Editor’s note: The weekly Illinois Bicentennial series is brought to you by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors and Illinois Press Association. More than 20 newspapers are creating stories about the state’s history, places and key moments in advance of the Bicentennial on Dec. 3. Stories published up to this date can be found at 200illinois.com.
When state lawmakers head to the Capitol to do the people’s business, they travel to Springfield. But that wasn’t always the case.
Springfield is the state’s third capital city – and the story of how it became the capital in 1839 is a tall tale … well, it’s a tale with an outcome scripted by nine tall men.
Illinois has been governed from three cities and six buildings (one that was rented and five that were owned by the state), as told in an article in the 1975-76 edition of the legislative Illinois Blue Book. Kaskaskia was the first state capital after Illinois was admitted to the union in 1818, with the 29 House members and 14 senators in the state's first General Assembly working in a rented two-story brick building at a cost of $4 per day.
Yet by December 1820, the second General Assembly was meeting in a new building in a new capital city, Vandalia, which was a more central location within the state’s original 16 southern counties. Lawmakers agreed Vandalia would remain the capital city for at least the next 20 years.
But it didn’t take long for many Illinois lawmakers – including a young state legislator who would go on to become the nation’s 16th president – to cite Vandalia's location as they began petitioning for the capital to be moved again. The argument this time for relocating was that the capital should be closer to the geographical center of the state.
In 1833 the General Assembly decided to ask voters, via the next general election, to weigh in on where the capital should be, according to the Blue Book history. Vandalia, Jacksonville, Springfield, Peoria, Alton and the state’s actual geographical center were the options. Although Alton emerged with a slim majority, the results were ruled inconclusive.
The idea of moving the capital continued to percolate, with talk put into action during the 1836-37 legislative session, when Abraham Lincoln introduced legislation that would move the capital to Springfield. He had the backing of eight legislative colleagues of the Whig Party who were called the Long Nine, as their aggregate height was 54 feet, according to the history provided in the 1975-76 Blue Book.
An opponent to Springfield as the new location was a legislative foe Lincoln knew well: Stephen A. Douglas, who also was serving in the General Assembly and wanted Jacksonville to be the state capital. And the people of Vandalia weren’t about to give up easily; they built a new brick statehouse in an attempt to keep the legislature where it was.
That effort was for naught, as after four balloting attempts Springfield received the majority of votes needed to move the state capital. There have been allegations over the years that the Long Nine traded favors in order for Springfield to emerge triumphant, although Sen. Paul Simon in his book “Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness” disputed that notion. Regardless of how the decision came to pass, state government began operating in Springfield by the end of 1839.
Work began in 1837 on a new Capitol building on the Springfield Town Square, with the first Capitol building providing room for the state House and Senate, the governor and other elected officials, as well as housing the Illinois Supreme Court, according to the book “A. Lincoln: His Illinois,” published by The State Journal-Register in 2008.
As the state’s population grew, so too did its government, and within a few decades a bigger building was needed to accommodate the elected officials. Construction began on the current Capitol building in 1868 and was finished in 1888, although lawmakers moved in about halfway through the construction process. The first building, now known as the Old State Capitol, remains and is often used for re-enactments, performances, rallies and political speeches.
As the state’s capital, Springfield has witnessed some of the most important political moments in Illinois history. It’s where Lincoln gave his “House Divided” speech, in which he condemned slavery. Almost 150 years later, it’s where Barack Obama announced in 2007 he was running for president of the United States.
Of course, it’s also where four governors who later went to prison on various charges served as chief executive of the state. And as long as Springfield remains Illinois’ capital city, it will continue to be where some of the most politically important decisions about Illinois are made.
Kate Schott is the editorial engagement editor at The State Journal-Register in Springfield. She can be reached at email@example.com.