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home : news : state news free July 29, 2017

1/28/2017 9:28:00 AM
Patrick Henry governed Illinois in territorial days

By Tom Emery
Breeze-Courier columnist

ILLINOIS — During the heat of the impending American Revolution on March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry uttered the famous words “give me liberty or give me death.”  It is unlikely that he was thinking of Illinois at the time.

Little known to many Illinoisans is that three short years later, Henry governed the territory that became the Land of Lincoln. Despite his place in American history, Henry actually did little to further the cause of the distant, sparsely populated area known as “Illinois.”

Henry, who served as Virginia governor from 1776-79 and again from 1784-86, was convinced by George Rogers Clark that American capture of the British stronghold of Detroit would lead to the colonial control west of the Appalachians.  The daring Clark proceeded to capture the British outposts at Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Vincennes, thereby securing the Illinois country for Virginia and Gov. Henry.

On Dec. 9, 1778, Illinois became a county of the colony of Virginia. In its governance, Virginia continued many of the customs of the French, who had previously ruled the region, and guaranteed religious freedom and the right to own slaves.

But like the British and French before, Virginia found itself overwhelmed by the responsibility of the Illinois lands, now known as the American Bottom. The state was also preoccupied with the ongoing Revolution, which was closer to home. In Illinois, Henry appointed John Todd, an ex-Indian fighter, as militia commander, to “befriend the French and Indians and to teach them the value of democracy.”

Henry, however, soon left Todd with no support, no money, and pile of unpaid bills, problems also encountered by Clark. In addition, Todd battled the increasing tensions between the headstrong Americans and the laid-back French. and resigned after only five months.

Power in Illinois eventually fell into the hands of John Dodge, a shady land speculator from Connecticut. With the backing of American authorities, Dodge declared himself the captain commandant and controlled Illinois with a heavy hand for most of the next six years, to the outrage of the French inhabitants.

The Virginia law creating the county of Illinois expired on Jan. 5, 1782, and chaos followed.  In these years before ratification of the Constitution, the nation was tenuously bound by the Articles of Confederation, and western lands such as Illinois were left with no governing body and little means to enforce law. As a result, anarchy reigned in Illinois until 1790.

In addition, Virginia encouraged other colonies to give up their western extensions to create a so-called Northwest Territory, which could be nationalized and drawn into new states. On March 1, 1784, Virginia ceded its possession to Illinois, which became part of the Northwest Territory in 1787 and achieved statehood in 1818.

Patrick Henry, meanwhile, was an opponent of the proposed U.S. Constitution as hostile to states’ rights. He turned down offers from President George Washington to become secretary of state and chief justice and died in 1799.

His governance was not the only connection Henry had to Illinois. He was also a cousin to the state’s second governor, Edward Coles, who is credited with the prevention of legalized slavery in Illinois.

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or

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