January 1865

Governor Yates and the Illinois Black Laws

On January 14, 1865, just days before the end of his term as Illinois’ governor, Richard Yates ordered the pardon of six African American men—Nelson, Amos, Andrew, Austin, John, and Sambo (no surnames were noted)—who had been convicted of the crime of intending to live permanently in Illinois. Months later he proudly declared that “in every case where malicious men have pursued the poor negro under the black laws… I have granted a full pardon; and when asked the reason, I have simply answered that I pardoned him for being black—that God has made of one blood all nations of men upon the face of the earth.”

The Black Laws
Illinois’ so-called Black Laws, like those in many other states, created a separate and very unequal place for people of color. The 1818 constitution explicitly excluded blacks from participation in political life, and allowed for the continuance of slavery under other guises. (It was not until 1848 that a new Illinois constitution would declare that “there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in this State.”) The 1819 “Act respecting free Negroes, Mulattoes, Servants, and Slaves” was among the first laws passed by the General Assembly of the new State of Illinois. Among other things the law required that all blacks wishing to live in Illinois produce proof that they were a free person; deemed any person of color without such a certificate to be a fugitive from slavery; made it a criminal act to bring enslaved blacks to Illinois in order to emancipate them; and created a system by which blacks could be held to service through indentures. Within a matter of a few years the state adopted other laws that prevented African Americans from testifying before courts and banned interracial marriages.

The February 1853 statute condemned by Richard Yates had actually been mandated with adoption of the same 1848 constitution, the first to explicitly ban slavery. Article 14 required that the General Assembly “pass such laws as will effectually prohibit free persons of color from immigrating to and settling in this state.” Under the law finally adopted any newly-arrived person of color who stayed for over ten days was deemed guilty of a crime. Those found guilty of violating the act received a fine of fifty dollars and court costs. If the fine could not be paid the person’s labor was to be sold to the lowest bidder at public auction.

Illinois newspapers occasionally reported prosecutions under the law. Former Illinois lieutenant governor Gustave Koerner of Belleville indignantly purchased the labor of a “convict,” immediately freeing him from any service in return. While periodic mention of such cases often brought expressions of disgust, some Illinoisans actually complained that the statute was not invoked as often as it should have been.

The case of Nelson et al
Beginning in 1861 thousands of blacks newly freed by the circumstances of war streamed north up the Mississippi and east from the slave state of Missouri into Illinois. Some found low-skill employment in towns and others doing farm work left behind by white men who had entered the military. Though the number of blacks living in Illinois remained a tiny percentage of the state’s population (the 1860 census reported 7,633 of a total population of 1.7 million) many whites felt threatened by the influx of new black residents. Some of them appealed to the 1853 law for relief.

In February 1863 six African American men were brought before a justice of the peace in the western Illinois town of Carthage (Hancock County) to stand trial for violation of the 1853 exclusion law. All were found guilty by a jury and fined fifty dollars and costs. When the fines could not be paid, auctions at which the men’s labor would be sold were announced.

The case created a sensation throughout the North. A number of newspapers published the details in an article titled “Barbarism in Illinois,” reporting that free men were in effect enslaved only by virtue of their color. A few editors unsympathetic to the cause of black freedom happily held the case up as an example of what they declared to be free-state and abolitionist hypocrisy.

Nelson, Amos, Andrew, Austin, John, and Sambo appealed their conviction to the Adams County Circuit Court, which affirmed the sentences. Their cause was then taken to the Illinois Supreme Court by four antislavery attorneys based in Quincy.

The appeal argued two major points. First, that the 1853 exclusion law violated Article 4 of the U.S. Constitution (“the citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of the citizens of the several States”) by banning immigration by a certain class of citizen. Secondly, they declared that by the auctioning of a convict’s labor to pay fines and court costs the law violated Article 13 of the 1848 Illinois constitution (“there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in this State, except as a punishment for crime”).

By a two-to-one vote justices of the three-member Supreme Court threw out the appeal. The court declared that no proof had been made that the men were citizens of any state, and so could not have been denied rights by the Illinois exclusion law. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision had explicitly stated that blacks were not United States citizens or entitled to rights as such. As to the sale of labor being a form of slavery, the Illinois court ruled that such service was merely a common means of enforcing a fine. The judgment against the six men stood.

Governor Yates’s pardon power relieved Nelson, Amos, Andrew, Austin, John, and Sambo from payment of fines and court fees. The men then disappeared into the whirl of postwar America. The notoriety of their case, however, helped to bring about in February 1865 the final repeal of the Illinois Blacks Laws, including the nationally-infamous 1853 exclusion act.

Interested in learning more?
For more on the Illinois Black Laws and African American rights in the early nineteenth century see Roger D. Bridges, “Equality Deferred: Civil Rights for Illinois Blacks, 1865-1885,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 74 (1981): 82-108, accessible at and “The Illinois Black Codes.” Illinois History Teacher 3:2 (1996):1-7, which can be found at . (2005).