The Constitutional Convention of 1818
James A. Edstrom, Senior Cataloger
In April 1818 Congress passed a bill that marked the beginning stages of Illinois' admission to the Union. One of its most important provisions authorized the people of the Illinois Terrifory to hold a convention that would decide whether to form a state government, and if so, to write a constitution for their new state. In July of that year, voters in Illinois' fifteen counties elected thirty-three delegates to represent them at this convention.
The document that resulted from the convention defined and organized state government, established a system of justice, attempted to deal with the issue of slavery, and otherwise guided the transformation of Illinois from terrifory to state. For the next thirty years that constitution was the ultimate authority on every state legal issue. It seems appropriate on the 175th anniversary of Illinois statehood to examine the lives of the thirty-three men who framed the first state constitution in August 1818. Each brought to the assembly particular origins, professions, and socioeconomic backgrounds that, in one way or another, influenced the final document.
The inhabitants of the Illinois Territory emigrated mainly from the South and the West, with a smaller number coming from the middle states, foreign countries, and New England. In general, the delegates' own movement to Illinois reflected that pattern. Twelve of them hailed from the South. Nine delegates from what were then the westernmost states made up the next largest group. Six were from the Mid-Atlantic states, and two were from New England. Only one was of foreign birth.
Like their constituents, the delegates' movement westward was gradual. More than half of them settled for a time in other western states—primarily
Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, and especially Kentucky—before arriving in Illinois. The delegates seem to have drawn on their experiences in those other states in drafting the constitution of 1818. Significant portions of it were modeled upon the constitutions of Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana.
The twenty-four members whose birthdates could be determined averaged thirty-nine years of age at the time of the convention. The oldest member, Isham Harrison, was between fifty-six and fifty-eight years of age and was one of three Revolutionary War veterans at the convention. The youngest delegate was Elias Kent Kane, who was probably about twenty-four years old. In spite of his youth and having lived in Illinois for only four years, Kane had become influential in terriforial affairs. Along with Jesse B. Thomas, president of the convention, he was one of the leaders of a powerful political faction. Kane drafted much of the state constitution and thus had the most significant impact of any delegate upon its final form.
On average, each delegate had lived in the Illinois Territory eleven years. Enoch Moore and Reverand James Lemen, Jr., had both been born in Illinois, making them the residents of longest standing. Joseph Kitchell was probably the last to arrive, having settled in Palestine, Illinois, in 1817, only a year before the convention.
The delegates represented a multitude of occupations. Among them were farmers, millers, storekeepers, ferry boat operators, lawyers, teachers, surveyors, doctors, preachers, salt manufacturers, innkeepers, flatboaters, authors, carpenters, blacksmiths, mapmakers, coopers, lead mine operators, tanners, and distillers. Several followed more than one occupation. James Hall, Jr., ran what might today be called an industrial park that included a blacksmith shop, a cooper shop, a cotton gin, a distillery, and a grist mill. Conrad Will had a farm, a general store, a mill, and a tannery. He also was a talented physician. Will and at least three other delegates leased salines in southern Illinois from the U.S. government for the purpose of producing salt.
Many of the men provided services essential to a frontier community. Eight of the delegates owned and operated water mills for grinding wheat, corn, and other grains produced by frontier farmers. Such mills often set the stage for the economic and political development of an area. Thomas Kirkpatrick built a water mill in 1813 that was the first manufacturing enterprise in what was later to become the town of Edwardsville. Within a short time, other nearby businesses such as stores and a hotel had been established. Kirkpatrick himself surveyed and platted the town when it was incorporated in 1816. Afterwards, he continued to participate in local affairs. Many of the delegates owed their presence at the convention to similar prominence in their communities.
The thirty-three men at the convention actively sought and held public offices both during the territorial period and afterwards. Twenty-nine held appointed or elective office in the years before 1818, ranging from justice of the peace to county coroner to member of the territorial legislature. Benjamin Stephenson was the territorial representative from Illinois to Congress from 1814 to 1816. Serving in public office proved an asset in gaining election as a delegate, and membership in the convention proved useful afterwards as well. Except for John K. Mangham, who died during the convention, every delegate was called upon to serve in assorted public offices. Many were later elected to the state legislature, especially during the first decade of statehood, and most were entrusted with various positions at the county level, such as justice of the peace, county board member, and county clerk. Only a few attained higher offices, such as Jesse B. Thomas and Elias Kent Kane, who were sent to the U.S. Senate, and Adolphus F. Hubbard, who was elected lieutenant governor under Edward Coles in 1822.
There is not much evidence available regarding the delegates' religious affiliations. Nine of them are known to have belonged to organized denominations: five were Methodists, two were Baptists, one was a Disciple of Christ, and one was (in later life) a minister of a church in Pulaski County, Illinois, denomination unknown. Of these, at least four were preachers at some point in their lives.
Slavery was one of the most important and most combative issues encountered by the convention. Despite the fact that it was prohibited by the Northwest Ordinance, slavery existed in various forms throughout the territory, especially in the saline regions where slaves were employed in manufacturing salt. In passing the statehood bill, Congress had made it clear that the new state constitution was to be "not repugnant" to the Northwest Ordinance; therefore, the convention could not avoid the issue.
In general, the delegates fell into three groups: those who were opposed to slavery, those who favored the institution, and those considered compromisers. Although four of the delegates expressed antislavery sympathies at other times, only two of them consistently acted upon those beliefs in the convention itself. Levi Compton, it is said, was a former slaveowner who had emigrated to Illinois from Kentucky partly because he disliked slavery. Before moving, he freed all his slaves. Reverand James Lemen, Jr. came from a family of antislavery activists. It has been claimed that his father emigrated to Illinois specifically to fight the expansion of slavery into the Northwest Territory. Whether true or not, it is certain that Lemen and his father founded several Baptist churches in southern Illinois in the early 1800s that were antislavery.
On the other hand, thirteen of the delegates to the convention owned or hired slaves at some point in their lives. Ten of them had been slaveowners by 1818. Most lived near the saline districts which relied heavily upon slave labor to produce salt for the
territory. Willis Hargrove, the delegate with the most slaves and the most closely associated with the saltworks industry, was to lead a movement several years later to call a second constitutional convention with an eye toward introducing unrestricted slavery into Illinois.
The third group, the compromisers are more difficult to identify. There clearly was a group of delegates who preferred to keep Illinois' existing system of slavery in place, while giving Illinois the appearance of a free state. In the end, the convention seemed to have adopted their position. It was achieved by wording the slavery clause to read, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall hereafter be introduced into this state, otherwise than for the punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted. . . ." [Emphasis added.] The constitution also prohibited the hiring of slaves from other states—except in the saltworks regions near Shawneetown—and recognized the validity of existing indentures that had been contracted in Illinois.
It is evident from the number who spent their remaining years in the Prairie State that the delegates felt they had a personal stake in the future of Illinois. Only three are known to have emigrated elsewhere in their final years. Isham Harrison was living in Madison County, Missouri, by the 1830s. As a slaveowner, he may have felt more at home in a slave state. Andrew Bankson moved to Dubuque County, Iowa, after seventeen years of public service in county offices and the Illinois legislature. Jesse B. Thomas, president of the convention, left in 1830 for Mount Vernon, Ohio, after twelve years as U.S. senator from Illinois. The other thirty delegates, however, cast their lot with the state to which they had made such an important contribution. For more than fifty years, until the death of the last survivor in 1890, the men of the convention of 1818 served as a reminder of the days when Illinois was making the difficult transition from territory to state.