In a state of transition

Creating a state is a long process, and the constitution is what wraps it up


An important first step for a territory to become a state was laying out the groundwork for a constitution.

The effort to move Illinois from territory status to state began in early 1818 after the U.S. Congress approved Illinois statehood in April and authorized the citizens to create a state constitution. Following a July 6 election, 33 delegates from the 15 counties comprising the Illinois Territory were elected to attend a constitutional convention.

The delegates met in early August at Kaskaskia. There were at least two interested on-lookers who may have had some influence on the decisions made. One was John Mason Peck a Baptist missionary and the other was anti-slavery proponent Edward Coles, who later became an Illinois governor.

Judge Jesse B. Thomas was elected convention president because of his experience serving as a delegate for the Indiana Territory and his known leadership qualities. William C. Greenup was chosen as secretary because he was already clerk for the Illinois Territory as well as a clerk for Randolph County.

The only other business of the first day was setting up three committees. One to examine the credentials of the representatives, one to set a framework of rules and one to pick a minister to open the next day’s meeting with a prayer.

After the organizational business was settled, a census review was necessary to confirm Illinois had enough citizens to become a state. That was difficult to determine because of the number of transients passing through the territory going west to another location. It was decided a count of 40,258 was enough for Illinois to become a state.

The next item was to approve the boundaries of the state, which was finally done with input from Gurdan Hubbard and Elias Kent Kane as to the logistics. They also debated the propositions sent from the U.S. Congress to put in the Illinois Constitution. It was brought up the constitution should represent moral law and follow the precepts laid out in the Bible.

A committee of 15 presented a draft of the constitution Aug 12. The document contained a preamble and eight articles patterned after the U.S. Constitution. Other articles were taken from different state constitutions.

Reading and considering each part of the document required two-and-a-half days. Following the first reading, a committee of five men, different from the original 15, was appointed to make additions or suggestions for changes. Another three readings of the proposed document followed over the next few days as changes were made and agreed to.

The preamble and the first article closely followed the wording of the Kentucky and Indiana constitutions. The final document divided state government into the legislative, judicial and executive branches; set the state boundaries; declared Illinois a free state and eliminated indentured servitude. The prohibition against slavery and servitude was going forward into the future as the state constitution did not interfere with existing property rights regarding current slaves and indentured servants. Slaves already in Illinois remained slaves, but the constitution provided their children became free upon reaching adulthood.

The convention also selected Kaskaskia as the state capital, and determined how to elect representatives, senators and other officials.

The Great Seal chosen for Illinois is dated Aug. 26,1818 – the date the first constitution was signed – and features an eagle with the words State Sovereignty National Union. It is patterned after the U.S. Seal and was later modified to include the year 1868.

Residents of Kaskaskia held a big celebration Sept. 2, even though the state constitution was not submitted to the public for ratification. In fact, the document vested almost unlimited power with the legislature rather than the citizens. The framers of this Constitution of Illinois were the true representatives of the people with a vision for the future and were good at getting things done in a very short order.

Kaskaskia’s citizens manned a cannon and fired a salute honoring the new state constitution during a special celebration Sept. 2, 1818. A pledge was also made, “Under these colours, we pledge ourselves to support the constitution of Illinois.”

This was somewhat before the fact because Illinois was not officially admitted to the Union until Dec. 3, 1818, but it seemed a foregone conclusion to the people of Kaskaskia in September.