Illinois’ second capital city

Vandalia State House. Photo from the Abraham Lincoln
Presidential Library & Museum. 
It didn’t take long for Illinois state government to realize it needed a new home.

With statehood in 1818, Kaskaskia became the first state capital, but its days were already numbered, as the frequent floods of the Mississippi made it difficult to build a permanent capital on its banks. Congress had not designated any particular site as a permanent state capital, and the General Assembly had only picked Kaskaskia until a better location could be found. By the time the 1st General Assembly convened in 1819, the search was already underway.

Illinois’ population growth was mostly to the north, and a more centrally-located capital city would be necessary, both from a population standpoint and a geographical one. In 1819 the General Assembly sent a scouting party north to find a better location.

They found it about 90 miles up the Kaskaskia River in a place known as Reeves Bluff. More centrally located than Kaskaskia (and on drier ground) while still easy to reach via river and a small but growing road network, Reeves Bluff seemed to be the answer. The General Assembly asked Congress to grant the state some federal land at that location. Upon approval of the request, the capital was on its way north to the newly-christened town of Vandalia.

Legislation passed by the General Assembly officially designated Vandalia as the new capital city on December 1, 1820. Work proceeded quickly on construction of housing, businesses and a new capitol building to be ready in time for state government’s arrival. The surrounding area became Fayette County in 1821.

The first few years in Vandalia were an improvised affair. The hastily-built capitol building was an unremarkable two-story structure. On the first floor was the House of Representatives chamber, while the Senate took up most of the second floor, along with space for the Supreme Court.

The state treasurer, R.K. McLaughlin, worked out of his living room. Secretary of State Elias Kent Kane and State Auditor Elijah Berry had their offices in a nearby bank. Governor Shadrach Bond and other executive branch officials were based out of other nearby buildings. Though it was not ideal, the system worked.

Until 1823 when disaster struck. Twice.

In January of that year a fire broke out in the bank building, destroying many of the early state records which were kept there. At the end of the year the capitol building itself was consumed by fire. State government was largely without a home. City leaders in Vandalia quickly set about building a new capitol building for their city. The capital had already moved once; there was no reason it could not relocate again.

In fact there was. The legislation which had placed the capitol in Vandalia had a 20-year sunset. By the time of the fire the capital had only resided in the city for just over three years. Vandalia’s status was safe. For now.

1837 roll call ballot for
new capital city location. 
The second Illinois state capitol building in Vandalia, the third overall, was quickly built at a cost of $15,000 and opened in the summer of 1824. This building followed the same basic design as the first: legislative chambers and a few offices, but statewide officials were located elsewhere.

It didn’t take long for legislators and visitors to notice the shortcomings of the new building. Floors couldn’t handle the weight of the furniture. Walls struggled to support the overloaded floors. The danger of collapse seemed imminent and some people avoided the building as much as they could. A decade after it opened, the state was again in need of a new capitol building. And, it seemed, maybe a new capital city.

In 1834, with just five years left on the original legislation and population still growing to the north, the General Assembly authorized a referendum on a new capital city. The vote split between several of the principal cities of the state’s middle, such as Alton, Jacksonville, Springfield, Peoria and the vaguely-defined “geographical center of the state.” The result was an inconclusive vote with Alton narrowly in the lead, but far from a majority. It was certainly not enough of a mandate to relocate the capital, so once again Vandalia was safe, but only grudgingly so.

Fearful once again about losing the capital, Vandalians rallied to build a suitable statehouse. They tore down the existing building and used some of its materials to construct a new capitol. It opened in 1836 and was a clear improvement on the building it replaced. So sturdy was its construction that it still stands today.

The new capitol was a brick building with more room for executive offices. Though Governor Joseph Duncan, who had signed the $5000 appropriation for the new building, still had to find his own space, all the other executive officers had their own rooms in the building. When it was completed construction of the state’s fourth capitol building had cost $16,000.

It was also better connected to the rest of the nation, as the cross-country National Road had at last reached Vandalia, terminating near the state house. Though city and state officials did not yet know it, a financial crisis which would hit one year later would make Vandalia the permanent end point of the road which connected the east coast with the nation’s interior.

When the 9th General Assembly moved into its chambers on opposite sides of the second floor of the brand new building in December 1836 they found still-drying plaster. Occupants of the first floor offices discovered their quarters not quite ready for them as carpenters had prioritizing the completion of the legislative chambers. Some first floor offices were not ready until the fall of 1837.

This third Vandalia capitol was doubtlessly an improvement on the previous version, but it still faced its share of critics. One of these was the second-term Rep. Abraham Lincoln, a New Salem Whig, who had served in both the old and the new capitol buildings. Rep. Lincoln would also formally receive his law license in the Vandalia statehouse in 1837.

“The new State House is not yet finished,” Lincoln wrote to a friend in December 1836, “and consequently the legislature is doing little or nothing.”

It was in the Vandalia statehouse that Lincoln introduced his first legislation, a December 1834 bill limiting the power of local justices of the peace. It was also in Vandalia that he made his first recorded remarks in opposition to slavery. Taking his seat for his second term, Lincoln spoke out against a resolution which proposed to condemn the growing number of abolition societies in Illinois and around the nation for threatening to bring about disunion.

Lincoln and his Sangamon County colleague Dan Stone entered a statement in the House journal on March 3, 1837, stating that they believed, “the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy,” and that they opposed the resolutions, which were adopted anyway.

But if Lincoln felt any affinity for the building where his political career had begun, he didn’t show it. He filed legislation to move the capital city to Springfield, supported by a group of lanky colleagues in the House and Senate known as the Long Nine (five lawyers, three farmers and an innkeeper, with Lincoln the youngest among them at 27). Their efforts were opposed by Jacksonville Democrat Stephen Douglas who sought to move the capital to his home town instead. So long as the deadlock lasted between the two factions, Vandalia’s hold on the capital was safe.

As carpenters worked to finish the new capitol their hammering drove many legislators to distraction. So did the colds they seemed to catch from the wet plaster. The end for the Vandalia capital came in 1837 when negotiations started on an infrastructure bill supported by Douglas. Lincoln was happy to participate in rounding up Whig votes for the bill if Douglas would in turn supply Democrat votes for moving the capital in Springfield.

The deal was done. The impasse was broken. The capital was on its way out of Vandalia.

With the expiration of the 20-year term now just around the corner, the General Assembly voted on February 28, 1837, in support of Rep. Lincoln’s bill. The Long Nine and some of their supporters retired to Ebenezer Capps’ nearby tavern for a celebration which featured 32 pounds of almonds, 14 pounds of raisins, cigars, oysters, apples and 81 bottles of champagne (at a cost of $2 apiece). Lincoln’s Springfield friend Ninian Edwards picked up the $223.50 tab for the party.

Vandalians spent months trying to reverse the decision, holding meetings as late as June 1838 to attempt to convince state government to stick around, but to no avail. With the completion of the new capitol building in downtown Springfield, Governor Thomas Carlin issued a proclamation to “all the State officers who are required to reside and keep their offices at the seat of Government,” instructing them “to remove all Books, Records, Documents, Seals and Papers pertaining to their respective offices to Springfield, Sangamon County, Illinois by the 4th day of July next.”

Left behind was the dignified state capitol building which had finally been completed after only three years as the statehouse. As a parting gift, Carlin had signed legislation giving the building to Vandalia and Fayette County. Local leaders put the building to good use, with one side serving as the county’s courthouse and the other becoming a school until 1856 when Vandalia departed the building and turned its space over to the county for just over $3000.

Madonna of the Trail statue in front
of the Vandalia State House. Photo from
the Abraham Lincoln
Presidential Library & Museum. 
As part of the drive for historic preservation inspired by the Illinois centennial celebration in 1918, the state bought the building and the land from Fayette County, though it would remain the county courthouse for another decade and a half. The state embarked on a years-long renovation project for the building, making it appear as it had when Rep. Lincoln had attended his second legislative session there in 1836. Nearby the Daughters of the American Revolution dedicated a statue in 1928 known as the “Madonna of the Trail” to represent the end of the National Road.

Over the years the building has been renovated, with porticoes and a different-shaped cupola added. It was also painted white, instead of the red brick façade which existed in Lincoln’s time. One thing that has not changed is the floors on the building’s second story. The original floorboards are still in place, giving visitors the opportunity to literally walk where Lincoln walked.

Today the oldest still-standing Illinois state capitol building remains a popular tourist destination in the former capital city. A visit to Vandalia is a must for anyone interested in Lincoln’s early career as a legislator, and the city commemorates its connection with the Great Emancipator by hosting an observance of his birthday every February 12. The building is also lit by candlelight for tours during the Christmas season. Throughout the summer, interpreters in period costume offer visitors the chance to learn about the early days of Illinois’ state government and the building where our greatest President began his rise to the White House.