Nathaniel Pope was one of the most important figures in Illinois history, as the territory's delegate to Congress during the critical period just before Illinois achieved statehood. Born into a very influential family, his connections helped him throughout his career. His popularity with the editors of the Western Intelligencer newspaper was also invaluable. Pope used these advantages to get into office, and then to help guide the Illinois territory to statehood with his leadership.
Nathaniel Pope was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on January 5, 1784. His father, like other members of his family, was a very influential man, serving as justice of the peace, lieutenant-colonel of the militia, and sheriff. With the legacy of a family involved in politics and an education in law influencing him, Nathaniel Pope started a promising career as a lawyer in the new Louisiana Territory.
On February 9, 1809, the Territory of Illinois was established. Pope's family used this opportunity to create a political career for him. His brother, John, was a U.S. senator from Kentucky. Using his influence, Senator Pope assured Nathaniel Pope the appointment as territorial secretary, despite local resistance. Nathaniel Pope was then instrumental in the appointment of Ninian Edwards, his cousin, as governor of Illinois. Without these family connections, Pope's career might never have gone beyond the practice of law.
During Pope's term as territorial secretary, he became involved in a harsh factional battle. The Edgar-Morrison faction and the Harrison faction were battling as Pope entered office. Acting as governor before Edwards arrived, Pope appointed many members of the Harrison faction to office, without appointing any Edgar-Morrison supporters. This created animosity with the Edgar-Morrison group, but may have provided him with indispensable backing from members of the Harrison contingent.
Pope later ran for the office of territorial delegate to Congress. The editors of the Western Intelligencer, a Kaskaskia newspaper published during this period, were probably Harrison supporters. In their announcement that Pope was running opposed for territorial delegate, the editors wrote:
Population was a problem because a recent cenus had not been taken, and congressmen were concerned that Illinois might not have the forty thousand inhabitants generally deemed necessary for admission. In a letter to the Intelligencer written on January 24, 1818, Pope held that, "In order to evade that objection the bill contains a proviso, that the census shall be taken previously to the [formation of state government.]" Pope continued to outline his plan for Illinois statehood in this letter by suggesting that the census requirement be taken out of the bill later, presumably after it had pacified concerned congressmen. Unfortunately, Pope failed in his attempt to remove the census requirement, and Illinois was forced to count its residents. The resulting census was very questionable. Everyone who passed on major roads through Illinois was counted; hence, many travelers were counted more than once. More than forty thousand people were reported by this census, fulfilling the requirement, but the actual population was probably closer to thirty-five thousand.
Pope meanwhile decided to improve the terms of statehood. He wrote to the Western Intelligencer on January 27, 1818: "When the bill is taken up, I will endeavour to procure twenty or thirty miles farther north, and make Lake Michigan part of our eastern boundary. I shall not attempt to explain the importance of such an accession of territory . . . ." This expansion was feasible because the Territory of Wisconsin had not yet been established; thus, no opposition organized against the amendment. The legal obstacle to the expansion, the Ordinance of 1787, stated that the boundary should be the southern tip of Lake Michigan. However, the original bill, mailed to the Intelligencer by Pope on January 27, 1818, already violated this agreement by ten miles. Since this ordinance had already been set aside by Congress in the original bill, little basis for argument on legal grounds existed.
The amendment caused, "some jealousy. . . against [Illinois] gaining so much territory north," the Intelligencer reported. However, Pope spoke for it so eloquently that it was agreed upon without a division. Pope told Congress that the perpetuity of the Union would be ensured by the movement of the boundary northward. If Illinois were given a footing on the Great Lakes, commerce would develop with eastern states. This trade link would counterbalance the dependence of southern Illinois on the southwestern states. Without this check, Illinois might join the southwestern states in the event of a dissolution of the Union. None of the western states, however, would attempt to dissolve the Union without the support of the central and commanding Illinois. This argument proved quite accurate during the Civil War, as the northern part of the state balanced secessionist tendencies in the South. In addition to this argument, Pope extolled the virtues of the trade an Illinois coast on the Great Lakes would generate.
Of course, Wisconsin did not agree with Pope's views when it sought statehood thirty years later. In the Wisconsin Historical Collections it is contended that, "Wisconsin became a state, in 1848, stripped by the youthful greed of her southern neighbor and political maneuvering in congress, of 8,500 square miles of the richest and most populous territory in the entire Northwest." Wisconsin attempted to show the illegality of the expansion, but by the time the question was brought up, it was probably too late. The boundaries remained as Pope had set them.
Despite Wisconsin's dissatisfaction, Pope's great achievements have proven to be crucial both to Illinois and to the United States. Today, more than half the population of Illinois lives in the area that he secured for the state with his brilliant maneuverings in Congress. The Civil War also supported the arguments for his amendment. Illinois was indeed a key state in the fight against the dissolution of the Union, as Pope had predicted. Despite his dubious rise to power, initiated in large part by his family and promoted through his favor with a prominent newspaper, Pope proved himself a distinguished officeholder and a great contributor both to Illinois and to the United States as a whole. —[From Paul M. Angle, "Nathaniel Pope, 1784-1850, A Memoir;" Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society 1936; D. Appleton, ed.. Abridgement of the Debates of Congress, from 1789 to 1856; Solon Buck, Illinois in 1818; Thomas Ford, History of Illinois, From Its Commencement As A State in 1818 to 1847; Illinois Intelligencer, May 22, 1816, Jan. 21, March 4, March 11, May 6, June 24, 1818; John Moses, Illinois, Historical and Statistical; Francis S. Philbrick, ed., Pope's Digest, 1815; Francis Newton Thorpe, ed., The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the States, Territories, and Colonies, Now or Heretofore Forming the United States of America; Reuben G. Thwaites, ed.. Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.]