EDITORIAL: Happy birthday, Illinois!

SHARE EDITORIAL: Happy birthday, Illinois!

This painting depicts the Lincoln-Douglas debate between Republican Abraham Lincoln, standing, and Democratic incumbent Stephen A. Douglas during the Illinois senatorial campaign of 1858. | AP

We had a lake and they had a river.

Illinois is a complicated state, a microcosm of a complicated country, where cornfields give way to Main Streets that give way to skyscrapers. The people are more complicated still, having been thrown together every which way.


It all began, though, with a lake, Michigan, and a river, the Mississippi, and an epiphany. All you had to do was dig a canal, some 96 miles long — no sweat — linking the Chicago River and the Illinois River, and you could ride a boat from New York City to New Orleans without once stepping on land.

How good was that? Well, this was before trains crisscrossed the land. Water travel was everything. You could dig a canal and own the middle of a growing country. You could ship Illinois grain to eastern markets, and you could ship New York clothing to markets down south.

Illinois did just that. The state joined the Union on Dec. 3, 1818 — 199 years ago this weekend. Sunday marks the start of the state’s bicentennial year.

Thirty years later, it opened the Illinois & Michigan Canal, which proved to be an instant, if relatively brief, success. People made money. More than that, the canal gave Illinois its sense of purpose and identity, its central role in the nation’s economy, and even its cultural inclinations.

RELATED: Order a copy of the Sun-Times 64-page Illinois 200 premium edition magazine

Downstate Illinois joined with Chicago in a transactional relationship that continues to this day. It’s a relationship based less on affection, which has always been fleeting, than on a keen sense of mutual self-interest. The canal, and the train lines that quickly followed, linked the rural with the urban, the agricultural with the industrial.

New people poured into a land from which the federal government had shamefully driven off the indigenous peoples. Southerners moved up into Southern Illinois. New England Yankees flocked to Chicago. Pennsylvania pioneers took up farming in central Illinois. When the Great Migration began decades later — well into the 20th Century — African-Americans moved up from the Deep South on the Illinois Central.

From the very first, Illinois was a demographic stew, like the nation as a whole, and that, too, was at the core of the state’s identity. Things were, as we say, complicated. The people of northern Illinois took their cultural cues from the Northeasterners with whom they had trading ties. The people of Southern Illinois looked more to the old South.

In between was a grab bag of cultural leanings and inclinations, which must have given a young Abe Lincoln fits at times.

As historians Neil Harris and Michael Conzen point out in their 1983 introduction to a republication of “The WPA Guide to Illinois,” the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 were crucial not only for their substance — a superb airing of the arguments of the day against and in defense of slavery — but also because the debates “played before a genuinely divided citizenry that mirrored America itself.”

Illinois, with all its clashing diversity, was a testing ground of ideas and social causes. If it played in Peoria — or, more likely, Chicago — it could play anywhere.

Not by chance did Illinois give the United States Lincoln, who led the most important social reform in our nation’s history. And not by chance did Illinois give us the eight-hour work day, the first community college, and the first elected African-American congressman — Oscar DePriest — outside of Reconstruction. In 2008, Illinois gave the country its first African-American president, Barack Obama.

Illinois established the nation’s first juvenile court, a profoundly progressive step in the history of criminal justice, and it was a pioneer of the settlement house movement.

Illinois even gave our nation, by way of a classic Springfield scandal, the direct election of United States senators. Originally, senators were chosen by state legislatures, but the weakness of that arrangement became apparent when a political boss from Chicago, William Lorimer, bribed the Illinois Legislature to get the gig.

The 17th Amendment, providing for the direct election of senators by the voters, was ratified in 1913.

Illinois remains a vital crossroads of the nation, though now by train, automobile and plane. And it remains a microcosm of the nation, sometimes harmonizing, often not.

We are in it together. Always have been. We do our best when we see it that way.

But, yeah, it’s complicated.

Happy birthday, Illinois! Let’s see what we can do leading up to 200.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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