Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

The 1847 Illinois Constitutional Convention and Persons of Color

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

The 1847 Illinois Constitutional Convention and Persons of Color

Article excerpt

IN 1847, ILLINOIS HELD ITS SECOND constitutional convention. Voter disgust with the Illinois General Assembly's profligate spending habits and enormous distrust of Illinois' nascent banking industry were the principal triggers for convening "the people." The Progressive era historian Arthur Cole compiled a transcript of the 1847 convention from contemporaneous reports in the two major Springfield newspapers, the Sangamo Journal, a paper sympathetic to the Whig Party, and the Illinois State Register, the Democratic-leaning publication. Cole commented that, "Illinois was to the point where it chafed at the restraints of its constitutional swaddling clothes."1 The delegates voted to modernize Illinois government by, among other things, democratizing the selection of state and county officials, including the election, rather than the appointment of judges, and requiring the legislature to enact general incorporation laws, thus ending the monopolistic and corrupt system of special charters.2 Progressive reform did not, however, characterize the new constitution's treatment of people of color.

Neither contemporary newspapers, nor available documents of convention delegates, nor nineteenth century histories demonstrate that the treatment of the state's black population was a significant issue in either the drive to hold a convention or the campaigns to serve as convention delegates. That is not at all surprising, given the small size of the state's black population. According to the 1840 census, the state's total population was 478,929, of whom only 4,065 were black, well less than one percent.3

When the subject of the states black population was first raised during the 1847 convention, the delegates unanimously supported a provision, drawn from the 1818 statehood constitution, which prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude. But ultimately the delegates included a constitutional provision that banned the immigration of free blacks into Illinois and prohibited masters from bringing their slaves into the state for purposes of manumission. This joint provision was presented to voters as a separate proposition in March 1848, when they cast ballots on the ratification of the constitution as a whole. The Negro exclusion provision was adopted by a 70-30 percent margin. This essay examines how and why Illinois became the first northern state to constitutionally bar persons of color from entering its borders.

The State's Financial Difficulties Lead to the Call of the Convention

From 1835 to early 1837, the state issued approximately $18 million in bonds. The bonds funded the building of the Illinois and Michigan Canal from Chicago, ninety-six miles southwest to LaSalle-Peru, thereby connecting Lake Michigan to the Illinois River, and through it, to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. The canal would create international markets for Illinois crops and goods. The bonds also funded the construction of seven intrastate railroad routes.4 Advocates claimed that these public works projects would promote the states economy.5

The Panic of 1837 began on the east coast in May, three months after the legislature had authorized the issuance of the last bonds. It affected the northwestern states by fall 1837 and devastated Illinois' economy.6 The construction of the railroads was stopped, in its tracks, as it were. The panic also resulted in a multi-year suspension of construction of the canal.7 Because of the panic's severity, many Illinois residents were unable to pay property taxes on their real estate, the state's major source of revenue. Also, the two banks in which the state was a large shareholder, the State Bank of Illinois and the Bank of Illinois at Shawneetown, had difficulties making dividend payments after 1836.8 In 1835 and 1836, the state received dividends on its stock in the State Bank of Illinois at a rate of 9 percent per annum on the cost value of the stock.9 That money was used to make debt service payments on the bonds. …

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