On the edge of statehood

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In an ongoing effort to bring information about Illinois’ 200-year celebration for becoming a state in 1818, let’s review some of the steps necessary for that to happen. 

There was a necessary compromise made by the members of Congress to admit Illinois as a state in the union. During that time there were great conflicts in our country about slave states and free states. 

The delegates in charge of presenting the case for Illinois to become a state knew the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 required the territory be admitted as a free state because of its location north of the Ohio River. At the turn of the 19th century, two new slave states were added and Congress sought to add a free state for balance. 

Nathaniel Pope was selected by the territorial government to lead the delegation lobbying Congress for Illinois’ admission. The territory needed 60,000 inhabitants to reach the population requirement and fixed borders were required. 

Pope made a dramatic speech comparing the state of Illinois to a fictional lady with her head in Lake Michigan and her feet in the Ohio River. Her one hand welcomed fellowship from the Wabash in the east and the other hand welcomed those from the Mississippi to the west. Although his petition was allegorical, he drew a picture in the minds of those listening to inspire them to vote for passage. 

According to the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, the northern line for Illinois was a line straight across from the northern boundary lines of Indiana and Ohio. If that boundary was used, there was no way for the mythical lady to have enough water to wet her hair. That original line barely touched the south end of Lake Michigan.  

(A note about the northern boundary line. Modern maps depicting the Northwest Territory often depict the northern boundary of the Illinois territory as it is today as a state. Those maps should have a line extending straight across from the northern edges of Indiana and Ohio. Doing further investigation, there is evidence of a line even farther south which seems to back the theory that all three states moved their boundary lines for logical purposes, which indicates no boundary line can stand up to political forces.)  

Illinois faced two hurdles for admission. The territory did not have 60,000 people and the northern property line was in question. It was not too hard to convince Congress to extend the line farther north because Indiana and Ohio had already shifted their boundary lines to the north when they were admitted. 

Moving the border north was regarded as a benefit to trade and travel by connecting Illinois via Lake Michigan and making Chicago a port accessible to the northeastern states. 

A similar tactic was used to overcome the population issue. Ohio also set a precedent because it did not have 60,000 people when it was admitted in 1803. Congress approved the admission of Ohio with just 40,000 people.

Illinois had only about 35,000 residents when Pope was lobbying Congress for statehood. Moving the boundary line approximately 30 miles north of where it was supposed to be added the concentrated population of the southern Wisconsin territory. Congress accepted Illinois as proposed and the territory officially achieved statehood Dec. 3, 1818. 

Dr. Floyd M. Davis writing for the Paris Beacon-News in 1923 drew the conclusion that one of two things possibly happened for the positive vote.  

The first was Pope had such a forceful speech the opposition was swept aside by his convincing argument. 

Davis’ other theory, in his own words, “Nobody paid any attention to him, the few present being busy with their own affairs, or asleep, when he had finished the sergeant of arms drummed up a quorum that made us a state.”