We’ve had our fair share of riots in Chicago, from the beer riots on the Clark Street Bridge in the the 1850s to the riots at the chaotic Democratic convention of 1968. Most of them look like dark blots on our city’s history. But in 1854, we had a riot of which we can still be proud.
The riot was over a speech by Stephen Douglas, an Illinois congressman best remembered today for being Abraham Lincoln’s rival in the famous Lincoln Douglas debates. To understand the riot, you have to understand that the most bitter debate in American politics in those days was, as it had been since the days of the first continental congress, slavery. From the beginning, some states allowed it, and some didn’t. Every time a NEW state was added, they’d have to argue about whether to allow slavery there or not. Finally, to stop the debate, there came the Missouri Compromise, which stated that slavery would be legal in Missouri, but, after that, it wouldn’t be legal in any state north of the southern border of Missouri. This cooled people down for a while, though it also clearly made slavery into a North-South issue. The whole point of the Mexican American was was to add more southern states, so the slave-holding states would continue to outnumber the non-slave states. Abraham Lincoln nearly ruined his career by arguing against the Mexican-American war.
Anyway, one of the reasons it took so long for anything to be done about slavery was, well, that America was democracy. You couldn’t become president without appealing to the slave-holding states (at least at the time – Lincoln would go on to win despite not even being on the ballot in most of the South). When Stephen Douglas got it into his head that he wanted to be president, he thought he’d have to do something to make him more attractive to southern voted. Hence, he got behind the Kansas-Nebraska act, which did away with the Missouri Compromise and stated that any time a new state joined the union, they could decide for themselves whether to allow slavery. Slave-holding states actually went so far as to send militia groups into Kansas to make sure that it made slavery legal in a series of battles that were sort of warm-ups for the civil war.
Then as now, the talk in Chicago taverns among old drunks was generally quite conservative. An abolitionist would be best off keeping his big mouth shut in the bars (even in the 1970s, on of Mike Royko’s pieces of advice on tourists who wanted to pass for locals was not to say anything enlightened about race in the bars). But the old drunks didn’t really represent the real mood of the city – all over the south, people sneered about “abolitionist Chicago.”
And, when Stephen Douglas came to town in 1854 to give a speech promoting the Kansas-Nebraska act at Market Hall (which stood at the current site of the Criminal Court building on Hubbard and Dearborn), people came out not to hear what he had to say, but to throw eggs and vegetables at him.
“In the melee that followed,” wrote the Tribune, “nearly everybody got another man’s hat.”