Illinois During the Civil War

The State Constitutional Convention of 1862

by Drew VandeCreek

Democrats fared well in the elections of 1861, even in northern Illinois, and assumed control of the State Legislature. The new legislature immediately turned to the task of the state's constitutional convention, which voters had called in the fall of 1860. Democratic officials, all hailing from southern Illinois, organized the convention. Many Republicans feared that the event would provide Egypt with its opportunity to bolt from the state. Governor Yates (pictured at left) feared that pro-southern agitation in Springfield could threaten the state government, and called for armed troops to guard the capitol. But insurrection never visited the streets of Springfield, and Democrats turned instead to more familiar political themes.

Illinois Governor Richard Yates

The constitutional convention's leadership turned the proceedings into an ongoing review of Governor Yates' wartime activities, and Democrats alleged that the state had paid favored contractors inflated amounts for war materiel. Such charges resonated with scandals in other northern states, but fell by the wayside when an official report vindicated the conduct of the governor and state quartermaster.

The convention also set out to turn the state constitution toward Democrats' well-known dislike for banks and paper currency. Democratic delegates devised a new scheme of electoral apportionment that gave disproportionate representation to the smaller counties of southern Illinois and placed small Republican counties within stoutly Democratic districts as well. These provisions set off a roar of protest from the state's industrializing, Republican north, where the Aurora Beacon asked "shall the manufacturing, agricultural and commercial interests of northern Illinois be put into Egyptian bondage?"1

Finally, the constitutional convention codified 1853 legislation prohibiting African-Americans' immigration to Illinois. While the rest of the Democrats' proposed state constitution went down to defeat in a referendum of the people of Illinois, this provision, as well as another barring blacks already living in Illinois from voting or holding office, passed by wide margins.

Democrats' originally entertained high hopes that their electoral successes in 1861 would allow them to mount an ongoing investigation of the state's war effort and revise the state's constitution simultaneously. But neither effort came to fruition, and Democrats found political progress increasingly elusive in the remainder of the war.

  • 1. Arthur C. Cole The Centennial History of Illinois: The Era of the Civil War, 1848-1870 (Springfield: Illinois Centennial Commission, 1919) 269.