TBT: Taking the reins

Governor Shadrach Bond. Photo from the Illinois Digital Archives.
Last fall was the 52nd time in our state’s history in which Illinois voters went to the polls and chose a Governor. Millions of people in 102 counties made their choice for who should lead Illinois for the next four years. On January 14 our new Governor will take the reins of a well-established state government which includes dozens of agencies, boards and commissions and thousands of state employees from Galena to Cairo.

It will be very different than the challenges that confronted our first state officials.

On April 18, 1818, Congress passed the Illinois Enabling Act, which was signed into law by President James Monroe. The Act set the boundaries of what would become the 21st state, put in place a process by which public lands would be sold to fund schools, and directed Illinoisans to put together a state government. They quickly took to this task, with 33 delegates from 15 counties enacting the first state Constitution on August 26, 1818, a short document based closely on state Constitutions in New York, Kentucky and Ohio. It also established Kaskaskia as the state capital.

The two-story brick building where the First Illinois General Assembly
held its session in Kaskaskia.
Elections began on September 17, 1818 and lasted for three days. In the sparsely-populated, far-flung frontier state, the process of casting and counting ballots was much more time-consuming than it would become in later years. Shadrach Bond was chosen as Illinois’ first governor. Records are sketchy, but they suggest he received somewhere between 3000 and 4000 votes. Bond was a veteran of the War of 1812 and had previously served as the Illinois Territory’s delegate in Congress. One of Illinois’ first counties was named for him in 1817.

The First General Assembly convened on October 5 and Bond was sworn in on October 6. Statehood became official on December 3. Illinois’ first state government convened in a house rented from a local doctor for four dollars a day. The House had 29 members and the Senate 14.

The first chief executive and the First General Assembly faced the task of putting in place a new state government, meeting the state’s obligations to the people and finding a way to pay for it all. The 1818 state Constitution severely limited the powers of the executive, and one has to look no farther than the selection of state government officers to see its limitations. The Governor was constitutionally permitted to appoint exactly one statewide official: the General Assembly would appoint the rest. The Governor chose Elias Kent Kane; a New Yorker and a Yale graduate who had been one of the primary writers of the first state Constitution; as the first Secretary of State.

Meanwhile, the General Assembly appointed justices to the four-member Illinois Supreme Court: Joseph Philips, Thomas Browne, William Foster and John Reynolds, who would eventually become Illinois’ fourth governor. The General Assembly also appointed John Thomas as the first state Treasurer, and upon his July 1819 death they selected R.K. McLaughlin for the post. The sitting Territorial Auditor of Public Accounts, Elijah C. Berry, was retained in his post with statehood, and he held it until 1831. Daniel Pope Cook, a newspaper editor who had led the effort for statehood (going so far as to write the resolution for the territorial legislature to send to Washington requesting admission to the union) became the first Attorney General. They also selected Ninian Edwards; the territorial governor; and Jesse Thomas; who had presided over the convention which drafted the first state Constitution; as the first U.S. Senators from Illinois. The only other statewide elected official in 1819 was Lieutenant Governor Pierre Menard. Menard had been involved in territorial government, chairing the council of delegates from each of the five counties which had advised the territorial governor.

Bond believed that the future of infrastructure lay in canals, and so one of his first initiatives was to get the ball rolling for a canal connecting the Illinois River with Lake Michigan. At the same time, he recognized the importance of overland transportation, and thus signed legislation to build a road connecting the two principal towns of the state at the time: Kaskaskia on the Mississippi River and Shawneetown on the Ohio.

Because the state lacked almost any finances in the early days, most road and bridge construction was going to be left in the hands of private builders. Bond’s plan was for these projects to eventually be funded by tolls and by leasing a state-owned salt works. He and the legislature also enacted a tax on land owned by non-residents. His canal initiative would not be successful in his lifetime, but it was eventually built in the 1840s. By then railroads were coming into greater use, and the financial burden of the canal would take many years to settle.

The statehouse at Vandalia.
Within a year of statehood, Kaskaskia’s geographic unsuitability as the capital of the state was becoming clear, and Bond signed legislation which would move the capital upriver to Vandalia in 1820. At the same time, the first census of the State of Illinois found that the state which had been admitted to the union with about 34,000 residents, the smallest population of any new state (a distinction we still hold today), had already grown to more than 55,000 in population.

As a capital city was hastily constructed on the new location, the Governor and the General Assembly met in a rented boarding house. A new capitol building soon opened (it would be destroyed by fire in 1823, the first of three capitol buildings in Vandalia). There the state also chartered a state bank in 1821 over Bond’s objections. The institution quickly went bankrupt.

The original state Constitution did not permit the Governor to seek a second consecutive term, so Bond stepped down after four years, to be succeeded by Edward Coles. When he left office in 1822 he was appointed to head the land office, a position he held until his death in 1832. Comeback bids for Congress in 1826 and the U.S. Senate in 1830 both ended in defeat. Bond was appointed to the commission which built the first state penitentiary.

Governor Shadrach Bond is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Chester, just a short distance from the site where he took the reins as Illinois’ first governor.