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Better Politics, Smarter Government: Finding candor, compassion, and fun in politics

John T. Shaw, Director of Paul Simon Public Policy Institute
Provided by John Shaw
John T. Shaw, Director of Paul Simon Public Policy Institute

Editor’s Note: This op-ed was distributed by Capitol News Illinois on behalf of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.

It’s a curious sign of our times that one of the best places that I’ve found to witness candor, compassion, and fun in American politics is the Illinois State Archives’ website. I suspect it is not the first place that most people would go to feel good about politics.

The Archives celebrated Illinois’ bicentennial in 2018 with an online exhibit called, “The 100 Most Valuable Documents at the Illinois State Archives.” It was created to inform, stimulate, and even provoke discussion about Illinois history and is still available on its website.

The documents are a wonderful blend of the profound and the prosaic, the uplifting and the disappointing. For example you can view Illinois’ 1818 Constitution, the first Black Law which in 1819 severely limited the rights of African Americans in Illinois, one of the first maps for what became the Illinois & Michigan Canal, an 1840 House resolution announcing that William Ewing of Vandalia defeated Abraham Lincoln of Springfield to be Illinois House speaker, the Illinois Central Railroad’s 1851 charter, the Suffrage Act of 1913 which made Illinois the first state east of the Mississippi River to give women the right to vote for president, and a December 1941 resolution convening a special session of the General Assembly following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

This exhibit could — and I think should — be the basis of a terrific college or high school class on our state’s history. Two documents in particular caught my attention. Not because of their gravity and consequence, but because they remind us that politics can be human and fun.

The first is a March 1858 letter from Abraham Lincoln to Illinois Governor William Bissell requesting that he pardon a man and his son who had been convicted of stealing six small hogs. The convicted man, Samuel Jones, was a widower with seven children.

It’s worth recalling that 1858 was a busy year in Lincoln’s life. He was building the Republican Party, delivered his “House Divided” speech, and later crisscrossed Illinois by train and coach for seven historic debates with his opponent for the U.S. Senate, Stephen Douglas. Though he had a lot on his mind, Lincoln took the time to write a brief letter that is a master class in candor, concision, and compassion. He acknowledged that he did not know the man convicted nor had he reviewed the evidence from the trial. However, he observed that Samuel Jones’ neighbors “appear more anxious that he and his son should be pardoned, than I have known in any other case. This is really all I can say.” The note is a modest and gentle request for mercy and commonsense. Governor Bissell pardoned the man and his son.

The second uplifting document is a 1949 veto statement by Governor Adlai Stevenson. The Illinois General Assembly had passed a bill, presumably playfully, requiring Illinoisans to keep their outdoor cats on leashes to prevent them from killing birds. Stevenson decided to veto the bill but not without having some fun. “I cannot agree that it should be the declared public policy of Illinois that a cat visiting a neighbor’s yard or crossing the highway is a public nuisance. It is in the nature of cats to do a certain amount of unescorted roaming,” he wrote, no doubt with a smile on his face.

“The problem of cat versus bird is as old as time. If we attempt to resolve it by legislation who knows but what we may be called upon to take sides as well in the age-old problems of dog versus cat, bird versus bird, or even bird versus worm. In my opinion, the State of Illinois and its local governing bodies already have enough to do without trying to control feline delinquency. For these reasons, and not because I love birds the less or cats the more, I veto and withhold my approval from Senate Bill No. 93.”

I cannot imagine there exists a more delightful veto message in Illinois history.

Lincoln’s letter and Stevenson’s veto message provide small examples of candor, compassion, and delight in public life. We need more of these qualities in person and now, not just online and from history.

John T. Shaw is the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Shaw’s monthly column explores how Illinois can work toward better politics and smarter government.

John T. Shaw joined the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute as director in January 2018. He established the Institute’s “Better Politics, Smarter Government” agenda with its Restoring American Statesmanship, Renewing Illinois, and Understanding Our New World programs.
The Paul Simon Public Policy Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank promoting better politics and smarter government and preparing young people for careers in public service. Contact the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at 618-453-4009 or by email at paulsimoninstitute@siu.edu.
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