Illinois entered the transition stage during which Chicago developed from a mud-rutted town of 29,963 in 1850 to a city of 296,977 in 1870, probably the swiftest growth of a metropolis in history. The State boasted ten incorporated cities in 1850: Chicago, Alton, Springfield, Beardstown, Pekin, Quincy, Peoria, Bloomington, Galena, and Rock Island.
Their difficulties were many: houses were scarce, rents high, the streets so bad they became quagmires in rainy weather; according to a contemporary newspaper, the gutters were filled with “manure’ discarded clothing, and all kinds of trash, threatening the public health with their noxious fluvia.”
One of the issues of the day was the hog nuisance; the streets, squares, and parks were public hog-pens. “Urbana had a record of more hogs in the community than people, and the porker had an equal right with the citizens to the streets.” Nor were there public utilities until the middle fifties, when the more progressive communities began to install water systems and gas for street lighting.
Twenty years after the rush to the lead mines at Galena in the late 1820’s, at which time a group of tent-cities containing more than 10,000 people had sprung up, the gold rush to California swept through Illinois. In 1849 more than 15,000 men and boys left the State for the western fields. The exodus subsided in 1850 as a result of discouraging letters and editorial warnings, but in 1852, with new stories of gold discoveries, the rush was revived. With the opening of the fertile lands of Kansas and Nebraska to settlement in 1854, still another migration took place. In the gold rush to Pike’s Peak in 1859, additional thousands left the State. The whole of the fifties was characterized by this draining of Illinoisans to the West.
In their place came new families from the East and South. In 1849 there appeared in the Boston Post a poem which began:
Westward the of Empire Moves:
Come leave the fields of childhood,
Worn out by long employ,
And travel west and settle
In the State of Illinois.
The Yankees settled in the northern area, the Southerners in the “Egypt” delta and the southern region. The sharp division of Illinois into “upstate” and “downstate,” reflected in habits, politics, and culture, persisted for years.
In even greater numbers immigrants arrived from Europe. French Icarians under Cabet set up a communistic colony at Nauvoo, the old Mormon city, in 1849. Portugese came to Springfield and Jacksonville; Scandinavians to Chicago, Rockford, Galesburg, Victoria, Andover, and Moline. The Bishop Hill colony was settled by Swedish Janssonists in 1846. But by far the most numerous were the Germans, fleeing their country after the defeat of their Revolution in 1848, and the Irish, driven out by potato famines and British oppression.
By 1860 there were 130,804 Germans in Illinois, living chiefly in Chicago, Belleville, Galena, Quincy, Alton, Peoria, and Peru, perpetuating their rich culture in music societies, literary clubs, and Turnvereine. Many of the Irish were brought to Illinois to work on the canals and the railroads under the infamous system of contract labor; herded like cattle from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia to further Illinois internal improvements, they found, not the promised land of newspaper advertisements, but bad housing, improper diet, and unsanitary conditions, which took a large toll in illness and death.
Nowhere in the United States did the railroad fever of the fifties rage more than in Illinois. Farms were mortgaged, counties and municipalities subscribed to stock, Eastern capitalists poured millions into the enterprises. Many of the politicians in the State, from Governor French and Senator Douglas to township officials, speculated in land and railroad stock, and became wealthy. Charges and countercharges of corruption were hurled; the Illinois State Register declared in 1853 that the railroad bills “were prepared in New York and first canvassed by Wall Street men before they were sent to Springfield to secure legislative endorsement.”
Senator Douglas persuaded Congress to grant 2,707,200 acres of land, scattered over 47 counties, for the long-awaited Illinois Central Railroad, and in 1851 articles of incorporation were granted by the legislature to a group of Eastern financiers, headed by Robert Rantoul of Massachusetts, on condition that the State be paid 7 per cent of the gross receipts annually. In September 1856 the railroad was completed. Seven other roads were constructed in this period, and one, the Galena and Chicago, was able to pay dividends of 20 per cent after the first year of operation.
The railroads had a revolutionary effect on the life of the State. Most of the early settlements had been near rivers. Now the rich fertile prairie lands of the vast interior were opened to farming and mining, to become soon one of the greatest corn-producing and coalmining areas in the world. The coming of the railroads brought a wave of prosperity; by 1860 farm values had risen 50 per cent over those of 1850; farm and city, raw materials and markets, were brought together. Towns sprang miraculously out of the prairies. Communities off the railroads faded away.
In the struggle that split the Union and led to the Civil War, Illinois furnished the two opposing national leaders, Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. The State itself was soon as divided as the Nation. As early as 1796 and again in 1802, memorials from the Illinois country had been addressed to Congress asking for repeal of the prohibition against slavery in the Ordinance of 1787. In 1824 a movement to amend the State constitution to allow the introduction of slavery was defeated. The kidnapping of free Negro residents in the State was countenanced for two generations, and the “black laws” of 1819 were still in effect. In 1837 the State legislature, excited by the spread of Garrison’s abolitionism, passed a resolution excluding abolition papers from the State and making the circulation of abolition petitions to Congress illegal.
In the same year, November 8, the valiant abolitionist newspaper editor of the Alton Observer, Elijah P. Lovejoy, while defending his fourth press from destruction by Alton mobs, was shot dead. Lovejoy’s fight was continued by such men as Benjamin Lundy and his Genius of Universal Emancipation at Hennepin. Antislavery societies grew. In 1840 the Liberty Party was formed in Illinois, and by 1846 it had gained a majority in 13 northern counties.
Yet in 1853 an act drawn by John A. Logan providing that free Negroes who entered the State could be sold into servitude was passed by the legislature. This bill aroused the anger of Democrats and Whigs alike. Even so, the Democrats might have maintained their power in the State if Douglas had not in 1854 sponsored the Kansas-Nebraska bill enabling settlers in the new territories to choose between free soil and slavery, with an amendment thereto repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820 which had prohibited slavery forever in the Louisiana purchase above the line of 36° 30′.
From the opposition to this bill, in the form of a coalition of disapproving Democrats, Whigs, and Free Soilers, came the germ of the Republican Party in Illinois. After a mass meeting in Rockford on March 18, 1854, and another at Ottawa on August 1, a State Republican convention was held in Springfield on October 4 and 5. In the elections of 1854 the State was almost equally divided; the northern or Yankee half voted solidly anti-Nebraska, while the southern or downstate half voted with the solid South. Looking now toward the national elections, the Republican Party of Illinois was organized at a convention in Bloomington, May 29, 1856, with some leaders in the Democratic Party of the State taking active parts. The first Republican governor, William H. Bissell, was elected that year.
The Dred Scott decision hastened the coming of the Civil War. When the United States Supreme Court in 1857, held that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, and that Congress had no power to pass a law forbidding a master from carrying slaves into the territories, it posed a serious question. Could slavery be excluded from the territories by any means? Douglas contended that it could, because the people could withhold the protective local legislation essential to its existence. Yet even this doctrine had its faults, for soon he found himself at odds with President Buchanan and the slavery Democrats over popular sovereignty as manifested in the case of Kansas, then seeking admission to the Union. At the same time Douglas was losing ground. The senatorial contest in 1858 between Lincoln and Douglas was fought on the issue of free soil or popular sovereignty.
On the evening of his nomination for the senatorship by the Republican convention, at Springfield, Lincoln declared: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently, half slave and half free.” Forecasting another decision like that in the Dred Scott case, but applying to the States as well as territories, he said, “Such a decision is all that slavery now lacks of being alike lawful in all the states.” The famous LincolnDouglas debates at Ottawa, Freeport, Jonesboro, Charlestown, Galesburg, Quincy, and Alton carried on the controversy.
In the last debate, at Alton, on October 15, 1858, Lincoln summed up his position in memorable words: “That is the issue… It is the eternal struggle between two principles–right and wrong–throughout the world…. The one is the common right of humanity, the other is the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, ‘You toil and work and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.'” Douglas won the election in 1858; Lincoln won the presidency two years later.
With Lincoln in the White House and war declared, southern Illinois was spotted with sympathy for the Confederacy. At meetings such as that held at Marion in Williamson County, there was wild talk of setting up “Egypt” as a separate State aligned with the South. Douglas rushed back to Illinois from Washington to bring his followers to the support of the Government. But his strength sapped by years of political battles, he died on June 3, 1861, striving valiantly to turn back the flood he had helped to unloose.
Discontent with Lincoln was soon manifest, and in the fall of 1861 at the elections to the constitutional convention, the Democrats outnumbered the Republicans more than two to one. The Emancipation Proclamation and the arbitrary arrests for disloyal utterances during the war were responsible for the existence of a strong party of protest. But on the whole loyalty to the Union was strong in all parts of the State.
In four years Illinois contributed more than a quarter of a million men to the Union forces, and her soldiers died bravely on many battlefields. In 1864 Lincoln received a 30,736 majority vote in Illinois; and at his untimely death his most savage critics in the State paused to pay homage to him; the Chicago Times, suppressed once for disloyalty during the Civil War, declared that the public had come to “realize something of the magnitude of the concerns involved in his lease of existence.”
The war over, Illinois began to take stock: it had contributed heavily in money and men; 5,857 had been killed in action; 3,051 had died of wounds, and 19,934 of disease. Now, with its railroads and fertile farm lands, its factories and mines, its people from all over the world, the State settled down to the problem of construction. The Civil War had released the forces of industrialism and swung the balance away from agriculture throughout the Nation with the emancipation of slave labor, the beginnings of mechanization of farm work, and the gradual closing of the frontier.