Illinois During the Gilded Age

Law and Society in Gilded-Age Illinois

by Drew E. VandeCreek

In December of 1869 a state constitutional convention rewrote the document that had served as the law of Illinois since 1848. In part the convention responded to a wave of political corruption. Every year an increasing number of private bills, devoted to promoting specific individuals or local interests, swamped the legislature. Determined "rings" of political insiders pillaged the state treasury through contracts with the penitentiary and the new state industrial university at Champaign, among others. Voters responded by demanding a rewritten state constitution.

The new document largely forbade such special laws. It curbed the legislature's ability to override a governor's veto as well. The constitution of 1870 also granted suffrage to African Americans in Illinois, in keeping with the provisions of the Fifteenth Amendment.1 While Union armies fought to return the Confederacy to the Union and, ultimately, destroy the institution of slavery, African Americans in Illinois had not enjoyed the franchise. Despite this constitution's provision, and the legislature's rapid ratification of the Amendment, many residents of Illinois continued to resist any notion of black civil rights or social equality. Democrats often continued to portray Republicans' drive for black equality as a threat to white supremacy. And many Republicans themselves, while supporting the abstract notion of black equality, balked at the prospect of its realization.

In 1896 the United States Supreme Court validated the southern states' attempts to circumvent the Fourteenth Amendment in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson. In this decision, the Court upheld the State of Louisiana's policy of segregating railroad cars. The cars, Louisiana argued, were "separate but equal." While the decision pertained solely to the southern states in the narrow sense, it ultimately suggested that the Supreme Court did not intend to uphold the Fourteenth Amendment at the risk of offending prevailing social mores. Justice Henry Brown wrote: "The object of the [Fourteenth A]mendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either."2

President Benjamin Harrison Farmers' economic difficulties led them to organize and lobby for the regulation of railroads and grain merchants. The state responded by declaring that such businesses had received state franchises or licenses in order to further the public interest, and included their regulation in the state constitution of 1870. Railroaders and other businessmen chafed under the rule of state regulators that were often controlled by farmers and other shippers. When one merchant was found guilty of violating the new laws and challenged them in court, the case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The Court's 1877 ruling in the case of Munn v. Illinois established government regulation of business clothed in the public interest. Illinois' and other states' regulatory laws governed the railroad and grain businesses for a number of years, until the founding of the federal government's Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887.3

In 1890, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Benjamin Harrison (pictured at left). This act, based upon Congress' constitutional power to regulate interstate commerce, declared illegal every contract, combination (in the form of trust or otherwise), or conspiracy in restraint of interstate and foreign trade. In 1895 the United States Supreme Court undermined the law by declaring in U.S. v. E. C. Knight Co. that the federal government could not regulate the Knight sugar-refining monopoly because it was a manufacturer, and manufacturing was not 'commerce.' This ruling delayed the federal government's attempt to enforce the Sherman Act until after 1900.4

The courts also played a large role in the regulation of labor relations in the Gilded Age. As the period's strikes became violent, businessmen and elected officials often called in the state militia and the National Guard to intimidate and disperse the strikers. But they also turned to judges to issue injunctions prohibiting work stoppages, boycotts, or other strike activities. The result often was to strengthen the hand of employers and break strikes. In the case of the 1894 Pullman Strike, United States Attorney General Richard Olney helped to defeat the job action by securing an injunction against the activities of the American Railway Union. This Omnibus Indictment precluded Union leaders from persuading or inducing their members, largely railroad employees, to set aside their duties as part of a strike action. In practical terms, the injunction forbade union officials to communicate with their membership. Federal judges Peter Grosscup and William Woods based their injunction upon the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and Interstate Commerce Act's understanding of restraint of trade. Ironically, legislation framed in hopes of checking the power of large corporations in the marketplace came to bear upon labor organizations. Ultimately prosecutors convicted American Railway Union leader Eugene Debs of violating this indictment, for which he served a term in federal prison.5