Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Antebellum Struggle for Citizenship

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Antebellum Struggle for Citizenship

Article excerpt

To the Honorable the Senate and House of Representatives, of the Illinois General Assembly:

The undersigned, inhabitants of the State of Illinois, respectfully petition your honorable body, for the immediate and total repeal of all laws now existing upon the statute books of this State, whereby discriminations are made among the people on account of complexion. And as in duty bound, your petitioners will ever pray.'

THE ABOVE PETITION, circulated in 1850 by Chicago's best known black resident, John Jones, was in reaction to Illinois' repressive black laws, and its newly adopted constitution. The state laws, even before the adoption of its new constitution which required that "The General Assembly shall, at its first session under the amended Constitution, pass such laws as will effectually prohibit free persons from immigration to, and settling in this state,"2 were among the most repressive in the United States and severely restricted the lives of the state's small African American population.

Although nominally a free state, as required by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Illinois until 1845 had always contained a small number of slaves and indentured servants, most of whom had been found in Egypt, but a few had been held as far north as Springfield, Peoria, Galena, and Chicago. Gallatin County, for example, counted 662 blacks, compared to the 146 found in Cook County that year. The total figure in the official census records is 4,90s.3

It was not until 1853, however, that Illinois adopted the mandated law known as the Black Exclusion Law, under the leadership of Murphysboro Democrat John A. Logan. Not only did the law prohibit immigration, but if a free African American deigned to come into the state and remain for more than ten days he or she was to be fined, jailed, and if not a runaway slave, sold to the highest bidder for the shortest period of time, in order to pay the fine and jail costs. If, upon completion, the offender did not leave the state within ten days, the whole process would be repeated, again and again. Runaway slaves would be advertised and returned to their owners.4

Illinois African Americans began protesting against their denial of citizenship and its related rights much earlier, under Jones's leadership. Shortly after the proposed constitution of 1847 was submitted to the voters of Illinois, Jones wrote three articles in the Western Citizen, a Chicago paper published by the abolitionist Zebina Eastman. In them, he remonstrated against not only the black immigration prohibition clause, but also against the use of the word "white" in the enumeration of rights, including that of suffrage. Utilizing a practice that would continue over the years, he demonstrated from his understanding of colonial and United States history, that the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution were "founded on an original agreement of the contracting parties, and there is nothing to show that color is a bar in the agreement." Black men, he noted, had served in all of America's wars, from the Revolution through the War of 1812, and whole regiments of black men had been raised during the Revolution. He insisted that black men were "citizens by right.... By examining the journals of Congress," he wrote, "you will find that it is provided that 'the free inhabitants of these States shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of the free citizens of the several States'" He noted that an attempt to insert the word "white" before "free citizens" had been defeated by the members of Congress on June 25,1779. In his concluding article, he cited the "Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms," issued by the Second Continental Congress on July 6,1875.5

Despite his pleading, in March 1848, Illinoisans adopted both the constitution and the separately submitted Article XIV, which read: "The general assembly shall, at its first session under the amended constitution, pass such laws as will effectually prohibit free persons of color from immigrating to and settling in this state; and to effectually prevent the owners of slaves from bringing them into this state, for the purpose of setting them free. …

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