Saturday, February 16, 2019

Free Negroes in Illinois Prior to the Civil War, 1818-1860

In historical writing and analysis, PRESENTISM introduces present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past. Presentism is a form of cultural bias that creates a distorted understanding of the subject matter. Reading modern notions of morality into the past is committing the error of presentism. Historical accounts are written by people and can be slanted, so I try my hardest to present fact-based and well-researched articles.

Facts don't require one's approval or acceptance.

I present [PG-13] articles without regard to race, color, political party, or religious beliefs, including Atheism, national origin, citizenship status, gender, LGBTQ+ status, disability, military status, or educational level. What I present are facts — NOT Alternative Facts — about the subject. You won't find articles or readers' comments that spread rumors, lies, hateful statements, and people instigating arguments or fights.

When I write about the INDIGENOUS PEOPLE, I follow this historical terminology:
  • The use of old commonly used terms, disrespectful today, i.e., REDMAN or REDMEN, SAVAGES, and HALF-BREED are explained in this article.
Writing about AFRICAN-AMERICAN history, I follow these race terms:
  • "NEGRO" was the term used until the mid-1960s.
  • "BLACK" started being used in the mid-1960s.
  • "AFRICAN-AMERICAN" [Afro-American] began usage in the late 1980s.


The idealistic perception of the United States as the world's lone great republic permeated the conscience of the fledgling country. The concept rested upon factors of egalitarianism and the homogeneity of the population. Such principles were sorely tried in the acid test of creating a workable federal constitution, particularly in the case of state representation in the new Congress with regard to the Negro. The resulting compromise settled on the three-fifths clause and an agreement to prohibit the alteration of the foreign slave trade for twenty years. More astute observers’ like that great advocate of republican ideals, Thomas Jefferson, realized the ideological inconsistencies of the arrangement, noting that questions involving the peculiarity of slavery and the Negro would eventually resurface. Territorial expansion and the debates over the admission of new states with or without a provision for bondage in their constitutions guaranteed the continuation of the threat to the republican ideal.

A far greater disruptive challenge to the egalitarian aspect of republicanism, however, was posed by the presence of the free Negro. While equality did not imply a leveling of society, it did include the concepts of social and economic mobility. The fortunes of every free man could either rise or fall according to his ability. At this precise point, however, racial prejudice intervened to block the continuity of theory and practice.

Physically different, Negroes could not easily blend into the prescribed homogeneous society. Slavery provided a practical, but hardly a perfect solution to this dilemma. As long as slaves were regarded as chattel property—the right to hold property being guaranteed by the Constitution itself—they posed no threat to the perception of the United States as a land of social and economic equality.

The free Negro presented an entirely different set of circumstances. He was not property; he was not an equal citizen. Republican ideology made no provision for such an anomaly. The resolution of this problem turned on the replacement of the concept of equality with that of freedom. If "equality" is subject to interpretation, "freedom" is an even more nebulous concept. Although the abstraction of freedom often implies equality, in reality, freedom exists in varying degrees. Such a perception enabled a dual system to emerge that attempted to reconcile the differences between theoretical republicanism and its actual practice. On the theoretical level, all free male persons were equal regardless of color. Hence, the cherished republican ideal was preserved. Considering the racial views of the day, the second level involved the more practical use of a racial caste system which, if severely applied, rendered free Negroes to the position of virtual bondage. These two ideologically contradictory planes were separated by silence. Any attempt to pull them together and closely examine their inconsistencies could prove most disturbing indeed.

Scrutiny, however, proved unavoidable when dealing with the organization of new territories. The national government, in its only noteworthy accomplishment under the Articles of Confederation, created the Northwest Territory by the Ordinance of 1787. This document prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude in the area that included the future state of Illinois. By a strict construction of the anti-slavery provision, all Negroes in the territory were free with the temporary exception of those employed at the salt works near Shawneetown on the Ohio River. This freedom was merely nominal, for not only did slavery exist in the Northwest Territory, but a group of laws was also enacted to reinforce the racial caste system regarding free Negroes. Although vestiges of "bondage remained, once the area had been declared free, the issue could "scarcely he termed slavery." Rather, it had to "he approached as the negro question."

The question of the free Negro and its implications regarding the republican ideology can not be attributed to a large concentration of blacks in Illinois. The original French settlers had brought Negro slaves to Illinois in the mid-eighteenth century to work lead mines in the region along the Mississippi River in northwestern Illinois. Kaskaskia and other French towns also included populations of Negro slaves. After their defeat in the French and Indian War in 1763, many French slaveholders fled to Canada taking their human property with them. The victorious English continued the system of involuntary servitude and expanded the practice when saline springs were discovered in southeastern Illinois. After the American Revolution and Illinois statehood in 1818, small numbers of free Negroes were to be found in all three of these areas which became the counties of Jo Daviess, Randolph, St. Clair, and Gallatin. Significantly, all of these counties bordered rivers. Gallatin was "bounded by the Ohio River and the other three lay along the Mississippi River.

These nascent black populations were augmented by immigration from the South which generally flowed from south to north. Free Negroes were concentrated in the river counties along the Mississippi, the Ohio, and the Wabash Rivers. In 1820, 42% of Illinois free Negroes lived in the southern river counties of St. Clair, Randolph, and Gallatin.
Over half of Illinois' 1840 free Negro population lived in these three counties, and a sizeable proportion of the state's free blacks remained in the southern river region in the ante-bellum[1]  era. This number declined to approximately a third in 1850 and 1860.

A majority of blacks, however, remained in the general area of southern Illinois. As settlement advanced toward the interior of the state, free Negroes formed a part of the inland migration. The south-central counties of Morgan and Sangamon showed substantial increases in their black populations after 1840.
Their gains, though, could not compare with the spectacular figures registered in Cook County which contained the town of Chicago. The 1860 federal census recorded over a thousand free persons of color in this northeastern county. Knox County, containing Galesburg, and Jo Daviess County, with the Mississippi River port of Galena, was the only other northern areas to record significant counts of free Negroes. For the two decades prior to 1860. Even though the number of blacks in these three northern counties rose from 5% to 18% of the aggregate Illinois colored population, at no time did the northern total approach that of the lower half of the state.

Throughout Illinois, free Negroes tended to gravitate toward more populated areas. A variety of factors influenced this phenomenon including the 2 principles of finding safety in numbers. In addition, free blacks, just as all elements which do not fit into the traditional social order, tended to become concentrated in cities." A comparison of towns and counties in 1860, further illustrates this point. Chicago, Jacksonville, and Galena all had over 85% of their counties' black populations. Over half of Sangamon County's free Negroes lived in Springfield and over 45% of Gallatin County blacks resided in Shawneetown. This principle operated even within some cities themselves. In Chicago, for example, 82% of the colored population in 1850 lived in the second ward and 72% were concentrated in two wards ten years later. The emergence of separate communities within the towns further reinforced the belief in the incapacity of free Negroes to blend into a homogeneous republican society.

Although the number of Illinois free colored persons increased for most of the forty years after statehood, Negroes hardly threatened to overrun the state. While the free Negro population rose by over a half from 1820 to 1850, in relation to the entire population, their proportion dropped from 4.99% in 1810 to less than one percent (>1%) in 1850. The actual number of free Negroes could hardly account for the consternation which their residence engendered among the white inhabitants. As in the older states, the presence of several free black communities gave rise to questions of social and economic equality. Such queries led to an examination of the moral and practical dualism with the resulting outcome depending to a large extent, upon the various backgrounds of the white settlers.

Spanning over four hundred miles from the Wisconsin border in the north to Cairo on its southern tip, Illinois attracted pioneers from two distinct sections of the United States. Except for Galena with its economic ties to St. Louis, immigrants from the North, especially New England, populated the far northern reaches of the state. The middle portion of Illinois remained sparsely inhabited throughout the antebellum period and thus acted as a buffer between the Yankee northerners and the decidedly southern orientation of the pioneers in the lower part of the state. Settlers from the Upper South states of Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee, and Kentucky predominated In southern Illinois.

Although transplanted on the western frontier, northern and southern pioneers retained much of their original sectional identities. This was especially evident in the different republican traditions that each group brought to Illinois. Hard work, social mobility, economic improvement, and opportunity for social advancement characterized the northern view of classical republicanism. While these factors were also present in the South, they were overshadowed by certain deference to a ruling elite.

Economics played a crucial role in the differences between sectional perceptions of the republican ideology. The grain agriculture of the North facilitated freeholding and free labor. Thus, in the post-Revolutionary period, slave labor gradually disappeared. In addition, emancipation was indiscriminate j that is, bondsmen were often released without any skills to offer in a competitive free-market economy. Together with prevailing racial prejudices, the resulting lack of employment spelled economic deprivation for free Negroes and ideological catastrophe for whites. Since northern freemen could find little or no work, they were perceived as lazy and a dangerous threat to the ideal republican work ethic, if not the entire republican way of life. A definite post-Revolutionary reaction existed which cast suspicion on all people who did not meet their individual republican responsibilities. Thus, the belief developed that free Negroes undermined republican virtues and corrupted the entire society. Such evil contaminants necessitated separation, segregation, and eventual exportation as a matter of the republic's survival.

In contrast to the North, slavery remained entrenched in the Upper South. First tobacco and then cotton required cheap and plentiful labor, thus ensuring the survival of the peculiar institution. In this economic milieu, freeholding and free labor suffered. Many of the Upper South’s small farmers migrated to free territory in Illinois to escape the debilitating economic effects of slavery. In addition, the presence of an enslaved class tended to cause the stratification of southern society. Men of means tended to either hold slaves or to have indirectly profited by slave labor. This southern elite formed the educated and politically powerful ruling class in the South. Men of lesser standing deferred to the wealthier class in matters of social and civic importance, including the problem of the free Negro.

Whereas bondsmen were, for the most part, indiscriminately emancipated in the North, free Negroes existed together with slavery in the Upper South. These freemen too found work difficult to obtain which in turn led to white pronouncements of laziness and moral degradation. However, free blacks also created a fear among southerners that was much stronger and more immediate in nature than among northerners. The principle of egalitarianism supported by historical facts dictated that enslaved peoples would eventually rise up in "bloody revolt against their oppressors. Free Negroes were viewed as the dreaded agents and agitators of such a revolt and thus became the hated pariah harbingers of an impending calamity. Whereas northerners envisioned an eventual threat to republican ideology, southerners feared for their very lives. Hence, the racial caste system had to be rigidly enforced in the hope of forestalling racial conflagration. While men from the Upper South shared the republican values of northerners, these values were tempered by the influence of slavery.

The two differing sectional views concerning the free Negro and republicanism were transplanted into Illinois. In general, Illinoisans regarded black freemen as an inferior and hopelessly degraded class. Beneath this common perception, however, lay an important and critical difference. Northerners objected to free Negroes on theoretical and abstract grounds; southern Illinoisans regarded the presence of free blacks as a direct threat to their lives and property, indeed, to the entire social order. Neither the relatively minute free Negro population nor the termination of slavery in the 1840s mitigated these attitudes. Governor Edward Coles, the state's second chief executive, and an anti-slavery advocate noted in 1824 that this point was particularly evident in the Illinois "black laws. He observed that the laws were "a mere transcript of those of the southern states." While Coles understood the need for this legislation given the large population of Negroes in the South, he declared that Illinois had no need for such restrictions on free blacks. Years later, Governor Thomas Ford, in his classic history of Illinois, suggested that the proportion of free Negroes living in the state had little to do with the restrictions imposed upon them. Just as there were obsolete hemp and tobacco regulations in the statute books even though neither of these southern crops was grown in Illinois; also the southern black codes were transferred northward (Illinois Black Code). The situation may have changed, but the racial attitudes did not.

Since Illinois was primarily settled by men from the Upper South, and the lower half of the state was settled first and contained most of the black population, the southern viewpoint greatly influenced the manner in which "black freemen were treated during the territorial and early statehood years. Although slavery was prohibited by the Northwest Ordinance, this stricture did little to diminish slaveholders' attempts to introduce the peculiar institution into the territory north of the Ohio River. Their efforts proved at least partially fruitful, for slaves already in the Illinois Territory were permitted to remain, while others could be brought in for specific periods of time. Not surprisingly, in conjunction with the southern fears of slave insurrections, free Negroes were prohibited from entering the territory by a law enacted in 1813. An entire code of restrictive laws existed before statehood in 1818. Clearly, free Negroes were unwanted and quite probably sorely abused. In a letter dated July 13, 1818, Abraham Gamp, a black farmer living near the Wabash River, complained of the dualism exhibited by whites. He declared his loyalty to the high republican principles of the United States but regretted that the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence did not apply to free persons of color. The only solution, he felt, was to immigrate to Liberia. This solution, of course, enabled whites to preserve their republican ideals by simply exporting volunteering free blacks who could not mesh into the ideal homogeneous republican model. Ultimately unsuccessful, colonization would be strongly advanced during the antebellum years.

In the meantime, Illinois citizens were grappling with the framing of a constitution to accompany their application for admission to the Union as the twenty-first state. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1818 recognized that they were in a delicate position. The Ordinance of 1787 had laid the ground rules for statehood and prohibition of the peculiar institution was clearly specified. The convention reached a compromise that would be acceptable to anti-slavery men, yet preserve the inviolable protection against the black menace. The finished product of the convention's labors contained Article VI which was more notable for what it left unsaid than for its expressed contents. Slavery and involuntary servitude were prohibited, but nothing was said about voluntary service or indentures. Even more ominous was the constitutional silence on the status of free Negroes. Article XII reserved the vote for "white male inhabitants' only. Although most of the Constitution of 1818 gave the appearance of conforming to egalitarian republican ideals, Articles VI and XII demonstrated the delegates' real intentions. Only the "gullible" and "optimistic" regarded the anti-slavery article as a sincere effort to resolve the problem. To Illinoisans of southern descent, the collapse of an entire system of social order was hardly the goal of the framers of the Constitution of 1818.

A year after Illinois' admission to the Union, the reason for the constitution's vagueness on the free Negro question became apparent. The General Assembly adopted a group of restrictive laws remarkably similar to, though not as harsh as, those pertaining to Negroes in the South. These black laws curtailed many of the freedoms associated with a republican society. Slaves, of course, lived under a code that limited movement, assembly, and various recreational and excitable activities such as dancing. The title of the original black law passed on March 30, 1819, revealed much about the status of free blacks in Illinois: "An Act Respecting Free Negroes, Mulattoes, Servants, and Slaves." The only common denominator in these four groups was race; free Negroes were equated with slaves. In future years, succeeding measures elaborated upon the 1819 black law, further curtailing the liberties of free colored persons. Free Negroes could not sue for their liberty in Illinois courts they could not serve on juries they could act as witnesses against white men and their right to hold property was severely restricted by custom. Of course, that ultimate iconoclast of social order and republican virtue, racial intermarriage, was strictly forbidden. In addition, the vast majority of Illinois schools remained open to white children only throughout the antebellum period. Thus, free Negroes could neither fulfill their individual republican responsibilities nor were they offered any possibility of doing so in the future.

In the four decades between statehood and the Civil War, the Illinois black laws, surviving repeal attempts and court challenges, became even more restrictive. Black immigration in particular invited legislative improvements. In 1819, for example, only a certificate of freedom and good behavior were needed to gain entrance to the state. Ten years later, a one thousand dollar bond had to be given as a guarantee against becoming a public charge in addition to the freedom certificate. While the state's chronic need for money may have been a motivating factor in the size of the bond, the main objective was to exclude free Negroes from the state altogether without specifically saying so. The great majority of black immigrants, whether freemen or fugitive slaves, simply ignored this law. Few men, regardless of color, possessed one thousand dollars in a state where land at any price was considered expensive. The ineffectiveness of the measure was further demonstrated two years later when an unsuccessful proposal was debated in the legislature which aimed to eliminate black immigration altogether. Even attempts to return runaway slaves and indentured servants met with failure as the number of repeated advertisements for the delinquents’ return indicated. As the free Negro population increased, the severity of the black laws rose accordingly as if by calculation. Indeed, the entire "plan" seemed "to have been intended to drive free Negroes into voluntary indenture." As a result, black freemen would be in actual practice what they already were in the statute books, the equivalent of chattel slave property. Instead of peddling in human flesh, the contracts of indentured servants were bought and sold by the Illinois equivalent of slaveholders. In this way, the disquieting un-republican presence of Illinois' free Negroes could be eliminated without offending northern ideological standards of southern demands for real protection of the social order. Therefore, Illinoisans from all sections of the state-approved of the "black laws "because the measures offered something for all white citizens. As Governor Ford reminded his readers, "when we consider the importance, for the purposes of harmony and good government, of preserving a homogeneous character amongst the people," the separation of the races was indeed a "wise" objective.

Free "blacks suffered greatly under the black laws. Those freemen who had dreams of freedom in a paternalistic setting or a southern society without slavery were quickly disillusioned. If no white person had a pecuniary interest in him, the black freeman was left to his own resources which were meager indeed. For the more observant bondsmen, emancipation in Illinois could be a dreaded fate as shown by Edward Coles' newly freed slaves’ frightful remonstrance for protection in 1819.

Whether because of racial prejudice, lack of skills, or lack of money, black freemen remained a dependent class in antebellum Illinois. The few exceptional free blacks who triumphed over all adversity still required the approval and support of the dominant caste. For example, George Washington, a free Negro from Otter Creek, was educated and left an endowment by his former master. Although "independently" wealthy, Washington needed the support of friendly white neighbors to protect himself from unscrupulous and hostile tormentors.

Solomon McWorter,
son of Free Frank
(Civil War Era Photo)
"Free Frank" McWorter, Illinois' most successful Negro pioneer, could have accomplished little without the support of an influential Pike County political figure. Frank McWorter planned his freedom for many years. As a slave, he saved money, purchased his wife’s freedom, and then negotiated his own from a Kentucky planter in 1819 at age forty-two. Soon after he purchased his oldest son, Solomon. In 1830 McWorter migrated with free family members to the Illinois frontier near the Mississippi River, where he established a farm and the community of New Philadelphia. Over his lifetime he was able to purchase his remaining thirteen family members.

Free Frank turned his 160 acres of Illinois farmland into a cash operation by transporting his produce to the Mississippi River for sale. With the purchase of additional acreage, he established the first known town platted by a Negro, naming it New Philadelphia. Although the town prospered for decades, New Philadelphia later declined. Over time he sold lots to both whites and Negroes.

McWorter died before the Civil War has never experienced the benefits of citizenship that came with the Fourteenth Amendment. Though living in the free state of Illinois, the family was never entirely safe from slave catchers (the reverse underground railroad capturing freed slaves and selling them back into slavery) who moved along the Mississippi River before the Civil War. McWorter could not protect himself from white claim-jumpers because the black laws prohibited the testimony of a Negro in a court case involving a white man. Only with the aid of powerful white friends could "Free Frank" retain his property. The McWorters remained in the community of New Philadelphia for generations as farmers and artisans.

If life was trying for relatively prosperous black farmers like George Washington and Frank McWorter, the existence of the poor rural free Negro hung in a precarious balance between freedom and bondage. Often ignored and isolated, rural black freemen provided easy targets for unscrupulous kidnappers. These pirates of human booty prowled the countryside along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in the vicinities of Shawneetown and Illinoistown (now East St. Louis), both of which contained substantial black populations. This odious practice was loudly condemned by public officials, but in the first years after statehood, the legislature's actions on the problem were confined to the issuance of platitudes encouraging stricter enforcement of the laws. The black laws, however, actually encouraged kidnapping by preventing black victims from pressing charges against white men in Illinois courts. Moreover, the freedom certificates could be "misplaced" or destroyed with ease, thus making free blacks subject to the fugitive slave laws. The few rural free Negroes fortunate enough to find employment often found themselves the objects of conflict and acrimonious court battles between their employers and suspicious whites.

The towns offered some protection from sudden re-enslavement, but economic and social life remained severely proscribed. Although the unemployment rates in 1850 and 1860 for blacks in northern Illinois counties were less than those in the southern regions, the overall economic picture was one of poverty. J Urban and rural free Negroes seldom held the titles to the lands on which they lived and claimed little or no personal property. Work, when it was obtained, consisted of manual labor, service occupations, and the menial tasks which became associated with the term "traditional" Negro career.

William de Fleurville:
"Billy The Barber"
Like rural free blacks, a few notable examples of extraordinary accomplishment existed in the urban setting. William de Fleurville, a mulatto immigrant from the West Indies, owned and operated a barbershop in Springfield. He eventually emerged as the spokesman for the black community and became the acknowledged liaison with the city's influential whites. Among "Billy the Barber's" clients were lawyers like Abraham Lincoln, who provided legal advice in exchange for barbering services.

Fleurville accumulated a substantial fortune, but it was clear that he depended upon his reputation as a "good" Negro in order to maintain his somewhat lofty stature. Without white patronage, his shop would certainly have failed and his standing in the eyes of whites would have unquestionably been diminished. In addition, none of his land holdings could have been legalized without the aid of white lawyers like Lincoln, who represented Fleurville in court proceedings.
John L. Jones
John L. Jones of Chicago, like Fleurville, presented a remarkable success story that was tempered by the lack of republican rights and equality. A tailor in a town of substantial abolitionist tendencies, Jones became the leader of Chicago's Negro community. Jones used his house and his office, both located on Dearborn Street, as stops on the Underground Railroad through Chicago.

His home was known as a meeting place for local and national abolitionist leaders including Frederick Douglass and John Brown. He also authored a number of influential anti-slavery pamphlets. 

In the 1850s, he represented Illinois blacks at a colored convention held in Cleveland, Ohio, and was chosen by Negro delegates to be the chairman of the black convention held in Alton in 1856, where he launched a campaign to abolish the black laws. In spite of his considerable accomplishments, Jones, too, depended upon the sufferance and patronage of whites. His tactics, which would have brought swift reprisals in virtually any other town in the state, were perfectly suited for a tolerant northern city like Chicago. In addition, his business could never have survived without white patronage.

In both rural and urban settings, therefore, classical republican values were denied in free Negroes. First, there was the glaring black unemployment problem. Although it was due to forces beyond the control of black freemen, the lack of gainful work was accepted as conclusive proof of anti-republican subversion in terms of laziness, immorality, and a total abrogation of individual responsibility. Such people became burdens to the republic and dependent upon public support. In order to combat this drain on tax money which could be better spent on items beneficial to the society at large, bonds were required to guard against the introduction of slovenly Negroes into the state. Significantly, in virtually every measure enacted to curtail or prohibit immigration into Illinois, a clause was included which specified that proceeds from bonds or fines were to be used to defray the counties' costs in supporting their charges.

Secondly, not only were poor black freemen not independent, but the more economically advanced Negroes still exhibited a marked degree of dependency upon the dominant white caste. Their very survival and livelihood were inextricably linked to the paternal tolerance and patronage of white friends and sympathizers. No matter how much money they earned, how unimpeachable a reputation they achieved, or how educated they became, free Negroes could never achieve the virtuous standing of independent, valuable contributors to the maintenance of the glorious ideal of the American republic.

Third, free Negroes in Illinois violated the sacred rule dictating that a true republican society had to possess a homogeneous and egalitarian nature. Not only were free blacks racially different, but they tended to draw apart from the mainstream of society and, where their numbers could support them, to create their own institutions. This trend was particularly evident in urban areas, where separate black churches, schools, and fraternal organizations emerged. This self-segregation was a means of self-preservation, but suspicious whites viewed the phenomenon as a conspiracy to undermine republican homogeneity and the harmony of the social order.

To this complex picture, Illinoisans applied the dualism of republican theory and frontier practicality. The most accepted solution to the free Negro problem was obviously physical exclusion from the state. Republican ideology offered no guidelines on how this end could be achieved. At this precise point, the sectional variations of republicanism in the North and the Upper South came into play. Men from Northern Illinois held that Negroes could enter Illinois, but they would not encourage free blacks to do so and expected them to eventually depart for friendlier areas. Segregation and mild versions of the black laws would be sufficient to ensure this goal. Residents of southern Illinois did not have such patience. Free Negroes presented a critical danger that could not wait for an eventual hoped-for emigration. An immediate cessation of free black immigration was the first step; complete elimination of that degraded population was the final goal. For a time, the two sections agreed upon the practical methods of controlling Illinois' free colored population. The ideological republican plane remained separated from the reality of mild black laws. A chasm of silence allowed the inconsistency "between theoretical freedom and the actual proscribed liberty of free Negroes to remain unchallenged.

The delicate silence was shattered by black freemen themselves. The black laws had no appreciable effect on their presence in the state. Stories circulated about slave insurrections, especially after the Nat Turner nightmare in 1831. States surrounding Illinois were enacting laws to prohibit the immigration of free blacks into their territories, while Illinois, sharing two long accessible borders with the slave states of Kentucky and Missouri, had no such laws. As an ever increasing number of free Negroes settled in the lower half of the state, the white residents of southern Illinois grew restless. They found it necessary to enact ever more stringent measures that smacked of the vestiges of slavery so anathema to the ideological sensibilities of northern Illinoisans. Each of these attempts acted to pull the planes of ideology and practicality together and thereby force the exposure of their inherent differences.

The first of these attempts occurred in the early 1820s in the form of a blatant attempt by influential southern Illinois politicians, never totally reconciled to the Constitution of 1818, to reinstate slavery. By circuitous means, this group manipulated the composition of the General Assembly to acquire a majority that called for a convention to draft a pro-slavery constitution. A year later, in 1825, the convention proposal was presented for the voters' approval. The anti-slavery forces assailed the plan as a sinister attempt to violate the fundamental principles under which Illinois had been admitted to the Union in 1818. Northern newcomers had no intention of seeing Illinois become a slave state whether or not such a situation meant a large influx of free Negroes. Even some southerners found the convention proposal ideologically unpalatable. The cheapening effect of the peculiar institution on free labor and freeholding was one of the reasons they had migrated northward, and they had no desire to endure a repeat performance of that deplorable condition. Free Negroes presented a danger, but slavery created more problems than it solved. Although men of northern origin comprised a minority of the voters, the convention proposal was decisively rejected.

The second major exposure of the planes involved the colonization of free Negroes in Africa or the West Indies. The resettlement schemes of the American Colonization Society appealed strongly to the homogeneous facet of republican ideology. Furthermore, colonization contained the attractive feature of appearing to be voluntary. Gentle, not violent, persuasion was the dominant technique. Free Negroes were advised to settle in Liberia for their own good and for the benefits of civilization that they would transplant on the "Dark Continent."

Colonization, however, had three distinct drawbacks. First, many free Negroes had no intention of leaving their American homeland for unknown wilds. It was far better to suffer oppression in a familiar land than to perish in oblivion. This black intransigence infuriated many whites, including some abolitionists, who assumed that newly freed bondsmen would gratefully leave the country in search of a country more compatible with their race. In addition to the colored people's lack of enthusiasm, the effectiveness of the colonization schemes also suffered from a lack of money and coordination. Hence free Negroes who "volunteered" to be resettled because they were "doing no good," found it difficult to leave the country. The end product of the colonizationists’ labors led to the uncomfortable conclusion that although resettlement presented an ideologically acceptable means of achieving republican homogeneity, only optimistic visionaries could believe that it offered any practical solution to the free Negro problem.

Secondly, and probably more significantly, the colonization solution became the victim of a growing tendency, especially among northerners, to perceive the slavery problem in a moral light. Although in a minority, vocal abolitionists accused colonization advocates of actually assisting slaveholders by removing a dreaded source of anti-slavery agitation. Ironically, colonization was condemned as anti-republican because it assisted in the perpetuation of the immoral peculiar institution, thereby offending the valued principles of free labor, hard work, and personal independence.

Finally, the resettlement schemes committed the fatal transgression of bridging the gulf between theoretical republicanism and social practicality. By its very nature, colonization focused attention on the free Negro dilemma. In other words, how could men oppose slavery on the one hand and be even more hostile to the results of emancipation on the other? In an amoral context, this question raised serious doubts about social and ideological consistencies; in combination with the searing light of moral scrutiny, colonization, like the failed pro-slavery convention proposal of 1825, totally offended the principles of a virtuous republic. Unable to withstand the illuminating force of the convergence of ideological and practical planes, colonization died an ignominious death of discredited impracticality.

Since neither colonization nor the reinstitution of slavery offered a viable solution to the free Negro problem without offending the dualistic “modus vivendi,” worried southern Illinoisans promoted the enactment of an effective "black anti-immigration law. In the 1847 Constitutional Convention, they saw the chance to make their proposals a reality and seized the initiative. On June 24, 1847, Benjamin Bond from Clinton County proposed an article that prohibited free Negroes from immigrating to the state and banned slaveholders from releasing their bondsmen in the state. A compromise proposal was subsequently offered which required the first session of the General Assembly to pass an "effectual" anti-immigration law, Horrified delegates from northern counties objected to the proposal as a violation of the federal Constitution's guarantee of rights and privileges in all of the states. The proponents of Article XIV countered that since the voting age was regulated by each individual state, Illinois had a perfect right to govern its own territory as it saw fit. The northerners asked if Article XIV was really necessary, in view of the small numbers of free Negroes in the state, and suggested that the proposal's harshness was reminiscent of that anti-republican horror, slavery. Southern delegates shot back with the fact that "green" northerners could afford to hold such ideological scruples since they did not have to endure the offensive presence of lazy, superannuated, wicked, and "good for nothing" Negroes. After tempers had cooled, proponents of Article XIV gathered their forces and won approval despite warnings that the citizens of northern counties would never approve it.

More astute delegates and cynical observers, however, realized that Article XIV represented only a minor victory. The proposal's advocates had won the battle but not the war and their spoils included a Pandora’s Box. The convention had merely shoved the responsibility for finding a solution to the free Negro problem onto the legislature where an infinite maze of special interests could delay its solution. The first session of the General Assembly under the Constitution of 1848 promptly confirmed the cynics' worst predictions. Even though an overwhelming majority of Illinois citizens approved of Article XIV, the lawmakers were quite timid. They tended to split along geographical lines, with the central counties holding the balance. A Negro anti-immigration bill was narrowly defeated in 1849. Not until 1853, by the use of surprise tactics, was the legislature able to pass an anti-immigration act. The law raised a storm of protest and its comparison with the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 could hardly go unnoticed. The Anti-Immigration Act provided that any Negro who remained in the state for more than ten days was subject to arrest, advertisement as a fugitive, and, remaining unclaimed, was to be sold at public auction for a maximum of one year's labor. In effect, a system of forced labor was created. In addition, the infamous 1850 Fugitive Slave Act forced free Negroes from the state, not by gentle persuasion, but by fear of sudden re-enslavement. Such extreme measures and the atrocities that would inevitably ensue caused the chasm separating the planes of ideology and reality to close. A virtuous republic could not permit people, no matter what their color, to be snatched off its streets and thrown into chains. These laws merely extended the peculiar institution northward and therefore cheapened and even threatened the republican values of personal independence and free labor. Although both of the state's major political parties, the Democrats and the Whigs, gave grudging approval to the Fugitive Slave Act as a necessary part of the Compromise of 1850, many people were not so generous. Ministers, who had previously remained silent on the Negro issue, and even free blacks themselves joined anti-slavery men in vilifying the 1850 and 1853 acts. While the Chicago city council called for an outright disregard of the Fugitive Slave Act by the local police force, the law's effectiveness, like that of the Anti-Immigration Act, was probably limited. By so greatly countering republican ideology, it supplied the arsenal of protest and agitation rather than actually providing a solution to the black problem.

Failing all else, the men of the frontier resorted to violence to solve their immediate Negro problem. A white mob in Cairo, and later in Mound City, attempted to drive free Negroes out of their towns. Even though such action spread to nearby towns, census figures indicate that most of the black community remained. In addition to being a practical failure, violence completely ignored republican values. Free Negroes were, after all, "free" to leave the state, but the exercise of such freedom must be an exercise of republican voluntarism and not autocratic coercion.

All of Illinois' attempts to deal with the free Negro dilemma ended in failure because they offended the dualism that governed the social order. Every civilized society has a code of idealistic principles and a means of putting them into practice. In antebellum Illinois, the execution of those principles with regard to the free Negro was colored by sectional differences in the interpretation of republican ideals. The people of the state generally agreed that the presence of black freemen was undesirable, but disagreed on the methods required to achieve the desired restoration of the classical republican characteristics of personal independence, egalitarianism, economic mobility, hard work, and a homogeneous society—factors that were alien to free Negroes in the eyes of whites. The many solutions to the disparity between republican theory and practice failed in antebellum Illinois and, in many ways, the gap remains with us still.

By Steven J. Savery
Edited by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

[1] Antebellum: occurring or existing before the Civil War. 

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