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Illinois' Embrace Of Slavery

Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas
Abe Lincoln (by Alexander Hesler) and Stephen Douglas:
Library of Congress
Famous “tousled hair” photograph of Abraham Lincoln and his political rival Stephen Douglas.";s:

For all practical purposes Illinois embraced slavery at its founding in 1818, despite entering the Union as a non-slave state.  For example, Illinois' first governor, first lieutenant governor, and president of the state's first constitutional convention were all slaveholders.Frank Cicero Jr. is the author of "Creating the Land of Lincoln: The History and Constitutions of Illinois, 1778-1870." He said slavery in the state was a legacy of the French inhabitants of the 1600s and Anglos and Americans of the 1700s. And many came to Illinois from or through Kentucky.

Cover of Frank Cicero's new book "Creating the Land of Lincoln"
Credit University of Illinois Press
Cover of Frank Cicero's new book "Creating the Land of Lincoln"

“Many in the north don’t realize Illinois is bordered by Kentucky (and quite close to Tennessee),” said Cicero. "A lot of slaveholders had come across from Kentucky and Tennessee, and also from other places in the east.”

As Cicero writes in his new book on the history of Illinois as expressed by the state’s constitutions—and the conventions that led to each one—it wasn’t out of the question that Illinois would enter the Union as a slave state 200 years ago.

“There were a lot of people who thought Illinois should come in as a slave state,” said Cicero. “And that the constitution should permit outright chattel slavery. In fact two years after the constitution was adopted, an effort was undertaken to revise the constitution in order to explicitly allow chattel slavery rather than the contrived devices that 1818 constitutional convention created.”

Implicit slavery was ubiquitous at Illinois founding and lasted many decades. Cicero pointed out the Illinois constitution flat out prohibited slavery. But paragraphs that followed outlined exceptions, including “voluntary” indentured servants. Indentured servitude wasn’t a new concept, but Cicero said Illinois version was different from, for example, how English settlers defined and lived the idea. Color was the difference.

“Many of them were blacks brought in from other states, and the provision said if they don’t agree to a 'voluntary' agreement, they could be shipped back to a slave state within 60 days,” said Cicero.

Not much of a choice.

“Many of the contracts were for 20, 30, 50 years. 99 years in some cases. And it was slavery for all practical purposes,” said Cicero.

Defining Borders

Defining Illinois northern border is another development Cicero writes about at length in "Creating the Land of Lincoln." It’s a development that had huge implications on the state’s political makeup, and among other things, hastened the demise of defacto slavery.

“The Northwest Ordinance, which governed the old Northwest Territory, was intended to allow five states,” said Cicero. “There would be three on the lower tier, which turned out to be Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois; then upper tier states.”

Where the politics gets interesting is that the northern boundary of what would become those southern states was supposed to run east-west from the southernmost tip of Lake Michigan. That would mean no shoreline for Illinois. When the act to enable Illinois to form a constitution came before Congress, the lone non-voting delegate from the Territory of Illinois introduced an amendment that would extend the border 60 miles from the bottom tip of the lake.

“That included (what would become) Chicago, which would not have been in the state originally. It also included what would be the mouth of the Illinois-Michigan canal, which opened commerce down through northern Illinois to the Illinois River to the Mississippi and on to the Gulf of Mexico,” said Cicero.

That delegate was Nathaniel Pope. It was a huge change that has altered Illinois politics to this day. Pope understood the enormity of having a commercial waterway extending from Lake Michigan to the Gulf. But he also understood that without the boundary extension, Illinois would essentially be a southern state settled from the south.

“Pope said confederacies like the United States were prone to disunion, and in the event this disunion happened, Illinois would be a southern state. On the other hand, he said opening up the northern area will open up commerce to the north and east, resulting in commercial development and ensuring Illinois would be a northern state with the hopes of preventing a southern breakup,” said Cicero.

Unlike the southern part of the state which was founded by settlers from Kentucky, Tennessee and other southern states, the area that became northern Illinois because of the boundary change was settled by Europeans and New Englanders. And unlike their southern neighbors, they were not fond of slavery.

“That’s where all these votes came from to enable the Republican party, and in later years by Democrats. But at that time, it enabled the Republican party to carry elections, instead of the Democratic slaveholders from the southern part of the state," said Cicero.

Listen to the entire interview between Frank Cicero Jr. and GLT's Jon Norton.

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.