The Slavery Question in Illinois


Image from a book entitled Picture of Slavery in the United States, written by George Bourne in 1834.
From the collection of the Illinois State Historical Library.

"To the student of American history in the twentieth century, it seems incredible that at any time in the history of Illinois a considerable number of its citizens were in favor of establishing slavery of human beings as a part of the policy and law of the state; and yet such is the historical fact."

A quote from Edward F. Dunne, 24th Governor of Illinois and author of Illinois: The Heart of the Nation, published in 1933.
From the collection of the Illinois State Historical Library



Human slavery had been installed within the borders of what now is the state of Illinois by the early French colonizers in the eighteenth century. Amazingly, the institution was never legally abolished before 1818 under French, British, or American administrations. During the American territorial administration, slaves had been brought into the Illinois by some of the most prominent officials of the territory and state, and remained in bondage until and after the admission of the state into the Union.

To understand why the institution remained in existence for such a long period of time, the patterns of migration which brought the vast majority of European settlers to Illinois must be understood. The great majority of the residents of the state who arrived before statehood in 1818 came from slave-holding states located below the Ohio River. These settlers were accustomed to and comfortable with the terms of the institution of human slavery. Therefore, there was no attempt or even a thought to abolish slavery before the territory became a state. Those who held slaves and brought them to Illinois favored and encouraged the system while the majority of those people without slaves tolerated the system. In fact, during territorial days, the issue did not become a vital question of subject of controversy for the citizens living within the future borders of Illinois.

United States Ordinance of 1787

When the powerful men in Illinois first applied for admission as a state, they were confronted with the United States Ordinance of 1787. This piece of legislation was responsible for the creation of the Northwest Territory, out of which the states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois were carved by 1818. The Ordinance read as follows:

The following articles shall be considered as articles of compact between the original states and the people and states in said territory and forever remain unalterable.

Article 6: There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.

Toward the second decade of the 19th century, all people living in the territory which was to become Illinois, whether pro-slavery or against the institution, were anxious to become part of the Union. All of the men who became members of the constitutional convention knew that unless some declaration against slavery were incorporated into the constitution, the territory had no chance of being accepted as a member of the United States. The challenge for those pro-slavery members of the convention was to write a constitution seemingly against slavery so it would be accepted by Congress while also being worded in such a way that it left the door open for the future addition of the institution.


Facsimile of the 1818 Illinois Constitution from Illinois: The Heart of the Nation, 1933.
From the collection of the Illinois State Historical Library

"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall hereafter be introduced into this state otherwise than for the punishment of crimes."

1818 Illinois State Constitution

State Constitution of 1818

In writing this document, the pro-slavery men were successful in inserting phrases which appeased both the United States Congress and the anti-slavery element of Illinois politics. The sentence which cleverly appeared in the Constitution was as follows: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall hereafter be introduced into this state otherwise than for the punishment of crimes." Remember, slavery had already been introduced into the state. The inference is that the Constitution was written by a pro-slavery majority in order to preserve the rights of existing slave holders living within the boundaries of Illinois. More importantly, the document left open the possibility of reopening the slavery issue after the admission of the state into the Union. Such an act could be done either through an amendment to the Constitution of 1818 or by creating and adopting a new constitution. The opportunity soon arose in the state, and the pro-slavery majority acted quickly to make Illinois an active slave state.

Election of Governor Coles and the call for an Amendment to the Original Constitution

With the election of Edward Coles as Governor of the state in 1822, the anti-slavery minority obtained the power of the executive branch of state government to offset the pro-slavery majority held in the legislative branch. Immediately after his election as governor, Coles forced the slavery issue to the front of Illinois politics. In his inaugural address, Coles recommended the emancipation of the slaves then living in Illinois. The legislature responded to this by appointing a joint committee of the Senate and House. The unanimous report that arrived from this committee read, "Your committee are clearly of the opinion that the people of Illinois have now the same right to alter their constitution as the people of Virginia, or any other of the original states, and may make any disposition of Negro slaves they choose without breach of faith, or violation of compact, ordinance, or act of Congress." This statement clearly campaigned for a constitutional convention to be called in order to create an amendment to the Illinois Constitution legally establishing slavery in Illinois.


Edward Coles, Governor of Illinois, 1822-1826
From the collection of the Illinois State Historical Library
After much political maneuvering, the legislature achieved the two-thirds majority the pro-slavery politicians needed to put out a call for a constitutional convention. Before the passage of the convention resolution, the Legislature felt that the majority of the voting citizens in Illinois held a pro-slavery sentiment. However, Governor Coles and the anti-conventionists in the legislature battled their opponents and turned the popular vote against the adoption of a constitutional convention. They appealed to the voters of the state with an appeal which is quoted below.

"Consider the spectacle that would be presented to the civilized world, of the people of Illinois, innocent of this great national sin, and in the full enjoyment of all the blessings of free government, sitting down in solemn convention to deliberate and determine whether they should introduce among them a portion of their fellow-beings, to be cut off from these blessings, to be loaded with chains of bondage and unable to leave any other legacy to their posterity than the inheritance of their own bondage. The wise and the good of all nations would blush at our political depravity."

After an eighteen month campaign, the voters of Illinois went to the polls to vote on the constitutional convention. The number of votes cast in favor of the convention was 4,972; those opposed numbered 6,640. Most of the southern counties had voted in a vast majority for the convention while the north central counties voted in large percentages against it. Follow this link to see a voting breakdown by county. This convention, if it had been established, would almost certainly have allowed some type of slavery to be incorporated into the state constitution.

"The truth is that Illinois . . . must become the great battlefield on which the antislavery question is to be settled."

Letter of Albert Hale to Asa Turner

When Elijah Lovejoy arrived in Alton, Illinois, in 1836, he hoped that the majority of the city's population would be tolerant to his abolitionist writings and ideas. He knew, however, that the majority of these people still held onto their upland southern roots. As has been shown, Illinois was a free state when it entered the Union in 1818, but in reality, it was still not entirely free for African Americans. At the time Lovejoy arrived, the official census showed 331 slaves living in Illinois. These men and women were for some reason de facto excempt from the provisions of Illinois law and the state constitution. Similarly, there existed a system of "practical slavery" for African Americans who were technically free but had unknowingly signed a legal contract binding themselves to someone for a stated number of years. Former Illinois Senator Paul Simon's work entitled Elijah Lovejoy: Freedom's Champion, tells of a young woman from Gallatin County. "Linda, last out of Missouri Territory, bound herself for ninety-nine years to William Wilson. Linda was approximately nineteen years old when she signed the legal document. Typically, those who signed the documents had little understanding of their contents. This practice used by white landowners in Illinois constituted a limited form of slavery."


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