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Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011 10:14 am

Making noises in civics class

Splitting Cook County from Illinois is an old bad idea

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State Representative Bill Mitchell

Have you ever thought about how much Freddie Mercury’s Queen owed to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan? You have? Okay, we’ll talk about something else.

The other day State Rep. Bill Mitchell (R-Hickory Point Mall) introduced a resolution in the Statehouse that would ask Illinois voters to decide by referendum whether Cook County should secede from the State of Illinois. His motives were civic-mindedness at its purest. “They just don’t know how to govern,” Mitchell said of the governor and three of the four legislative leaders, each of them a person who can accurately spell Toni Preckwinkle’s first name and know better than to get on the Eisenhower after three in the afternoon.

As an opening salvo in a political war against the City of Chicago and its near suburbs, Mr. Mitchell’s proposal didn’t make enough noise to wake dozing Statehouse doormen. (The resolution got only one co-sponsor, Decatur rep Adam Brown.) It wasn’t that the proposal was nonsense – legislators pass into law nonsensical measures all the time. Rather, it was that people have heard this particular piece of nonsense so many times before.

A lot of people have concluded that Illinois would be better off without Chicago over the years, including a lot of Chicagoans. (See “Chicagoland, Chicagoland,” March 17, 2011.) Among those people were the drafters of the Northwest Ordinance. That federal act setting up the Northwest Territory specified that any new states carved from it should share one boundary, a line running east-west from the southernmost tip of Lake Michigan.

Nathaniel Pope, who represented the then-territory of Illinois when Congress considered Illinois’s request for statehood, urged an alternative to this original boundary. Alert to the potential commercial rewards of a canal linking Lake Michigan to the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, Pope proposed to shift the boundary so the canal would cross Illinois, not Wisconsin. His new northern border would extend west to the Mississippi from a spot roughly 41 miles north of the lake’s southern end.

When adopted, the boundary shift – the grandfather of all redistrictings – meant that Chicago and Rockford became Illinois cities rather than Wisconsin ones. Without Chicago’s wealth, Illinois would be little more than Indiana without Indianapolis, but the boundary shift was to affect national politics too. Without the antislavery votes of New Englanders and Scandinavians from Chicago and the rest of northern Illinois, Lincoln would not have carried Illinois in 1860. Without Illinois Lincoln would not have carried the nation, and without Lincoln as president the nation would have... no, that doesn’t bear thinking about. Nor does what Springfield’s standing might be in a world that never found its Great Emancipator in one of the capital city’s attorneys. For that reason alone, there ought to be a statue to Pope in the Capitol at least as prominent as any of Lincoln.

Pope’s coup won Illinois massive revenue and political clout, but the cost was internal division. A larger, and, in time, more populous northern Illinois quickly grew to counterbalance the influence of the mostly Southern rest of the state, which resented it. Downstate farmers convinced themselves that grain prices were set by commodities traders, and Chicago railroads were assumed to be bilking Downstate shippers. (The first notion was mistaken, the second was not.) Chicago was damned for corrupting state politics because they had to buy influence in the General Assembly they’d been cheated of when Downstaters corrupted state politics by malapportioning urban districts out of their seats.

I sometimes think that our Mitchells despise Chicago not because of what they don’t know about Chicago, but because of what they don’t know about Downstate. No knowledgeable Springfieldian will sneer at Chicago because of its history of racial violence. No one who knows Christian County history will look down on Chicago for its union violence. No one who knows Peoria will presume to lecture Chicago about organized crime’s influence on local politics. A Decaturite can only sympathize with Chicago’s struggles with de-industrialization and the strains which that imposes on a city’s social structure, just as folks in Cass County will envy its success in integrating new immigrant populations over the years.

“It’s all Chicago’s fault” is the newborn in an ugly family. It joins “It’s all the immigrants’ fault” or the Jews’ fault or the Commies’ fault. Or, to hark back to earlier times in Illinois, it’s all the abolitionists’ fault, the Catholics’ fault, the Yankees’ fault, or the Southerners’ fault – well, it really was the Southerners’ fault, but you know what I mean.

These kinds of resolutions remind me of schoolboys trying to impress their buddies by making fart noises in civics class behind the teacher’s back as she’s trying to explain the Constitution. They do serve one purpose, though. Demonizing Chicago saves our Mr. Mitchells from coming to terms with an awkward truth, namely that it is not Cook County pols who don’t know how to govern Illinois. It is Illinoisans.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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