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Local Column

EYE ON ILLINOIS: History lesson: 150 years ago a new constitution took effect in Illinois

Happy sesquicentennial day!


Although few celebrate today as the 150th anniversary of the Illinois Constitution taking effect — because it was supplanted in 1970 — it seems fitting to consider the document that defined state and local government for a century, the third of four constitutions.


Much of my research comes from the Illinois Bar Foundation’s “Understanding the Illinois Constitution,” a handy resource available free at http://tinyurl.com/ILConst.

The introduction explains the 1818 founding document, then the 1848 update as a response to Illinois becoming less of a frontier state with needs for larger court systems and expanded public services.


“The ink barely had time to dry on the 1848 Constitution before Illinois citizens realized they had restricted government far too much,” according to the IBF. “It may be popular to oppose taxes, government spending and banking, but Illinois citizens soon realized that these were necessary if the state was to continue to grow.”


After failed attempts in 1856 and 1862, an 1870 convention proved fruitful. Whereas farmers dominated previous drafting session, 53 of 85 delegates were lawyers. While the basic government structure survived, powers of the executive and judicial branch increased at the expense of the legislative — although we did largely end the practice of legislation affecting one individual or corporation.


Anyone who voted before 1970 recalls the peculiarity of the 1870 process. For 100 years Illinoisans’ used cumulative voting to seat the General Assembly. Each voter had three votes and could allot them all to one candidate or divide them among two or three. The goal was ensuring Democrats could elect some representatives in Republican areas (north /east central) and Republicans could elect some in Democratic areas (south and west central).


Also introduced were the governor’s veto and override provisions and seven-justice Supreme Court, plus a section dedicated to education, most of which survives today. Black men got the right to vote, but all women were denied.


The IBF said the 1870 Constitution was difficult to amend, didn’t give local governments sufficient power and its reliance on property taxes as the primary state funding source ultimately proved insufficient. By the end, “Often legislators from rural areas were not responsive to the needs of the cities. The north-south political division that existed in Illinois was in many ways becoming an urban-rural division.” Sound familiar?


Knowing the 1870 Constitution eventually failed to grow with the state spurs wondering if the 1970 document and its 14 amendments (and counting?) can last another 50 years. Voters soundly rejected new conventions in 1988 and 2008 and will be asked again in 2028. November’s income tax amendment vote and the upcoming legislative map process could be enough to light reformers’ fire for a fifth version of Illinois.


• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.

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