Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

"A Mighty Contest": The Jefferson-Lemen Compact Reevaluated

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

"A Mighty Contest": The Jefferson-Lemen Compact Reevaluated

Article excerpt

On Thursday, 2 September 1909 several thousand visitors from all over southern Illinois and St. Louis, Missouri, uncharacteristically thronged to the little town of Waterloo in Monroe County, Illinois. At precisely 10:00 a.m., the Bethel Church band struck up a funeral march and the crowd converged around a simple monument where they patiently listened to church pastor Dr. E.M. Lamb eulogize James Lernen Sr., church founder and early Illinois pioneer. They watched as Lemen's great-grand-daughter Cleda Lernen helped to unveil the obelisk and then listened to a grand oration by William Jennings Bryan as he praised the labors of James Lernen Sr. and Thomas Jefferson in their joint efforts to prevent slavery from taking root in the Prairie State. Bryan alluded to the fact that his own father, Judge Silas Bryan, had been the first to suggest building this monument nearly sixty years earlier, and when the Great Commoner asked for contributions to build a fence surrounding the memorial, the contributions were generous.1

When James Lernen Sr. immigrated to the Illinois country in the 178Os and settled in what later became Monroe County, he and his family numbered among a fledgling group of slavery opponents. These challengers faced a daunting task, for slavery had existed in the Illinois country since 1719 and most of the area's initial settlers were from the slave states of Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. Lernen supposedly received assistance in his efforts under the Jefferson-Lemen Compact, an agreement in which Thomas Jefferson bankrolled and supported James Lemen's antislavery activities in Illinois. On the day in which Lernen was the object of esteem, he had only recently received credit for preventing the spread of slavery into the Prairie State.

If, indeed, there was a secret compact engineered by James Lernen Sr. and Thomas Jefferson to combat slavery in Illinois, it would rewrite the early history of the Prairie State. It would place the effort against slavery far earlier than had previously been documented. In order to properly evaluate the validity of the story of the JeffersonLemen Compact, it is necessary to consider the historiography of the alleged pact, investigate the lives and actions of the Lernen family in Illinois, and evaluate the documents that have been set forth in support of the Jefferson-Lemen Compact.

This story encompasses a complex, fascinating, and sometimes confusing cast of characters including James Lernen Sr., patriarch of the Lernen family and the central figure of this study; his brother Robert, a supposed associate of Thomas Jefferson; James Lernen Jr. and his brother Sylvester; Professor Lewis Lernen, great-great-grandson of the patriarch and author of an 1896 article on the Lernen family; Frank B. Lernen, author of an 1898 Lernen family history; Joseph Bowler Lernen, son of James Jr. and promoter of the Jefferson-Lemen Compact story; Edward C. Lernen, nephew of Joseph; Mrs. Mary L. Wyckoff, daughter of Edward and supposed owner of original documents central to the story of the Jefferson-Lemen Compact; and John Mason Peck, influential early Illinois Baptist cleric, historian, and Lernen family friend.

John Mason Peck's Annals of the West, written in 1851, features the first unambiguous and verifiable reference to the circumstances surrounding the 1786 immigration of the Lernen family into Illinois. Peck, who had become acquainted with the Lemens in 1818/ wrote that they were among several families who

were impelled by a love of freedom to leave the banks of the Potomac, in Virginia, for a residence on the prairies of Illinois. They were opposed to slavery, and took up their long line of march ... that they and their posterity might enjoy, uninterrupted, the advantages of a country unembarrassed with slavery.3

The following year (1852), Peck specifically focused upon James Lernen Sr. in a chapter he contributed to Governor John Reynolds's The Pioneer History of Illinois. …

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