Springfield’s Old State Capitol

This past weekend I ended up staying in Springfield on my own, so on Sunday I visited the Old State Capitol. It was the seat of Illinois state government from 1840 to 1876. The building was reconstructed in the 1960s, but still has the original stone exterior.


You can find the Old State Capitol in downtown Springfield, in what was once the city center. The grounds are planted with Hawthorne and Crabapple trees which make a nice display in spring.


While the present day State Capitol suggests the Gilded Age, this building reflects how in 1840 the frontier was a very recent memory in Illinois. The state was still sparsely populated, with no big cities to speak of (Chicago had been incorporated only three years earlier).


The Old State Capitol is almost severe in its simplicity and lack of adornment, and yet in its day it was the grandest thing for many miles around. The building is across the street from Abraham Lincoln’s old law office, which today is a nice little museum. Lincoln served as part of the legislature here from 1840 to 1846.


The first floor was occupied by several Constitutional officers of state government: Secretary of State, Auditor, etc. The State Treasurer’s office is above – I imagine the entire treasury of Illinois as a pile of coins in that chest at lower right.


This was the State Auditor’s office. Note the wood stove – this is how the entire building was heated.


There were 2 libraries on the first floor, a rather modest official State Library (above), and a law library used by the legislators.


The State Supreme Court was also located on this floor.


Here’s the courtroom – with a wood stove of its own. At the time there were only 3 justices, I believe.


This was the chamber of the Illinois House of Representatives. It was here that Lincoln gave his “house divided” speech: “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free … It will become all one thing or all the other.”

On a lighter note, it was here that Lincoln made an unsuccessful attempt to prevent a quorum by jumping out of a window. There’s also a story, probably apocryphal, about a lobbyist attempting to sway Lincoln’s vote by offering him a bribe. Suddenly, Lincoln seized the man and pushed him through a window. When the man returned and asked for an explanation, Lincoln replied: “You were getting too close to my price.”

There is an interesting display about Illinois’ regional politics and the state’s passage of the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery. “No” votes came mainly from areas settled by southerners who had moved upriver from Kentucky and Tennessee, “yes” votes from the Yankees and European immigrants who arrived after traveling across the northern flatlands. This regional divide still exists, in a more complicated form.


This was the State Senate chamber. During the Civil War, a women’s aid society met here to make bandages and organize drives to collect supplies for the Union Army. There’s a bunch of interesting displays about the role that Springfield women played in the conflict.



Here’s a roll call of the Illinois House of Representatives from the 1840s. If you look about halfway down you can see the name “A. Lincoln”. It’s interesting that the roll lists the state each legislator was born in (under “Nativity”), as well as the Illinois city and county they represented.


Here’s the Senate roll call. In addition to the state of origin, it lists occupation. Lots of farmers, a few craftsmen, only a handful of lawyers. Quite a change from today (though I wouldn’t idealize the past – the ignorance and prejudice was something fierce).


There are two committee rooms, each about the size of a large closet.


Hung on the wall is the regimental flag of the 95th Illinois, which was recruited out of Boone and McHenry Counties in the far northern part of the state.

If you ever find yourself in Springfield, there are four places I would recommend highly for a visit: the former and current State Capitols, the Lincoln Museum, and the Lincoln Memorial Garden, which was designed by Jens Jensen. I’ll try to do a post on the modern State Capitol if I get a chance. A post about the Lincoln Memorial Garden is here.

30 Comments on “Springfield’s Old State Capitol”

  1. What an interesting old building. So simple. Isn’t it amazing how they ran a state from such a small building and with so little. Can you imagine the politicians now days trying to accomplish anything here. Just keeping warm in these rooms. Brrr, makes me cold just seeing those old stoves and tall ceilings. Thanks for the tour. I also enjoyed your post about the garden.

  2. Oh, my gosh! What an interesting post. So enjoyed going around vicariously with you. I really love the simplicity of this old building. The Gilded Age is not for me. Too much! But I look forward to seeing a post about the modern State Capitol. Finally, good advice not to idealize the past.

  3. Interesting. I was there a few years ago, and really enjoyed Lincoln’s old office, a great man. If there don’t miss touring the Dana Thomas House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the best of his that I have seen.

  4. Thanks for this interesting piece of US history. I was inspired as a student learning about Lincoln and would absolutely love to visit the Lincoln museum. Hopefully we will get there one day.
    Best wishes with your weather, perhaps we could send you a little of our Aussie heatwave, to warm things up.

  5. The exterior of the building’s impressive. Do you happen to know if it’s sandstone? The colors in the pillars are beautiful. I’d not heard those stories about Lincoln; they made me laugh. The way things divided on the 13th Amendment vote was interesting, too. There are some similarities with the old Iowa state capitol, although it was built a little later. (Actually, I just looked up the old Iowa state capitol, and discovered that this building was the model for it. I guess those similarities make sense!)

  6. Good recommendations for the area. I would also recommend the National Guard Armory Museum in Springfield. It is the first permanent National Guard building in America and is very educational.

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