Fireworks

The competing public meetings to discuss emancipation held by the political parties at the state capitol building in Springfield in early January 1863 (see the January 2013 monthly feature) foreshadowed a complete breakdown of relations between the Republican governor and the Democratic majority in the legislature. The 1863 session of the Illinois General Assembly was filled with fireworks and ended with an action never seen before—or since. Here are a few high points.
Battling over emancipation
Not surprisingly one of the first issues to arise after the session’s January 5 opening was emancipation, the President Lincoln’s proclamation having gone into effect just days before. In his opening message to the new legislature, Republican Governor Richard Yates proudly declared himself a radical in the struggle against slavery, arguing that freedom was the will of God:
“[T]he only road out of this war is blows aimed at the heart of the rebellion, is the entire demolition of the evil which is the cause of our present fearful complications….The rebellion, which was designed to perpetuate slavery….is now, under a righteous providence, being made the instrument to destroy it….I demand the removal of slavery. In the name of my country, whose peace it has disturbed….in the names of the heroes it has slain….in the name of justice, whose high tribunals it has corrupted….in the name of God himself, I demand the utter and entire demolition of this Heaven-cursed wrong of human bondage.”
Democratic legislators had very different ideas. In fact they worked to walk back the steps made toward freedom. The first days of the legislative session saw the submission of a bill by which Illinois would ratify a proposed amendment to the U. S. Constitution approved in December 1860 by Congress and President James Buchanan. If ratified by the needed number of states, it would give permanent protection to the institution of slavery in the United States. Strong majorities in both houses of the Illinois legislature passed the law by which the Prairie State would ratify the proposed amendment.
A call for an armistice and a peace convention
The Democratic majority also quickly began a movement to adopt an official statement denouncing the Lincoln administration’s conduct of the war and calling for a convention of the states that would work to bring peace between North and South.
The Democratic majority of the House Committee on Federal Relations condemned the president’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, the closing of opposition newspapers by military authority, and other infringements on civil liberties. Such moves, they said, threatened to create “a consolidated military despotism.” Members then declared that, given the failure and the corruption of the Lincoln administration’s war effort, “it is to the people we must look for a restoration of the Union, and the blessing of peace.” A convention should be held at a place to be determined upon by the states “to so adjust our National difficulties that the States may hereafter live together in harmony.” Six commissioners—all but one opponents of the war—were named to work with similar groups from other states to arrange a military ceasefire and convention.
Members of the Republican minority issued a report of their own, a full-throated call for supporting President Lincoln’s conduct of the war. The Emancipation Proclamation was called “a necessity demanded of the President….a necessary and constitutional war measure.” Violations of the civil liberties of citizens were deplored, but the report declared that civil rights had little to do with fighting traitors-“no man has a right to be a traitor-no man has a right to aid and abet the enemies of his country.” Most important, it was imperative to “crush out the existing rebellion,” said the Republicans. “Our own happiness, prosperity and power as a people, and the fate of republican institutions throughout the world” turns on the success of the Union, they declared.
An observer later wrote that “no one not present at the time can imagine the bitterness, even ferocity of temper, with which these resolutions were discussed.” After days during which little else was addressed, the majority resolutions, including the call for a negotiated peace, were adopted by a party-line vote. The majority then called for a recess until June, to allow the proposed convention to meet and attempt a peace.
Senator Funk explodes
As the legislature prepared to recess, the actions by the antiwar majority brought Senator Isaac Funk to white heat. The McLean County legislator announced that he would happily serve as judge, jury, and executioner against those fellow legislators that he saw as enemies of the United States:
“Mr. Speaker, you must excuse me; I could sit no longer in my seat and listen to these traitors. My heart….would not let me. My heart, that cries out for the lives of our brave volunteers in the field, that these traitors at home are destroying by thousands, would not let me. My heart, that bleeds for the widows and the orphans at home, would not let me. Yes, these traitors and villains in the senate are killing my neighbors’ boys, now fighting in the field.
Mr. Speaker, these traitors on this floor should be provided with hempen collars. They deserve them. They deserve hanging, I say…. I go for hanging them, and I dare to tell them so, right here, to their traitorous faces. Traitors should be hung. It would be the salvation of the country to hang them.”
Funk’s speech was a sensation, astonishing some and bringing cheers from others in the galleries. It was reported or quoted at length in newspapers throughout the northern states and was even issued in pamphlet form in both English and German.
Thinking during the recess
The General Assembly returned to Springfield on June 2, following the recess that was meant to await the results of the national peace convention to which it had appointed delegates. There was no report because there had been no convention.
Legislators who had followed the public press knew that there was much dissatisfaction with their earlier actions. Published reports of meetings of Illinois regiments at the battle fronts indicated anger among the troops over what were seen as measures that hurt the military. Many soldiers bitterly denounced the proposals for a cease-fire and peace convention, threatening to punish what they saw as treason at home after defeating traitors in the South. In spite of weariness after two years of war, a number of public meetings across Illinois expressed similar feelings.
Governor Yates’s coup
Governor Yates and others quickly decided “that the State and country would receive a greater benefit from the adjournment of this legislature than from the passage of any measure” it might pass. When the two houses did not agree on a date for adjournment Yates used a provision of the state constitution to “prorogue” the legislature—to declare the session at an end. Republican members immediately deserted the legislative chambers, leaving Democrats to fume at Yates’s stunning move. Opposition leaders soon brought before the Illinois Supreme Court a suit challenging the governor’s action. Months later, at a time when the case’s outcome could have little practical effect, the court sustained the governor. Richard Yates would fight the rest of war without further legislative restraints.