Publication Date

February 1, 1988

Perspectives Section



State & Local (US)

In 1818, when Illinois joined the Union, the state was welcomed as a sister by The Spy, a Cincinnati, Ohio newspaper: “Like Minerva from the head of Jove, she has sprung into life in full maturity of wisdom.” More than 150 years later, however, newspapers, such as the Chicago Tribune, the Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Times, suggest that Illinois needs all the wisdom and invention that can be mustered in order to face the economic and social changes sweeping the region.

In this context and in answer to this challenge to Illinois citizens, the Illinois Humanities Council (a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities) has identified “Inventing Illinois” as the basis of its program for the next several years. Acting as a catalyst with and through the resources of the state, the Council expects to lead and inspire public programs on the “Inventing Illinois” theme.

In “The Marrow of Puritan Divinity” (1952), the late Perry Miller attempted to show how the civil and social order of seventeenth-century New England was created by the fusion of European ideas of ecclesiastical polity with the wilderness of the North American continent. In describing the intellectual and spiritual patrimony of New England’s peculiar democracy, Miller suggested that the genius of the early Americans lay in their ability to fashion their own environment on the strength of their collective imagination.

Writing twenty-seven years after Miller, the historian-classicist Garry Wills traced the intellectual and sociological provenance of the Declaration of Independence and argued that Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers’ “inventing,” like Miller’s “creating,” especially as it was used to depict eighteenth-century scientific and moral convention, was as creative as it was apt for it showed that societies and civilizations are built upon a variety of discrete and successive attempts of each generation to understand, interpret, and analyze the course of human history and the influence of environment.

According to Wills, each generation is required either to invent its own society or to cultivate the invention of its predecessors. Illinois history has been a progression of such inventions—from itsbeginnings as the home of the Hopewell civilization, then as an outpost of the French commercial empire in North America, then as territory—a creature of the Northwest Ordinance—through statehood to its current self-assessment as an industrial state struggling with an uncertain economy and an enigmatic political organization.

Some of these inventions become, over the generations, conventions which have influenced the distinctive way Illinoisans look at themselves and their history. Certain of these inventions have become dominant over the years and have given rise to themes characteristic of Illinois. Foremost among these themes is the tension, played out politically, ethnically, and geographically between reform and tradition. More than anything else, this theme has defined the Illinois idiom and identified the state’s public ethos as one of patronage, cultural and intellectual, as well as political, in opposition to an unsure democratic impulse. A variation on this theme also appears in the mythic importance of Lincoln and Lincolnia, a touchstone of Illinois burnished by the coarsening imagery of Sandburg and Sinclair and the more mediative work of Vachel Lindsey and Whitman. Complementing the mythic, the heroic, the procrustean figure is that of the archetypal planner embodied in the likes of Pullman, Olmsted, Addams, Sullivan, and Alinsky.

Yet another theme useful in interpreting Illinois is suggested in the work of University of Chicago cultural geographer Michael Conzen, who proposes Illinois as an “historic test strip” wherein the accident of geography insured a richly brocaded pattern of migration, transmigration, and immigration. Illinois was at once the West and the jumping-off point for the New West beyond the Mississippi; home to itinerant subsistence farmers and refugees from European upheavals and programs in 1830 and 1871. It was, too, the focal point of Yankee influence in the Midwest, and after the Civil War, but especially after World War I, the home and cultural anchorage of hundreds of thousands of southern blacks whose influence on the national culture was, arguably, forged in the Illinois experience.

The idea of Illinois as a test strip remains today a useful metaphor, albeit one shaped now more by the pressures of third world demography than by the expanses of geography. Indeed all of Illinois’ inventions and conventions are being reshaped and their validity challenged. “We are,” says Springfield economist Roy Wehrle, “no longer at the critical center of things in Illinois.” And like the pilgrims and the Founding Fathers described by Miller and Wills, are reminded of the great need for invention and discovery. Some notion of the scope of that task is perhaps disclosed in the image evoked by two recent events in Illinois history.

In late November 1984, International Harvester announced that it would sell its farm machinery and implements division to the conglomerate Tenneco. Harvester’s roots in Illinois, as a business and an institution, date to the late 1840s. The closing of its large works in Rock Island signified the end of an era celebrated in the first Columbian Exhibition (1892), symbolized in the linking of railroads, grain, and steel, and memorialized in Sandburg’s vision of Chicago.

Two months prior to the announcement by Harvester, President Reagan visited Chicago to sign legislation establishing a new kind of national park, a “national heritage corridor” along what once was the Illinois-Michigan Canal. The I.M. Canal that opened in 1848 linked Chicago with the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts and thereby assured the city’s early economic growth. The Canal closed in 1886, itself an obsolescence in the age of steam and rails. It lay unused for decades with the old canal towns gradually serving as the focal point of an industrial corridor broken occasionally by prairie, wetlands, and interstate highways. In 1979, with the help of a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council, several groups of Illinoisans reinvented the I.M. Canal, transforming it in the process into a unique national park, the first one of its kind, which serves industry, conservation, and local and regional history.

The closing of International Harvester and the opening of the heritage corridor illustrate both the need for and one possible model of the inventing of Illinois. During the next several years, the Council will use its grant program and special projects to find and encourage similar invention.

Robert J. Klaus is currently executive director of the Illinois Humanities Council and the author of the recent The Pope, the Protestants, and the Irish.