Illinois’s Most Boring Border

It is as plain as daylight that Wisconsin is about to be most flagrantly robbed of a large share of her rightful domain.… A fine strip of territory has been sacrificed.… Wisconsin is … having her pockets picked!


Nathaniel Pope is responsible for the location of Illinois’ most boring border, its straight-line northern boundary with Wisconsin. Had it not been relocated, the Land of Lincoln might have been the Land of Slavery. And what became the Civil War may well have had a different outcome. But try telling that to Wisconsin, which lost over 9,000 square miles in the deal.

Pope came to Illinois in February 1809, only days after Congress had created the territory. Born and raised in Kentucky, he was a twenty-two-year-old attorney when, in 1806, he began his career in the recently acquired Louisiana Territory, basing himself in the previously French town of Ste. Genevieve in present-day Missouri. The reason he then moved to Illinois, just as it was created, was that President James Madison had appointed him secretary of the new Illinois Territory, its number two position. The territorial secretary had the authority to act as governor should the appointed governor be absent. Pope received this appointment through the efforts of his brother, Senator John Pope of Kentucky.1 Nepotism often results in the appointment of incompetents, but not this time. Nathaniel Pope was an able attorney and savvy politician. The northern border of Illinois proves it.

Nathaniel Pope (1784-1850) (photo credit 16.1)

The legislation creating the Illinois Territory stipulated its boundaries to be the land east of the Mississippi River and west of both the Wabash River “and a direct line drawn from the said Wabash River and Post Vincennes due north to the territorial line between the United States and Canada.” Thus the original Illinois included all of present-day Wisconsin and sections of present-day Michigan and Minnesota, though the legislation noted that these boundaries were only for the purposes of temporary government. Consequently, maps of Illinois prior to statehood anticipated the future state’s northern border to be that established in the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, a line due west from the southernmost point of Lake Michigan.

Illinois’s southern connections

Under the Northwest Ordinance, the introduction of slavery was prohibited in Illinois, as it was in the entire Northwest Territory. Not all residents of Illinois were happy about that fact. Illinois extended more deeply south than any other part of the Northwest Territory, and many of its original settlers were Southerners. Its connection to the South was strengthened by the fact that virtually all of its rivers flow into the Mississippi.

When, in 1816, Pope ran for Congress as the territory’s nonvoting delegate, slavery was not yet a campaign issue. Statehood too was not a campaign issue, despite the fact that Illinois sought statehood only one year later. Pope was elected instead on a platform that emphasized road construction and education. The issue of slavery, however, was bubbling just beneath the territorial surface, and the skillful attorney in Pope understood that, when that surface turned into a state, a case could then be made to allow slavery based on a phrase in the same legislation that had prohibited it.

The Northwest Ordinance not only had proposed boundaries for future states in the Northwest Territory and banned the introduction of slavery, it also had stipulated the requirements for becoming a state. Critical in the case of Illinois were two elements in the clause that stated, “whenever any of the said states shall have sixty thousand free inhabitants therein, such state shall be admitted, by its delegates, into the Congress of the United States, on an equal footing with the original states in all respects.” The phrase that caught Pope’s legal-eyed attention was “on an equal footing with the original states.” The original states had determined for themselves whether or not to permit slavery. Since, upon becoming a state, Illinois would exist on an equal footing with those states, it could attempt to claim the right to determine for itself whether or not to permit slavery.

The significance of this phrase helps explain Pope’s reaction when, as a delegate to Congress, he unexpectedly received a resolution passed by Illinois’s territorial legislature instructing him to propose a bill for statehood. To one congressional colleague he confided that he could not “suppress my regret that the application was made at this time.”2 The other element in the Northwest Ordinance that was problematic to Illinois’s bid for statehood was the population requirement. Illinois was not yet sufficiently populated, and what population it did have resided primarily in its southern end, where proslavery sympathies predominated. “The only difficulty I have to overcome,” Pope half-truthfully wrote in a letter to the Illinois Intelligencer, “is whether we have the population supposed by the legislature, no enumeration of the inhabitants having lately been taken.… If it were certain that we had even thirty-five thousand inhabitants, no objection I think would be made to our admission.” While 35,000 is considerably less than 60,000, the number stipulated in the Northwest Ordinance, Pope knew of political tap dances that could step around that legal detail. But he also knew they wouldn’t be easy.

A glimpse of Pope’s anger at this unexpected task can be found in a letter he sent to Illinois’s territorial governor, Ninian Edwards, under whom he had served when secretary of the territory and also as Edwards’s adjutant during the War of 1812. “You are but a poor correspondent,” Pope wrote sarcastically to his longtime political ally, “owing, I suppose, to being exclusively absorbed in mercantile speculations. It is, however, not a little surprising that upon the subject of [statehood] … you should have withheld from me your own views—especially as, when I left home, it was not contemplated.”3

Despite his misgivings, Pope pursued his assignment “with that candor and good faith becoming my station.” Step one was to write a resolution enabling Illinois to hold a statehood convention. Pope included in that resolution a requirement that a census be taken. But what if the population turned out to be less than 60,000? The resolution stated that Illinois could become a state only if “it shall appear from the enumeration … that there are within the proposed state, not less than.… thousand inhabitants.” Evidently, Pope was still working on this.

Step two was to do nothing. Pope simply sat and listened as Congress took up the topic of “internal improvements.” It was an issue that, strange as it may seem today, was a hot topic in 1818. It also set the stage for Pope’s next step. The debate on the floor regarded whether or not the federal government should provide funds to build internal improvements such as roads and canals. Unless amended, the Constitution prohibited almost all such expenditures. But the nation had doubled in size since the signing of the Constitution. New states were being created from the Northwest Territory and the Louisiana Purchase. Roads and canals (and soon railroads) could help strengthen the bonds of unity between these new states and the rest of the nation. The risk, however, was that Congress could favor certain states over other states—such as, say, Northern states over Southern states.

After his colleagues had talked themselves out, unable to reach agreement, Pope stood back up with his Illinois bill, to which he now, step three, urged a brilliantly crafted, perfectly timed amendment regarding its northern border. As originally proposed, the bill called for a northern border that was “an east and west line, drawn through a point ten miles north of the southern extreme of Lake Michigan.” Though this boundary differed from that stipulated in the Northwest Ordinance (a line extending from the southernmost point of Lake Michigan), it was identical to the northern border Congress had recently created for neighboring Indiana. Why had Congress made this change? Why were ten miles of frontage on Lake Michigan more important in 1818 (or, in Indiana’s case, 1816) than in 1787?

They were more important because, in 1817, New York had begun construction of the Erie Canal. In offering his amendment to a bill he himself had written, Pope addressed the issue that Congress had just debated—slavery:

If [Illinois’s] commerce is to be confined to … the Mississippi … there is a possibility that her commercial relations with the South may become so connected that, in the event of an attempted dismemberment of the Union, Illinois will cast her lot with the southern states. On the other hand, to fix the northern boundary of Illinois upon such a parallel of latitude as would give to the state the territorial jurisdiction over the southern shores of Lake Michigan, would be to unite [Illinois] … to Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. By the adoption of such a [boundary] line, Illinois may become, at some future time, the keystone to the perpetuity of the Union.4

Though access via the Great Lakes to the Erie Canal, which would further bind Illinois to the Union, was the primary reason Pope sought to relocate Illinois’s northern border, he went on to discuss another canal. This was step four. He spoke of creating a canal that would connect Lake Michigan and the Illinois River. Combined with other canals being discussed in Illinois, the northern half of the state’s waterways could be diverted from the Mississippi River and the South to the Erie Canal and the North. A potential harbor for this idea existed on Lake Michigan by having the canals connect to a small waterway called the Chicago River.

Diversion of waterways in Illinois

The land needed for these proposed canals was already included in the bill, by virtue of the northern border having been relocated ten miles north of the southern end of Lake Michigan. The amendment Pope proposed sought to relocate that border even further north—nearly sixty miles north of the tip of Lake Michigan. What, other than land, would Illinois gain?

It would gain people (step five). Pope needed all the people he could get to satisfy the population requirement for statehood—a figure that, as seen six months later in the Annals of Congress, he had managed to bargain down by the time Illinois had completed its statehood convention and submitted its proposed constitution to Congress for approval and admission as a state:

MR. SPENCER, of New York, inquired whether it appeared from any documents … that [Illinois] had the number of inhabitants required by the law.…

MR. ANDERSON, of Kentucky, said that the committee had no information on that subject before them.… He had … himself seen in the newspapers evidence sufficient to satisfy him of the fact that the population did amount to forty thousand souls, the number required.

But Pope needed those people for more than just statehood. Statehood, as he well knew, would enable Illinois to challenge its federally mandated prohibition of slavery, based on the “equal footing” clause in the Northwest Ordinance. Pope was opposed to slavery. He knew he could reduce the risk of Illinois’s seeking to permit slavery with the additional voters living in the swath of land he sought to lasso into the state—particularly if this swath became connected, via canals, to Northern commerce.5

It didn’t take a genius to foresee these events. Even at the time Congress voted on Illinois statehood, the handwriting was on the wall—or, more specifically, on Illinois’s proposed constitution. New York Congressman James Tallmadge Jr. objected to the fact that the proposed constitution permitted the renting of slaves from residents of other states. The clause was subsequently deleted and, on December 3, 1818, Illinois became a state.

But four years later, Illinois residents sought to amend the state’s constitution to permit slavery. Then as now, Illinois’s constitution could only be amended if, by referendum, a majority of voters opted to have a constitutional convention. The referendum took place in September 1824, with the whole nation watching. Philadelphia’s National Gazette soon reported, “Our readers will recollect that … the people of Illinois were to determine whether they would have a convention for amending their state constitution, or in other words, whether they would introduce slavery into that free state. The question has been settled.” The proposed convention garnered 1,410 votes in favor; 2,593 opposed. At that time, the population of the region Pope had added to Illinois was approximately 1,000. Their predominantly antislavery votes were indeed needed.

Nathaniel Pope was by then Judge Pope, having been appointed to the U.S. District Court for Illinois in 1819. He served in that capacity for the rest of his life. Twenty years into that service, he saw the northern border of Illinois back in the news. “We had a fine breeze in the House of Representatives on Tuesday last, growing out of the introduction of the Wisconsin resolutions … to settle and ascertain the line between Illinois and Wisconsin,” the Milwaukee Sentinel reported in February 1840. Wisconsin’s nonvoting delegate had argued “that no change could take place [in the Northwest Ordinance boundary] without the mutual consent of [Wisconsin].… Consequently, the northeast corner of the state of Illinois is at the southerly bend or extreme of Lake Michigan.” To say the border “is at,” rather than “should be at,” reflected the location of the newspaper. Congress, being located elsewhere, referred the question to the Judiciary Committee, which never responded—this being one of the traditional strategies of congressional committees. Meanwhile, many residents of Wisconsin continued to insist on what they viewed as their legal right to that land, threatening a Supreme Court challenge and even secession. Other residents told them to hush up, not wanting to rock Wisconsin’s boat as it sought to navigate its own way to statehood. Ultimately, Wisconsin hushed up.6

Also ultimately, the union of states did rupture into the Civil War. Nathaniel Pope, however, did not witness that turn of events. He died on January 22, 1850.

Six months prior to his passing, Judge Pope received, as he often did, a request for a letter of recommendation:

Dear Sir:

I do not know that it would, but I can well enough conceive that it might, embarrass you now to give a letter recommending me for the General Land Office.… Having at last concluded to be an applicant, I have thought … to show the influences which brought me to the conclusion.

Your obedient servant,

A. Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln did not get that job. In time he got a better one, in which he saved the Union, whose frail future Nathaniel Pope had sought to ensure. During the Civil War, the Union army was aided in no small part by more than 256,000 soldiers from the state of Illinois.

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