Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Personal Reflections on the Sixth Illinois Constitutional Convention of 1969-1970

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Personal Reflections on the Sixth Illinois Constitutional Convention of 1969-1970

Article excerpt

The backdrop of the Sixth Illinois Constitutional Convention was the wild but wonderful decade of the 1960s, which featured the Kennedys, the Civil Rights movement, and the dreaded war in Vietnam that never seemed to end. Illinois got the national spotlight in 1968 when Chicago hosted the Democratic National Convention. The state's most significant event of the decade, however, began a year later in Springfield when the gavel fell on Illinois's first constitutional convention in fifty years.

Including the election of convention delegates in 1968, this event consumed nearly three years of my early adulthood, from the ages of twenty-six to twenty-eight, beginning as a field worker for the Illinois Committee for a Constitutional Convention and ending as a vocal opponent of the current charter. The experience provided the basis for lifelong learning. The most significant learning has resulted from, literally, years of thought about the meaning of the event to me, as a person, and to the millions of people in Illinois for whom it holds some considerable significance as well. The convention was a bittersweet experience in my life. Time has provided the perspective in which I can now better evaluate the event. Initially, it was too confusing and too painful to ponder at any length. I had invested too much energy and emotion. It is no wonder that, in hindsight, it was so disappointing and disillusioning. Like many in my generation who reached maturity during the turbulent 1960s, I had set out to change the world. And, in a very small way, I did. In a much larger way, though, it changed me. I learned major lessons from my foray into social reform efforts at the constitutional convention in 1969-1970.

First, my convention experience confirms the notion that an idea whose time has come will, indeed, come. For decades before 1968, the Illinois Constitution of 1870 was depicted as old, obsolete, and overly detailed. It was the civics teacher's model of the "bad" constitution. The older but less detailed United States Constitution was the "good" one. Reformers spent years creating the impression that Illinois had become an important state despite the straight-jacket restriction of its "horse and buggy" constitution. I know this impression to be true, because I was one of those teachers-turned-reformers who helped create that impression. A new constitution, we argued, was necessary if Illinois was to maintain its rightful rank among the states. Events leading to the convention indicated widespread support for a new constitution. Except for opposition from the AFL-CIO and a few township officials, the referendum in the fall of 1968 revealed widespread support from citizens for a convention to create an improved and updated charter. Two years later, voters approved the new constitution in less overwhelming numbers, but approve it they did on 15 December 1970. For many Illinoisans it was probably just an idea whose time had come. Many remembered, no doubt, the knocks against the old constitution and felt that a twentieth-century effort would certainly be an improvement. I really did not consider the possibility that a new document would not improve the old one until it was too late.

Second, I learned that real reform is often illusory. Reality and reputation can be two different things. To my way of thinking, the 1970 convention laid the groundwork for the modern myth that, with the document produced by the convention, Illinois now has a modern and improved constitution. We had escaped from our constitutional straight-jacket. Major political problems would now be more easily addressed. The constitution got its renovation. It was probably sufficient for a hundred years. Illinois could be proud of its new charter and even prouder of itself. We, after all, had succeeded in revising our political system when other states had failed. Illinois, scene of much unrest so characteristic of the 1960s, was "right on" once again. We had quietly and effectively changed our institutions in accordance with the law. …

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