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Di Leo: Happy Birthday, Illinois!

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By John F. Di Leo - 

The state of Illinois celebrates its 198th birthday on December 3, 2016. I don’t know if it’s customary to bake a cake for a whole state – Michelle Obama’s food labeling requirements would require too big a label, and probably mandate that it be covered in arugula instead of frosting – but we’ll do what we can to celebrate the anniversary, perhaps with a few tidbits of history and opinion tossed in for good measure.

Illinois was the home of many native American tribes when the Europeans arrived (the best known being the Illini, from which we get our name); among our first historically notable Western settlements were at Kaskaskia, in the southwest, on the Mississippi, and at Chicago, in the northeast, on the shore of Lake Michigan.

Like much of the Midwest, these early settlements were started, or gradually taken over, by French explorers and traders.  French Jesuit missionaries established a mission at the very old Illini village of Kaskaskia in 1703… and it was Frenchmen who established Chicago as well, with Jean Du Sable being credited as the first to move in amongst the Potawatami residents on Lake Michigan’s southwestern shore.

Illinois grew up along with the rest of the western frontier… our territories’ names and boundaries changed regularly throughout the 19th century, as pieces of territories broke off to become their own states.  The Illinois territory was established as such on February 3, 1809, and on December 3, 1818, Illinois statehood was formalized.  We became the 21st state, 198 years ago today.

Boundary Issues

Both serious and hobbyist historians like to play a “what if” game.  What if this decision or that one had gone differently in history; how might things have developed differently?  How different would the world be today?

Well, one of the most interesting things about Illinois history concerns its biggest city.  Chicago is today the USA’s third largest city, and is of course by far the biggest city in the state, the home of some of Illinois’ success, but also the home of most of Illinois’ pain.

But it might not have been part of Illinois at all!  The original bill for the establishment of a state of Illinois had the northern border at the southernmost edge of Lake Michigan, with no shoreline at all.  Then when Indiana got a slight northern extension (ten miles), Illinois expected the same… along the same line as Indiana’s northern border.  This would have made for a smoother and more logical map, with Illinois getting a small shoreline along Lake Michigan, but it would have left Chicago out of Illinois! 

Unfortunately for Illinois, but to the great benefit of Wisconsin (in this writer’s opinion, anyway), there was another adjustment of the statehood effort, and this third approach was the one that won statehood:  moving Illinois’ border 51 miles farther north than Indiana’s border.  This gave Illinois some 8500 more square miles, but most importantly, it saddled Illinois with the city of Chicago, coming with all its many benefits, and all its many detriments as well.

What kind of a place might Illinois be, without the city of Chicago within its borders?   An agricultural powerhouse, without question.   Perhaps another Kansas, another Oklahoma, another Iowa?  It’s impossible to know, of course, since Chicago and Illinois have now been completely tied up in each other’s history for these two centuries.

But the rest of the world thinks of Illinois as corrupt… mostly because of politicians from Chicago.  We think of Illinois as bankrupt… mostly because of politicians from Chicago.  We think of Illinois as a crime-infested welfare state, almost economically unfixable… mostly because of politicians from Chicago. 

What would Illinois look like, without the city of Chicago?   It’s entirely academic, and the matter is moot, of course, but on this birthday, it’s interesting to think of, isn’t it?

Illinois is viewed as a deep blue Democrat state.  It missed out entirely on the Republican wave that hit the Midwest this November, for example, as the Trump campaign bypassed us in favor of greener prospects nearby.

But Illinois has long produced many of America’s greatest conservative Republican representatives. Henry Hyde, Philip and Dan Crane, Everett McKinley Dirksen, Peter Fitzgerald – there have been many great conservative leaders, elected from Illinois, who came either from Chicago’s suburbs or our “downstate area” (a term without a clear definition, but it’s generally used to mean anywhere outside the Chicago metropolitan area).

Politically, economically, culturally – Chicago is the millstone that sinks Illinois.  A home of great theater, marvelous architecture, terrific commerce, the most beautiful churches, the most diverse culinary options, Chicago has an almost inexhaustible list of positives, matched only by its fatal list of negatives: a political class, criminal element, and welfare state that act as a cancer, infecting and dooming the rest of the state.

How might Illinois have developed if Chicago were outside its borders?  We’ll never know, as today we celebrate 198 years not as an independent Illinois, but as “Chicago’s state.”

Presidents

For six decades now, Illinois license plates have been instantly recognizable for the outline of the state and the header “Land of Lincoln.”  Illinois students are proudly told of how tightly the memory of Abraham Lincoln is interwoven with our history, and indeed, the state is rightly proud of his mid-19th century leadership, as one of the early leaders of the Republican Party and as a primary mover in the establishment of the state capital at Springfield.

But for all his accomplishments, he wasn’t actually raised here.  He was born in Kentucky and raised in Indiana, and only in his early 20s did Honest Abe strike out for Illinois, to become a frontier lawyer, legislator, and military officer in the Blackhawk War.

By the same token, Ulysses S. Grant is identified as an Illinois president, but that claim is even more tenuous.  The great general was born and raised in Ohio, educated at West Point, and served in various places as an army officer.  He had a house and farm in St. Louis, Missouri for some years (you can tour it in the St Louis suburbs, at Grant’s Farm and the historic homesite across the street from it today)… and he lived in Galena, Illinois, where his father was a respected Republican activist, only briefly, after the Civil War.  Since he was nominated for the presidency when he was a resident of Illinois, U.S. Grant is thought of as an Illinois president… but if he had been nominated at almost any other time of his life, Illinois would have been foreign territory to his biography.

Barack Obama is today viewed as an Illinois president, and if you grow up here today, I suspect that you’d be told he was our only one.  The Obama image is everywhere, since he served as a state senator, then as US Senator, from his Chicago south side base.

But Barack Obama was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia… and his own bio said he was born in Kenya, until he developed presidential aspirations and started saying he was born in Hawaii.  He attended college in California and New York, and didn’t move to Chicago until he was 25 years old.

So, while it’s certainly true that these three men’s political activism is tied to Illinois, none were born and raised here.

The only president who was truly a product of Illinois – in every way – is the late great 40th president, Ronald Wilson Reagan.  Born in tiny Tampico, Illinois in 1911, Ronald Reagan was raised in small towns in western Illinois (though his family did live in Chicago for a year when he was a very young child), chiefly in the northwest Illinois community of Dixon.  He grew up there, and always thought of himself as a product of America’s heartland, a Midwesterner through and through, even after decades of living in California.

Only in his mid-20s, after being graduated from Eureka College in 1932 with a B.A. in Economics, did Ronald Reagan start thinking about moving away.  He moved across the Mississippi to become a radio sports announcer, and worked for several regional radio stations until he got his break, moving to Hollywood at 26 to make movies.

Ronald Reagan went on to become an actor, president of the Screen Actors Guild, television host, Governor, author, and finally President of the United States… but he always gave credit to his upbringing as a Midwestern boy, raised in Illinois’ small towns, attending his mother’s favorite churches in the Disciples of Christ (the denomination that also runs his alma mater, Eureka College).

We may call ourselves the Land of Lincoln when our ex-governors manufacture our license plates for us, but this is truly the Region of Reagan.  He’s the president of whom Illinois should be proudest!

State Capitals

Governmentally speaking, the image we identify most with Illinois is what we know as the Old State Capitol.

The Old State Capitol, a beautiful “Greek Revival” style building, is just a few blocks from the huge New State Capitol, which was built in the 1870s, and is the tallest state capitol building in the country (not counting the two states that situated their state capitals in skyscrapers).  The new one is even taller than the US Capitol building in Washington, DC.

The Old State Capitol, however, is not what it seems.  For one thing, it wasn’t Illinois’ first state capitol, just as Springfield wasn’t Illinois’ first capital city.

That tiny early settlement of Kaskaskia, near St. Louis, Missouri, was actually Illinois’ first capital city, serving as capital of both the Illinois Territory and the new state at its inception.  This wasn’t to last, however, because Kaskaskia was doomed … it was located on a peninsula in the Mississippi, and was in fact eventually washed away.  Kaskaskia today has the smallest population of any city in Illinois, just fourteen farmers called it home in the 2010 census!

The second capital city was Vandalia, a more promising site by far… but it wasn’t to last either, since some politicians believed that the state capital should be more centrally located.  The representative from Sangamon County, a young Abraham Lincoln, for example, thought that Springfield (which just happened to be in his own district) would be the perfect place, and he and his allies soon prevailed.  So Vandalia was only the state capital from 1820 until 1839.

We therefore moved our state capital to Springfield, constructing that iconic Greek Revival structure shown in every picture of old Illinois, which was really the fifth statehouse of our young state.

But Illinois was to grow much more rapidly than expected, and our fast-growing government soon outgrew that space.  The fifth state capitol was transferred to Sangamon County and served as a courthouse from 1876 until 1966, when it was finally just too small for that purpose too, so Sangamon County transferred those functions to a modern building, and gave the Old State Capitol back to Illinois.

This building was then dismantled completely in the late 1960s – completely! – and lovingly rebuilt and restored.  Having been altered many times during its century as a courthouse, they now restored it to the way it appeared when Abraham Lincoln served there in the 1840s.  The exterior is therefore the same stones, the same pillars, the original materials, but the interior is all made of new materials, so that it could look exactly as it did in Lincoln’s day, while being a structurally sound facility.  It’s now the home of many of Illinois’ historical records, and it serves as a wonderful tourist stop, a way to return to the old days and experience some glimpse of prairie government, long before modernity hit the Midwest.

Happy Anniversary to Illinois!

So as we celebrate this day – and yes, 198 years of statehood, as a member of these United States of America, is certainly an anniversary to celebrate – let’s think back on our long and interesting history.  We’ve produced the 20th century’s greatest president, we’ve been a cultural, agricultural, and economic powerhouse, and we have a rich history that fills a library on its own.

Illinois has been a leader in industries as varied as soybeans and movies, railroads and music production; we’re the home of many of the nation’s largest companies and – in the old days – the home of courageous entrepreneurs as well. There’s a Chicago school of economics, a Chicago school of architecture, one of the world’s biggest airports… we’re the world’s biggest producer of soybeans… so very many wonderful things that are identified directly with Illinois.

Unfortunately, there is also one identification that we cannot shake: The Chicago Way, three words that embody the corrupt politics of Illinois government, its stories told by great journalists like Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, Mike Royko and John Kass.  The Chicago Way is a world of crime, theft and power which have not only dominated our state, but have infected the federal government as well, for over a century.

The bad luck and utter disaster of Illinois politics can be identified in our state capital choices:  Kaskaskia, Vandalia, and Springfield.  You need casks of liquor to tolerate living here; the majority of our legislators are a pack of vandals, and yet, without grounds, hope springs eternal.

Copyright 2016 John F. Di Leo

John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based international trade compliance lecturer, writer, actor and family man.  Born in Chicago in 1962, his parents moved to the suburbs in 1963 and never looked back.

Permission is hereby granted to forward freely, provided it is uncut and the IR URL and byline are included.  John’s opinions on Illinois, and Chicago, are his own; he doesn’t speak for his colleagues at Illinois Review, some of whom actually love Chicago!

For a full history of this fascinating state, see my IR colleague Mark Rhoads’ wonderful volume,”Land of Lincoln, Thy Wondrous Story”.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Illinois was reliably Republican in statewide elections until 1932 (when Judge Henry Horner was elected governor). Chicago Mayor Carter H. Harrison claimed that Illinois was “disgustingly” Republican.
    Only two Democratic candidates were elected governor from the end of the Civil War until the Great Depression and both (John Peter Altgeld and Edward F. Dunne) served only single terms.
    One of the “reforms” approved during Horner’s governorship was the consolidation of the multiple park districts in the city into the Chicago Park District (1934). Prior to this centralization scheme, the commissioners of the Lincoln Park and West Side Park districts were appointed by the governor, which generally meant Republican politicians controlled the patronage jobs. After the creation of the monolithic Chicago Park District, all of the shots at the parks were called by the Chicago mayor.