Constitution of the State of Illinois, 1848


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This excerpt on the constitution is from Illinois Constitutions [click here for more information] by Emil Verlie.

The state expanded so rapidly in population and in interests that the first simple constitution was hopelessly outgrown, and the need of a revision became too obvious to be ignored. After an abortive effort in 1842 to have a convention called, the assembly laid the matter before the voters in 1846, and this time public opinion was overwhelmingly in favor of the move. The convention met in June, 1847, and spent nearly three months devising a new instrument; the following March its work was ratified by a large majority of the voters; and on April 1, 1848, it became operative.

Broadly speaking, the trend of the changes made was in the direction of curtailing the powers of the legislature and enlarging those of the people. All state and county officers were now made elective, as were also the judges of the supreme court, who no longer served for life, but only for a stated term ; further, the number of judges was fixed at three, this as a protest against the legislature's abuses of its appointive power for partisan purposes.

The number of representatives and state officers was reduced, and the sessions of the assembly were practically limited to forty-two days by a provision for cutting the pay of the members in half after that length of time.

Unrestrained by the constitution framed in the pioneer days of 1818 the legislatures of the twenties and thirties had brought the state to the verge of bankruptcy by creating and giving credit to a succession of unsound state banks and by embarking recklessly on a scheme of internal improvements. On a grandiose scale the state had undertaken to equip the state with railroads and to give it a water connection from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. The Illinois-Michigan canal finally surmounted a long series of tribulations and achieved some measure of the success of which its creators had dreamed ; but the railroad scheme proved a disastrous fiasco. The state debt was piled so high it seemed it never could be paid off, and state credit was very seriously impaired. So hopeless did the situation seem that there were suggestions of repudiating the whole debt, but such a course was for the time being averted in 1842 under the leadership of Governor Ford.

Naturally, public opinion desired particularly that the convention of 1848 should make such disasters impossible in the future, and its expectations were fully met. The legislature henceforth could not contract debts for the state in excess of $50,000, unless the voters ratified a specific law to that effect; and it was forbidden to grant the state's credit in aid of any corporation or association.

It was also forbidden to extend the charter of any state bank or other bank then existing, and any law passed by it in regard to the incorporation of banks had to be ratified by the voters before it could become effective.

Not even in the matter of official salaries was the convention willing to trust the general assembly; instead it fixed the salaries of all state officers and judges in the constitution. To make it a matter of fundamental law that the governor should receive an annual salary of $1,500, the supreme court judges $1,200, the state auditor $1,000, and the secretary of state and state treasurer each $800, was obviously absurd; even in those days of small things such sums were parsimonious, and in any case, no matter how great the need for economy, it was hazardous to make so inflexible the compensation of the officers of a rapidly growing commonwealth.

In contradiction to the democratic nature of most of the changes made the new constitution restricted the existing franchise, requiring citizenship and a year's residence instead of merely the six months' residence stipulated in the old constitution. This of course meant the disfranchisement of alien inhabitants and met with great opposition on the part of the foreign elements in the state, particularly the Germans.

The desire for effective government prevailed over the old-time fear of a strong executive in so far as to do away with the cumbersome council of revision and to substitute in its stead a limited veto power for the governor. Amendment to the constitution, further, was made somewhat easier; under certain restrictions the general assembly might propose changes directly instead of calling a convention for the purpose, but such changes could not become effective until approved by the voters.

One of the most significant changes was in the system of local government. The early settlers of the state had come from the south where the county was the unit of local government and where there was no township organization. The new settlers from the northern states, however, were accustomed to some form of township government, and it was at their instigation that a provision was inserted in the new constitution directing the general assembly to enact a general law authorizing any county whose voters favored it to adopt the township system.

Like its predecessor, the Constitution of 1848 made the mistake of failing to look far enough into the future. Its framers had neither the imagination to foresee the results of the tremendous changes in the state which were even then beginning nor the wisdom to make a flexible instrument capable of adapting itself to any new situation.

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