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Admitted to the Union December 3, 1818, Illinois is the twenty-first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution. Known as “The Prairie State” as well as the “Land of Lincoln,” the Illinois State Constitution adopted in 1970 is the version currently used. The first state constitution, however, was adopted on August 26, 1818.
Becoming a State
In April 1818, Congress passed a bill, contemplating admitting Illinois as a state if it could show that it had a population of at least 40,000 in the territory. As my friend, Ann Lousin, notes in an excellent Chicago Daily Law Bulletin column published in August 2018, that was a tall order for the territory to complete, because the territory was well short of the required number set by Congress. Nonetheless, the territorial governor and associates submitted to Congress that the population of white residents exceeded 40,000, and that part of the process was done.
The Illinois Constitution
Congress required that each new state have a constitution. Delegates were selected and they met in Kaskaskia, Illinois, thirty-three men gathered at a tavern to draft a constitution. Borrowing heavily from the Kentucky constitution, where many delegates had come to Illinois from, as well as the constitutions of Ohio and Indiana (two states that were part of the Northwest Territory), a very small group drafted the constitution. Except for one issue, there are not records of much debate over this constitution to be submitted to Congress.
The one issue that the delegates debated heavily was the question of slavery. Factions for pro-slavery and abolitionists sought compromise and while most of Illinois was “free soil” the Illinois Salines were permitted to have slavery. In addition, a compromise was agreed upon, with any slave who was currently in the state remaining a slave, though their children would become free upon reaching adulthood. With this agreed upon as well as the seat of the new state’s government, the constitution was adopted on August 26, 1818. That date is proudly displayed on the Illinois state flag in the center. The adopted constitution was submitted to Congress and, on December 3, 1818, President James Monroe signed the enabling act that admitted Illinois as the 21st state to the United States.
The initial constitution of Illinois has been amended on three occasions since 1818- in 1848, 1870 and 1970. The last constitution granted home rule powers for certain municipalities, including the City of Chicago.
The preamble to the Illinois Constitution has a flavor that is definitely familiar, stating:
We, the People of the State of Illinois—grateful to Almighty God for the civil, political and religious liberty which He has permitted us to enjoy and seeking His blessing upon our endeavors—in order to provide for the health, safety and welfare of the people; maintain a representative and orderly government; eliminate poverty and inequality; assure legal, social and economic justice; provide opportunity for the fullest development of the individual; insure domestic tranquility; provide for the common defense; and secure the blessings of freedom and liberty to ourselves and our posterity—do ordain and establish this Constitution for the State of Illinois.
In 1968, the question of whether to hold a constitutional convention was on the ballot, and it passed. As noted, a big feature of the new constitution that came out of that convention was home rule, which transferred power from the smaller rural communities to the more urban centers. Ratified on December 15, 1970, Illinois adopted a new, modern constitution, one of the few post-World War II constitutions among the states. The fourteen articles of the current constitution create the traditional three branches of government. The 1970 Constitution also includes an extensive Bill of Rights and Article X guarantees a free public education for all Illinois residents.
Illinois became the 21st state to join the United States. During the Civil War, it contributed the fourth greatest number of men who served in the Union Army. President Abraham Lincoln, who was born and raised in Kentucky, was president during the Civil War and “The Prairie State” has become known as the “Land of Lincoln” to honor the 16th President of the United States.
Dan Cotter is a partner at Latimer LeVay Fyock LLC and an adjunct professor at The John Marshall Law School, where he teaches SCOTUS Judicial Biographies. His book, “The Chief Justices,” (April 2019, Twelve Tables Press), is available now. He is also a past president of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to anyone else.
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