By Sam Wheeler
Today, Aug. 26, the Illinois Bicentennial Commission is sponsoring special events throughout the state to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Illinois’s first constitution. Motorcycle enthusiasts, for instance, will travel along historic Route 66 through Pontiac, Lexington and Lincoln before they arrive in Springfield for the dedication of the new Illinois Bicentennial Plaza.
While you’re celebrating Constitution Day, don’t forget to reflect on Illinois’s own journey.
Two hundred years ago, 33 delegates stood shoulder-to-shoulder with a cheering crowd in Kaskaskia, Illinois. The flag of the United States flew in the late summer breeze, as militia officers readied a cannon and fired a 20-gun salute, paused for a moment, then fired one more in recognition of the soon-to-be state of Illinois. Illinois did not officially become a state when the delegates signed the first Constitution, but it reached an important milestone on its path toward statehood. The official Bicentennial is Dec. 3, 2018.
The road to the first Constitution was not always smooth. The delegates did not leave us a detailed transcript of their work, nor do we know which of them voted for or against certain measures. We do know, however, that contentious deliberations took place, such as the ultimately unsuccessful proposal to ban clergymen from serving as legislators because “ministers of the gospel are by their professions, dedicated to God and the care of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their functions.”
Remarkably, the delegates finished their work in just 23 days, establishing a framework for state government that called for three branches of government and extended the franchise as liberally as possible in the early 19th century, declaring all white male inhabitants (citizens or not) above the age of 21, who lived in the state for six months prior to the election, eligible to vote.
The most controversial topic to emerge during the convention dealt with the issue of slavery. The French brought slaves into the Illinois Country in the 17th century and indentured servitude (slavery by another name) existed throughout the territorial phase.
The state’s first Constitution included a series of compromises over slavery. Owners would be allowed to keep their slaves in the new state, but the children of these slaves would be set free when they reached adulthood. Similarly, new slaves would not be allowed to settle permanently in Illinois, but Illinoisans would be allowed to bring slaves into the state to work for a short time, in the salt mines in southern Illinois, for example.
History is often measured in terms of progress and Illinois history is certainly no exception. The Constitution of 1818 remained the law of the land in Illinois for just 30 years. Increases in population, technology and the economy led citizens “Born, Built, and Grown” in Illinois to form new Constitutions in 1848, 1870 and 1970.
In many ways, these Constitutions serve as mile markers on Illinois’s road toward greater freedom and equality.
Samuel Wheeler is Illinois state historian, director of research and collections at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, and is a member of the Illinois Bicentennial Commission.