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Slavery in Early Illinois

Allan Claybon
Brookwood Junior High School, Glenwood

When Illinois became a state, many problems surfaced. Many of the state's new settlers came from the South, and brought with them the institution of slavery. As of 1818 the issue was not resolved.

According to the Ordinance of 1787, slavery was prohibited in the Northwest Territory. At the beginning of 1818 slavery was illegal, but many ignored the laws. Others worked around the laws by hiring indentured servants. Indenture was a form of slavery for little pay. When Illinois became a state many were divided on the subject of slavery. Some opposed it and some favored it in Illinois.

Territorial governor Ninian Edwards voiced his opinions about the issue of slavery. He wrote that he thought of slavery as "evil, improper, and unnecessary," and said he would veto any slavery bill. Interestingly, he had once owned four slaves himself. Shadrach Bond, Illinois' first governor, however, supported slavery. He favored slaves for such work as salt mining.

Slavery was a complicated issue for the constitutional convention. Both antislavery and proslavery factions could claim a degree of victory in the state's first constitution. Slaves could not be introduced into the state, although slaves were permitted in the salt works. Indentured servants were not freed, and no new contracts were permitted.

After statehood, black codes were enacted in 1819 that treated blacks harshly. For example, free blacks were required to carry a certificate stating their freedom. However, according to the code, whites were penalized for bringing a slave into the state or selling free blacks into slavery.

What followed were heated debates between proslavery and antislavery forces. Considerable sympathy for slavery existed in the General Assembly, and each side had its supporters throughout the state. Illinois' second governor, Edward Coles, who barely won the election, was very opposed to slavery. Proslavery forces called a constitutional convention to amend the state constitution to permit slavery. Coles opposed the amendment, and it was defeated in 1824.

The issue of slavery raged on far beyond statehood. Illinois was a free state, but not all blacks were free. The issue continued well into the 1850s when Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln debated the issue. Slavery was but one reason for the Civil War.[From John W. Allen, Legends and Lore of Southern Illinois; Solon J. Buck, Illinois in 1818; James Gray, The Illinois; Harry Hansen, Illinois; Robert P. Howard, Illinois: A History of the Prairie State; Robert M. Sutton, The Heartland.]

This house in Equality reportedly housed slaves in Illinois' early state history.
The house was at one time owned by John Hart Crenshaw, who also
operated a nearby salt mine.
House in Equality


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