Constitution of the State of Illinois, 1870


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

In 1856 the general assembly submitted a proposal to call a constitutional convention, but the voters rejected it; and not until four years later was a new proposal made. This time the people ratified it, and accordingly in the latter part of 1861, seventy-five delegates were elected for a convention.

The group which assembled at Springfield on January 7, 1862, for the purpose of revising the constitution, however, placed a most peculiar construction on its powers. Chosen on party lines in the first heated weeks of the war of secession, a clear majority of the members were democrats, and they could not resist interpreting their election as an expression of the people's disapproval of the republicans and the republican methods in the conduct of the war. They were accordingly not content to stop with modifying the constitution along partisan lines — in particular arranging an apportionment whereby the smaller southern counties, democratic, were given equal representation with the larger republican counties in the north — but, assuming legislative powers, undertook to ratify a proposed amendment to the federal constitution, to redistrict the state for congressional representatives, to issue bonds, and to promulgate ordinances and resolutions instructing state officials; furthermore it even undertook to investigate and criticise Governor Yates' administration, particularly with respect to military affairs. This last move, together with its delay in acting upon resolutions commemorating northern victories, brought upon the convention the charge of disloyalty ; and all factors combined seriously to discredit the body in the eyes of a large part of the voters. Accordingly, although the constitution it framed in its three months' session had much real merit, the instrument was rejected by an overwhelming majority of the voters.

The conditions which in the first place had led to the calling of the convention, however, became more and more intolerable. The special legislation evil in particular grew to alarming proportions, and with the rapid industrial development which came immediately after the war the objectionable feature of fixed salaries became more and more absurd. Further, the need of reorganizing the judiciary had become acute, for the growth of the population and business had necessarily led to a marked increase in the amount of litigation to be disposed of by the courts. The general assembly, had it chosen to exercise its constitutional power to establish additional circuit courts and to create prosecuting attorneys in each county, might have relieved the situation considerably; but it could not constitutionally add to the number of supreme court judges, and it was the supreme court that especially needed relief.

As soon, then, as the cessation of war released people's attention from the national events which had been absorbing it, a fresh attempt at constitutional revision was made. In 1867 the legislature adopted a resolution in favor of calling a convention ; it was promptly ratified by the voters and in November, 1869, eighty-five delegates were chosen to frame a new body of fundamental law. The convention assembled on December 13, 1869, and continued in session until May 13, 1870. In July its work was ratified by the voters and on August 8 went into force.

A more complex document in many ways, it improved decidedly upon the Constitution of 1848. The fixing of state salaries was made a matter of legislation, subject only to the limitation that the salary of no person in office should be affected during his term of service. The power of the general assembly to pass special laws was radically curbed, twenty-three specific subjects being removed from the field of possibility.

The judicial system was reorganized by increasing boththe number of judges and the courts. The number of judges of the supreme court was increased to seven; appellate courts were authorized after the year 1874; the number of circuit courts and circuit court judges was increased; county courts for each county were established; probate courts were authorized in certain counties ; state's attorneys for each county instead of each judicial circuit were provided for; provision was made for the election of justices of the peace and police magistrates. Additional courts, furthermore, were provided for Cook county, where the rapidly growing city of Chicago was raising a host of special problems.

The powers of the executive were extended in several ways, chiefly by the enlarging of the governor's veto power. Whereas before a mere majority of the members of the general assembly could pass a bill over the chief executive's veto, the new constitution required that two-thirds of all the members elected to each house should definitely record their votes in favor of such a vetoed bill before it could be effective.

In an effort to break down the sectionalism which characterized Illinois politics, the convention introduced the innovation of "minority representation." The southern counties, of southern sympathies and extraction, had long been solidly democratic ; the northern and eastern counties of New England and New York extraction, were almost as solidly republican. To change this block alignment, the state was divided into fifty-one districts, each of which was entitled to elect one senator and three representatives; in the case of the election of the latter each voter was given three votes, which he might cumulate for a single candidate or distribute among two or three candidates. In this way the electors of a minority party, casting more than one-fourth of the votes in a senatorial district, could by cumulating their votes make certain of electing one member to the lower house.

The franchise, after a hot debate in the convention, was given to citizens of the United States above the age of twenty-one years, to all electors in the state in 1848, and to all foreigners who had obtained a certificate of naturalization prior to January 1, 1870; all, however, must fulfill a moderate residence requirement, one year in the state, ninety days in the county, and thirty days in the election district in which they cast their ballots.

Two provisions reflected clearly the bitter experience of the state with the railroads. At the time, many counties and cities were facing financial disaster as the result of having purchased thousands of dollars worth of the capital stock of railroad corporations which had subsequently failed or had been sold out by the speculators who first organized them. The convention, therefore, deemed it wise to forbid all counties, cities, and other municipalities to become subscribers "to the capital stock of any railroad or private corporation" or to become indebted in excess of five per cent of the value of the taxable property within their territorial limits.

The other provision was more startling in principle and dealt a more direct blow at the growing strength of corporate privilege in the state. Serious complaint had been made of the extortionate rates charged by the railroads, but the convention for some time hesitated to deal with the matter, doubting its competency to authorize legislative control and convinced that the only regulation possible was by competition. Eventually, however, it came around to another point of view and vested in the legislature the power of regulating railroad rates.

Like the Constitution of 1848, that of 1870 made possible its own amendment by a convention assembled at the mandate of the voters or by amendments proposed by the general assembly and ratified by the voters. A very serious limitation was put upon the latter method, however, by the provision that no more than one article could be amended at one time nor any article oftener than once in four years. The constitution thus made the same mistake both its predecessors had made of applying a well-nigh, inflexible body of law, supposedly organic but in fact largely statutory, to a developing commonwealth whose needs were constantly changing. Inevitably, the new constitution had hardly gone into effect efore the cry for modifying it began to be heard.

For two decades the general assembly was able by proposing separate amendments from time to time to satisfy the most insistent demands. In 1878 its proposal to give the drainage districts power to levy special assessments was made part of the constitution ; in 1880 the voters ratified an amendment with reference to the election and terms of office of county officials; and in 1884 a much needed revision gave the governor power to veto items in appropriation bills, instead of having to veto such bills in their entirety because of some single objectionable item. A fourth amendment, adopted in 1886, was designed to prevent the commissioners of the penitentiaries and reformatories from making contracts for the labor of the inmates of such institutions.

Four years later, the article forbidding municipalities to contract debts in excess of five per cent of their taxable property was found to work a hardship on Chicago, which greatly desired to issue bonds in aid of the World's Columbian Exposition but could not because its debt limit had already been reached. A constitutional amendment, therefore, relieved the situation by authorizing the city to issue bonds up to five million dollars in excess of its ordinary debt.

This Series of amendments remedied only the most immediate and obvious deficiencies of the constitution, leaving many more fundamental problems untouched, so that by 1893, there was a feeling in many quarters that the constitution was a stumblingblock in the way of almost all reform. The need of a tliorough revision of the revenue system and the judiciary seemed especially imperative; the framers of the constitution, furthermore, had never dreamed, of the complexity of governing a city as large as Chicago had grown to be, and its provisions were constantly proving more and more inadequate for that municipality. Nevertheless, persistent agitation for a constitutional convention, carried on for a decade, proved fruitless : downstate jealousy of Chicago, the opposition of the interests which were profiting from the status quo, and the natural conservatism of the mass of the people continued to foil repeated attempts to get a resolution calling a constitutional convention passed by the general assembly.

By 1902 such efforts seem to have been practically given up as hopeless, and energy was directed rather to securing the passage of single amendments. Thus in 1903 the general assembly proposed and on November 8, 1904, the voters ratified an amendment permitting the legislature to pass local or special laws with reference to the "local municipal government ... of Chicago," and modifying the constitutional provisions relating to the judiciary of Cook county so that justices of the peace of the county should be limited in their jurisdiction to the territory not embraced in the city of Chicago.

A seventh amendment was proposed in 1907 and ratified November 3, 1908, which made an exception to the constitution's provision that the legislature might never "loan, the credit of the state or make appropriations from the treasury thereof, in aid of railroads or canals," by authorizing the construction by the state of a canal from Lockport to Utica.

Experience has shown, however, that the passage even of single amendments under the Constitution of 1870 has been anything but easy. The technical obstacles in the way of securing a favorable vote, as has been pointed out, are considerable ; and a further difficulty has arisen from the conflict between a number of groups each advocating a particular amendment as the amendment to be passed upon. Many amendments have failed to receive the two-thirds vote of the general assembly ; and a number which have been proposed by that body have failed of ratification not because of marked opposition to it, indicated by a majority of votes being against it, but because either the method of balloting or the indifference of the voters made it fail to receive the required "majority of all the votes cast at the election." Since 1908, however, the most serious difficulty has been the multiplicity of demands for amendment: one organization has urged abolition of minority representation, another reorganization of the judiciary, another, short ballot, still others initiative and referendum, recall, woman suffrage, home rule for cities, revision of revenue, or easier amendment to the constitution, until the general assembly is overwhelmed and cannot be brought to take definitive action on any one proposal.

All these difficulties in the way of piecemeal change met with increasingly serious protest, until the leaders of the state were persuaded that a constitutional convention had became "inevitable and indispensable if constitutional revision adequate to the needs of the state" was to be made.


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