A turn-of-the-century reformer

For over a century the Illinois primary has been a fixture on the early spring calendar every even-numbered year. In the recent past, presidential candidates Bill Clinton (1992) and Mitt Romney (2012) became their party’s presumptive nominees after winning in the Land of Lincoln. At the state level, the primary has opened the door for a large number of outsiders to shock the establishment and grab the nomination for office, with future Governor Dan Walker’s surprising primary win in 1972 perhaps the most enduring example.

The primary is such an engrained part of the political calendar that it is hard to imagine the process without it. But Illinois’ spring primary only came into being after a long fight; and many failures; at the start of the 20th century, helped along by the strong-willed 23rd Governor of Illinois, Charles Deneen.

The great-grandson of a member of the Illinois Territory’s legislature, Charles Deneen was born in Edwardsville, the second Illinois governor to be born in the state. He attended McKendree College in Lebanon and went to law school at Union College of Law, a forerunner of Northwestern University in Evanston.

Deneen staked out a reputation as a reformer early in his career. As Cook County State’s Attorney at the dawn of the 20th century, Deneen was not afraid to go after powerful people, winning corruption convictions against a state treasurer and several leading bankers. In an era when reform movements were sweeping the nation, Deneen looked like a shining example of the kind of corruption-buster who was needed to clean up the government.

But Deneen could also “play the game” when he needed to. Early in his career, he allied himself with Congressman William Lorimer, the so-called “Blond Boss” of Chicago who would himself go down in a spectacular corruption scandal in 1912. Deneen had achieved his early career success in cooperation with Lorimer, but he broke with the boss in the early 1900s. By the time he sought the governorship in 1904 he and Lorimer were on opposite sides.

To secure the nomination in that era before primaries, Deneen would have to prevail at the state Republican convention. Four years earlier, Lorimer had blown up the 1900 convention and maneuvered his candidate, Richard Yates, in at the last minute to seize the nomination. Yates was now the unpopular incumbent Deneen was seeking to replace. The field included Yates and Deneen, but also Frank Lowden, who would eventually sit in the governor’s office himself, though not for another 12 years.

The 1904 convention assembled in Springfield on May 12 and quickly deadlocked. For eight days, delegates voted and voted, with no candidate able to collect enough delegates. Desperate, the convention recessed for eight more days, while deals were made and unmade. After 58 ballots, Lorimer broke with Yates, but could not pull together a majority for any other candidate. With the opposition scattered, Deneen took the nomination on June 3.

That fall, riding on President Theodore Roosevelt’s coattails, Deneen won the governorship by almost 300,000 votes, by far the widest majority ever secured by a governor up to that time in Illinois history. But the process for getting there had been terrible, and Deneen was ready to get rid of it.

Apparently, it seemed, so were the people of Illinois.

Also on that November 1904 ballot was a non-binding referendum question asking the citizens of Illinois if they supported getting rid of the party conventions and replacing them with a direct primary, a central plank of the progressive reformers’ platform. When the results were in it was clear they did – by a 4-to-1 margin.

Deneen Campaign Posters. Photo from the Abraham
Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum. 
Taking office in 1905, Deneen made the primary one of his top priorities. “Our state needs a compulsory primary law,” he said in his inaugural address. He signed legislation creating a primary during his first year in office. It was struck down by the courts.

Undeterred, he signed another primary law in his second year. This time there was reason for hope as the law went into effect and the first primaries were held in 1906. Nominees were chosen in a series of primary elections for different offices between February and April. Then this law, too, was struck down by the courts.

In 1908, Deneen tried a third time. Once again, Illinois enacted a primary election law, once again the state held primaries and nominated candidates, and once again the court struck down the law. But in both cases in which primaries were held, 1906 and 1908, the results were declared to be valid and the nominees selected were the names on the ballot in November.

One of those names was Deneen, who had bested former Governor Yates by 10,000 votes in the first-ever Illinois gubernatorial primary, held on August 8, 1908. He was re-elected in November, but in a much closer race against former Vice President Adlai Stevenson.

Deneen’s first term had been about considerably more than just pursuing enactment of a primary election law. In 1905 he had signed anti-lynching legislation. His new law would be put to the test at the outset of his second term when a mob stormed the jail in Alexander County and lynched William James, an African-American murder suspect. As violence continued, Deneen dispatched the National Guard to Cairo to restore order. He also removed the local sheriff from office for failing to protect James.

It was not Deneen’s first time activating state troops to put down a riot. In 1908, after a white mob had tried to lynch two African-Americans in Springfield deadly rioting had broken out almost within sight of the executive mansion. Governor Deneen had called out the National Guard on that occasion as well. National Guard troops encamped on the lawn of the Capitol building as they restored order in the capital city.

Deneen also sought to remove some of the gaudy, Gilded Age extravagances of his office. Previous governors had been accompanied by immaculately-uniformed staff, nicknamed “sunburst colonels” because of the braids and other adornments to their military-style uniforms. Deneen ended this practice. He served only lemonade at the mansion and invited evangelist Billy Sunday to host a revival at the residence.

He continued the push for civil service reform which had been picking up steam in Washington and the states for two decades, moving 2,200 state welfare workers into the civil service system and out of the patronage network. When the General Assembly refused to fund the newly-created Civil Service Commission he went around them. By the time he left office, 80 percent of state employees were covered by civil service protections.

Deneen led the effort to enact a municipal court in Chicago and build the city’s harbor. The budget for the University of Illinois was doubled. With the help of Jane Addams, Deneen also signed a bill instituting a ten-hour working day for women in factories. Following the deadly Cherry mine fire in Bureau County, Deneen signed Illinois’ first workers' compensation law. He began a limited effort to reorganize and streamline the confusing tangle of state government agencies, a project which would confound a series of governors until Lowden finally succeeded in 1917. Refusing to be stymied by the legislature, Deneen frequently took his case directly to the people, making speaking tours of the state and calling numerous special sessions of the General Assembly to pass his legislation. All these skills Deneen poured into yet another drive for the creation of a state primary in his second term.

Charles Deneen voting in Chicago, 1908.
Photo from the Chicago History Museum.
By 1910, the progressive reform movement was reaching its maximum strength nationally and in Illinois. Roosevelt, now out of office, had publicly broken with President William Howard Taft and was taking the first steps toward seeking another term in the White House. In the process, he would create the Progressive, or “Bull Moose” Party to run a third-party campaign of reform. This momentum could already be seen in Illinois, where frustration with the status quo combined with Deneen’s pugnaciousness to at long last succeed in pushing through a primary law that was upheld by the courts. Since then, Illinois voters have chosen the nominees for office every other spring.

For Deneen, however, it was the high point of his second term. His relations with the legislature, always contentious, continued to worsen. The split between entrenched establishment figures and progressive reformers like Deneen was widening, and it generated resistance to his legislative program in the second term. Deneen won the 1912 primary for a third term as governor, but the same Republican-Progressive split which helped put Woodrow Wilson in the White House that fall also eased the way for Chicago Mayor Edward Dunne to win the governorship with 38 percent of the vote.

Deneen returned to Chicago to practice law, but he also stayed involved in politics. He made a comeback in 1924 when he was elected to the U.S. Senate as a supporter of President Calvin Coolidge’s pro-business agenda. Seeking a second term in 1930 he was denied in the primary by Ruth Hanna McCormick. Deneen retired from public life and died in 1940. Charles Deneen, the first Illinois governor to serve two full, consecutive four-year terms in office is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago.