Lincoln Legacy Lecture Considers Illinois’ History as a Slave State

Photographs courtesy of Giang Nguyen


More than 90 Springfield community members packed into the Student Union Ballroom on Thursday, Oct. 18 for the 16th annual Lincoln Legacy Lectures. Scholars delivered a presentation on the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, largely concerning the issue of slavery. 

The lecture series emphasizes topics that “both engaged Abraham Lincoln and the citizens of his era and remain timely today.” This is the first year it was sponsored by the newly-formed University of Illinois Springfield Center for Lincoln Studies. 

Roger Bridges, former head of the Lincoln Legal Papers, opened the discussion by accounting the darker side of Illinois history during Lincoln’s time. 

When Illinois land became part of the Northwest Territory in 1787, the Northwest Ordinance outlawed slavery–but that only meant no new slaves could be introduced, Bridges said, while existing ones could remain enslaved.  

The Ordinance also allowed for so-called “voluntary” or indentured servitude, in which  a black person could “contract” to work for a white person for a certain period of time, sometimes as long as 99 years. According to Bridges, this system was just slavery under a different name. He estimates there were between 900 and 1,100 servants and slaves in Illinois during this time. 

Illinois’ first Constitution allowed involuntary servitude as a form of criminal punishment, as well as legalized use of slavery in downstate salt mines. After the Constitution was created, the  state legislature passed “black laws” meant to discourage an influx of African Americans, Bridges stated. 

Under those laws, black people travelling through Illinois could be arrested, fined and ultimately auctioned if they stayed in the state for more than 10 days, according to Bridges. Free blacks were required to carry their certificates of freedom at all times. They were not allowed to vote, hold office, or testify in court, nor were they allowed to marry interracially or fight in the militia. 

Those laws persisted until shortly after Lincoln penned the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865.  

Next to speak was Dr. Graham Peck, professor of history at Saint Xavier University. Peck’s award-winning book, “Making an Antislavery Nation: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Battle over Freedom,” was published by the University of Illinois Press last year. 

According to Peck, slavery took center stage during the Lincoln-Douglas debates because the nation was facing a battle over the meaning of freedom. 

Under the Southern definition, Peck said, slavery bolstered freedom. 

“Slavery made possible the economic [and political] opportunities for white men,” he said. “Slavery was not alien to freedom. It was part of it.” 

Northern states viewed freedom  as “conjoining personal independence and national progress,” Peck said. Those who are considered “free” are able to pursue economic and moral development, and benefit the broader community. 

Lincoln and Douglas came to represent these opposed definitions. According to Beck, Douglas never overtly endorsed slavery, but thought it should be the right of individual states to decide whether or not to allow it. Douglas has been documented as saying: ”Whether slavery be a burden or a curse, the responsibility is yours.”  

The push for true abolition of slavery in Illinois was facilitated by two factors, Peck said: anti-slavery advocacy both from within and outside of Illinois, and an out-migration of people who did not want to live in a slave state. 

In what Peck describes as “the most dramatic demonstration by Democrats in U.S. history,” those opposed to slavery congealed into the Republican Party, lead by Lincoln. 

During the debates, Douglas suggested that the nation could exist forever fighting over free and slave states. 

“Whatever our problems are now, that would be much worse,” Peck said.