EYE ON ILLINOIS: On Statehood Day, a look back at our divided past

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In March or November, voters in 23 Illinois counties approved a nonbinding public advisory question in favor of forming a new state, separated from Cook County.

With the exception of Hancock, all the involved counties are in the state’s southeastern quadrant — nothing north of Interstate 72 or west of I-55. The movement, which seems to draw inspiration from the creation of West Virginia, has a fledgling website at illinoyed.org.

I’ve never put much personal stock in secession movements, though as a First Amendment advocate I bear a degree of respect for those exploring the limits of the right to petition their government for a redress of grievances. (A topic for another day is how Illinois lawmakers have a tighter control on this power than those in other states.) 

Far too often this dispute is presented as a rural-urban split. But there are Republicans in Chicago: more than 377,000 Cook County residents voted for the GOP ticket in the presidential race, roughly 11% of the statewide total. In raw numbers that’s more Republican votes than were cast in 11 states. Outside Cook, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a veteran Democrat, carried 13 counties.

Two races alone don’t define an electorate, but the larger point is geography doesn’t determine politics. Yet it’s wrong to say the disagreements in Illinois aren’t steep. You don’t have to drive far to find a “Pritzker Sucks” sign outside a home or business, and Republicans had major electoral wins in state Supreme Court races while defeating the graduated tax referendum.

We address this today not to encourage the secession movement, but to note that on the 202nd anniversary of Illinois’ admission to the Union on Dec. 3, 1818, that deep divisions are baked into the very essence of Illinois.

On July 5, the Center for Illinois Politics published “Looking Back: The Fight for Illinois Statehood and the Debate Over Slavery in 1818.” Included is an 1824 map of counties that supported and opposed slavery, and while some boundaries changed in ensuing decades, it’s unsurprising to see how that map aligns with support for the Illinois Separation Referendum.

The essay details how Nathaniel Pope, the Illinois Territory’s Congressional delegate, worked to break the northern border’s alignment with Indiana, moving it 51 miles north to its present position. Beyond claiming all that Lake Michigan shoreline, the shift also, according to author Frank Cicero Jr., established pro-Republican conditions that girded Abraham Lincoln’s successful presidential campaign.

The slavery issue festered until the 1848 constitution’s explicit ban, but the Black Code persisted until 1865. Today’s political arguments are more varied — certainly significant racial divides persist — but the contentious spirit present at Illinois’ founding hasn’t abated. Given our history, we should expect nothing less.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.

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December 3, 2020 at 06:46AM

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