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 Stephen A. DouglasKansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and made slavery possible north of Parallel 36°30′ North.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

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

In the last few weeks we have recalled how Tazewell County was founded and named, and how the county boundaries were redrawn during the 1830s and 1840s. As we noted previously, Tazewell County was named for a Virginia state governor and U.S. Senator named Littleton Waller Tazewell.

But what of the names of the other 101 counties of Illinois? Where did they get their names? Starting today and continuing over the next few weeks, we’ll present the counties of Illinois in order of their founding, telling the years they were established and the origins or meanings of their names. Most of our state’s counties were named for notable men of U.S. and Illinois history.

St. Clair County was established in 1790 when Illinois was a part of the Northwest Territory. It was named for Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair (1737-1818), first governor of the Northwest Territory.

Randolph County was established in 1795 during the time when Illinois was part of the Northwest Territory. It was named after Edmund Randolph (1753-1813), the first U.S. Attorney General as well as a U.S. Secretary of State.

Three counties were founded in 1812, three years after the formation of the Illinois Territory: Gallatin County, named for Albert Gallatin (1761-1849), the fourth U.S. Secretary of the Treasury (and the one who served the longest); Johnson County, named for Richard Mentor Johnson (c.1780-1850), ninth U.S. vice president and a U.S. senator from Kentucky; and Madison County, named for President James Madison (1751-1856).

In 1814, Edwards County was formed, named after Illinois Territorial Gov. Ninian Edwards (1775-1833) who later served as Illinois’ third state governor. The city of Edwardsville, county seat of Madison County, is also named after Ninian Edwards.

White County was formed the following year, being named for Isaac White (1776-1811), an Illinois settler who joined the Indiana Territorial Militia and was slain at the Battle of Tippecanoe. The next year, in 1816, Crawford County was founded, named after William H. Crawford (1772-1834), ninth U.S. Secretary of War and seventh Secretary of the Treasury.

Also founded in 1816 were Jackson and Monroe counties, named for Presidents Andrew Jackson and James Monroe (it was Monroe who would admit Illinois to the Union two years later), and Pope County, named for Illinois Territorial Delegate Nathaniel Pope who played a central role in getting Illinois admitted as a state. Then in 1817, Bond County was formed, being named for territorial congressional delegate Shadrach Bond (1773-1832), who would be elected the first Illinois state governor just one year later.

Three new counties were formed in the preparation for Illinois’ admission to the Union as the 21st state in 1818, which explains the very patriotic names they were given: Franklin County, named after the famous Founding Father Benjamin Franklin; Union County, named in honor of the national Union of the states; and Washington County, named for the first U.S. President George Washington.

This map, from the “Origin and Evolution of Illinois Counties,” shows the boundaries of Illinois’ counties at the dawn of statehood in 1818.

The year after Illinois statehood, 1819, saw the creation of four new counties: Alexander County, named for William M. Alexander, a pioneer settler of Illinois who was elected to the Illinois General Assembly; Clark County, named for George Rogers Clark who led the Illinois Campaign during the Revolutionary War; Jefferson County, named for Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president; and Wayne County, named for Gen. Anthony Wayne (1745-1796), who fought in the Revolutionary War and the Northwest Indian War.

In 1821, the state legislature created seven new counties: Fayette, Greene, Hamilton, Lawrence, Montgomery, Pike, and Sangamon. The county seat of Fayette County is Vandalia, second Illinois state capital (1820-1839). The current state capital, Springfield, is also the Sangamon County seat of government.

Fayette County was named in honor of Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), a French aristocrat who won the enduring love of the American people by aiding the nascent U.S. army during the Revolutionary War. Lafayette later was a leader of the French Revolution, whose hopes to create an American-style republic in France were dashed by the violent insanity of the Reign of Terror and the rise of the self-crowned despot Napoleon. Lafayette returned to tour the U.S. in 1824-25, visiting with Illinois Gov. Edward Coles and other Illinois dignitaries at Kaskaskia, the former state capital, on April 30, 1825. When the U.S. entered World War I to support the British and French in 1917, the U.S. Expeditionary Force formally proclaimed their arrival in France with the words, “Lafayette, we are here!”

Greene County was named for Nathanael Greene (1742-1786), a Revolutionary War major general. Hamilton County was named after Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury (Hamilton’s son William, a pioneer settler of Springfield and Peoria, was one of the dignitaries who met Lafayette at Kaskaskia in 1825).

Lawrence County was named for Capt. James Lawrence (1781-1813), commander of the U.S.S. Chesapeake in the War of 1812, remembered for his command, “Don’t give up the ship!” Montgomery County was named for Gen. Richard Montgomery (1738-1775), a Revolutionary War leader who led a failed American invasion of Canada.

Pike County is named after the explorer Zebulon Pike (1779-1813), after whom Pikes Peak in Colorado is named. Finally, Sangamon County is named for the Sangamon River that flows through it. “Sangamon” comes from a Pottawatomi term, Sain-guee-mon, meaning a place where food is plentiful.

Four more counties were added in 1823: Edgar County, named for John Edgar (c.1750-1832), a very wealthy settler who served as an Illinois delegate to the Northwest Territory’s legislature; Fulton County, named after Robert Fulton, the famous inventor of the steamboat, which greatly aided Illinois commerce and transportation; Marion County, named in honor of Revolutionary War Gen. Francis Marion (c.1732-1795); and Morgan County, named after Revolutionary War Gen. Daniel Morgan who later served as a U.S. Congressman for Virginia.

That brings us to the eve of the arrival of Pekin’s first pioneer settler Jonathan Tharp in 1824 (the future site of Pekin was then in Sangamon County), which is a convenient place for us to pause. Next week we’ll continue with the three counties founded in 1824 – Clay, Clinton, and Wabash counties.

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Illinois in the Old Northwest

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

As we saw in this column last time, the vast Illinois Country – encompassing far more than the land of the future state of Illinois – passed from British to American control as a result of Lt. Col. George Rogers Clark’s Illinois Campaign of 1778-1779.

But Clark, as a patriotic citizen of Virginia, didn’t seize the Illinois Country simply to increase the size of the nascent United States of America. As a Virginian, Clark achieved his conquests on behalf of his native state – he had this vast territory organized as “Illinois County,” a part of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Virginia Gov. Patrick Henry – of “Give me liberty or give me death” fame – appointed Col. John Todd as the military commandant and first county administrator, governing from the county seat at Kaskaskia (future first capital of the state of Illinois). As a reward for the help they gave Clark during his campaign, Virginia granted full citizenship to the French Canadiens and Indians of Kaskaskia and Vincennes (in the future state of Indiana).

While Clark’s exploit effectively neutralized the threat of Britain opening a western front against the United States during the Revolutionary War, nevertheless the leaders of the other 12 states – who also harbored hopes and ambitions to expand their states westward – resented Virginia’s land-grab.

So it was that in 1784 Virginia’s leaders were persuaded to cede Illinois County to the government of the U.S., which was then organized and loosely linked under the Articles of Confederation, which was the constitution of the U.S. prior to 1789. Virginia’s Illinois County thus ceased to exist after a mere six years. Not only Virginia but every state gave up their expansionist dreams and agreed to allow the Congress of the confederated states to determine what was to be done with the newly acquired lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River.

Congress made that determination for the area north of the Ohio River on July 13, 1787, when the Congress of the U.S. Confederation passed the Northwest Ordinance, erecting the Northwest Territory, a vast area encompassing the future states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota. The Northwest Ordinance – the one lasting achievement of the Confederation Congress – set up a process to enable parts of the Northwest Territory to be formed into smaller territories that could then later become new states of the union. The new territory’s first governor, appointed in 1788, was Arthur St. Clair (1737-1818), who had served as President of the Confederation Congress when the Northwest Ordinance was passed.

Arthur St. Clair was President of the Confederation Congress of the United States and was appointed first governor of the Northwest Territory, which encompassed the lands that became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

The Northwest Territory was made up of land that the British king had set aside as the Indian Reserve – a region for Native Americans forbidden to American colonists of European descent. Despite the king’s proclamation, however, settlement in the Indian Reserve still went on. When the United States secured their independence in 1783, Britain ceded all of that territory west to the Mississippi to the new nation, and the movement of land-hungry settlers soon increased, inexorably dispossessing the native peoples.

Nevertheless, Britain continued to maintain forts in the Northwest Territory. With British help the Indians of the Ohio and Illinois countries valiantly resisted American control of the Northwest Territory during a 10-year conflict known as the Northwest Indian War (1785-1795). In 1785, a group of nine tribes and tribal confederations in the Northwest Territory – including tribes from Illinois – banded together for mutual defense, forming the Western Confederacy. The confederacy included warriors from the Huron, Shawnee, Lenape (Delaware), Miami, Kickapoo, Kaskaskia, Cherokee, the Council of Three Fires (Ojibway, Ottawa, and Pottawatomi), and the Wabash Confederacy (whose members included the Piankeshaw). The Western Confederacy’s objective was to maintain the Ohio River as the boundary between themselves and American settlers.

Little Turtle, a chief of the Miami, was one of the main leaders of the Western Confederacy during the Northwest Indian War (1785-1795).

Most of the fighting in this war took place within the future state of Ohio, but the prospects for further European-American settlement in the Illinois Country depended on the war’s outcome. The most memorable event during this conflict was the Battle of the Wabash on Nov. 4, 1791 – more usually known as St. Clair’s Defeat or the Battle of a Thousand Slain. Historian Landon Jones has dubbed this battle “the most decisive defeat in the history of the American military.”

As the Northwest Indian War continued, in the fall of 1791 Northwest Territorial Gov. St. Clair mustered a force of 2,000 poorly-trained men for a planned attack on Kekionga, capital of the Miami tribe, located near modern Fort Wayne, Ind., but by the start of November desertion and supply problems had shrunk St. Clair’s forces to about 1,120. On Nov. 3, St. Clair’s army encamped near modern Fort Recovery, Ohio, and the headwaters of the Wabash River. Meanwhile the Western Confederacy’s chiefs – Little Turtle (Mihšihkinaahkwa) of the Miami, Blue Jacket (Weyapiersenwah) of the Shawnee, and Buckongahelas of the Lenape – gathered a force of 1,000 Indians, and on Nov. 4 they led a surprise pre-dawn attack on St. Clair’s camp, inducing a panic in the U.S. Army’s troops that quickly turned into a total rout. When the battle was over, a thousand of St. Clair’s men were dead and only 24 of the survivors were uninjured, while the Western Confederacy lost only 50 warriors – the greatest victory Native Americans would ever achieve against the U.S.

Following this setback, the U.S. mustered a new, well-trained army, and the tide of war turned in the U.S.’s favor. The Western Confederacy was decisively defeated at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in August 1794 – and Britain declined to help Blue Jacket’s fleeing warriors. The following year, the native tribes of the Northwest Territory signed the Treaty of Greenville, recognizing U.S. control of the Northwest Territory and giving the U.S. most of Ohio and a part of the Illinois Country (including important sections of land at the future sites of Chicago and Peoria and the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers). The same year, Britain signed the Jay Treaty, agreeing to give up their forts in the Northwest Territory.

With the end of the Northwest Indian War, the Ohio Country was rapidly flooded with new American settlers, and the way was prepared for inevitable expansion into Native American lands in the future states of Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin. As Ohio’s population soared, the Northwest Territory was divided: on July 4, 1800, only five years after the war’s end, the Indiana Territory was formed, encompassing territory that included the future states of Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, part of Minnesota, and half of Michigan. The first territorial governor was future War of 1812 hero and U.S. President William Henry Harrison, who negotiated numerous treaties with the Indians while he was governor. The remainder of the old Northwest Territory, encompassing a part of Michigan, would continue to be known as “the Northwest Territory” for only three more years – in 1803, the state of Ohio was admitted to the Union, and the rest of the Northwest Territory was reassigned to the Indiana Territory.

As a part of the Indiana Territory, Illinois was included in three counties – Knox County (made up of Indiana and eastern Illinois), Randolph County (southern Illinois), and St. Clair County (the remainder of Illinois as well as Wisconsin and Minnesota). The Illinois Country was then peopled mainly by Native Americans and relatively small groups of French settlers, but territorial leaders and land speculators were laying the groundwork for further westward expansion. In the period from 1773 to 1819, a series of land purchases and treaties were made with the Illini, Piankeshaws, Kaskaskias, and Kickapoos that extinguished Native American title to most of the lands of future state of Illinois, opening the land to further European-American settlement. The future Tazewell County was included in the lands ceded to the U.S. by an Aug. 13, 1803 treaty with the Kaskaskias and a July 30, 1819 treaty with the Kickapoos (in the year after Illinois became a state).

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