Some Books About Illinois Government
The people turn silk purses into sow's ears
See Illinois (unpublished)
Most of the early histories of the state were in effect political histories, politics and government being the essence of history as it was then practiced. They are cluttered chronicles of political factionalism, constitutional provisions, and finance. Issues such as currency debates and banking seem arcane, and so complex as to be beyond the capacity of today’s supposedly better-educated voters to comprehend, or to care about.
The best of this class is A History of Illinois: From Its Commencement as a State in 1818 to 1847 by Thomas Ford, annotated & introduced by Rodney O. Davis (University of Illinois Press, 1995). Historian Theodore Pease called it “a book that only the disillusioned cynicism with which it is written has held back from recognition as one of the clearest and most subtle analyses of American politics.” Apparently it was even more disillusioned than readers got a chance to know; Ford’s executors had purged it of what Robert Howard called ”its caustic and outspoken criticism of public men.” Modern readers will appreciate that caustic and outspoken does not necessarily mean mistaken.
The sociologists and political scientists have done their best to explain Illinois politics. Daniel J. Elazar made an important investigation into political cultures of Illinois, Cities of the Prairie: The Metropolitan Frontier and American Politics (Basic Books, 1970) which casts a sociological light on Champaign-Urbana, Peoria, Springfield, and Decatur.
A similar, if more limited treatment of culture and politics is Richard J. Jensen’s The Winning of The Midwest: Social and Political Conflict, 1888–1896 (University of Chicago Press, 1971). Samuel K. Gove and James D. Nowlan of the University of Illinois’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs are the authors of Illinois Politics & Government: The Expanding Metropolitan Frontier (University of Nebraska Press, 1996).
A collection of essays on an important aspect of Illinois politics is Diversity, Conflict, and State Politics: Regionalism in Illinois (University of Illinois Press (May 1, 1989), edited by Peter Nardulli. The title of Gerald Leonard’s The Invention of Party Politics: Federalism, Popular Sovereignty, and Constitutional Development in Jacksonian Illinois (University of North Carolina Press, 2002) says it all. For the serious student.
Illinois played a crucial part in the founding of the Republican Party. Early histories were inevitably partisan. (Example: History of the Republican party in Illinois, 1854–1912, with a Review of the Aggressions of the Slave-power by Charles A. Church, from 1912.) That story is told is part from a less aggrieved party in Stephen L. Hansen’s The Making of the Third Party System: Voters and Parties in Illinois, 1850–1876 (University of Michigan Research Press, 1980).
Scandals and reforms
One of the reforms that never quite transformed Illinois politics was the primary election. It is explored in The Making of a Primary: The Illinois Presidential Primary, 1912–1992 by John S. Jackson III, David H. Everson, and Nancy L. Clayton (University of Illinois at Springfield, 1996).
Ralph Stone in 1991 declared that Carroll Hill Wooddy’s The Case of Frank L. Smith: A Study in Representative Government (University Of Chicago Press, 1931) was “probably the best introduction to state politics in the 1920s.” It details how the then-chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission accepted huge campaign contributions from Samuel Insull, the utilities magnate, whose companies’ rates were set by the commission; Stone found it a shrewd descriptions of Illinois politics at its most corrupt.
Illinois Justice: The Scandal of 1969 and the Rise of John Paul Stevens by Kenneth A. Manaster (University of Chicago Press, 2001) recalls the now-forgotten investigation into a alleged bribery of a state supreme court justice, in which the future U.S. Supreme Court Justice made his reputation.
The Illinois statehouse served as the plausible setting of some minor exercises in the private-eye genre written by David Everson in the 1980s and ‘90s. It has also been the setting for many a true-life crime. The Hodge Scandal: A Pattern of American Political Corruption (St. Martin’s Press, 1963), investigative reporter George Thiem recalls the unsavory tale of Orville E. Hedge, the state auditor of public accounts from 1953 to 1956, whose embezzlement of more than $1 million in state funds to buy cars and property led to his imprisonment.
The sordid story of Gov. Rod Blagojevich is told in Golden: How Rod Blagojevich Talked Himself out of the Governor's Office and into Prison
by Jeff Coen and John Chase (Chicago Review Press, 2012), which fails to answer the larger and more important question of why Illinois voters elected this charlatan twice.
Illinois politics has occasionally been about making rules as well as breaking them. Janet Cornelius wrote a summary account in Constitution Making in Illinois, 1818–1970, (University of Illinois Press, 1972). Cullom Davis called the Constitutional Convention of 1969–70 (known as Con Con, a term that has several unhappy connotations in Illinois) the most carefully chronicled and analyzed event in modem Illinois history. Accounts include Charter for a New Age: An Inside View of the Sixth Illinois Constitutional Convention by Elmer Gertz and Joseph P. Pisciotte (University of Illinois Press, 1980) and the monographs in the series “Studies in Illinois Constitution Making” published for the University of Illinois’s Institute for Government and Public Affairs by the University of Illinois Press. (A typical title is To Judge With Justice: History and Politics of Illinois Judicial Reform by Rubin G. Cohn, from 1973.)
A newer look at the formal structure of state government is Creating the Land of Lincoln: The History and Constitutions of Illinois, 1778–1870 by Frank Cicero Jr. (University of Illinois Press, 2018).
Bradley University professor William K. Hall’s Illinois Government and Politics, A Reader (Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., 1975) comprises 23 papers on every aspect of the subject; they include such classics as Tom Littlewood's "Bipartisan Coalition in Illinois," the account of how the late Paul Powell got himself elected speaker of the House in 1959 in spite of the opposition of the Chicago Democratic organization, as well as Paul Simon's 1974 article, "The Illinois Legislature: A Study in Corruption."
It took a former state representative to think that being a state representative was interesting enough to write a book about it. Then-freshman Illinois state legislator Paul Simon treated the antebellum Illinois General Assembly as a venue for Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965). Adlai: The Springfield Years (Aurora Publishers, Inc., 1975) by then-reporter Patricia Harris reveals the Stevenson governorship from the perspective of the press room, and makes one wonder why more statehouse reporters haven’t written memoirs.
Among the more recent excursions in this field is Power House: Arrington from Illinois by Taylor Pensoneau (American Literary Press, 2006), which recalls the career of Russell Arrington, who served in the General Assembly from 1945 to 1973 and as Senate President did work that earned him praise as “the father of the modern General Assembly.” Also worth reading is Robert E. Hartley's The Dealmakers of Downstate Illinois: Paul Powell, Clyde L. Choate, John H. Stelle (Southern Illinois University Press, 2016), the story of how those three legislative leaders constructed coalitions capable of maintaining Downstate political strength in the postwar years in the face of Chicago's growing influence.
State agencies deserve better histories than the civic-book treatment they usually get. One wishes there were more accounts along the lines of Milton D. Thompson’s The Illinois State Museum: Historical Sketch and Memoirs (Springfield, 1988), written by a long-time museum director.
Joan Gittens recounts the pendulum swings between scandal-and-reform back to indifference-and-neglect that characterize the State of Illinois’s fitful attempts to do right by vulnerable children; her Poor Relations: The Children of the State of Illinois 1818–1990 (University of Illinois Press, 1994).
Even state government has its how-to books. Among them are Lobbying Illinois: How You Can Make a Difference in Public Policy by Christopher Z. Mooney and Barbara Van Dyke-Brown (Institute for Legislative Studies, 2003); The Illinois Legislature: Structure and Process by Samuel K. Gove, Richard W. Carlson, and Richard J. Carlson, published for the Institute of Government and Public Affairs by the University of Illinois Press, 1976; and Lawmaking in Illinois: Legislative Politics, People, and Processes by Jack R. Van Der Slik and Kent D. Redfield (University of Illinois at Springfield, 1986). All three works are of interest to students of history, describing as they do a process much changed since the recent rise in power of the legislative leaders as a result of an ill-considered reform of the Illinois House in 1981. The best of the genre is James D. Nowlan’s Inside State Government: A Primer for Illinois Managers (Institute of Government and Public Affairs, 1982).
Most memoirs by Illinois governors have been banal and self-serving, including those from executives with mid-Illinois connections. Most, such as Richard Yates and Catharine Yates Pickering’s Serving the Republic: Richard Yates, Illinois Governor and Richard Yates, Civil War Governor: An Autobiography as edited by John H. Krenkel (Interstate Printers & Publishers, 1966) should not be the first work a curious student of the topic picks up about either of those men.
Politicians tend not to be reflective types, as was proven by The Maverick and the Machine: Governor Dan Walker Tells His Story (Southern Illinois University Press, 2015), which manages to tell only part of his story.
A better book of this type is Personal Recollections: The Story of an Earnest Life by John M. Palmer (R. Clarke, 1901). A Conscientious Turncoat: The Story of John M. Palmer, 1817–1900 by grandson George Thomas Palmer (Yale University Press and Oxford University Press, 1941); most reviewers found it much duller than its subject. While not self-serving, the memoir by the long-time General Assembly leader Philip J. Rock, Nobody Calls Just to Say Hello: Reflections on Twenty-Two Years in the Illinois Senate (Southern Illinois University Press, 2017) also tells us less about the practice of legislative politics than we might hope.
Biographers of other Illinois political people have done better by readers. It is often forgotten that Lincoln lost his 1858 race for the U.S. senate to Stephen A. Douglas, another adopted son of mid-Illinois. John Y. Simon called Stephen A. Douglas, Robert W. Johannsen’s biography of the Little Giant (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973) “magnificent.”
Mark A. Plummer’s Lincoln's Rail Splitter: Governor Richard J. Oglesby (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001) introduces readers to the man who was Illinois governor from 1865 to 1869 and again from 1885 to 1889 and who—no less significantly in the mid of the larger public—came up with the rail-splitter image for Abraham Lincoln's successful presidential campaign of 1860.
Robert G. Ingersoll: Peoria's Pagan Politician by Mark A. Plummer (Western Illinois University, 1984) explored the failed political career of that singular Peoria personality during the 1860s and '70s. Democratic leader Scott W. Lucas from Havana had a successful political career but has not gotten the book he probably deserves.
Joe Cannon, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in the pre-World War I era, is the subject of Tyrant from Illinois: Uncle Joe Cannon’s Experiment with Personal Power (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1951) by Blair Bolles, which was reprinted in 1974 by Greenwood Press.
Holding a seat in the U.S. Senate for thirty years is an achievement if not always a distinction, and James W. Neilson explains how it was done by one Springfieldian at the turn of the twentieth century in Shelby M. Cullom, Prairie State Republican (University of Illinois Press, 1962). Fifty Years of Public Service: Personal Recollections of Shelby M. Cullom by Shelby M. Cullom (Da Capo Press, 1969) is “colorful and anecdotal,” writes Joseph G. Gambone of the Kansas State Historical Society, but “not everything he says should be accepted as factual and accurate.”
Chicago’s Henry Horner was one of Illinois's better governors, as is made clear in the very good Horner of Illinois by Thomas B. Littlewood (Northwestern University Press, 1969). A revised and updated version was published under the title Henry Horner and the Burden of Tragedy (AuthorHouse, 2007).
The Stevensons: A Biography of an American Family by the well-known historian Jean H. Baker (W. W. Norton & Co., 1997) explains the future governor in the context of his important Bloomington commercial and political clan. The first volume of John Bartlow Martin’s The Life of Adlai E. Stevenson, subtitled Adlai Stevenson of Illinois (Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1976) is generally honored as the definitive biography covering the Illinois years. While praising Bartlow and Davis for their better-than-average understanding of Illinois campaigning and legislation, Robert P. Howard insisted that “there is still a need for a specialized biography that ignores Washington and the United Nations and concentrates on what happened in Illinois.”
Howard, by the way, is the author of an indispensable collection of biographical sketches of all Illinois governors, Mostly Good and Competent Men: Illinois Governors, 1818–1988 (Illinois Issues, Sangamon State University, and Illinois State Historical Society, 1988).
Historians (as distinct from retired journalists) seldom take on Illinois political biographies. (Exception are authors of books about Lincoln and his generation.) One of the best such works is the two-volume Lowden of Illinois: The Life of Frank O. Lowden by William T. Hutchinson (University of Chicago, reprint edition, 1957). Hutchinson was the Preston and Sterling Morton Professor of American History at the University of Chicago, where he taught for almost fifty years.
Another first-rate study is A Study in Boss Politics: William Lorimer of Chicago by Joel A. Tarr (University of Illinois Press, 1971) of Carnegie Mellon University.
Not quite in that league is Dirksen of Illinois: Senatorial Statesman by Edward L. Schapsmeier and Frederick H. Schapsmeier (University of Illinois Press, 1985). The memoir Dirksen was writing when he died in 1969 was published as The Education of a Senator (University of Illinois Press, 1998); it covers the years of his boyhood through his election to the Senate in 1950.
An Uncertain Tradition: U.S. Senators from Illinois, 1818–2003 by David Kenney and Robert E. Hartley (Southern Illinois University Press, 2003, reissued in 2012 as The Heroic and the Notorious: U.S. Senators from Illinois) offers limited but interesting looks at the careers of a group that includes several mid-Illinois men.
Kenney also wrote a good book about Gov. William Stratton in A Political Passage: The Career of Stratton of Illinois (Southern Illinois University Press, 1990).
Reporters get the first, and often the only crack at chronicling the careers of more recent Illinois governors. The indefatigable Robert Hartley is the author of Paul Powell of Illinois: A Lifelong Democrat (Southern Illinois University Press, 1999), whose subtitle surely does not do that career justice, and The Dealmakers of Downstate Illinois: Paul Powell, Clyde L. Choate, John H. Stelle (Southern Illinois University Press, 2016).
Legendary Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley has finally gotten a biography he deserves in American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley: His Battle for Chicago and the Nation by the Chicago Tribune's Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor (Back Bay Books;, 2000). While substantial, the book, like so many political books by reporters, focuses on the headline stories of the day at the expense of larger social and economic forces that shaped Chicago and, for that matter, Daley.
James L. Merriner's The Man Who Emptied Death Row: Governor George Ryan and the Politics of Crime (Southern Illinois University Press, 2008) is frank about the flaws of one of Illinois's all too common types. A more substantial book in every way is Kerner: The Conflict of Intangible Rights
by Bill Barnhart and Gene Schlickman (University of Illinois Press, 1999), which recounts what many come to regard as a miscarriage of justice in the case of the respected former governor Otto Kerner. ●