The politics of the 1850s became consumed with the question of slavery. Southern slaveowners insisted on a new Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which compelled northern authorities and other residents to actively participate in arresting and returning fugitive slaves to their enslavers. Northerners responded furiously, adopting antislavery politics in greater numbers. Southerners, fearful of the growing strength of the abolitionist movement and the specter of a permanent electoral minority, demanded more slaveholding territory as the nation expanded westward—many called for slavery to be legal in all federal territories, and advocated foreign war to annex new slaveholding territory, such as Cuba.
In 1854, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois attempted to broker a compromise between North and South with his Kansas-Nebraska Act. Allowing residents of the Kansas and Nebraska territories to vote on whether to allow slavery within their borders, the act was seen in the North as a naked attempt to extend slavery beyond the Missouri Compromise line and give greater weight to slaveholders in the Senate. Voters in the North turned out in force, leading to the creation of the Republican Party and, ultimately, the election of Abraham Lincoln as president. The South’s attempts to continually impose minority rule on the North failed, leading to secession, the Civil War, and the greatest number of military casualties for a single war in American history.
Clint Smith: In 1864, like in 2020, America just got lucky
Population shifts contributed to a third episode of minority rule in the early 20th century. Rapid industrialization in the years after the Civil War saw the growth of megacities that fundamentally transformed the demographics of several states. In Illinois, Chicago’s population grew from 112,000 in 1860—6 percent of total state residents—to 2.7 million in 1920, or 40 percent of total state residents. According to the state’s constitution, the state legislature should have reapportioned following each decennial census; from 1900 onwards, downstate leaders refused to do so, leaving Chicago heavily underrepresented and overtaxed.
In the 1920s, the repeated refusal of the downstate minority to reapportion the legislature was met with increasing frustration from Chicago representatives. Throughout the decade, the city council passed angry resolutions condemning the malapportionment. In 1925, with more and more time at council meetings devoted to the topic, the council passed a resolution calling for the city to secede from Illinois, and to form the State of Chicago.
Downstate defenders of the status quo continued to dig their heels in, even forming organizations such as the League for the Defense of Downstate Voters. Only in 1955 did the Illinois legislature finally bow to the inevitable, redistricting for the first time since 1901. Even then, downstate leaders struck a deal to maintain control in the state Senate, until Supreme Court rulings in Baker v. Carr (1962) and Reynolds v. Sims (1964) decreed that state legislative-district populations be “of roughly equal size.” Ever since, Chicago and Cook County politicians have dominated Illinois elections.