John Wood considered his life’s greatest accomplishment the part he played in beating back an effort to legalize slavery in Illinois. In a referendum on August 2, 1824, to decide whether to rewrite the state constitution to make Illinois a slave state, Wood and the 49 men he had encouraged to ride with him to the polling place in Atlas voted unanimously to reject the proposal.
What Wood’s biographers have not reported is that the work Wood did during the months between the spring of 1823 and autumn 1824 to arouse the feelings of his neighbors in the 3.5-million-acre Illinois Military Tract against slavery went for naught. His vote, the votes of the men who rode with him, and the votes of 50 others who also made their minds known in Atlas that day were never recorded.
Denied entry into the union as a slave state in 1818, southern members of the Illinois General Assembly expected to try again once Illinois achieved statehood. The U.S. constitution required only that a new state have a republican form of government. Article 6 of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, however, prohibited slavery in Illinois—at least until it became a state. Once in the union, a state had the authority to legalize slavery under the “equal footing” doctrine proposed by James Madison in the constitutional convention and adopted by Congress in 1796. To assure Congress could not bargain away rights that might render new states something less than existing states, the provision assured that states entering the union would have the same rights to domestic institutions found in the 13 original states. And all but Vermont had slavery.
The inaugural address of the state’s second governor, Edward Coles, aroused Illinois legislators to exercise that equal footing provision to plant slavery in Illinois. An aristocratic Virginian, neighbor of Thomas Jefferson, and once the private secretary of President Madison, Coles had freed his 17 slaves enroute to Illinois in 1819. In 1822, he was elected governor when Joseph Phillips and Thomas Browne, both Illinois Supreme Court justices and both pro-slavery, split the pro-slavery vote. Pro-slavery majorities, however, controlled both houses of the legislature.
In the first half of his speech, Coles outlined his vision for the state. He promised to “maintain the rights of individuals, and the common good of the community” through education, internal improvements and trade. He promised that he would consider differences of opinion “honest differences” and that he would promote harmony between the “branches of the government and between the individual members composing them.”
The second part of his speech inflamed pro-slavery legislators and citizens. Despite the Northwest Ordinance, Coles said, slavery existed in the state. He demanded that legislators intercede. He demanded that they abolish slavery and the indenture system, the “Black Code,” the kidnapping of free blacks, and grant freedom for descendants of French slaves. Senate and House committees rejected the governor’s recommendations, and, instead, legislated the referendum whose goal would be to mount a constitutional convention with slavery its product.
Coles established a network of friends in and out of the state to oppose the idea. Wood, who had met Coles in Edwardsville shortly after he became the federal land agent there, joined the governor’s cause. Wood’s assignment was to gain the support of other pioneers in the Illinois Military Tract in opposing the proposed convention. Although the population within the 3.5-million-acre tract was sparse, Wood had been convincing enough to get 49 other men to join him for the 40-mile horseback ride to Atlas in Pike County on that election day, August 2, 1824, to vote against putting slavery on the ballot.
Statewide, Illinois voters rejected the proposed constitutional convention 6,640 to 4,972 votes, or a ratio of 57 to 43 percent. Pike County voters rejected it 165 to 19 votes, a ratio of 9 to 1. The Atlas Precinct’s votes were not included. County Clerk James W. Whitney, who certified and recorded votes from the other Pike precincts, excluded Atlas’s. The reason remains a mystery.
Whitney, who was a lawyer, was something of a mystery himself. His thin hair was combed to the back of his head and tied with buckskin or an old shoestring and his dress was plain. He had little money. He walked wherever he went and relied on friends for nighttime accommodations.
On October 8, 1819, Whitney showed up at the state capitol in Kaskaskia, promoting himself as one of eight candidates for four seats as associate justice of the first Illinois Supreme Court. John Reynolds, also a candidate and a future governor of early Illinois, sized up the other prospects, men he knew to be of “winning, polished manners” and position. But of Whitney, Reynolds knew nothing, except that he was from somewhere in St. Clair County. Even that smattering of information was wrong. Whitney had lived around the Edwardsville area since 1810.
Whitney was Massachusetts-born and considerably educated in law and language. One biographer regretted that he knew nothing more about him before his appearance at Kaskaskia in 1819. Whitney wanted little said about his earlier life. Pike County historian Charles Chapman suggested there was a “hidden sorrow. . .a delicate matter to touch on” in Whitney’s past. Whitney became the second teacher in Atlas in 1824 and, ambitious and hungry, soon held the offices of Pike County clerk, circuit clerk, and justice of the peace simultaneously. Whitney in 1825 was one of the first six lawyers in Adams County. Noticeably, John Tillson Jr. in his “History of Quincy” sketched the biographies of the others but provided nothing about Whitney.
As Pike County clerk, Whitney certified what was, by not including the Atlas votes, a fraudulent Pike County election. It was only because of a letter that Judge William Thompson of Jacksonville wrote that the Atlas vote is known. “The people there were almost unanimously opposed to slavery,” wrote Judge Thompson. “The settlement cast a total of 100 votes, all but four against slavery, in 1824.”
Whitney was indicted for misconduct in office. That suit was dismissed when he agreed to resign. His infamy, forgotten until now, would soon be overshadowed by his creation of a political institution still with us today.
Reg Ankrom, “John Wood Fights Slavery in Illinois,” Quincy Herald-Whig, August 26, 2012.
History of Pike County, Illinois. Chicago: Chas. C. Chapman, 1880, 218-219.
Suzanne Cooper Guasco, Confronting Slavery: Edward Coles and the Rise of Antislavery Politics in Nineteenth-Century America. DeKalb, Illinois: NIU Press, 2013, 103.
Robert P. Howard, Mostly Good and Competent Men: Illinois Governors 1818-1988. Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1988, 25.
Justia U.S. Law, “Doctrine of the Equality of States,” at https://law.justia.com/constitution/us/article-4/15-doctrine-of-the-equality-of-states.html, accessed April 30, 2018.
Theodore Calvin Pease, “Illinois Election Returns: 1818-1848.” Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society Trustees, 1923, 28.
John Reynolds, History of Illinois: My Own Times. Chicago: Fergus Printing Company, 1879, 135.
Paul Selby, Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois. Chicago: Munsell Publishing Company, 1900, 449.
Jess M. Thompson, Pike County History, Printed in installments. Pittsfield, Illinois: Pike County Republican, 1935-1939, 27.
John Tillson Jr., History of Quincy. Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1905, 45.