Springfield's Acquisition of the Illinois Seat of Government, 1833-1845

Article excerpt

Illinois and Sangamon County histories often devote a few pages to the relocation of the Illinois state capital in the late 1830s. According to most of these sources, Abraham Lincoln and the "Long Nine," Sangamon County's delegation to the tenth General Assembly, "log-rolled" their votes on internal improvement legislation in exchange for the relocation of the state capital from Vandalia to Springfield. Almost as a rule, Lincoln and the Long Nine are the real subject of these histories; the relocation of the capital is more an example of Lincoln's early political acumen than an interesting and important event in the history of Springfield, Sangamon County, or the state of Illinois. In sources that go into greater detail, readers learn that the people of Springfield also entered into a $50,000 obligation with the State of Illinois for the construction of a new statehouse. The money proved difficult to raise, these sources explain, before one hundred and one citizens of Sangamon County came to Springfield's aid by personally borrowing a large sum of the total obligation, thereby securing the capital and creating the foundation for Illinois's modern state capital.

A closer reading of the sources raises as many issues as it resolves, however. In many instances, these histories gloss over the incident itself and instead heap praise upon Sangamon County's Long Nine and, to a lesser degree, the large number of citizens who later came to Springfield's aid. In doing so, various sources place individual facts and events within accounts at odds with one and other. As a whole, local histories end their accounts with the payment by local citizens and the relocation of the functions of government to Springfield, seemingly unaware of any continued involvement by locals to retain the capital. The accounts further lack documentation, thereby making it difficult to gauge their accuracy or embark upon additional study. In all, these accounts appear to be incomplete tales of civic pride rather than histories of an influential event.

The intent of this article, therefore, is to provide a documented history of the Illinois capital relocation with particular attention to the role played by Springfield-area residents. As this is, in large part, a historiographical issue, my narrative will unfold alongside that of the earlier sources, hopefully complementing their points of civic pride with the specific events and actions witnessed by those involved. Although Abraham Lincoln and the Long Nine were important contributors to the relocation saga, it is the contribution of the Springfield community, which included many of the Long Nine, that receives greater attention here.

It is important to note that the Illinois state capital had an impermanent nature much earlier than 1837 and the move to Springfield. The first statehouse was essentially a leased storefront in Kaskaskia, occupied by the state government from Illinois's admission to statehood in 1818 and abandoned in 1820 when the capital moved to Vandalia. The first Vandalia statehouse, completed in 1820, burned in 1823 and a new capitol was erected in its place in 1824. The people of Vandalia contributed to the construction costs of this new building, though Governor Edward Coles called for their reimbursement by the state, which was later accomplished through an appropriation.1 Numerous problems later plagued Vandalia's second capitol and a third was hastily constructed during the last half of 1836. This third capitol was also constructed by the people of Vandalia, without the expressed consent of the government, but under the assumption that Vandalia would again be reimbursed. In the end, however, this new capitol proved to be inadequate for the use of the state, no doubt contributing to the decision to move from Vandalia in 1837.2

The typical account of the capital's relocation to Springfield generally starts out with passing reference to an attempt to relocate the seat of government in 1834. …