by Paul E. Stroble
The Vandalia Statehouse, constructed 1836, is the oldest surviving state capitol in Illinois. It served as capitol for two General Assemblies, the Tenth (1836-37) and the first session of the Eleventh (1838-39). When constructed, the statehouse was the second time that Vandalians - in an interesting variation on the "barn raising" efforts of rural communities — cooperated on their own initiative to provide unimpressed Illinois officials with suitable quarters. The history of the three Vandalia statehouses are closely connected with Vandalia's fortunes as Illinois' temporary capital city.
Illinois' first Statehouse, a rented building in Kaskaskia, stood for many years until, like the town itself, it was destroyed by the Mississippi River in the late nineteenth century. Kaskaskia served as state capital for only a few months following Illinois statehood (December 3, 1818). During the first week of June 1819, four of the five commissioners elected by the first general assembly selected a site along the Kaskaskia River which, by constitutional fiat, would be the Illinois seat of government for twenty years. During the following months, the new town of Vandalia was established at the selected location. The unusual name had been coined in the 1760s for the proposed fourteenth British Colony that was to be named Vandalia in honor of the queen of England, descended from the Vandal tribes. According to legend, one of Vandalia's surveyors selected the name to denote both the progress of human endeavor at the capital (as in the word "vanguard") and the geographic unevenness (as in "hills and dales") of the attractive site. According to another story, the name designated an ambiguously named site ("vanne delai") along the Kaskaskia that was known to traders several years prior to the 1819 selection.
The first Statehouse, constructed by state authorization, stood for three years. Located at the northwest corner of Fifth and Johnson streets, the Statehouse was, as one legislator described, "primitive and plain as a Quaker meeting house."
The frame Statehouse had a 30-foot square lower room for the House of Representatives and a 25 by 30 foot Senate chamber. Two committee and council rooms were located on the second floor. According to the design, the Statehouse was to have two brick or stone chimneys, but the builder, Edmund Tunstall of Carmi, Illinois, failed to complete the south chimney. Thus, he lost $40 of his $4732 commission. According to one observer, when the Second General Assembly convened in the new Statehouse early in December 1820, the officials sat on furniture "as plain and primitive as the structure....The speaker...sat on an arm chair on a platform hardly large enough to contain it, and a few inches high with a board before him for a desk supported by several sticks called ballisters (sic)." Governor Shadrach Bond hoped for better things, and in 1820 he urged the legislature to undertake "a liberal course of conduct towards improvement of this village." New state buildings, a courthouse, a school — these, said Bond, would enhance Vandalia and provide excellent opportunities for visitors to the capital. Bond's recommendations, however, were not adopted by this and future general assemblies.
The Statehouse burned to the ground in December 1823 under suspicious circumstances related to the campaign, carried on in 1823 and
1824, to convene a constitutional convention to settle the question of slavery in Illinois. Fortunately for the Illinois government, Vandalia citizens took the initiative in 1824 — and again in 1836 — when circumstances warranted new facilities.
Within two months of the statehouse fire, Vandalians began to construct a new facility. Local businessman John Hull advertised in the Illinois Intelligencer for brick molders and eight laborers to make 200,000 bricks for the new capitol. During the spring and summer of 1824, local workers reconstructed the old State Bank building on Fourth Street — damaged in an unrelated fire — and finished a serviceable statehouse. Vandalians probably contributed $3000 to the building project. In his November 1824 address to the legislature, Governor Edward Coles said that the local citizens "doubtless should not be disappointed in their just expectations of being reimbursed for the expenses they have incurred in thus providing for the public accommodation." Fayette County State Representative John A. Wakefield moved successfully to appropriate state funds to cover construction and labor costs. The final legislative act appropriated $12,164.71 in state paper to several Vandalians for the construction effort.
The new, two-story statehouse was centrally located in Vandalia's downtown area. It was 60 feet 4 inches wide along Fourth Street, facing the public square, 32 feet long, and it stood on the west side of the street between Gallatin and Main. On the right of the entrance were the legislative rooms in the statehouse proper, with the House on the first floor and the Senate on the second floor. In the upper portion of the south side were rooms for the secretary of state and clerks, which were used between sessions for various officials like the treasurer (1826), the public printer (1833), and the attorney general (1835). Below were rooms for the Supreme Court and other officials. The House had a lobby of 10 feet 6 inches wide, with three rows of seats. The Senate lobby was 6 feet wide with two rows. Each window in the structure had twelve panes. The building was razed five years before photography came to Illinois, and no drawings or paintings of the building are known to exist. Nothing further is now known of its external features except for the fact that frequent references in state records and travel journals to "the banking house" suggest that the building was a two-part structure, the north section being new, and the south, office section being the old State Bank building that burned early in 1824. This capitol served six General Assemblies; here Lincoln began his political career in 1834. But in spite of the good intentions of the workers, the structure was unsubstantially and hastily constructed on low moist ground and without good cement. The building constantly needed repair, and the legislature consistently refused to authorize anything better. Over the years several Vandalians undertook repairs, and the legislature authorized a few improvements and additions to the statehouse as the building became increasingly ramshackle. But the state Senate in January 1836 defeated a bill that would have provided for a new building.
Meanwhile, Illinoisans began discussing the possibility of a new capital city entirely. Although the constitution stipulated that Vandalia remain the state capital for twenty years; opinions differed whether this meant twenty years after the town's founding in July 1819 or twenty years after the first convening of the General Assembly and Supreme Court at Vandalia in December 1820. Until the 1830s, the issue of relocating the Illinois seat of government was rarely discussed, with the exception of the 1823-1824 convention crisis when one newspaper remarked that a convention could rectify the problem of
a suitable Illinois capital. But early in January 1833, a bill passed the House 29 to 21, authorizing a committee of commissioners to select a town or town site as the permanent state capital. William L. D. Ewing, the senator from Vandalia, reported that the legislation was premature because the state treasury could not withstand such a move and because the constitutional period for the seat of government remaining at Vandalia was not over. Finally, a bill passed that authorized Illinois voters to select a state capital.
Several months passed. At the August 1834 elections, Alton won with 33.4% of the vote, Vandalia received 31.6% (only 427 votes behind Alton), and Springfield received 28.7%. Other communities trailed. Predictably, the vote was very sectional in the state. But the close results and voter apathy— 24,449 votes were cast, compared to 32,711 in the gubernatorial election held on the same day—made the referendum inconclusive. Since the law could not take effect until Vandalia's capital period ended, the referendum result was summarily ignored (and the law itself was repealed in February 1837). Relocation of the seat of government was not an issue at the Ninth General Assembly, which met at Vandalia December 1834 through February 1835, with a special session in December 1835 through January 1836.
By the summer of 1836, local congregations refused to convene in the statehouse any longer for fear it would collapse upon them. William Walters, the editor of Vandalia's Illinois State Register, predicted the building would not stand until winter.
Vandalians Asahel Lee and Levi Davis wrote Governor Joseph Duncan in Jacksonville about the matter during the summer of 1836. Duncan told the men that they should repair the old capitol or perhaps they could find a facility where the next General Assembly (to convene in December) could meet. But he told them to judge the situation for themselves, and he would draw money, if necessary, from the state's "contingent fund." Lee examined the statehouse but discovered that it could not be repaired. The Senate floor had sunk seven inches during the past two years; the walls were cracked and damaged. Vandalians Alexander Pope Field, Harvey Lee, William Hodge, Charles Prentice, and William Greenup sent letters to the governor testifying to the building's condition, remarking that there was no understanding between Vandalians and contractors for work if the legislature did not pay for the building. (Lee assumed that the legislature would eventually pay, or he would not have contracted on the terms that he did, since labor costs had risen 100% since 1835, he said.)
For the next four months, local companies and workers contributed time, labor, and materials for construction of the new state capitol on the public square. Some of the local groups and individuals who did construction and carpentry work included David B. Waterman and Company; William Hodge; John Taylor and Company; John Hull; the Lee brothers; Thomas B. Hickman; Maddox, Waterman and Company; Johnson and Graves; William Linn; and William Greenup. Local merchants, such as Linn, James Black, Ebenezer Capps, Robert Blackwell, Charles Prentice, Robert McLaughlin, and Frederick Remann provided tools and materials. Moses Phillips made a table, and Winslow Pilcher hauled lumber to the public square.
When completed at a cost of $16,000, the new statehouse measured 150 feet by 50 feet. Located upon Vandalia's hitherto-vacant public square, the statehouse possessed a cupola, a gabled roof, and exterior
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walls of unpainted brick. Its front entrance faced Gallatin Street — Vandalia's main thoroughfare — and its rear entrance faced north to Main Street. The auditor, secretary of state, and treasurer had offices downstairs, as well as the Supreme Courts room. The Senate and House chambers were located upstairs, along with spectators' galleries. Exterior columns were added to the statehouse years later. No photographs of the statehouse in its original appearance have been found, even though a daguerreotypist had an office in one of the downstairs rooms in 1853. During the 1970s, the architectural firm McDonald and Mack, in conjunction with the Illinois Department of Conservation, conducted extensive research into the building's earliest characteristics.
One well-known representation, the mural of Vandalia painted by John Matthew Heller in 1954, shows a stately, imposing structure on the square surrounded by businesses and other structures. A photographer took what has become known as the earliest photo of the statehouse. It is a small carte de visite from the 1860s or 1870s taken after the county government moved in and remodeled the exterior and after most of the surrounding structures were gone. All are gone today, except for the statehouse, a state-owned historic site, still imposing over the smaller, surrounding buildings. But in the early winter of 1836-1837 when legislators from around the state arrived for the Tenth General Assembly, the building was far too small. It was larger and better planned than the capitol just razed; but it resembled "a Pennsylvania barn" in the words of one official, and its builders had misjudged the size required for a legislature enlarged in accordance with the 1835 state census. The building was not quite finished in December 1836. Legislators began the session irritated by the presence of workmen and the odor of damp plaster. It is uncertain when the downstairs offices were first used. During this session the Council of Revision rented a meeting room for $19 a month from Augusta Ernst Peebles; Auditor Levi Davis and Secretary of State A. P. Field rented offices from Robert Blackwell for $20 a month during the 1836-37 session; likewise, the clerk of the Supreme Court and the treasurer rented offices from William Walters. The new statehouse had been constructed to provide state offices with adequate quarters, rather than to entice the legislature to keep the seat of government at Vandalia. Had the latter been the motive of the builders (and perhaps it was an unspoken motive), it was an unsuccessful effort.
The session began in December in candle-lit upstairs rooms warmed by stoves and furnished with water pails and tin cups for drinking and sandboxes on the floors for ink-blotting and tobacco-spitting. Legislators gazing out the statehouse windows looked at people walking in front of wooden storefronts and hotels on Gallatin and Main streets below, at horses standing in the cold tied to hitching posts, at wagons traveling along the dirt streets, at stagecoaches arriving in the capital, or at the view of the eastern lowlands beyond the river and the unfinished stretch of the National Road. The Tenth General Assembly, notable for its cross-section of men who later became prominent in state and national affairs (including Lincoln and Douglas), passed the internal improvements act that authorized transportation systems in Illinois funded on state credit. The measure was greeted with great appreciation and fanfare from Illinoisans around the state.
Vandalians themselves were too caught up in the excitement of internal improvements to press the issue of the state capital. On January 24, 1837, Senator Orville Hickman Browning introduced a bill in the Senate for the legislature to select a site for the permanent seat of government. A few weeks later, the bill passed the Senate 24 to 13. The text of the bill included Browning's original provision for a legislative determination of Illinois' permanent state capital, and for the repeal of the 1833 referendum law. The House passed the Senate bill, amending it only to change the determination date to February 28, 1837.
The two Vandalia papers during this time were more interested in the internal improvements bill than removal of the state capital. Both William Walters of the Illinois State Register and William Hodge of the Vandalia Free Press and Illinois Whig seemed resigned (at the moment) that whatever town the legislature would choose would be satisfactory. The Register, for instance, referred in one editorial to the imminent "crisis," then went on to discuss the state banking bill not the potential loss of the seat of government. Behind-the-scenes deals may have taken place to obtain passage of the removal bill, and for many years Lincoln biographers have maintained that the Sangamon County delegation, the "Long Nine," traded votes with internal improvements supporters in order to secure Springfield as capital. (Senator Paul Simon's book,
Lincoln's Preparation for Greatness, has discredited the story.) Since the Vandalia papers picked up no such story and did not carry charges of the "Long Nine" dealing until well after the close of the session, extensive vote trading probably did not occur. It was unnecessary, after all, since Springfield was the popular legislative choice.
When the balloting began on the 28th, Springfield received 35 votes; Vandalia 16; Jacksonville 14; Peoria 16; Alton 16, Illiopolis, Carrolton, and the topographically unspecified "Geographical Center of the State" received 3 each. Decatur received 4, and the other votes were scattered among eleven other towns, including Kaskaskia. On the second ballot Springfield increased to 43 and to 53 on the third. The tally for Vandalia stayed at around 16. Finally on the fourth ballot Springfield climbed over the necessary majority with 73 votes.
Most Vandalia agitation to forestall Springfield's claim took place after the final vote. William Walters finally mustered his considerable gift of sarcasm and wrote in the May 6, 1837, State Register about the relocation bill:
How to populate a town! — Let the roads be so bad...that, if a stranger succeeds in getting in..., he will abandon any notion of getting out!
Directions. — In locating the town, select a large wet prairie or field, full of bogs and springs; so much so, that it will bear to be called Swamp-field, Spring-field, or the like.
For the special session of July 1837 called by the governor in response to the national economic crisis, William L. D. Ewing took his place as representative from Vandalia's Fayette County. A contributor to the Sangamo Journal at Springfield wrote: "Vandalia is wide awake, and she has her strong man, Gen. W. Lee D. Ewing (who) is a candidate for the legislature. She is calling through her newspapers for a repeal of the (relocation) law. All her energies are called into action."
Ewing subsequently led the effort to have the relocation law repealed against the efforts of the "Long Nine." In his 1879 book Reminiscences of the Bench and Bar of Early Illinois, Usher Linder remembered that Ewing addressed the session, "The arrogance of Springfield, its presumption in claiming the seat of government, is not to be endured. The Springfield delegation has sold out to the internal improvements men, and had promised their support to every measure that would gain them a vote to the law removing the seat of government." According to Linder, Lincoln replied to him, "paying back with usury all that Ewing had said," to which Ewing replied, "Gentlemen, have you no other champion than this coarse and vulgar fellow to bring into lists against me? Do you suppose that I will condescend to break a lance with your low and obscure colleague?" In State Register coverage, William Walters likened Ewing's confrontation with the Springfield delegates to Shakespeare's Macbeth facing the apparitions: '"Another, and yet another!'"
After adjournment of the legislature Vandalia's newspapers kept the relocation issue alive, though futilely A July 7, 1838, meeting in Vandalia issued a statement claiming that the "Long Nine," the Springfield land officers, and the president and directors of the state bank were "touching every interest and every cord that could secure a vote for their town." The meeting's committee adopted a
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three-column resolution, stating that "alone and unconnected with other important questions, the seat of government bill could not have passed. The unnatural and unholy connexion (sic) is now dissolved, and when the question is decided by the people, as an isolated measure, standing alone upon its own merits, the citizens of Vandalia will submit to that decision without a murmur or complaint." The resolution was signed by several of Vandalia's prominent citizens.
But, of course, the issue had already been "decided by the people" once, in August 1834, but neither then nor in February 1837, was as strong and public a complaint made by local citizens against removal than at this time.
At the 1838-39 session, Ewing and William Hankins represented Fayette and Effingham counties in the House. The new statehouse in Springfield was under construction, but was a long way from completion, and many persons referred to the $50,000 commitment from Springfield citizens for the building as a "bribe." This complaint was even often heard in Sangamon County. In addition, the money could not be paid in time due to current economic conditions. During one House session, Hankins moved for a detailed explanation of the statehouse contracts. Lincoln, caught off guard, moved to have Hankins' motion referred to a committee of the whole. There, it was amended slightly but adopted.
On January 7, 1839, when Lincoln moved to take up the appropriation bill for completion of the new statehouse, Orlando Ficklin of Coles County moved to amend the bill to make the necessary $128,000 for the building donated solely by individuals and to have the voters again vote for a seat of government in August 1840. This amendment was defeated 62 to 26. Then Hankins made a motion to amend the bill by adding a clause for a future election on the issue. Still opponents on this and other issues, Ewing remarked to Lincoln and his supporters that the state government could not, under constitutional dictate, be moved before 1840, and that it would be better to locate the seat on vacant land. Lincoln stated that the people had the right to move the state government at any time. He also noted that Vandalia was evidence that the state could not profit by relocating the capital to an unsettled location. (That was true: the state government never profited from the sale of lots in Vandalia.) Finally Hankins' amendment was defeated 58 to 24.
In the state Senate, a bill passed to dispose of public property at Vandalia. The same day, when the bill to provide for removal of public offices to Springfield was read, Robert Blackwell moved to refer the bill to the Judiciary Committee, with instructions that three points should be clarified: when the location of the seat of government was made; whether the selection of a site, delineation of lots, or removal of public records constituted the location of the seat; and finally whether it was constitutional for the state Supreme Court to meet at Springfield before December 1840 (the twentieth anniversary of the first General Assembly to meet at Vandalia). Two days later, the Committee had decided that the constitution implied that Vandalia's term as capital began when it was established as a town, and not specifically when the state government convened there for the first time. Vandalia's plat carried the date July 1819, and because all that was authorized by the constitution concerning a seat of government had been done by July 1819, then the twenty-year constitutional period concluded in July 1839. The Senate approved the Committee's recommendation that Springfield be declared the seat of government and seat of the Supreme Court as of July 4, 1839.
The Senate bill, passed in February 1839, authorized that the statehouse should be given to Vandalia and Fayette County with the stipulation that the west half of the building should be reserved for county offices and that the east half be reserved for a school or county seminary. The act authorized the disposal of furniture in the building; county and village officers were allowed to choose stoves and furniture for their new offices and the remainder could be sold and proceeds used for a library. The act gave all state-owned Vandalia lots to the county and authorized that the proceeds on the sale of such lots should be used for constructing or repairing bridges. The only lot which, according to the law, could not be sold, was the Vandalia public square. That lot, where according to legend a state employee selected Vandalia's site in June 1819, could never become private property.
"Though 'Ilium Fuit' (Troy has existed but exists no longer) may not be appropriately inscribed on its ruins," wrote William Stuart of the Chicago Daily American about Vandalia in August 1839, "it nevertheless, on a small scale, has something of a melancholy appearance of departed greatness."
The fence around the former capitol, he noted, was being unceremoniously taken down to be used as firewood. Stuart observed that most Vandalians still felt very hostile to Springfield. He also noted that, during the worst month for diseases, Vandalia was very healthy, as citizens there always contended. "We took some pains to ascertain the fact, as we came there in a physical condition which prepared us quite readily to sympathize with the deseases (sic) of the climate, and were bound to remain two days for a stage to St. Louis."
Friends of Vandalia unsuccessfully brought up the relocation issue at the special session of the legislature, at Springfield late in 1839. Likewise, at the 1840 General Assembly, Representative Richard Bentley of Bond County offered a resolution for repeal of the relocation laws until the state debt was paid. By that time the internal improvements project in Illinois had collapsed and state debt had soared to nearly $15,000,000. In retrospect, this resolution would have kept the seat of government at Vandalia for at least forty more years. The state Senate defeated the bill.
During the next several years Vandalia declined seriously. Robert W. Ross, a local historian born in 1844, remembered Vandalia in 1850 as: but a mere hamlet, as the report of the postmaster general shows that the total receipts of the post office for the year before were but $48 and a few cents. The capital of the State having been removed from Vandalia to Springfield in 1839, the town had run down until it contained not more than 300 inhabitants in 1850, and but for the national road running through or rather to Vandalia, (it never having been built any farther), it would have been entirely wiped off the map. At that time the present Court House, situated in one of the most beautiful squares in the whole state, was in a most dilapidated condition... The floors in the hall-way running north and south and in the hall-way east and west from the center of the building were all gone, and stock of all kinds, horses, cattle, mules and sheep sought shelter therein from the weather, and perhaps a few fleas and other varmints. The present Court room was the old representatives hall, from which the plastering had all fallen to the floor of the hall and filled the galery (sic), also the east and upstairs was in the same condition and remained so until 1857, when the County concluded to buy the east end of the Court House and yard from the Fayette Seminary and to remodel the building for a Court House, which was done, and the present Court House is the result.
In addition to county offices and a school, a Masonic lodge also met in the statehouse's east half. As stated above, a daguerreotypist had his shop in the building in the 1850s, and a young lawyer named Fountain S. Crump opened an office therein.
It is difficult to think that county and school officials would tolerate quarters in the described state of extreme disrepair. But whatever the condition of the building, it was extensively repaired and improved during the last part of the 1850s. County official H. P. H. Bromwell authorized repairs and the addition of porticos to the plain front and rear of the building; the work was completed in 1859. Doric columns were replaced in 1889 by iron pillars and a balcony was added; other changes were made in the twentieth century. Incredibly, the razing of the building was contemplated in the early 1900s. A group of Vandalia attorneys in 1913 made efforts to sell the building back to the state in order to save the building. Finally State Representative Arthur Roe of Fayette County suggested that Vandalia real estate agent Joseph C. Burtschi, who later was another noted local historian, should negoti-
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ate a deal with the state. Through Burtschi's negotiations, Fayette County sold the old capitol to the state for $60,000. Historian Harry Pratt remarked that the sale was made for a considerably larger sum than the $16,000 cost of the building. "Was ever such maneuvering accomplished by Abe Lincoln?" Pratt asked Burtschi. County offices remained in the building until 1933, when the old Remann mansion on Seventh and Johnson was made the new courthouse. State restoration of the building began in the 1930s, and more work was done in the 1970s to restore its interior to nearly original appearance.
Two legends cling tenaciously to the old statehouse. One is the story that Stephen A. Douglas rode a donkey up the statehouse stairway to celebrate a democratic victory. The story is unsubstantiated but seems plausible. The other legend surrounds Lincoln's jump from a window. Lincoln did jump from a window of Springfield's Second Presbyterian Church, the temporary location of the House of Representatives, in December 1840. The motive of the rash action, for which Lincoln suffered considerable humiliation, was to break a quorum when Democrats called for a vote to cripple the Whig-favored state bank. No evidence besides oral tradition (claiming at least one notable Vandalian as an eyewitness to the leap) places a similar Lincoln jump at Vandalia. In the Vandalia legend, Lincoln jumped from a statehouse window in order to break a quorum when a vote was called to keep the capital at Vandalia. Though not recorded by many Lincoln biographers, the Vandalia legend is nearly as tenacious as the New Salem stories about Lincoln, has been a source of local pride for many years, and strongly illustrates the symbolic power of Lincoln's career upon Vandalians' memories.
As for Vandalia itself, decline during the 1840s probably would not have resulted in demise. But Vandalia was revitalized when the Illinois Central Railroad was completed through town in 1855. As local historian Robert W. Ross remembered: Vandalia immediately leaped into prominence as a trading point, and ever since its growth has been healthy and gratifying to those who have the city's best interests at heart.
The building of the Illinois Central Railroad was one of the most important events in the history of the county. It brought new life to Vandalia and other towns and had the effect of bringing in many new settlers. New enterprises sprang up, induced by the increased facilities for carrying on industries and trade. The markets were practically brought nearer the farmer, as well as others, and the result was very beneficial to the progress and advancement of all classes.
As an inducement to prospective settlers along the route of the railroad, the Illinois Central offered half-rate transportation to those who desired to visit the lands it offered for sale, comprising about 7,000,000 acres. These railroad lands sold from $5 to $10 per acre, one-fourth down, and the remainder in yearly payments at six per-cent interest. Thousands flocked to the State to take advantage of these terms, and Fayette County received its fair share.
During subsequent eras of Vandalia's history, the town has lost some of its capital-era buildings to "progress." But two of Vandalia's oldest buildings, the Little Brick House and the old Presbyterian Church that houses the Fayette County Museum, preserve important artifacts of Vandalia's history, as do the efforts of Vandalians who continue to cooperate to preserve local history and to revitalize the historic downtown. The old state capitol, striking in its tall presence upon Vandalia's public square, remains the town's historic centerpiece as the most visible connection to its heritage as Illinois' oldest surviving seat of government.