NEW IPO Logo - by Charles Larry Home Search Browse About IPO Staff Links

Lyman Trumbull
Illinois' Extraordinary Legislator

Andrew S. Johnson
Belleville Township High School West, Belleville

Whenever the topic of famous historical figures associated with Illinois arises, several names come to mind. Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and Stephen A. Douglas are perhaps the most popular of those men who had great influence in the late nineteenth century.

Lyman Trumbull

A lesser known figure, Lyman Trumbull, however, definitely influenced the United States, most notably through his association with the Thirteenth Amendment.

Lyman Trumbull was born in Colchester, Connecticut, on October 12, 1813. He moved early in his life to Georgia where he became a school teacher and studied law. He lived there until he was twenty-four. It was during those years in the South that he learned to dislike slavery.

In 1837 Trumbull decided to move north; he rode horseback all the way to Illinois where he settled in St. Clair County. In Belleville he practiced law with former Illinois Governor John Reynolds. Their partnership fostered a large practice.

Experience in the courthouse made him an excellent debater. In fact, Trumbull biographer Mark Krug wrote that it was widely said that Trumbull "was a man of more real talent and power than Abraham Lincoln" and that his aggressive debating skills matched those of Stephen Douglas. Trumbull was also a highly determined man with an untiring drive for work. Those qualities later helped him as he entered politics.

In 1840, at the age of twenty-seven, Lyman Trumbull was elected a representative to the Illinois General Assembly. In 1841 he was appointed to the office of Secretary of State by Governor Thomas Carlin when the office became vacant. In 1843 he returned to Belleville and continued to practice law until 1848 when he was elected a justice to the Illinois Supreme Court. Trumbull remained on the bench for five years. In 1854 he was elected a representative to the United States House of Representatives. In 1855 he resigned that seat to run for United


States Senate. Trumbull was elected to the Senate by the Illinois legislature where he served for eighteen years.

Such was the outline of Trumbull's political life. Over the span of those years and varied offices, he contributed much, both to Illinois and to the country as a whole. However, perhaps the most significant of his causes was his fight against slavery.

During Trumbull's Belleville years, one of his chief concerns was the system of indenture that held blacks in Illinois as slaves. He believed it to be both immoral and illegal. He was not an abolitionist, but he believed in the need to see justice served for blacks living in Illinois. From 1843 to 1848 he fought in court to defend the freedom of the slaves, and he showed considerable prowess in his undertaking of what one historian labeled the "thankless, discouraging, and unremunerative" task.

Perhaps Trumbull's greatest case in defense of slave freedom was the famous case of Jarrot v. Jarrot in 1845. The case involved Joseph Jarrot, whose grandmother was a French black slave prior to the passage of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787. Joseph sued Julia Jarrot of Cahokia for wages and his freedom. The original jury's decision found in favor of Julia Jarrot; however, Lyman Trumbull took the case to the Illinois Supreme Court, accepting no pay. He argued that the Northwest Ordinance applied to all blacks in the Northwest when the ordinance was passed. Trumbull won the case on a 4-3 decision, which granted freedom to the French black slaves and their descendants. Although not all slavery in Illinois was abolished after the court decision, Trumbull's victory was nevertheless significant.

In 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska Bill was passed. It repealed the Missouri Compromise and enabled the question of slavery in Nebraska to be settled by popular sovereignty. Trumbull vehemently opposed the legislation, and supporters of his anti-Nebraska views elected him to the United States House of Representatives in 1854. A year later, his views motivated him to join the new Republican party, and he resigned his seat in the House to run for the United States Senate. He won the seat and remained there for eighteen productive years.

Trumbull remained in Congress throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction, and much important legislation resulted from his work: the First and Second Confiscation Acts, the Freedman's Bureau Bill, and the First Civil Rights Act adopted by Congress.

Most prominent of Trumbull's legislative achievements, though, was his proposal of the Thirteenth Amendment. Trumbull was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and he made certain that the important amendment passed through Congress. The amendment, which abolished all slavery, was passed quickly by the states, and Illinois was the first state to ratify it.

Problems arose. Trumbull's views conflicted with the Republican plan for Reconstruction. He lost favor within the Republican party in 1868 when he would not vote in favor of the conviction of President Andrew Johnson during his impeachment trial. After 1868 Trumbull joined the reform-minded Liberal Republicans. In 1872 he lost the party's presidential candidate nomination. Essentially, Trumbull's vote in the impeachment trial ended his political career. His Republican ties were severed, and he was politically a man without a party. After Trumbull completed his Senate term, he moved to Chicago and began practicing law again. He stayed active as a lawyer until his death on June 25, 1896.

Lyman Trumbull was indeed a man of great significance to Illinois and to the United States. He fought for justice tor the slaves, and he demonstrated strong support for his country through his multi-faceted political career. The Thirteenth Amendment serves as his mark on the country; the state of Illinois could not have contributed a better legislator. [From Brink, McDonough and Co., The History of St. Clair County, Illinois; Mario R. DiNunzio, "Lyman Trumbull, the States' Rights Issue, and the Liberal Republican Revolt," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 1973; Norman Dwight Harris, The History of Negro Servitude in Illinois, and the Slavery Agitation in that State, 1719-1864; Mark M. Krug, "Lyman Trumbull and the Real Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 1964; Rose Mansfield, "Lyman Trumbull: Father of the Thirteenth Amendment," 1977 Journal of the St. Clair County Historical Society; and Alvin Louis Nebelsick, A History of Belleville.]


|Search| |Back to Periodicals Available| |Table of Contents| |Back to Illinois History A Magazine for Young People 1993|
Illinois Periodicals Online (IPO) is a digital imaging project at the Northern Illinois University Libraries funded by the Illinois State Library