Black Laws in Illinois

Article originally published in Harper’s Weekly, 11 February 1865 (courtesy of

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ILLINOIS has repealed her black laws, and indeed she could hardly help wiping the stain from her face when her neighbor Missouri was lifting her whole body out of the slough. The black laws of Illinois, although Illinois is a free State, were as much a part of the code of slavery as any slave law of Arkansas or Mississippi; for they were the work of what was called the Democratic party, and that party was the minister of slavery. In Illinois, for instance, all colored persons were presumed to be slaves unless they could prove themselves to be free; in other words, were held to be guilty until they proved their innocence: thus directly reversing the first humane maxim of the common law. By another act, if any negro or mulatto came into the State and staid ten days, he was to be fined fifty dollars, and sold indefinitely to pay the fine.

We read such things incredulously, in the light of today. The wicked folly of selecting for outrage a special class of the population, and that class the most innocent and defenseless, is so like a caprice of Ashantee society, or a measure of Patagonian statesmanship, that it is quite impossible to believe that it was tolerated in the great, prosperous, and enlightened State of Illinois. It explains the curiously inhuman and heartless tone of Mr. DOUGLAS in speaking of the colored race. He lived in the midst of this senseless and fierce prejudice, and he rose by pandering to it.

The black laws of Illinois were another proof of the fearful demoralization which slavery had wrought in this country, and upon which it counted for easy success in its rebellion. When slavery saw that PIERCE and BUCHANAN, two successive Presidents, were its most abject tools; when it saw every Northern city ready to take by the throat any man who fiercely denounced it; when it saw even in Boston a rich merchant and noted citizen named FAY, with the Mayor of the city, turning a meeting for condemnation of slavery into the street; when it read such laws as these of Illinois; when it saw the city of New York cringing beneath its frown and fawning upon its contemptuous smile, how could it help believing that FRANKLIN PIERCE wrote the truth to JEFFERSON DAVIS when he said that, the blood would flow this side of Mason and Dixon’s line rather than the other, and suppose, with ROBERT TOOMBS, that any man could drink all the blood that would be shed in the war.

Now that Illinois has repealed her black laws, is it too much to hope that New York will do the same thing? The Constitution of the State allows colored citizens to vote, provided that they have lived twice as long in the State and county, and paid twice as much tax as any other voter. The other voters may be ignorant and brutal sots, who are nuisances and pests in any country, and these may he intelligent, industrious, thrifty, valuable citizens; but the Constitution of New York, enslaved by the same mean and inhuman prejudice which dictated the black laws of Illinois, declares that ignorance and brutality are politically preferable to intelligence and thrift.

If intelligence is to be the condition of active citizenship, it is a test which every body can understand, and which most people will approve. But to make it dependent upon complexion is as wise as to rest it upon the color of the hair or the breadth of the shoulders. The monstrous subjection of this country to the prejudice against color is not, as many who are under its influence suppose, “a natural instinct;” it is only the natural result of a system which arbitrarily and forcibly makes color the sign of hopeless servitude. If red haired men or men over six feet in height were enslaved and imbruted for centuries, there would be exactly the some “natural aversion” to them which is gravely alleged by many otherwise sensible people against the colored race.

Missouri has emancipated herself; Illinois has thrown off her black laws. Suppose that sensible men and women now emancipate themselves from the black law of a most cruel and senseless prejudice.

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