Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

"Elegant and Useful Learning": The Antiquarian and Historical Society of Illinois, 1827-1829

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

"Elegant and Useful Learning": The Antiquarian and Historical Society of Illinois, 1827-1829

Article excerpt

The construction of a regional identity and historical consciousness in the prairie state took a significant step forward with the founding of the short-lived Antiquarian and Historical Society of Illinois in 1827. The society met at Vandalia between 1827 and 1829 in an attempt to gather the isolated threads of Illinois' past, to present accurate information about the state's natural resources and economic potential, and to promote historical studies as a branch of "elegant and useful learning." Its members shared an interest in the prehistoric Indian mounds and earthworks found in various parts of the state, the history of the Indian tribes formerly associated with Illinois, and the preservation of the living memories and traditions of the first settlers.' Those aims were part of an emerging regional consciousness among the residents of the states created from the Northwest Territory-those who self-consciously spoke of themselves as "Westerners." The ardent views of the society's principal founder and promoter, James Hall, were particularly significant expressions of an incipient regionalism in the literature of the Old Northwest. As president of the Antiquarian and Historical Society of Illinois and as editor of the Illinois Monthly Magazine, Hall voiced the aspirations of cultural leaders in the Old Northwest in the 1820s and '30s.

That the Antiquarian and Historical Society of Illinois failed to achieve its ends in no way diminishes its significance in the intellectual and cultural history of Illinois, for the society's little-known proceedings and Hall's related writings mirror many of the main currents of American thought in the early nineteenth century. Literary romanticism and cultural nationalism informed the historical consciousness of regional raconteurs like Hall who looked for American themes within the history of the West. Regionalists in the Old Northwest were in search of native grounds and found them within the histories of their respective states. Regionalism and nationalism in the historical writing of the period were not antithetical traditions, but were often reciprocal and mutually supportive. The distinctions that Westerners made about themselves and their histories served as the basis of regional chauvinism and national patriotism in equal measure. Hall's addresses as president of the Antiquarian and Historical Society of Illinois, for example, embraced both regional and national themes.

The origins of the Antiquarian and Historical Society of Illinois can be traced to the regional vision and cultural aspirations of its president, James Hall. Hall established himself as a leading spokesman for the Old Northwest during his twelve-year residence in Illinois. His genesis as a regionalist is instructive. He was born into a prominent and cultured family at Philadelphia on August 19, 1793. His mother, Sarah Ewing, wrote prose and poetry and his brother John Elihu Hall (1783-1829) edited the Port Folio from 1816 to 1827, a Philadelphia literary periodical of some note. James did not start schooling until his twelfth year, attending an academy in Lamberton, New Jersey, where he learned Latin and French. He did not regard his formal studies to be a happy experience, but remained a life-long disciple of self-culture. Hall began the study of law at Philadelphia in 1811 before entering the service of his country as one of the Washington Guards in 1813. He was commissioned as a lieutenant of artillery later that year and served as an artillery officer on the Decatur expedition to Algiers in 1815. Hall resigned his commission in 1818, after being court-martialed for disobedience, neglect of duty, and conduct unbecoming an officer. He later received a presidential pardon exonerating him of all charges. Hall remained at Pittsburgh where he had resumed the study of law and was admitted to the bar in 1818. There he made the acquaintance of Morgan Neville (1783-1840), the editor and co-proprietor of the Pittsburgh Gazette. …

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