The 52nd General Assembly

Len Small (center) Governor of Illinois 1921-1929. 
Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum. 
As the 204 members of the 52nd General Assembly took their seats in the state Capitol on Wednesday, January 5, 1921, it was a hopeful time filled with the potential of new beginnings.

This optimism wasn’t felt just in Illinois. One hundred years ago this month many believed that the entire world had changed for the better and was entering a new era of peace and prosperity. The calamitous “war to end all wars” had come to an end and a peace treaty had been secured after a months-long conference. Scientific innovations were being repurposed from the development of battlefield technology to creations for the betterment of societies. The deadly Spanish Flu pandemic which had swept the globe was by this time mostly a thing of the past.

The summer before, voting rights had finally been extended to women nationwide, though it would not be until the next General Assembly two years hence that Illinois would have its first woman legislator, Rep. Lottie Holman O’Neill (R-Downers Grove). The incoming President, Warren Harding, had promised a “Return to Normalcy” after the upheaval of the past decade, and many Americans and Illinoisans were ready for it: Harding had won in a landslide the previous fall and had carried Illinois by more than a 2-to-1 margin.

Automobiles were rolling off assembly lines and into cities and towns across Illinois. The 52nd General Assembly would be focused on “the construction of hard roads, passing through every county and touching every important city in the State.”

It was expected that the road building program would extend to as much as 4800 miles of highway by the time it was completed (100 years later, Illinois would have 147,028 centerline miles statewide according to the Illinois Department of Transportation). To build this vast network, legislators would have to apportion the funds from a $60 million bond issue which was helped along by $20 million from Uncle Sam. Even before the bond issue, Illinois had gotten a jump start on the road building plan, constructing about 800 miles of roadways from automobile license fees.

Infrastructure was to be a major issue in the 52nd General Assembly, and not just on the highways. In 1920 the state had started work on the Illinois Waterway, a series of improvements along a 65-mile stretch of the Des Plaines and Illinois Rivers to enhance their navigability for larger commercial vessels. The waterway would, if completed, “give the State of Illinois and its people one of the greatest transportation advantages from the standpoint of cost possessed by any State or country in the world,” according to William L. Sackett, the Superintendent of the State Division of Waterways.

To meet this and the other challenges of the new decade, the 6,485,280 residents of Illinois; the nation’s third-largest state; had sent to Springfield 51 senators and 153 representatives along with newly-elected Governor Lennington Small, a Republican from Kankakee. One senator was elected from each of the 51 districts, while three representatives were chosen from the same territory. Outside of Cook County, legislative districts were drawn to avoid splitting counties into separate districts.

Republicans held large majorities in each chamber. The Senate convened with 43 Republicans and only eight Democrats. The House held 95 Republicans and 58 Democrats, but one of these 58, Rep. Charles Franz (D-Freeport) had died just before the session convened.

Under the state Constitution then in effect, the Lieutenant Governor, Fred E. Sterling (R-Rockford), also served as President of the Senate. The Senate did not yet have any African American members. Illinois’ first African American state senator, Adelbert Roberts (R-Chicago), was at the time the 52nd General Assembly convened still a member of the House. He would move to the Senate for the 54th General Assembly in 1925.

In the House, Rep. Gotthard A. Dahlberg (R-Chicago) was chosen as Speaker. Dahlberg was a lawyer who had immigrated to America from Sweden with his family at the age of 6. He attended school in Chicago and got his law degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law before being admitted to the bar in 1906. He was a husband and a father of two at the time of his election as Speaker.

Speaker Dahlberg was just one of many legislators born outside the United States, a group which included members born in Poland, Ireland, Canada and Italy among others. A large number of those born in the United States had come to Illinois from other states including New York, Pennsylvania and Missouri.

Most of the members of the 52nd General Assembly were lawyers, farmers or businessmen, but others had come from different fields. Senator John Boehm (D-Chicago) was a druggist, as was Rep. Jacob Frisch (R-Springfield). Rep. George Garry Noonan (D-Chicago) was a cigar manufacturer and Rep. Michael Fahy (D-Pontiac) was a barber. Senator Patrick J. Sullivan (D-Chicago) had been a professional baseball player and his colleague Senator Epler Mills (R-Virginia) was the great-grandson of a member of the 1st Illinois General Assembly in 1819. A handful of legislators were veterans of the Great War.

The House organized itself into committees whose jurisdictions bear a remarkable similarity to the House of a century later: Agriculture, Appropriations, Education, Insurance, Judiciary, Public Utilities and Transportation, Revenue, Roads and Bridges, Rules, and Waterways among them.

In 1921 the legislature met for six months before adjourning sine die at the end of June. One of its top priorities was to pass a biennial budget to carry the state through the next two years. Unlike 21st century budgets which are contained in a few large spending bills; sometimes only a single bill; the 52nd General Assembly voted on each line item of the budget in a separate piece of legislation.

The list of appropriations bills passed in the spring of 1921 is a line-by-line summary of the entire state budget. Senate Bill 40 appropriated $115,000 for the salaries of officers and employees of the General Assembly. Senate Bill 41 covered the General Assembly’s incidental expenses to the tune of $20,000. Senate Bill 147 set aside $1000 for a portrait of the outgoing Governor, Frank Lowden. House Bill 218 designated $914,500 to complete the Centennial Building (now the Howlett Building) on the Capitol grounds. House Bill 271 spent $10,000 on the Executive Mansion and grounds.

Senate Bill 190 appropriated $5000 for “Relief of Jesse Rupert.”

The 52nd General Assembly was not completely immune from the idea of putting multiple spending items in a single bill. Near the end of the long list of legislation is House Bill 865 the “Omnibus Bill,” which appropriated $40,401,706.45, the single largest line item in the budget.

In total, the two-year budget passed by the 52nd General Assembly in 1921 came to $170,486,110.85.

The 52nd General Assembly took action on dozens of other issues, everything from “Administration of Estates” to “Weights and Measures.” House Bill 498 created a 1% credit on state civil service and park system hiring exams for veterans. Another bill, Senate Bill 487, required employers’ wash rooms, “to be provided with a sufficient number of showers for the use of employees who regularly use such wash rooms,” in order to protect the health of employees and secure public comfort. Senate Bill 450 brought Illinois into compliance with the federal Prohibition amendment, restricting, “the manufacture, sale, transportation, possession and use of intoxicating liquor, aiding thereby in establishing uniformity in State and Federal laws in regard thereto.”

The 52nd General Assembly passed the legislation naming the state universities in Macomb (Western Illinois State Teachers College), Charleston (Eastern Illinois State Teachers College) and DeKalb (Northern Illinois State Teachers College). Just like today, there was a last-minute crush of legislation in the closing days of session, as nearly all of these bills were approved in the final week.

The single most contentious action in Illinois state government that year, however, was happening just outside the legislature.

Back in 1918 the people of Illinois had voted 562,012 to 162,206 in favor of calling a convention to revise the existing 1870 Constitution. The year 1919 had been spent by the legislature adopting rules for the convention and electing delegates, who would convene in Springfield on January 6, 1920. For the entire year of 1920 the Constitutional Convention had met, recessing on December 9, 1920, just before the new legislative session convened. The convention then re-convened in January 1922 to finish its work. Among the convention delegates were several members of the General Assembly, including David Shanahan of Chicago, a once-and-future Speaker of the House.

The convention finished its work and adjourned on October 10, 1922, scheduling an election for December 12 at which the people would vote to approve or reject the proposed Constitution. A wide-ranging coalition of groups in Illinois found flaws with different articles of the proposal, and since it was presented to the people in an all-or-nothing, up-or-down vote, it was likely doomed from the start. The votes came in overwhelmingly against the document. It failed by a margin of 185,298 in favor and 921,398 against. It would be almost fifty years before Illinois ratified a new state Constitution.

The 52nd General Assembly adjourned sine die on June 30, 1921, having completed its work in a whirlwind session. But change was in the air in Springfield. The 52nd was the last all-male General Assembly, and in later years the legislature would finally move toward reflecting the diversity of the state, though at a painfully slow pace. Governor Small would eventually be undone by a series of corruption allegations, and the state and the nation would by the end of the decade be plunged into the Great Depression.

The lasting legacy of the 52nd General Assembly would be the road building program. Half of the $60 million bond issue was re-appropriated by the General Assembly in 1921 for the hard roads. A map published that year by the Department of Public Works and Buildings, Division of Highways, shows the “State Bond Issue Road System,” which includes both the proposed state highways and the under-construction federal highways across Illinois.

Many of the routes laid out by the 1921 road-building program would come to fruition and form the basis of the Illinois road network a century later. The work of the 52nd General Assembly helped to tie together Illinois cities and towns with the rest of the nation and the world.