Slavery After Illinois Became A State

Illinois drafts its first state constitution in 1818. Decades earlier, the Northwestern Ordinance had already outlawed slavery — but the Illinois constitution gave the new state the option of overturning those old laws. Generally, slavery was tolerated once the state joined the union, but new slaves could not be “thereafter introduced.” Notably, to effectively ban slavery forever, the constitution would need a clause banning the introduction of a pro-slavery amendment. It didn’t go that far.

It was for this reason that a proposal was later introduced that would have made slavery legal in Illinois again. Voters rejected it in 1824.

It’s worth keeping in mind that even though voters were against slavery, they didn’t use their own state’s laws to disrespect another state’s laws. When slaves from Missouri crossed the border and entered Illinois, they received little aid from state authorities. In fact, Illinois law said that indentured slaves who escaped and were recaptured would then be subject to a longer sentence. 

Illinois law also prohibited Africans from serving on juries when the accused was white. 

But the state also made strides toward fully outlawing slavery as well. The Illinois Supreme Court made a series of judgments — usually relying on jurisprudence, which means respecting previously made decisions — to slowly free slaves who were still living in Illinois.

For example, Cornelius v. Cohen resulted in an 1825 Illinois Supreme Court decision that said that both parties must contractually agree to the servitude in order that it remain valid. A later decision, Boon v. Juliet, said that any children of registered slaves would be freed upon entry into Illinois. 

An 1845 Illinois Supreme Court decision ended slavery once and for all. Jarrot v. Jarrot resulted in a ruling that said descendants of former slaves born after the Northwest Ordinance were all free by law. That meant that those who were born into servitude were free retrospectively.

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