. During those years Illinois experienced a rising tide of immigration – and many of those settlers came up the Illinois River or overland from southern Illinois to Fort Clark (Peoria) and its environs. We’ll look closer at that wave of settlement next time.

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