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STATE AFFAIRS: The unsung who shaped Illinois

STATE AFFAIRS: The unsung who shaped Illinois
STATE AFFAIRS: The unsung who shaped Illinois

On this 200th anniversary year of statehood for Illinois, I will, now and then, profile Illinoisans who played key roles in shaping our state, but whom most readers probably don’t know.

Edward Coles was a Virginia patrician with a strong sense of noblesse oblige. He served in the White House for six years as James Madison’s personal secretary and later led the first mission on a U.S. warship into the Baltic Sea, where he successfully smoothed over a diplomatic problem with the czar.

Yet Coles was drawn to Illinois. Before reaching our state in 1819, he freed his inherited slaves. In the Prairie State, Coles developed a big farm near Edwardsville.

Elected governor with one-third of the vote in 1822 in a multi-candidate race, Coles faced a pro-slavery legislature.

Slavery was, you might say, quite popular in early Illinois. Almost immediately after adoption of a constitution in 1818, Illinois enacted a Black Code harsher and wider in scope than some in the South, according to the late Illinois historian Robert Howard. Blacks in Illinois had no real freedoms.

Encouraged by the admission in 1820 of Missouri as a slave state, the legislature mustered the required three-fourths majority to call for a vote in 1822 on a new constitution that would surely enact a proviso to make Illinois a slave state.

Coles bought one of the few newspapers in Illinois to trumpet his opposition, spent much money, wrote persuasive articles, created anti-slavery societies, and devoted all his time to defeating the call for a new constitution.

With the leadership of Coles, the anti-convention cause triumphed by a vote of 6,640 to 4,972.

Had the call for a convention succeeded, “undreamed of turmoil would have resulted,” writes Howard. Growth in the Northwest would have slowed, and the conflict between North and South would have developed along different, much more worrisome lines.

The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 is the signature event that introduced Chicago and Illinois to the world. Called the White City for the alabaster walls of the graceful, classical beaux arts buildings spread across a square mile, the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 to this day inspires novels and scholarly volumes of adulation.

Yet the fair would never have happened if not for the “numbers man” and natural leader Harlow Niles Higinbotham.

His volunteer service in the Civil War over, Joliet farm boy Higinbotham went to Chicago to apply his bookkeeping skills at the small dry goods store of Field and Leiter.

During the Chicago Fire of 1871, young Higinbotham organized men and horses to carry goods out one end of the store while an inferno raged at the other. Harlow convinced his distraught bosses they had to open the very next day, even though the store lost $2 million in goods to the fire.

Seeing a sharp young man, Marshall Field made Higinbotham a partner.

Upstart, raw Chicago surprised everyone when it won the rights to hold the single U.S. fair commemorating the arrival of Columbus in 1492. People inside and outside Chicago doubted the city and state could pull it off.

Two Fair presidents resigned under the stress, leaving fair planning and finances in shambles.

Vendors saw the fair as a soft touch. For example, local electric companies submitted bids for lighting that averaged $18 (in 1893 dollars) per incandescent light. But they failed to reckon with Higinbotham, who took over the presidency when no one else would touch it.

Harlow played companies off against one another and reduced the price to $5.95 per light. He brought electric lighting costs for the six-month fair to $399,000 versus the $1.7 million originally demanded. Multiplied by other such examples, the fair went from likely collapse to financial success. And all during the Panic of 1893, when even the bank on the fairgrounds to serve exhibitors failed.

Harlow worked 12- to 16-hour days for two years straight to bring off the fair. And what a success. Twenty-seven million persons came through the gates (the Illinois State Fair today generally draws 800,000). Six thousand addresses by experts were presented at Fair events such as the World’s First Parliament of Religions.

George Ferris’ wheel towered over the grounds. It lifted 36 street car-size carriages, each holding 40 people, 263 feet above ground. The Manufacturing Building of one million square feet was thought to be able to hold 300,000 people. The only remaining building from the fair today is now the Museum of Science and Industry, which was one of the smaller buildings of the exposition.

And the Fair turned a profit, investors receiving back all their principal plus a small dividend per share.

Harlow was later offered the ambassadorship to France, which he declined. Instead, Harlow helped establish the Chicago Home for the Incurables, whose inmates he visited every day from his retirement in 1902 to his untimely death in 1919 in a freak accident in New York City.

Unsung, unselfish men and women like Coles and Higinbotham are models for those who would shape our state’s future.
JIM NOWLAN is a former Illinois legislator, agency director and aide to three governors. He also was lead author of "Illinois Politics: A Citizen's Guide" (University of Illinois Press, 2010). Nowlan can be reached at

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