Why is Springfield the Capital of Illinois?

Why Is Springfield the Capital of Illinois?

What is the capital of Illinois? Most would probably guess Chicago. For starters, Chicago is by far the biggest city in Illinois, with over 2.7 million residents. Chicago is also one of the more prominent cities in all of America. But Chicago is not the capital of Illinois. That distinction goes to Springfield (no, not that Springfield). So, why is Springfield the capital of Illinois and not one of the larger cities in the state? Let’s look back at the history of Illinois’ capital.

Do you think you can name the most populous cities in Illinois?

The Capital of Illinois

Like many states, the capital of Illinois has changed a few times over the years. Starting in 1809, when Illinois was still just a territory, the capital was Kaskaskia. This town tucked down in the southwestern section was larger back then, but today has two distinctions; being the former capital of Illinois and the second-smallest incorporated community in the state, with a population of just 14!

In 1818, Illinois was granted full statehood, and by 1819, the state capital had moved to Vandalia, which was more centrally-located and less prone to flooding. Vandalia was founded for the sole purpose of becoming the new seat of government, and signed an agreement to remain in that capacity for a minimum of 20 years. Unfortunately for them, as soon as the 20 years was up in 1839, the capital was moved north to Springfield.

The History of Springfield

Originally settled in 1818 by trappers and fur traders, the first buildings in Springfield emerged in 1820. However, back then the city was called Calhoun, after Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, a noted secessionist. While there seems to be no direct correlation between this famous statesman and the new settlement, it was not unusual in the sense that Calhoun eventually lent his name to no less than 13 towns, 11 counties, and dozens of streets around the United States.

By 1832, however, Calhoun had fallen out of popular favor in the north, and the town renamed itself Springfield, either because of nearby Spring Creek, or in honor of prosperous Springfield, Massachusetts, depending on who you ask.

By far Springfield’s most famous resident was Abraham Lincoln. He lived there from 1837 until he became president and moved to Washington in 1861. He even gave his famous 1861 “House Divided” speech about slavery in Springfield and, to this day, the city still boasts his presidential library and museum, as well as his Oak Ridge Cemetery tomb.

The city enjoyed an economic boom in the second half of the 19th century after the arrival of the railroad. The current Illinois capitol building was constructed from 1868 to 1888. By the turn of the 20th century, Springfield was a major player in the coal industry.

Why is Springfield the Capital of Illinois?

Long before Vandalia’s mandated 20 years were up, political leaders in Illinois had recognized that the main population centers were farther north. As Springfield was more north but still relatively central, located near the Sangamon River and, perhaps most importantly, home to influential Abraham Lincoln and his group known as “The Long Nine”, it was soon chosen as capital of Illinois.

Despite these reasons, the move remained contentious. Vandalia built a new state building in an effort to keep the title, and powerful legislator, Stephen A. Douglas, was lobbying to name Jacksonville the new capital instead. Lincoln prevailed, however, and to this day arguments continue as to whether Springfield was chosen fairly or if The Long Nine used favors and influence to force the move.

Springfield Today

As the political capital, a significant portion of the city’s economy is based on government jobs. It continues to enjoy hosting the Illinois State Fair, as it has for 165 years since the tradition began all the way back in 1853. Bookending its history as the site of important political events, in 2007 Barack Obama chose Springfield as the location to announce that he was running for president.

So, the next time somebody insists that “The Windy City” is the capital of Illinois, you’ll not only know the right answer, but even be able to explain why and how it all happened.


Did you like this post? Want to read about more capitals? Check out the following links. Or, test your trivia knowledge with some fun Illinois quizzes on Sporcle, like the one below!

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Mark Heald
About Mark Heald 180 Articles
Mark Heald is the Managing Editor of Sporcle.com. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.