|With the benefit of hindsight we can see that as a free state Illinois prospered far more than her southern neighbors. But at the time the convention question was being decided it must have seemed to many Illinoisans that slavery was the cure for their economic woes.|
First and foremost was the killing many Illinoisans hoped to make in the land boom that slavery was supposed to create. For them the legalization of slavery was a giant real estate scheme, of which they, as the present occupiers of the land, hoped to be the principal beneficiaries.
When Coles bought the bulk of his Illinois land in 1818, like many of his fellows he had caught the peak of a wave. In 1819 there was a national financial panic, and the wave of land speculation that had swept westward with the frontier fell away. Both speculators and small farmers were left with land bought on credit that was not worth nearly what they had paid for it--if buyers were available, which they weren't. An attempt to pump money into the economy by printing state paper failed disasterously. In September 1823 Coles complained to his niece Rebecca that his salary of $1000 a year, paid in state money, was not worth even half that. From 1819 to 1823 Illinois drifted unhappily in the economic doldrums.
Why should the land boom have been resurrected in Missouri, Alabama, and Mississippi, Illinoisans wondered, and not in Illinois? Illinois was more fertile, more temperate, and more conveniently situated that her neighbors. The answer must be that Illinois was discouraging settlement by prohibiting prospective settlers from bringing in their slaves.
That contracted, withering policy that has heretofore been adopted by this State , an editorial in the Advocate chants, that policy which, instead of advancing the population and improvement of the country was calculated only for the political aggrandizement of individuals, is about to be exploded, and a new and more happy order of things established . . . The pressure of the times, so loudly complained of, will soon cease to be felt, and a soil the most bountiful of any under heaven will at length be visited by the hand of cultivation . . . many a countenance now clouded by care and disappointment will be lighted up by the smiles of prosperity and hope. Property will rise to its maximum value, and the busy sound of improvement will be heard on the hill and in the valley, until villages and fine farms will be seen where at present the eye can only discern the solitary cabin.
For many small farmers there lay in the promised rush of population a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get rich. Frontiersmen with an itch to sell out and move west with the wilderness must have felt the lure of getting a good price for their land. The only impediment, as many saw it, was the Northwest Ordinance, which they viewed as an example of government interference with state's rights. If the people of Illinois wanted to own slaves, who was to say no? Why shouldn't a citizen of Illinois be as free to own slaves as a citizen of Missouri? Why this intolerable restriction on individual freedom?
The individual rights issue must have been particularly persuasive to pioneers, who were impatient with government interference of any kind. No matter that they would never accumulate enough money in their whole lives to buy a single slave; they wanted the right to own one nevertheless, and the right to sell their land to a slave-owner.
One other economic issue was uppermost in people's minds: the operation of the salines in southeastern Illinois. Unless the constitution were revised, the authorization for leasing out-of-state slave labor to run the salines would expire in 1825. Without slave labor , the conventionists argued, the salines would close down. Even if white men could be induced to take on such unpleasant work, the cost of free labor would price Illinois salt out of the market. On the frontier, where all a white man had to do to become a property owner was stake his claim, slaves seemed to be the only source of labor for such brutal industries as the salines.
Since the taxes the salines paid to the state provided much of its revenue, every Illinois taxpayer had a direct interest in keeping them in profitable operation. The anti-conventionists argued that the salines could be worked profitably by free labor, but to most taxpayers that proposition must have seemed shaky. The use of slave labor was a bird-in-hand that many must have been loathe to lose.
With these three powerful arguments on their side--the lure of prospective boom times, the general distaste for government interference, and the need for continued operation of the salines--the conventionists seemed on solid ground, expressing the desires and attitudes of a great many voters of the time. But they were afraid that some voters might feel squeamish on the moral issues, and so they labored to demonstrate that allowing slavery in Illinois would be good for blacks as well as for whites.
. . . if you had the piety and filial affection which you talk about , a conventionist thunders at George Churchill, an anti-conventionist legislator, I should think that you ought to have no objections to the introduction of slavery into this state; it would not add one more to the number, but would give you charitable men an opportunity to administer relief to the poor and degraded race of Africans.
You know very well, he goes on, that the greatest politicians of the age have been endeavouring for many years to devise a plan for the universal emancipation of the slaves in the United States, which they have always failed in accomplishing. You cannot deny, sir, that the more the slaves are dispersed throughout the government, the more their situation is improved--this being the case, why should the prairies of Illinois be excluded from the benefit of their services?
The anti-conventionists argued that since population always increases at a more rapid rate under favorable conditions, improving the lot of slaves would increase the number of those suffering in bondage. Who can doubt, an anti-conventionist is quoted as saying, that the increase of a given number of slaves in a given time in Illinois, fed with abundance of the best meat, bread, butter and mile, would far exceed the increase of the same number in the same time on the sandy hills of Florida, fed with cotton seed and stinking fish? Extreme poverty of diet retards, while plenty of wholesome food, though not luxurious, promotes population.
Needless to say, the conventionists had a field day with that argument. After this, the editor of the Louisville Public Advertiser says, we shall hear no more from the same quarter against the inhumanity of slavery. The man who would confine that portion of the African race who are in bondage in this country within given limits, who would feed them on "cotton seed and stinking fish," so far from commiserating their condition, would not hesitate to exterminate them. This is indeed a new plan for getting rid of the curse of slavery. Starve them, or feed them on "cotton seed and stinking fish," and thus prevent the propagation of their species!! Had such a proposition been made by a citizen of a slaveholding state, what would have been said of him?
Ironically, Jefferson, who had been responsible both for the Northwest Ordinance and for the network of preachers who were so vital to its preservation in 1824, at the end of his life seemed to have moved to a position similar to that of the conventionists. Of one thing I am certain, he writes to John Holmes, discussing the question of admitting Missouri as a slave state, that as the passage of slaves from one State to another, would not make a slave of a single human being who would not be so without it, so their diffusion over a greater surface would make them individually happier, and proportionately facilitate the accomplishment of their emancipation, by dividing the burden on a greater number of coadjutors. An abstinence, too, from this act of power [that is, prohibiting slavery in Missouri], would remove the jealousy excited by the undertaking of Congress to regulate the condition of the different description of men composing a State. This certainly is the exclusive right of every State, which nothing in the constitution has taken from them and given to the General Government.
And he writes to Lafayette : All know that permitting the slaves of the South to spread into the west will not add one being to that unfortunate condition, that it will increase the happiness of those existing, and by spreading them over a larger surface, will dilute the evil everywhere, and facilitate the means of getting finally rid of it, an event more anxiously wished by those on whom it presses than by the noisy pretenders to exclusive humanity. In the meantime, it is a ladder for rivals climbing to power . . .
To usurp the moral ground even further, the conventionists portrayed the introduction of slavery into Illinois as a scheme for eventual emancipation. The friends of a convention are striving, a typical article asserts, not . . . [for] the introduction of unlimited slavery, but [for] a more philanthropic plan, in which, according to the many assertions of the non-conventionists, they ought to be foremost to assist--I mean the plan of permitting the introduction of negroes to serve for a certain length of time, at the expiration of which time they . . . have their election whether they will become free and be given over to a colonization society for the purpose of being sent to the land of their forefathers, or remain in servitude.
The only question , another conventionist insists, is whether we should allow slaveowners to bring their slaves in for gradual emancipation or exclude these potential settlers altogether, and thus not only deny to ourselves a great accession of very respectable and wealthy citizens, but shut the door of liberty to many of an unfortunate race who may otherwise never become free . . . for as to absolute slavery, we disclaim it entirely, believing it not only inexpedient, but repugnant to our moral sense.
The conventionist plan , proposed in the minority report to the House in response to Coles' inaugural speech, provided that either the slaves themselves or their children born in Illinois were to be freed at a certain age and shipped to the West Indies or Africa via New Orleans. Slavery in Illinois was to be the instrument for emancipating hundreds of thousands of slaves who would otherwise remain in bondage, while Illinois would derive all the advantages in point of wealth and improvement which it so much needs.
Of course few actually believed that the conventionists intended to write such a scheme into the revised constitution. For one thing, it was utterly inconsistent with the conventionists' economic argument. Why, for example, would a Southern slaveholder be attracted to Illinois when by settling there he would be forced eventually to emancipate his slaves? Why wouldn't he prefer to emigrate to Kentucky or Missouri, where he could keep his slaves in perpetuity? For another, who was to pay for transporting hundreds of thousands of former slaves to Africa and settling them in enormous colonies? The idea of Illinois becoming a center of emancipation was so visionary that few Illinoisans could have taken it seriously.
But one element of the scheme underlined a major issue on both sides of the campaign, which was a racist fear of blacks. For both sides an increase in the population of free blacks was the ultimate evil. The only question was which outcome--slavery or the continued prohibition of slavery--would result in a lower free black population.
A population consisting of free negroes , an anti-conventionist writes, speaking of the impracticality of the conventionists' colonization scheme, a population always to be dreaded when existing to any considerable extent, would increase upon us until we should find ourselves in a condition truly alarming . . . this state would then be looked to as a refuge for negroes, where they could be effectually protected either by law or by the kindnesses of their friends, [which] would soon place it in their power to contend with nearly equal numbers for supremacy with whites. It would be sowing the seeds of a moral pestilence which no human power could afterwards exterminate.
Let those who dislike free negroes vote against a convention , another anti-conventionist urges, as the only door through which slavery and this consequent evil can be introduced into this state. Instead of promoting the increase of free negroes here, let us on the contrary aid in sending them out of the country by colonization as far as we can.
And a conventionist writes : . . . every honest man must admit that a white and black population cannot assimilate as citizens together. Is it not wise then, that those we cannot brook as equals should be subservient?
Another conventionist writes : . . . is it strange, that when we see such men as Mr. Churchill and Mr. Ogle, of the last legislature, presenting petitions from free negroes endeavoring to extend to them all the privileges which pertain to our white population, giving them the right of voting, of electing and being elected to office--and when we hear such men as Jonathan Freeman, alias the gentleman who resides at Wanboro declaring at the seat of government that he would be perfectly willing to dandle a black grand child upon his knee--and when too we know that we are placed between the slave states, Kentucky and Missouri, and are the resort of runaway and free negroes . . . I say, after all this, is it not certain that it has excited a confidence among the free blacks of other states to migrate to this, where they are promised such a warm reception? nay, where the idea is held out distinctly both by word and deed that they will not only be permitted to marry whites, but actually made eligible to office.
Fear. Emancipation or no emancipation, Virginia or Illinois, the principal curse of slavery, for both advocates and opponents, was the blacks. Which was why the conventionists stood no chance in the battle of fears. Who would believe that more free blacks would enter the state if slavery were prohibited than enslaved blacks if slavery were allowed? And once hundreds of thousands of slaves were in the state, runaways and private manumissions would increase the free black population far more than the occasional emigration of free blacks to a free state. After all, most free blacks resided not in the free North but in the slave South. Clearly the way to keep out a black population was to keep out slavery.
. . . let us . . . carry ourselves forward , an anti-conventionist writes, to the time when our state will be covered with as dense a population as it will maintain, and ask ourselves the question whether we would prefer that they should be freemen of our own color and our posterity, or that they should be part African slaves? And before we fix this curse upon our posterity, let us pause and reflect. When this country is like China and every half acre of ground supports its man, there will be little room for slaves. However visionary you may think me, this epoch will arrive--nor will it be so distant as some imagine. --and who that is a parent, a statesman, or a philanthropist can view that epoch with indifference?
Perhaps because they sensed that they would lose the battle of fears, the conventionists at times tried to pretend that their object in calling a convention was merely to remedy a variety of defects in the constitution and that slavery was not the issue at all. The pretense was transparent because, as we have seen, the conventionists could not restrain themselves from arguing the slavery issue as well. But they did make a serious effort to attract voters by arguing the need for constitutional change.
Their "Address to the People" issued on February 17, 1823, directly after the adjournment of the legislature, doesn't mention slavery. The people have a right to remedy defects in their constitution, the Address argues, even though some want to take that right away by refusing to submit the question of constitutional revision to the voters. The present constitution has numerous defects, such as the provision for biennial rather than annual sessions of the legislature and the organization of county courts. Will the opponents to a convention, the Address demands, have the obstinacy to deny the existence, as well as the necessity of reformation in these particulars, or are they still prepared to assert that the people are their own worst enemies and that the subject is of too much importance to trust them with it.
This argument took advantage of the awkward position in which the anti-conventionists found themselves at the end of the legislative session. In the legislature they had tried to prevent the question of a convention from being submitted to the voters. Thus they entered the convention campaign appearing reluctant to fight, doubtful of victory, distrustful of the capacity of the people to decide the question wisely by democratic means.
Another advantage of the conventionists' position was that it enabled them to take the higher ground, pretending to be open minded and reasonable while their opponents were off riding the hobby horse of slavery. When the day for electing members to the convention shall arrive, one conventionist writes, then will be the time to discuss and decide the slave question, and then I will lend my aid in opposing it, but until that time does arrive, I shall content myself with examining the constitution itself, and if I find it defective, and of so much importance as to require a convention, I shall vote for it uninfluenced by the question of slavery.
But the argument for constitutional revision broke down because the constitution itself was basically unobjectionable. It had, in fact, been drafted mainly by Elias Kent Kane, a conventionist leader.
The conventionists were able to come up with a few complaints about the constitution, none of which was serious enough to become a major issue in the campaign. One was with the Council of Revision , a rather clumsy mechanism through which the four judges of the state supreme court joined the governor in deciding whether to sign or veto legislation. Another was with the fact that the legislature met every two years rather than every year. In the western counties the conventionists hinted that moving the state capital from Vandalia to the banks of the Mississippi might help western Illinois compete with St. Louis as a center of trade. The organization of county commissioners' courts was unnecessarily costly. The constitution failed to limit the number of offices a county officer could hold. None of these issues provided the conventionists with an additional constituency. Not only did few people care much about the supposed "defects" in the constitution, but those who showed some concern about one defect were unlikely to care about another. And so the argument that remedying these defects was cause for revising a constitution that was, after all, only four years old was unlikely to drum up much support.
In December 1823 the conventionists met in Vandalia and formulated a new strategy. The old constitution, as was the custom of the time, had never been submitted to the people for ratification. It had been drawn up and adopted by a small group of representatives that had disproportionately represented the southern counties of the state. Now a vast new population recently settled in the northern counties had never had a proper say about the principal law by which they were governed. Clearly the only course consistent with democratic principles was for a new convention with much greater representation from the north to draw up a new constitution and submit it to the people for ratification. Only in that way could the will of the people be properly respected.
Local conventionist meetings throughout the state echoed this new theme. The following resolutions , for example, were passed in Kaskaskia on February 21, 1824. Resolved: That no constitution of government is rightly obligatory upon any people who have not had a fair opportunity of consenting to its restrictions and provisions. Resolved: That the Constitution of this State was not formed by an equal representation of the people--that it is the work of far less than a majority of the people. Resolved: That no constitution or any amendments thereto formed or made by representatives ought ever to be obligatory until such constitution and every admendment thereto have been distinctly submitted to the people and received the ratification of a clear majority. Resolved: That we will use all just and honest means to procure a convention for the purpose of obtaining the sanction of the people to our present constitution, together with such amendments as time and experience may designate as necessary.
In formulating this position, the conventionists had in fact stolen a leaf from their opponents. The anti-conventionists had complained bitterly about the underrepresentation of northern counties in the convention of 1818 and had pointed out that those counties would again be underrepresented should a convention be called in 1824. That, they said, was precisely why the conventionists were so desperate to call a convention now, before a new census would shift the balance of power to the anti-slavery north. In calling for the voters to ratify the new constitution the conventionists hoped to disarm this argument by allowing the question to be resolved finally by the people as a whole.
We have heard , the editor of the Republican Advocate writes, and not without concern, the dissatisfaction expressed by some of our sister counties in the north on account of their unequal representation. We too have much reason to complain on that subject with regard to the first Convention--but we are more surprised to hear that those counties prefer living under the present imperfect Constitution, formed when they had not a single representative, than to consent to its amendment now that they have six and an opportunity of having the voice of every citizen heard and felt.
To judge by the chortles in the conventionist press , one would think that the new argument had fairly blown the anti-conventionists out of the water. The issue turned, however, on how much faith the people had in the promise of a ratification vote. Since the convention was not legally bound to submit its work for ratification, that promise could be conveniently forgotten once a clause on slavery had been slipped in.
Then what signifies the vaunting promises , an anti-conventionist writes, so much talked of, about submitting the constitution to the people for their ratification or rejection, when it is known that such promises may be violated; and if violated, where is the remedy? What are the objects of the conventionists now? To catch votes. Grant them success in their efforts, and what will be their object then? To make such a constitution as they so much desire. In that event, is there not reason to fear that they would take the shortest and surest way to effect their views?
The fact that the issue turned on faith in their word was fatal to the conventionists, who shifted ground so often that few could have been fooled into thinking that slavery was not the main issue. In the legislature they had pretended to introduce the convention bill in order to expedite Governor Coles' proposals to eliminate the vestiges of slavery in Illinois. Then, in their first address to the people they had brought up a list of minor constitutional defects as the reason for their call for a convention. Now they were arguing that their purpose was to give the people a chance to ratify their constitution, with any minor amendments that might be called for. Yet all the while, ludicrously in the same breath, they were arguing for the extension of slavery to Illinois.
One interesting fact is that many of the conventionist leaders were inexperienced youths at the time of the campaign. The elder statesmen of the Thomas faction were not active leaders. Thomas was in Washington as a senator (the other senator from Illinois was Edwards, who also took little part in the campaign), and former governor Bond had never been an intellectual heavyweight. Although he ran for Congress against Cook during the campaign he did not get even full conventionist support. Cook, though known to be anti-slavery, got support from both sides of the controversy.
The leadership of the conventionist cause was left to a group of young politicians stamped from the same mold. All were ambitious lawyers in search of political power. With few exceptions they had come recently to Illinois in order to advance their careers more expeditiously. Alexander Pope Field, the floor leader in the legislative battles, was only twenty-two when the campaign began. Richard Young, a conventionist leader in Union County, was twenty-four. Elias Kent Kane was twenty-four when he drafted the Illinois constitution in 1818; by the time of the convention campaign he was twenty-eight. John McClean was twenty-seven when he was first elected to Congress and thirty-one when the convention campaign began. John Reynolds, one of the few long-time residents among them, was the old man at thirty-four.
Contrast them to the leaders of the anti-conventionists . The youngest were in their mid-to-late thirties (Coles and Peck), while many, such as Birkbeck, Lemen, and Risdon Moore, were elderly. They were a varied lot--some farmers, such as Coles and Birkbeck, some preachers, such as Peck and Lemen, and some merchants, such as Thomas Lippincott and Thomas Mather. Some had emigrated from Northeastern states, some from the South, but most were in politics purely for the purpose of fighting against slavery and retired from politics once the fight was over, while all of the conventionist leaders went on to distinguished public careers. The conventionists were lawyers and politicians; the anti-conventionists idealistic gentlemen, and therein lies at least some of the explanation for the differences between them.
Perhaps the personal ambition, lack of idealism, and inexperience of the conventionist leaders hurt their cause. But for whatever reason, they ran a campaign that was poorly focused and blatantly dishonest. The moral advantage of the anti-conventionists was felt in the quality of leadership on both sides, in the dedication of the rank and file workers, even in the eloquence of the prose. Which is not to say that the voters of Illinois rejected slavery because of the quality of the campaigns.
In the territories and states in which slavery had been permitted and practiced widely from the outset, and in which there was a large black population, in every case the popular will of whites was that slavery should continue. In the territories and states in which slavery had been either prohibited or practiced minimally, and in which there was consequently a small black population, the popular will of whites was that slavery should be prohibited. Only in Illinois did slavery seem to have a reasonable chance to overturn the prohibition against it. Yet here, too, it failed.
Was the main reason a desire on the part of whites to keep blacks out of the state? Certainly the anti-conventionists played that race card well, and their opponents found no strategy to counter them. It may seem strange that what saved the United States from becoming a majority slaveholding nation was an appeal by moralists to the basest of all human instincts, but that may indeed be what happened. And Coles' formative experience of racist fear in Virginia, together with his disappointing experience with manumission in Illinois, may have had much to do with how things turned out.