The present and prospective needs of the people

Photo: Illinois Governor Frank Lowden. 
One hundred years ago Illinois’ leaders and many of its citizens had run out of patience with the existing state Constitution. With tremendous momentum they started the process of throwing it out and crafting a new basic law for the state, only to see their efforts collapse into acrimony and inertia, eventually leading to an epic defeat by the electorate.

The first two decades of the 20th century were an era of reform unlike any other time in American history. The “progressive era” saw political leaders like Theodore Roosevelt and social reformers like Jane Addams win a series of victories which would improve the quality of life for many Americans. Child labor laws, women’s suffrage, basic improvements in housing, food quality, fire safety and much more – all these causes took dramatic steps forward during that time.

It was a true era of reform which had reached most areas of public life, including Illinois state government.

For many years the state bureaucracy in Illinois had been an almost unfathomable tangle of agencies, boards and other entities, many of dubious efficiency, some completely unaccountable and all in need of reform. The mess had become such a nuisance for Illinoisans who tried to work with their state government that it had emerged as one of the top issues in the 1916 gubernatorial election. Riding that wave of dissatisfaction to victory was former U.S. Representative Frank Lowden who swept into office in January 1917 with a firm mandate to reform and reorganize state government.

Lowden’s reform agenda had two key parts: a wholesale reorganization of state agencies into a new Civil Administrative Code, and the calling of a convention to create a new state Constitution for the 20th century. In both of these, Lowden was successful in 1917. Legislators and voters approved his call for a convention to rewrite the Constitution, and his Civil Administrative Code remains the basic structure of state government to this day.

The state Constitution under which Lowden had come to office was Illinois’ third Constitution, following the initial one in 1818 and the revised Constitution of 1848. There had been a failed attempt at a new Constitution in 1862 before the existing document had been drafted and approved in 1870. In all, Illinois had convened four Constitutional conventions in its first century of statehood, with three of the four proposed Constitutions being approved by the people.

The 1917 call for a fifth state constitutional convention was to be the crowning achievement of Lowden’s governorship. The resolution submitted to the legislature to call the convention put forward the question of whether the existing 1870 Constitution was “adequate to the present and prospective needs of the people.”

The proposal called for some specific changes right from the outset. It would do away with the system of cumulative voting for members of the state House, make it possible to propose more than one Constitutional amendment at a time, reduce the number of statewide elected offices (instead directing the Governor to appoint those officeholders), streamline the court procedure, enact equal suffrage for women and repeal an existing provision requiring a property tax.

The legislature adopted the convention resolution by a wide margin early in 1917, setting the stage for the question to be submitted to the people in a referendum. Lowden’s reform agenda was proceeding just as planned. If voters approved the call, a convention would be elected to re-write the Constitution.

But then outside events intervened. Just weeks after he took office, Lowden was forced to rearrange his priorities as the United States entered World War I. Suddenly matters like expanding and equipping the National Guard, protecting Illinois’ mines and industrial sites from sabotage and organizing a State Council of Defense came to the fore. The drive for reform of state government stalled as the public became focused on the momentous task of winning the war in Europe.

To encourage the people to remember the need for reform when they voted on the question at the November 1918 general election, Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Orrin Carter was named to head a commission to gather support for the convention and to keep the issues alive in the minds of the public. Carter’s commission earned the support of the Chicago City Council, and stressed the non-partisan nature of the reform effort by having it included in the statewide platforms of both the Republicans and Democrats in advance of the election.

On Election Day 57.5% of the voters approved the call for a convention.

Two delegates to the convention would be elected from each of the state’s 51 legislative districts. Among these were the Speaker of the House, David Shanahan of Chicago, and former Governor Joseph Fifer of Bloomington. The convention’s president was Charles Woodward of Ottawa who had led the drafting of Lowden’s Civil Administrative Code in 1917.

At long last the Fifth Illinois Constitutional Convention convened on January 6, 1920, nearly three years after it had been first approved by the legislature. There were immediate signs of trouble.

The passage of three years, the entry and victory in the world war, the enactment and initial success of Lowden’s streamlining of government agencies and the nationwide prosperity now coming to Illinois with the dawn of the “Roaring ‘20s” all combined to tamp down some of the frustration which had existed back in 1917 for a new Constitution.

The previous year had seen Illinois become the first state in the nation to ratify the proposed 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution extending full voting rights to women. As 1920 dawned that amendment looked to be headed for full ratification at the federal level, thus removing one of the initial rationales for rewriting the Illinois Constitution. And right off the bat the convention broke down over regional concerns, the never-ending battle between Chicago and downstate.

Legislative districts had not been reapportioned since 1901, but Cook County had seen tremendous population growth in the intervening years, so its share of delegates to the convention (38) was lower than what it would have been (48) had seats been distributed based on up-to-date population counts. When the issue was brought up in the opening days of the convention, the two sides hardened into opposing camps. It would take 15 months to resolve the issue of legislative and judicial districts.

The compromise reached among delegates would allow for population-based districts in the House, but would have limited Cook County to no more than one-third of the Senate. The Supreme Court would be increased to nine members, with three coming from a single northeastern Illinois district, but no more than two of them from Cook County.

Proposals for voter-driven initiatives and referenda were rejected by the convention as was the idea of municipal-owned utilities. These rejections set up the entire document for failure, as they had been among the issues which proponents of calling the convention had used to win over the support of voters in the first place back in 1918. Without them in the document, its passage seemed doubtful. A suggested compromise, which would have had each proposed item of the Constitution submitted to the voters separately, was rejected.

The convention lasted 33 months between its swearing in and the production of its final product on September 12, 1922. It was the longest-seated Constitutional convention in Illinois history, nearly twice the extent of the next longest, but its time spent actually working was comparatively brief. The convention adjourned for most of the summer of 1920. Its members were paid only $2000, leading many of them to depart Springfield for days at a time to tend to their businesses at home, thus denying the presence of a quorum. In 33 months, the convention was only in session for 140 days. The convention did not meet for a single day in all of 1921 while a committee meticulously massaged the wording of every sentence of the document until it was finalized.

Five delegates died. Four new delegates were chosen in special elections to replace them.

The final draft of the proposed Constitution included some civil rights protections, kept the property tax in place, created a state income tax which limited the top bracket to no more than three times the rate of the bottom bracket. It gave some home rule powers to Chicago. The new Constitution would be just as difficult to amend as the existing one, and the geographic-population imbalance in the legislature would be just as pronounced as before.

It was a very different document than the one envisioned by the reformers back in 1917. Lowden, now retired from the governorship, reluctantly supported the proposal, as did the state’s two U.S. Senators, former Governor Charles Deneen and Attorney General Edward Brundage. Justice Carter was once again called upon to lead the effort to rally support for the Constitution. He succeeded in earning the endorsements of many downstate newspapers, but warnings of disaster were in the air as support was very thin in Chicago. Governor Len Small came out in opposition, along with Chicago Mayor Bill Thompson and most of the Chicago papers.

Three months after it was approved by the convention, the Constitution was submitted to the voters in a referendum on December 12, 1922.

The convention released a long statement to the people of Illinois to go along with the document, asking for support.

“It is not to be pretended that the instrument is perfect, or even that it represents all the hopes and wishes of any one man or of any group of men,” the Address to the People states, “It is, as was the Federal Constitution and as all such measures must be, the result of compromise. No voter should approach its consideration with the mind to compare it with his ideal, for this is to condemn it in advance.”

But condemn it the people did.

Overwhelmingly unpopular in Cook County, the proposed Constitution of 1922 suffered a crushing defeat at the polls. The proposal fared better downstate, but not nearly well enough to approach victory, with 185,298 voting in favor against 921,398 opposed, a margin of 5-to-1.

Illinois' Sixth Constitutional Convention. 
Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum. 
Though the proposed Constitution was defeated, the unhappiness over the 1870 Constitution remained. Another effort was made to call a convention in 1934, but it was unsuccessful. The state did eventually adopt an income tax, but not for another half century. A decade later the system of cumulative voting for state legislators came to an end. Another effort at convening a Constitutional convention was successful in the late 1960s based on many of the same frustrations which had brought about the 1920-1922 convention.

The Sixth Illinois Constitutional Convention convened on December 8, 1969, and produced a document which was approved by 57% of the voters on November 18, 1970.

It remains in effect today.