Prairie politicians didn't let challenges, like rules, get in their way, historians say.
Two hundred years ago on December 3, Congress granted Illinois statehood. It might have been premature. Frankly, we were an upstart, like a kindergartener who thinks he’s ready for high school. Historian Roger Biles described us as an “unimpressive backwater” in his book, “Illinois: A History of Its Land and Its People.” We didn’t have the population or infrastructure to be a state. We didn’t have settlers clamoring to come here. We didn’t even have a burning desire for statehood. What we had was a couple leaders who didn’t let those and other challenges stop them.
Illinois had been its own territory since 1809, when Indiana got congressional permission to separate from us. Territories had weak federal representation and an overly powerful state leader. Our delegate to Congress couldn’t vote on national legislation and our territorial legislature couldn’t override our governor. It wasn’t a great situation, but not many people complained, until Daniel Pope Cook.
He was a young, ambitious lawyer looking for opportunity, according to historian and
Illinois State Archives Director Dave Joens. (Territorial and state documents are housed at the Archives.) Cook began pushing for statehood after unsuccessfully seeking a patronage job in the Alabama Territory, and that push “came completely out of the blue,” Joens says. Statehood would mean more settlers, more development, and more opportunities here. Cook owned part of a newspaper and used it to promote his stance, arguing that statehood would “give us equal footing with the rest of the states out east,” says Samuel Wheeler, the Illinois state historian. “I love this argument that Cook also proposes," he says, "The Illinois Territory is destined for statehood, so why delay the inevitable?’”
Inevitable, perhaps, but immediate? Our territorial governor, Ninian Edwards disagreed with Cook, his future son-in-law. “He points out that Illinois doesn’t have the required population,” Wheeler says. According to the law governing territories -- the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 -- we needed 60,000 residents to become a state. We might have had 60,000 animals, but not humans.
“We weren’t ready to be a state,” says Joens. “We didn’t have the population, we still had Native Americans here, and a lot of those issues hadn’t been resolved yet, and north of (what is now) the metro East area, there was almost no population….Roads hadn’t been built, and bridges and canals hadn’t been built.”
There was another problem. “The Illinois country, from the early 1700s, was slave country,” says Frank Cicero, Jr., author of “Creating the Land of Lincoln.” “Slaves (Native Americans and blacks) were probably one quarter of the population around 1818. The problem was to have adequate assurance that Illinois slaveholders could keep their slaves, because they formed the foundation of Illinois, and whether that would be acceptable to the Northwest Ordinance (which forbid slavery) and Congress.” (To learn more about slavery in Illinois, read Tara’s Illinois Issues article, “Slave State,” here.)
The slavery issue was worked out when leaders wrote our first state Constitution in the summer of 1818, which Congress required as a condition of statehood. It legalized existing slaves but outlawed future ones, which we got around through so-called “voluntary” indentures. “Illinois residents who had slaves could get their slaves to ‘voluntarily’ agree to indentured contracts,” says Cicero. (Some contracts required 99 years of service.) “The fiction was that indentures were to be voluntarily made by people who could not read or write and by people who, if they did not agree to the voluntary contracts, within 30 days would be deported back to a slave state.”
While men were penning our future state’s Constitution, others were tallying our residents. Daniel Pope Cook and his uncle, Nathaniel Pope – the Territory’s congressional representative, tried to bypass the population requirement to become a state, but Congress didn’t allow it. Pope, who was in charge of Illinois’ statehood petition, did work some magic, though. He got Congress to let territory officials – instead of the federal government -- to conduct the population census and he had the population amount lowered. “Pope sort of uses that argument from Cook that statehood (for the Illinois Territory) is inevitable. You know they’re going to get 60,000 residents, so why hold them to it at this time? If Illinois can demonstrate through a census that they have 40,000 inhabitants, two thirds of that requisite 60,000, by gosh, just let them in,” Wheeler says.
Our first census in the summer of 1818 came up 6,000 short, so territorial officials lengthened the time period for it. “Census takers counted some settlers several times, included in their tallies migrants passing through Illinois on their way to Missouri, and submitted generous estimates for the populations of isolated outposts in remote areas of the territory,” Biles writes. Joens adds: “We took full advantage of the fact that we’re the ones who did the census. And there’s no doubt that we didn’t have 40,000.”
Final results showed 40,258 residents, according to Biles. Later census figures showed we were lucky to have had 35,000.
Some historians say Pope and Cook are the stars of our statehood story. “Pope went to Congress and said, ‘Illinois wants to be a state,’ and they appointed a committee of five (to oversee the territory’s request) and put him in charge of it,” says Joens. “And Pope says, ‘I’ll do all of the work.’ I thought that was a brilliant move on Pope’s part.” He drafted a bill that lowered our census requirement and expanded our future state’s boundaries.
Originally, our northern boundary would not have touched Lake Michigan, but Pope extended it about 60 miles north to give us access to that important waterway. This eventually increased our population, gave us the city of Chicago, allowed commerce with the east, and -- Cicero argues, created a state that produced Abraham Lincoln as president. Without that extension, “the new Republican Party formed in 1854 would not have rested on the favorable conditions in northern Illinois that enabled it to elect all the state officers in 1856, win all of the popularly elected state offices in 1858, and win the popular vote for state offices and the popular vote and Electoral College votes for Abraham Lincoln in 1860,” Cicero writes in his book.
“I always say that Washington had no idea what they were doing when it came to Illinois because Nathaniel Pope is the first perfect Illinois politician,” says Joens. “He went to Washington and said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take care of (Illinois’ petition for statehood), just leave me alone.’ And that’s almost what happened. He just showed Washington the Illinois way. This is what we want and we’re going to get it.”
Illinois Issues is in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issues is produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.