Democracy and Slavery in Frontier Illinois: The Bottomland Republic

By Burnette, Rand | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview

Democracy and Slavery in Frontier Illinois: The Bottomland Republic


Burnette, Rand, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Democracy and Slavery in Frontier Illinois: The Bottomland Republic. By James Simeone. (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2000. Pp. x, 289. Maps, illustration, notes, sources, index. Cloth, $38).

James Simeone, Associate Professor of Political Science at Illinois Wesleyan University, has written a stimulating and rather complex study of the events, issues, and key people surrounding the debate over whether to call a constitutional convention in Illinois in 1824. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had prohibited slavery in the territory, which included what later became Illinois, exempting those slaves already residing in the new area. This Ordinance was reaffirmed in the 1790s and the first Illinois Constitution (1818) did not alter this position. But by 1824 the "white folks" (chiefly poor upland southerners) wanted to change this Constitution to make Illinois a slave, rather than a free, state.

The outcome of the efforts of the "white folks" is well-known: on August 2, 1824 the call for a convention was defeated by a vote of 6,640 to 4,972. As traditional narrative points out, Illinois was thereby saved from slavery and the non-conventionist group of "big folks" (including elite northerners and abolitionists) were the saviors of the Prairie State.

When the Missouri Compromise of 1820 allowed Missouri to become a slave state, the "white folks" became concerned about whether they could compete economically with Missouri without the further importation of slaves into the fertile bottomlands in the southern part of Illinois. Professor Simeone argues that the "white folks," who were bottomland republicans, believed that their egalitarian ideals would be strengthened by allowing slaveholders to migrate to Illinois. The "white folks" wanted slavery for the short-term, not necessarily forever. They needed slaves now to ease the present labor shortage, to protect the commonalty, to enhance the status of the poor whites and, most essentially, to do the extremely difficult work of clearing the bottomlands to make agriculture possible. Simeone explains that the problems of the period 1819-1823 were so overwhelming to the "white folks" that they sought to make Illinois a slave state in order to assure their own equality.

The legislature of 1822-23 focused on the convention issue; factions were formed and infighting began between the conventionists and the nonconventionists. In his discussion of the debate over the convention and the structuring of Illinois politics, Simeone introduces many individuals who play key roles in the Early National Period of Illinois. The information which Simeone provides on Ninian Edwards, Jesse B. Thomas, Daniel Pope Cook, Nathaniel Pope, Elias Kent Kane, John Reynolds, John Mason Peck, and a host of other key figures is a major strength of his book. …

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