To the polls

The late summer and fall of 1818 was a busy time in the Illinois Territory.

Spring had seen the U.S. Congress adopt legislation entitled the Illinois Enabling Act which would pave the way for statehood. It was signed by President James Monroe in April, setting Illinois on the path toward becoming the 21st state.

The act of Congress had established boundaries for the new state and authorized local leaders in the land between the Wabash and the Mississippi to get to work on establishing a state government, including the election of new leaders. There was much to do.

On August 26 the first Illinois state Constitution was ratified. The Constitution was ratified at a convention of 33 delegates from 15 counties and was largely based on the foundational documents of the home states of many of the authors, such as Ohio, Kentucky and New York.

The new Constitution set a date just three weeks in the future as the date for the beginning of the elections which would choose the new state’s first Governor and other officials. Accordingly, on Thursday, September 17, 1818, the residents of the Illinois Territory began making their way to the polls to select the first state government of Illinois.

But the 1818 election was quite different from the procedures we are used to today. The Constitution specified that the election would “commence on the third Thursday of September next (the 17th), and continue for that and the two succeeding days.” Future elections would be scheduled for the first Monday in August, “forever after.”

1818 Illinois Constitution 
The three-day election of 1818 would choose Senators and Representatives, as well as statewide officials. Representatives were required to be at least 21 years of age, a U.S. citizen and inhabitant of Illinois, a resident of the county or district “in which he shall be chosen” for at least 12 months, and to have “paid a State or county tax.” To be a Senator a person must have met the same conditions as a Representative, but also have “arrived at” the age of 25

Judges, attorneys for the state, registers, clerks of courts, sheriffs, collectors, members of Congress, or any “person holding any lucrative office under the United States or this State” were prohibited from running for the 1st General Assembly.

Compared to today the electorate looked much different as Election Day 1818 dawned across Illinois. The first state Constitution contained the same shameful voting restrictions which were so prevalent in that era: “all white male inhabitants above the age of twenty-one years, who shall be actual residents of this State, at the signing of this constitution, shall have a right to a vote.”

A voter on his way to or from the polls could not be arrested unless he had committed “treason, felony or breach of the peace.”

Voters would have a lot of decisions to make. Their choice of a Governor was an easy one to decide, as there was only one candidate: former territorial delegate to Congress Shadrach Bond of Monroe County. They would also choose a Lieutenant Governor (taking care to “distinguish whom they vote for as Governor, and whom as Lieutenant Governor,” perhaps a precaution written into the Constitution after the controversy over Vice President-elect Aaron Burr’s attempt to seize the Presidency from President-elect Thomas Jefferson in 1800), a sheriff and a coroner. They would not get to elect the Attorney General, Secretary of State, Treasurer, Auditor, Supreme Court justices or lower court judges, as those offices were to be filled by appointment of the General Assembly.

Voters in most of the new state’s 15 counties would choose a Senator to represent their county. Only one multi-county Senate district existed in 1818, encompassing Johnson and Franklin counties (in 1839 Williamson County would be created in between the two). State Representatives were chosen from each county as well, with smaller counties like Jackson and Monroe each electing one representative and the most populous counties, Madison, St. Clair, Gallatin and White entitled to three.

When the polls closed on the third day, Saturday, September 19, 1818, the Constitution directed that “the returns for every election of Governor shall be sealed up and transmitted to the seat of government by the returning officers, directed to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, who shall open and publish them in the presence of a majority of the members of each House of the General Assembly.”

In case anyone wondered what happened next, Article III, Section 2 of the 1818 Constitution made clear that “the person having the highest number of votes shall be Governor.” But if the race should end in a tie, the General Assembly would select among those who tied.

Fortunately, the election of 1818 was not that close.

The unopposed Shadrach Bond was chosen as the state’s first Governor. The figures from the 1818 election have been lost to history, but researchers have speculated that Bond got somewhere between 3000 and 4000 votes. The Lieutenant Governor selected by the people was Pierre Menard, a former trader and businessman from near Kaskaskia who easily prevailed in a three-way contest. Menard was backed by many of his fellow French settlers who had called the Kaskaskia area home since before the Revolutionary War.

But while the statewide contests were not close, the race for Illinois’ lone seat in Congress was. Shawneetown native John McLean defeated Daniel Pope Cook by just 14 votes. 

Pope County voters selected Lewis Barker as their senator in the 1st General Assembly. Almost 200 years later in 2015 Sen. Barker’s fourth-great grandson, Rep. Tim Butler of Springfield would become a member of the Illinois General Assembly.

Voters also chose some of the state’s founders for seats in the 1st General Assembly, though a majority were new to politics. Rep. John Mesinger of St. Clair County, who would be the first Speaker of the Illinois House, might have been the first person to sign the 1818 state Constitution, as his name is the first one listed beneath that of the President of the Constitutional convention.

1818 Illinois Election Results 
Representatives Abraham Prickett (Madison County), Adolphus Hubbard (Gallatin County), Levi Compton (Edwards County) and William McHenry (from White County, but the namesake of McHenry County) were all signers of the first state Constitution. As were Senators Michael Jones (Gallatin County), Willis Hargrave (White County), Conrad Will (a Jackson County legislator who would be the namesake of Will County), Joseph Kitchell (Crawford County) and Thomas Roberts (Franklin County).

Events moved quickly from there. Barely two weeks later, Bond and Menard were sworn in during an October 6 ceremony in Kaskaskia. With the new state government in place, Congress adopted a resolution affirming that Illinois had met the conditions for statehood, though 34 members of Congress, mostly from the northeast, voted No. There was no opposition in the U.S. Senate when it considered the matter on December 1, 1818.

Two days later, the resolution was signed by President Monroe, making Illinois the 21st state in the federal union.