The Slave State of Illinois, Part One

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Historical accounts can never match the complexity of historical reality. If they could, we would just turn on our TVs and watch the live broadcast from 1860. The act of interpretation always requires selecting some facts to highlight and others to neglect. Imparting the information to others requires more of the same, often with a special focus on charismatic events most likely to interest an otherwise disinterested audience. To some degree those events overlap with the events that historians highlight for one another, due to the fact that historians start out as laypeople and don’t turn into weird alien creatures somewhere along the way, however much the latter prospect excites this writer.

What events to exclude or downplay depends on a historian’s training, interests, the accessibility and quality of primary sources, and many other variables. Among those others, to some degree one has to ration complexity. Even with infinite space, one would not have infinite time to write about it all. That can mean that facts inconvenient to one’s current purposes or interpretation get ignored. That process can mean that one omits or distorts historical facts in the service of outside goals, as Salmon Chase and Stephen Douglas both did in their respective histories (The Appeal’s History Lesson: (123456) of slavery and the law. Practicing historians can do the same, of course, but they also have a wide plethora of side stories and less notable events that simply don’t have the same relevance as the larger narratives and issues. This post concerns one of those.

I grew up learning, as I suspect most American schoolchildren do, that Thomas Jefferson’s Northwest Ordinance permanently excluded slavery in all its forms from the Northwest Territory. It stands out as the very first national antislavery legislation and set the nation on a path to eliminate the institution entirely that just, somehow, got tangled up and lost between 1787 and 1860. The Ordinance did come first, true enough. Its prohibition on slavery looks very thorough too:

Art. 6. There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted

That language came back every time the territories covered changed, all the way up through the act that authorized territorial government for Wisconsin. David Wilmot used it in the 1840s. It certainly applied to Illinois, and given the man from Illinois who freed the slaves, one can get the impression that Illinois had a singularly free history. Yes, other free states existed but how can you beat the Land of Lincoln?

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Rather easily, since Illinois used to have slaves. Stephen Douglas knew it in 1854. Chase probably knew but preferred to forget it. Illinois acquired its slaves by two methods. Some slaves already lived in the territory, largely the property of French traders who had lived and worked in the region for decades. While Congress passed the Ordinance and thus theoretically prohibited slavery, it declined to pass any laws to deprive those traders or anybody else who already lived on the territory of their human property. Those slaves don’t quite fit into the usual American narrative. Their distinctive history contrasts with the other slaves who came to Illinois, brought by American owners from elsewhere in the United States. That story repeated itself often as new slave territories and new slave states grew up.

Land speculators bet their banks on Americans flooding across the Appalachians into the west. They could buy it up for pennies an acre and sell it for astronomical profits in short order. With the British prohibitions gone, the land-hungry citizens of the new Republic who had chafed under those restrictions just had to go west.  Vigorous, industrious Yankees would make everyone rich. Being a Yankee meant just that, after all. Southerners took their time and conceded haste to the North.

The opposite transpired. Vigorous southerners, with their slavery, exploded across modern Kentucky (then western Virginia), Alabama, and Mississippi. Yankees dithered and trickled in little by little. That meant a lot of money left floating in real estate that might not rise in price after all when just across the Ohio other speculators made their fortunes. Illinois, which stretched as far south as Richmond, had the same climate as adjacent Missouri (then French Louisiana), and Kentucky. It could grow the same staple crops and might prove as profitable as the then-enslaved Hudson valley. Concluding that bold Southerners would come and buy up the land, if only they could have secure slavery upon it, land speculators pleaded with Congress for a decade to repeal Article Six and let slavery bloom. Far from climate barring slavery, contra Douglas, the speculators insisted that the law alone barred with climate endorsed. Later experience with Missouri, where no law barred slavery, proved them right.

Congress refused to give the land speculators what they wanted, explicitly introducing slavery to Illinois and the rest of the Midwest. Likewise it refused to do what some antislavery men wanted and pass laws to free the slaves already there. That left matters by default in the hands of the body Stephen Douglas preferred resolve them: the territorial legislature.


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