Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society--1901



By Ethan A. Snively.


As we look out from the north windows of the capitol and see, standing high above the surrounding forest trees, the monument erected to the memory Of Abraham Lincoln; as we remember that less than three weeks ago there wa's inaugurated as our chief executive the son of Illinois' great war governor at whose call more than a quarter of a million sons of our Prairie State rallied to the defense of the Union in a war brought on by the slaveholders of the South; as we reflect that, with the present generation, the name Illinois has ever been a synonym of liberty, enterprise and progress, we* call scarcely realize that our own State once tolerated slavery-that for more than a quarter of a century Illinois was as absolutely a slave State as was Mississippi. Cobb, in his most excellent work on slavery, defines it as the "condition of that individual over whose life, liberty and property another has unlimited control." That our State was, for years, cursed with the sin which the great lawyer so concisely defines will be new to many of those who have failed to make a study of the early history of our commonwealth.

In discussing the subject assigned me, I do not expect to offer anything new to the student of our State history. The field has been closely gleaned by the various historians-by some much more than others. All that I shall do will be to begin at the beginning and endeavor to present in chronological order, and in as concise a manner as possible the historical facts relating to the establishment of slavery in both the Territory and State of Illinois, and the efforts to perpetuate the curse upon our soil.

On April 23, 1815, Louis XIII issued an edict recognizing slavery in the French possessions in America, and the early French settlers who came to this country from Canada brought their slaves with them. In March, 1724, Louis XV published an ordinance re-enacting the edict of Louis XIII, which among other things provided for the regulation of the traffic in Negro slaves in the province of Louisiana, of which Illinois then formed a part. African slaves, so far as it is known, were first brought into that part of the territory which comprises our State in 1720, by a Frenchman named Renault. This man was the agent of a company which was possessed of a concession from the French government to come to this country and deal with the inhabitants, in the belief that the wealth of the western world consisted in its pearl fisheries, its gold and silver and the wool of its wild cattle. Renault, on his way to America, stopped at San Domingo and purchased five hundred slaves. It is not known just how many of these slaves he brought to the territory comprising our State. He founded a village, called St. Phillips, in what is now the southeast corner of Monroe county, and from this point he sent out exploring parties into the adjacent country to prospect for precious metals. These slaves bought by Renault and those coming from Canada are known in history as the French slaves.

By the treaty of peace concluded at Paris, February 10, 1763, this country, as a dependency of Canada, was ceded to Great Britain, and when General Gage took possession of the territory he promised that those who chose to retain their lands and become subjects of Great Britain, should enjoy the same rights and privileges and the same securities for their persons and effects as the old subjects of the king. And at this period England recognized slavery in all her American colonies. In 1778 Virginia, by virtue of the successful expedition of George Rogers Clark in his conquest Of Illinois. declared the entire northwestern territory within her chartered limits. Other states came forward with charter claims, but that of Virginia was equal to theirs while in addition she asserted the claim of conquest. Finally, on December 20, 1783, Virginia ceded the northwestern territory to the United .States. The deed of cession contained the following:

"The French and Canadian inhabitants and other settlers of the Kaskius, St. Vincents, and neighboring villages who have professed themselves citizens of the state of Virginia, shall have their possessions and titles confirmed to them and be protected in the enjoyment of their rights and liberties."

An. attempt was made to have Congress accept the deed of cession with a proviso that after 1800 there should be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the states to be formed out of the territory. This effort failed as it only received the vote of six states, whereas it required the vote of nine.

Subsequently, on the 1st of March, 1784, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Hardy, Arthur Lee and James Monroe, on behalf of the state of Virginia, conveyed and made over to the United States all the right, title, and claim of the state to the territory lying northwest of the Ohio river, for the purposes and on conditions recited in the deed of cession. On the same day Congress accepted the deed.

On the 13th of July, 1787, Congress passed an ordinance "for the government of territory of the United States northwest of the Ohio river." Article 6 of that ordinance provided:

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

The apparent conflict between the proviso in the deed of cession, which confirmed to the citizens their possessions, and the 6th article of the ordinance passed for the government of the territory, was a matter of great contention. One party claimed that the provision of the ordinance was invalid because it contravened the direct provision upon which the territory was ceded to the general government. The other party claimed that the United States, having come into possession of the territory. it was the duty of Congress to pass laws for the government of the same, and whatever laws were necessary must be binding upon the people and would supersede the conditions embraced in the deed of cession.

On May 7, 1800, the northwestern territory was divided into two separate governments and the parts embracing what is now the State of Illinois and Indiana, were organized into a territory known as Indiana Territory. As the -contention in regard to slavery continued, William Henry Harrison, the territorial governor, in November, 1802, issued a proclamation calling a convention for the purpose of memorializing Congress to suspend article 6 of the ordinance of 1787 and thereby end all controversy.

Delegates to this convention were elected, in accordance with the call, and on the 20th of December following, the convention met at Vincennes. Its deliberations resulted in the prepartition of a memorial to Congress to repeal or suspend the operation of the offensive article. The memorial was as ingenously prepared as the use of language would permit. It was contended that a suspension of the prohibiting clause would not increase the number of slaves; would meet with the-approval of nine-tenths of the people of the territory; that the real question of slavery was in no way involved, but the introduction of slavery into the territory, where labor was scarce, and thus reducing the number of laborers where it was abundant, would be equally advantageous to both sections. As a crowning reason for the repeal or suspension of the clause, emphasis was placed on the fact that the ordinance was passed at a time when the territory was not represented in Congress-that the people of the territory had not been consulted, and the enforcement of ,the provision as to the northwestern territory, while slavery was allowed in other territories, was a discrimination that was alike unjust and injurious to the material progress of the territory.

Congress referred the memorial to a special committee, of which John Randolph, of Virginia, was chairman. In March following, Mr. Randolph, aschairman of the committee, reported adversely to the prayer of the memorialists. In submitting the report, Mr. Randolph must have been endowed with the spirit of prophecy, as he said:

"The rapidly increasing population of the state of Ohio sufficiently evinces in the opinion of your committee that the labor of slaves is not necessary to. promote the growth and the settlement of colonies in that region. That this labor, demonstratably the dearest of any, can only be employed to advantage in the cultivation of products more valuable than any known to that quarter of the United States. The committee deem it highly dangerous and inexpedient to impair a provision wisely calculated to promote the happiness and prosperity of the northwestern country, and to give strength and security to that extensive frontier. In the salutary operation of this sagacious and benevolent restraint, it is believed that the inhabitants will, at no very distant day, find ample remuneration for a temporary privation of labor and emigration."

No action, however, was taken on the report of the committee, but at the next session, the memorial was referred to another committee. This committee reported in favor of suspending the article for ten years, and allowing the importation of slaves from the states only, and providing the male descendants should be free at the age of twenty-five years, and the females at the age of twenty-one. No action was taken on this report, and a like fate was meted out to subsequent memorials.

The majority of the people were pro-slavery. They desired immigration from the slave states-they recognized slavery and wealth as synonymous terms. So long as there was uncertainty as to property right in slaves, solong there would be no immigration from slave states. It was evident Congress did not intend to give them any relief. They then resorted to legislative strategy and proceeded to do in an indirect way that which they could, not do directly.

The territorial legislature on the 17th of September, 1807, passed a law providing that any person, being the owner of any negroes or mulattoes of and, above the age of fifteen years, and owing service and labor as slaves in any of the states and territories of the United States, or any person purchasing negroes or mulattoes, might bring the same into the territory. provided, the owner or master within thirty days should take them before the clerk of the court and have an indenture between the slave and his owner entered upon record specifying the time which the slave was compelled to serve his master. if, however, the negro or mulatto was under fifteen years, the owner was given power to hold the males until they were thirty-five years of age and the females until they were thirty-two. Children born of a parent who owed service of labor, by indenture, were required to serve, the males until the age of thirty, and the females until the age of twenty-eight. The law further provided that when a slave was brought into the territory and refused to be indentured, the owner had sixty, days in which to remove such slave to any state where such property could be legally held. The period of indenture was generally ninety-nine years.

On February 3, 1809, congress passed a law dividing Indiana Territory by creating the territory of Illinois. The governor and judges who constituted the first territorial council, adopted the laws of Indiana Territory in regard to the indenture of slaves. The first territorial legislature, on the 13th of December, 1812, readopted the law.

At the session of the territorial legislature in 1817, an act was passed repealing so much of the law as authorized the bringing of negroes and mulattoes into the territory. The preamble to the repealing act declared that the, I law was intended to introduce and tolerate slavery, under pretense of voluntary servitude in contravention of the permanent law of the land and theordinance of 1787.

   This act was vetoed by Gov. Ninian Edwards, the territorial governor. Though opposed to the principle of slavery, yet himself a slave-holder, he contended that congress could not violate the deed of cession by which Virginia ceded the northwestern territory to the United States. And he further contended that the indenture system was founded upon the principles of law as well as common honesty.

It may not be out of place here, even at the risk of breaking the thread of the narrative to quote two advertisements. The first is signed by John Reynolds, who was subsequently a judge of the supreme court and governor of the State. It is dated May 14, 1815, and is as follows:

"Fifty dollars reward will be given to any person who will deliver to me in Cahokia a negro boy named 'Moses,' who ran away from me in Cahokia about two months since. He is about 16 years old, well made, and did belong to McKnight and Brady, in St. Louis, where he has been seen frequently, and is supposed to be harbored there or about there. He had on a hunting shirt when he left me."

The second advertisement is signed by Ninian Edwards, then territorial governor, and third governor of the State. It is dated Oct. 1, 1815, and is as follows:

"Notice: I have for sale twenty-two slaves, among them are several of both sexes between the years of ten and seventeen; if not shortly sold, I shall wish to hire them in Missouri territory. I have also for stile a full blooded horse, a very large English bull and several young ones."

Apropos of this latter advertisement, under date of Aug. 19, 1825, I find a letter from Gov. Edwards. written to Col. A. G. S. Wright, a prominent man in his day, and at that time, no doubt, a resident of Galena. The letter sufficiently explains itself, and is as follows:

"I have just received your letter of the 4th-inst., and lose not a moment in replying to it.

"Whatever may have been the conceptions you had formed from my description, at Vandalia last winter, of the servants I have since sold you, I well know there was no intention on my part of deceiving you or any one else, and I should suppose your finding Charles so much better than you expected, sufficient to free me from any such suspicion, since, as he was capable of being the most valuable, if I had intended to deceive, I must have acted most strangely in representing him so much worse, and the others so, much better than they respectively deserved. The truth is, that I said nothing then, which I did not at that time, and which I do not now, believe to be true.

"You remark that 'you are sorry to say also that Maria by no means tallies with the description you had of her; she is not a first-class cook, neither is she any part of a seamstress.' I have read this part of your letter to severalladies now at my house, all well acquainted with her, who are equally, with, myself, surprised at it. She had been my only cook for seven years before I sold her to you, during which time I have lived pretty well and entertained much company, all of whom, I believe, would agree with me that she deserves to be considered, in this part of the world, at least, as a first-class cook. The ladies insist upon it that she is an excellent seamstress, and I know she has made and ruffled my shirts as well as I have ever been able to, find any other person capable of doing. I can also prove that she has done almost all kinds of fine work, and that she can cut out and make her own dresses as well as any lady in this part of the country, It is true she has not done much sewing for the last seven years. and it is probable her present situation may prevent her from discharging her duties with her usual ability. She is, however, a faithful and valuable servant, whom no money could have got from me, if she had chosen to separate from her husband, and so far from having endeavored to enhance her value by any erroneous description, she has ten more years to serve than I represented to you at Vandalia.

"I could have had no motive to deceive by any description I gave of those Servants, because I did not suppose anyone would have purchased them without seeing them and judging for himself.

"As, however, the situation of your family prevented your coming yourself for that purpose, and you say you are disappointed in your expectations and would not, if you could have come yourself, have been a purchaser, because these servants 'by no means suited you,' I can not think of holding you to your bargain. I would rather lose myself than insist upon a contract, under such circumstances, with any man, more especially with a gentleman and friend whom I so highly esteem and respect, If, therefore, you choose to transmit to me by the return mail the transfers I made to you of those .servants, I will promptly return to you the consideration I received for -them, and in the meantime you may hold them in your possession as security for my compliance with this proposition.

"I would far rather return to you the whole consideration I received than -accede to your proposal of transferring to you Nelson and Ellen upon the grounds you urge, because by doing so it would be a tacit admission, at least, that I had intended to impose on you, which is a thing I am incapable of doing with any man upon this earth."

When Illinois was admitted into the Union, article 6 of the Constitution, in its first section, provided that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude should thereafter be introduced in the State except for the punishment of crimes; and that no male person or the age of twenty-one years, or female of the age of eighteen years, should be held to serve any person as a servant under any indenture thereafter made. It also rendered invalid any indenture thereafter made of any negro or mulatto where the term of service exceeded one year. The third section of article 6 of the Constitution provided:

Each and every person who has been bound to service by contract or indenture in virtue of the laws of Illinois territory heretofore existing, and in Conformity to the provisions of the same, without fraud or collusion, shall be held to a specific performance of their contracts or indentures; and such negroes and mulattoes as have registered in conformity with the aforesaid laws shall serve out the time appointed by said laws: Provided, however, that the children hereafter born of such persons, negroes and mulattoes, shall become free, the males at the age of twenty-one years; the females at the age of eighteen years."

On the 30th day of March, 1819, the first General Assembly of the State passed what was known as the "Black Laws." They provided that no negro or mulatto should settle in the State until he had first produced a certificate of freedom under seal of a court of record, which together with a description of the person producing it, and also his family, if he had one, was to be duly recorded in the county in which he proposed to settle. The overseers of the poor were empowered to expel such negroes or mulattoes whenever they desired. Any person bringing slaves into the State with a view of emancipating them was required to execute a bond in the sum of one thousand dollars as a guaranty that the person emancipated would not become a county charge, if he neglected to execute the bond, he was liable to a fine of two hundred dollars. All resident free negroes and mulattoes, before the first day of June following, were to enter their Dames and every member of their families with the clerk of the circuit court, together with their evidence of freedom

No person was permitted to employ a negro or mulatto without such evidence of freedom under penalty of one dollar and fifty cents per day for each day employed. To harbor any slave or servant, or to hinder the owner in retaking any slave was made a felony punishable by a fine two-fold the value of the slave and a whipping not to exceed thirty stripes Any negro or mulatto not having a proper certificate of his freedom was deemed a runaway slave subject to arrest; he was to be advertised for six weeks by the sheriff and if no owner appeared, he was sold for one year, at the end of which time he was entitled to a certificate of his freedom, which was good unless an owner appeared and claimed him. No person was . permitted to trade with a servant or slave without the consent of the master. A slave found ten miles from home was subject to arrest and to be punished by thirty-five stripes; or, if he appeared at any dwelling without leave of his master, the owner of the dwelling was permitted to give him ten stripes. Unlawful assemblies by slaves or servants were punished by thirty-nine stripes, while in all cases where free persons were punished by a fine, slaves were to be punished by whipping at the rate of twenty stripes for each eight dollars of fine, with the Proviso that not more than forty lashes be given at any one time.

At the election in 1822, Edward Coles was elected as the second governor -of the State. Four candidates stood for the suffrage of the people. The pro:slavery men brought out Joseph Phillips, who was then chief justice of the supreme court; and subsequently, with a view to keeping Governor Coles from receiving a large number of votes in the southeast part of the State, .Judge Thomas C . Browns, of the supreme court, became a candidate. And Major General James B. Moore, of the State militia, also announced his candidacy. Phillips received 2,760 votes; Browns, 2,634, Coles, 2,810, and Moore, 522. Coles had only fifty more than Phillips. It was understood that Phillips and Brown, with a combined vote of 5,303, represented the pro-slavery strength of the State, while Coles and Moore, with a combined vote of 3,332, represented the opposite.

Governor Coles had been private secretary to President Madison and had held a number of important positions. Desiring to come west, on the 5th of March, 1819, he was appointed register of the land office, at Edwardsville. He was the owner of a number of slaves, but upon coming to the State, he gave them their freedom and provided them with homes, but omitted to have them registered as was required by the laws of March 30, 1819.

The legislature convened at Vandalia, on the first Monday in December, 1822. On account of the division of the pro-slavery vote between Phillips and Brown, the anamoly was presented of a legislature containing a large majority in favor of slavery and a governor opposed to the institution. When the Governor delivered his inaugural address before the legislature, he called attention to the fact that slavery really existed in Illinois notwithstanding the provisions Of the ordinance of 1787, and urged upon the legislature such remedial legislation as would lead to the emancipation of the slaves, a repeal or revision of the "black laws," and such legislation as would make Illinois a free State in fact.

In the senate this part of his message was referred to a special committee consisting of Beaird, of Monroe; Boone, of Jackson; Ladd, of Johnson; Kinney, of St. Clair, and White, of White.

This committee reported to the senate, going over the entire history of the slavery question, stating facts as I have given them. They concluded their' report by the statement that "the people of Illinois have now the same right to alter their constitution as the people of the State of Virginia, or any other of the original states, and may make any disposition of Negro slaves they ,choose, without any breach of faith or violation of compact, ordinance or acts of congress; and if the reasoning employed be correct, there is no other course left by which to accomplish the object of this portion of the .Governor's message, than to call a convention to alter the constitution."

This was a most surprising turn of affairs for Governor Coles. In his earnest efforts to make Illinois a free State, he now saw the danger that he might have been the means of laying the foundation for a plan whereby slavery might be fastened upon the State. In the preceding election, it was fully demonstrated that a very large majority of the voters of the State were pro-slavery, and it seemed certain, if a constitutional convention was held, it 'would undoubtedly frame a pro-slavery constitution.

. The Senate committee submitted, with their report, a joint resolution calling a convention. It required a two-thirds vote in each house to pass this resolution. The requisite two-thirds vote was at hand in the Senate, but when the resolution was presented in the House it lacked one vote of the requisite number.

To secure the requisite two-thirds in the House, the convention partizans resorted to proceedings which will, for all time, stand out in history as the most infamous ever known. When the Legislature convened, Nicholas Hansen appeared holding a certificate of election from the counties of Pike and Fulton. His seat was contested by John Shaw, both men being residents of Pike county. The contest was referred to the proper committee, and one week from the day the Legislature convened, the committee unanimously reported, awarding Hansen the seat, and the report was adopted by the House and Shaw returned to his home.

The Senate resolution was permitted to lie quietly on the table in the House because there was uncertainty as to the result in that body, Finally, an. original resolution was introduced in the House and received twenty-three votes. one less than was necessary, but Hansen voted for it. One of those who voted against the resolution was won over, and on the 11th of February the Senate resolution was placed on its passage, but, to the consternation of those favoring a convention, Hansen voted against it. The indignation of the convention men knew no bounds. In order to secure the necessary vote, a motion was made to reconsider the vote by which Hansen was awarded a. seat. This motion was adopted and the resolution was once more before the House. A member arose and presented to the House an affidavit made on the 28th day of January, in which the affiant gave it as his opinion that Shaw received twenty-nine more votes than Hansen. The majority of the House then struck out the name of Hansen and inserted the name of Shaw in the resolution which had awarded the former the seat. At this time Shaw was at his home in Pike county, utterly oblivious to the fact that he had been made a member of the House by virtue of an exparte affidavit, which merely expressed the opinion of one of his friends. A messenger was at once sent for Shaw, as the distance to his home was great. and the time prior to the adjournment of the Legislature was short. Shaw appeared in the House, was sworn in as a member, voted for the Senate resolution to call a convention. The pro-slavery men were wild over their victory-they resorted to every means then known to make public manifestation of their joy. As Governor Reynolds says, "there was at the seat of government a wild and indecorous procession by torchlight and liquor."

Governor John Reynolds, who was a pro-slavery man, in his history says: "This proceeding in the General Assembly looked revolutionary, and was condemned by all honest and reflecting men. This outrage was a death blow to the convention."

Under the Constitution, the vote for and against the convention could not take place until August 1824 A campaign lasting for eighteen months was at once entered upon.. It was not only the longest, but the most bitterly fought of any campaign in. the history of Illinois. It was started by each party holding a public meeting at the State capital and issuing an address to the people.

There were only five newspapers in the State, and four of these were in favor of the convention. But the anti-convention people had raised the enormous sum of one thousand dollars to conduct the campaign, and they purchased one of the four papers, and also established two others. Governor Ford says "the contest was mixed up with a perfect lava of detraction. Newspapers, hand bills and pamphlets were scattered broadcast. These missive weapons of a fiery contest were scattered everywhere, and everywhere they scorched and scathed as they flew. Almost every stump in every county had its bellowing, indignant orator, on* one side or the other, and the whole people, for the space of eighteen months, did scarcely anything but read newspapers, hand bills and pamphlets, quarrel, wrangle and argue with each other whenever they met together to hear the violent harangues of their orators,"

  Governor Reynolds said: "The convention question gave rise to two years of the most furious and boisterous excitement and contest that ever visited Illinois. Men, women and children entered the arena of party warfare and

strife, and the families and neighborhoods were so divided and furious and bitter against one another that it seemed a regular civil war might be the result. Many personal combats were indulged in on the question, and the

whole country seemed at times to be ready and willing to resort to physical.force to decide the contest. All the means known to man to convey ideas to one another were resorted to, and practiced with energy. The press teemed with publications on tile subject. The stump orators were invoked, and the pulpit thundered anathemas against the introduction of slavery."

I have quoted from these two ex-governors and State historians in order to show the intensity and bitterness of the strife. One of the greatest agenciesin the contest was the pulpit, and the leader, Rev. Dr. Peck, a Baptist clergyman, who rode over all the southern half of the State, and for seven days in the week, raised his voice in favor of freedom and in opposition to the convention.

When the election occurred in August, 1824, it was found there were 4,950 votes cast for the convention, and 6,822 votes cast against it.

The strongest evidence as to the feeling on this question is found in the fact that the total vote for and against a convention, aggregated 11,612, and at the presidential election in the following November, only 4,707 votes were cast.

The convention men, however, secured some little revenge. As has been noted, Governor Coles had freed his slaves, but had omitted to have them registered. As a result he was sued for violation of the Black Laws, and fined two thousand dollars. Before this suit was finally disposed of, the legislature passed an act releasing all penalties incurred under the act of 1819, and this act the supreme court upheld.

The question now presents itself, why did not the anti-slavery men make a test of the indenture laws in the courts. I presume the reason was that the judges, having been appointed by the legislature, which was pro-slavery, were presumed to hold the same views and would be controlled in their judgment by their political prejudices. However, at the December term, 1828, of the supreme court, that tribunal was called upon to pass upon the validity of the indenture law of 1807. The opinion of the court was delivered by Mr. Justice Samuel D. Lockwood. and it was held that the law of 1807 was void as being repugnant to the ordinance of 1787; but indentures executed under that law are made valid by the third section of the sixth article of the constitution. The court held that the constitution was supreme-that the people. represented in a constitutional convention, and in framing an organic law,

could legally do that which a legislature could not do. It was held that accepting the constitution, and admitting the State into the union by Congress, abrogated so much of the ordinance of 1787 as was repugnant to the constitution. In another case at this same term the court decided that registered servants were goods and chattles and could be sold on execution. At the December term, 1831, of the supreme court, that tribunal decreed that the children of negroes and mulattoes registered under the laws of the territory of Indiana and Illinois were free.

At the May term, 1827, of the supreme court of the state of Missouri, that court decided that children of negro slaves in Illinois, born after the ordinance of 1787, were free. Subsequently, another case was decided by the supreme court of Missouri in which the same doctrine was held. This last case was removed to the supreme court of the United States by writ of error. The latter court delivered a very elaborate opinion to show that it had no, jurisdiction, but reading between the lines it was easy to see that the majority of the court agreed with the holding of the lower tribunal.

The last legal struggle came before the supreme court of Illinois at the December term, 1845, and, the majority of the court decided that the descendants of the old French slaves, born since the adoption of the ordinance of 1787, and before or since the adoption of the constitution of Illinois could not be held in slavery.

The census of 1830 showed 747 slaves in the State, while the census of 1840 showed only 331.

When the constitution of 1848 was adopted, section 16 of the declaration of rights was as follows:

"There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the State, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted."

The adoption of the constitution, with this section sounded the death knell to slavery, and from that hour Illinois for the first time became. in fact, a free State.