History & Architecture

Aside from being the hometown of Abraham Lincoln, most would agree Springfield’s greatest claim to fame is that of being the Illinois State Capital. Springfield has enjoyed a long partnership with Illinois government, its place as the state capital dates from Illinois’ second decade as a state. Many Illinois towns competed to be named the Capital City when Springfield was selected, and a few towns even attempted to take it away. Springfield owes its capital pride to a young Abraham Lincoln, but without the encouragement he and the other legislators from Sangamon County received from the business community, Springfield might not have been victorious. Being practical Springfield leaders raised the needed funds to secure the relocation and years latter in an effort to dissuade challenges matched state revenue to expand the Capitol Complex. A matter of pride for this City, we trust this historical honor will continue always. A look into the movement of the Illinois seat of government offers a fascinating glimpse at the evolution of the Illinois State Capitol.

The Capital of Illinois

Illinois’ first capital was located on the Mississippi River at Kaskaskia, a town founded by French missionaries in the sixteenth century. Kaskaskia was originally named the Illinois Territorial Capital by the Congress and the town continued in that capacity until Illinois was admitted to the Union in 1818. The state’s first capitol was essentially a rented storefront and there the Illinois General Assembly met during the first two years of its existence. It was quickly decided that a more centrally located capital was needed and a request for land, on which a new capital could be founded, was submitted to Congress. Envisioned as a way to prevent land speculators from being the only people to benefit from the capital’s new location, the site would be selected from land that was not yet settled. The proceeds from town lots would go to underwrite the cost of government buildings, a well conceived plan. The request was granted, the land was platted as the town of Vandalia and the functions of government relocated.

Vandalia first hosted the General Assembly in December, 1820. At that time, the vast majority of Illinois’ population was located in the southern half of the state and, as such, Vandalia was platted centrally in that region. In comparison, the population of Chicago in 1820 was less than 300 and it would be another two decades before Chicago began to have any significant population. The legislature first met in a plain, two story building constructed in Vandalia, as Illinois’ second statehouse. Destroyed by fire in 1823, a new statehouse was hurriedly constructed in time for the 1824 legislative session (back then the legislature only met on a biannual schedule). There, Abraham Lincoln started his legislative career in 1834. Vandalia’s second capitol building, however, was soon in danger of collapsing so between the 1834 and 1836 legislative sessions the town of Vandalia had the old capitol torn down and erected a new structure in its place. The third Vandalia capitol was considerably larger than the previous statehouses but unfortunately was not finished when the General Assembly met there for the first time in 1836. By this time however, the sentiment among legislators was decidedly towards moving the capital even further north, closer to the growing towns of Galena and Chicago and more centrally located than what Illinois’ original southern settlements required in 1820.

Back in 1820 the newly platted Vandalia was statutorily required to serve as the capital for a minimum of twenty years before the issue of moving could be brought up again. But as early as 1833, state legislators were speaking out to move the capital elsewhere. During the 1832-1834 session of the General Assembly, a resolution was adopted to place a referendum on the 1834 state-wide ballot. Voters were asked to choose between Peoria, Jacksonville, Alton, Springfield, Vandalia, or a town to be created at the geographic center of the state as the new seat of government. Citizens from towns in the running became actively involved in publicity campaigns hoping to successfully become the site for the relocation. Various cities issued public statements explaining the particular benefits their town offered state government. When the votes were cast, Alton led with over 8000 votes, Vandalia finished in second with about 7700, and Springfield came in third with slightly more than 7000. An alarming number of voters never selected a location and, accordingly, the General Assembly never held the vote as binding. This failed attempt to select a new capital site set the stage for a future Sangamon County legislative delegation, the “Long Nine” which included Abraham Lincoln, to work with “Springfield Boosters” in another attempt at securing the seat of Illinois government.

As anticipated during the 1836-1837 session of the General Assembly, the issue of relocating the capitol from Vandalia came up again. This time, both legislative chambers decided to settle the issue themselves and held a special joint session on February 28, 1837. At the special session, every legislator was to vote for the location of their choice, but the winning location required a majority of all the votes cast. Once the joint session was held, Springfield led on the first ballot with thirty-five votes, Vandalia and Peoria followed with sixteen votes each, Alton carried fifteen, Jacksonville fourteen, and another twenty-five votes were divided among various locations. Springfield’s early lead has been held by many as being due to the Long Nine. The Sangamon delegation promised their support for other infrastructure projects elsewhere in the state in order to garner votes from other legislators to see the capital moved to Springfield. The City of Springfield had already begun positioning itself undertaking fire safety preparedness, as well as street and building improvements. Most importantly perhaps was the pledge by the citizens of Springfield to put up $50,000 to pay for the relocation. Three additional votes were held and, on the fourth and final ballot, Springfield received seventy-three of one hundred and eight votes cast. Only fifteen votes held out on this final ballot for Vandalia and Springfield was announced as the new capital of Illinois. The move was to take place once Vandalia’s twenty year term was complete. Victorious, Springfield began removing the courthouse on the public square in readiness for the relocation. On July 4, 1837, the cornerstone of the capitol building was laid in Springfield, Illinois.

Interestingly, the same year the legislature decided to move the Illinois Capital, the National Road reached Vandalia. The wish of George Washington with funds implemented by Thomas Jefferson the construction of a paved road began near Washington, D.C. heading westward crossed the United States The National Road would become a conduit for American settlers traveling to the west from the original Thirteen Colonies. The road’s presence offered new prosperity for the town of Vandalia, something welcomed by many capital relocation proponents. All and all, the relocation of the capital to Springfield, in light of the National Road being built, was a tremendous victory by Sangamon County’s Long Nine, their allies in the Assembly and a credit to the Springfield boosters.

Although the capitol was not yet complete, the state government functions transfered to Springfield in 1839. That same year, a special session of the General Assembly met for the first time in Springfield, convening in local churches. The twelfth General Assembly of the State of Illinois met in December, 1840, with both houses being able to occupy the new Springfield capitol, today recognized as the Old State Capitol.

By 1865, Illinois government had outgrown Springfield’s first capitol and a new movement to relocate the state capital arose. Legislation to remove the seat of state government to Peoria was introduced in the Illinois Senate and the City of Peoria went so far as to select a location in their city for building a new capitol. An Illinois delegation went to Peoria to view the proposed site. Decatur and Chicago, in addition to Peoria, made offers for the capital as well. Legislation was passed on February 25, 1867 to construct a new capitol in Springfield, but that proposal did not put to rest further efforts of relocate somewhere else. The General Assembly actually scheduled a legislative session to convene in the City of Chicago in 1873, perhaps considered a more significant threat to Springfield. But the fate of The Great Chicago Fire altered further discussions of the move at the time. According to many, the decision to build Springfield’s fine new Leland Hotel persuaded more than a few legislators of Springfield’s continued fitness as the seat of government. The Hotel went on to become the unofficial downstate headquarters for the Illinois Republican Party. Construction of the Leland, considered an amiable match up to the Chicago’s Palmer House standards began just a month following the authorization to build our present State Capitol.

The Capitol building was finally complete in 1888. The 21 years it took to build the structure was even halted at one point because of scandals surrounding the construction. During this period government was expanding. In the late nineteenth century Illinois quickly required additional buildings to conduct the business of the state government. In an effort to eliminate further challenges, Springfield citizens this time stepped forward to create a Capitol Grounds Expansion Association. Reminiscent of the past when the Capitol was first relocated to Springfield, local businesses and prominent citizens raised private funds to assist in providing facilities for the State of Illinois. The Bunn and Pasfield Families contributed the greatest amounts over $ 10,000 each towards the effort. The Association, lead to completion by George Pasfield, Jr., expanded the grounds to the south, and constructed the Centennial Building in recognition of Illinois’ 100 anniversary of joining the Union. In total, local business leaders contributed over $120,000 to match state appropriations and perhaps once in for all put to rest any further attempts to remove the seat of state government and move it somewhere else.