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Vandalia

Category: Museums
General Info
315 West Gallatin
Vandalia,
IL
62471
Phone
(618) 283 3116
The Vandalia Statehouse is the oldest surviving Illinois capitol building. Vandalia became the second capital of Illinois in 1820, replacing Kaskaskia. The first of three capitol buildings to stand in Vandalia was a plain two-story frame structure. Residents who feared removal of the capital to another town built Vandalia’s second statehouse during the summer of 1824. Again, fear of relocation by an 1834 referendum to relocate the capital, Vandalia residents constructed a third statehouse, the one that stands today. Work began in the summer of 1836 with efforts to salvage material from the old building. The last session of the Illinois General Assembly to meet in the Vandalia Statehouse closed on March 4, 1839. In the 1930s and 1940s the State of Illinois carried out a major effort to restore the building to its Lincoln-era appearance. Spectators' galleries were reconstructed in the Senate and House chambers in the 1970s, and restoration continues today.The Vandalia Statehouse is the oldest surviving Illinois capitol building. During the brief time state government was located at Vandalia, 1836-1839, the legislature enacted an ambitious public works program and promoted economic development. In 1837 legislators voted to relocate the government to Springfield, and the last session met at Vandalia two years later. Restored in the 1930s, the Vandalia Statehouse State Historic Site is managed by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.Vandalia Becomes State CapitolVandalia became the second capital of Illinois in 1820, replacing Kaskaskia, an early center of commerce and government located on the Mississippi River. In 1819, Congress donated land to the new state of Illinois for a capital city. Five commissioners were named to choose the actual location. Traveling up the Kaskaskia River in May 1819, they chose a wooded area known as Reeve's Bluff, located on the river's west bank about 90 miles northeast of Kaskaskia. Surveyors, axemen, and others were soon struggling to build a town before the December 1820 meeting of the Illinois General Assembly.Vandalia's Three CapitolsThe first of three capitol buildings to stand in Vandalia was a plain two-story frame structure. The entire first floor served as a meeting place for the House of Representatives, while the second floor was divided into rooms for the Senate and the Council of Revision, which consisted of the governor and justices of the Illinois Supreme Court. Executive offices were located in other buildings. The state treasurer transacted business at his home, while the auditor and secretary of state worked in the brick building that housed the state bank. The bank building burned on January 23, 1823, consuming most of the state's financial papers, and the statehouse was destroyed by fire the following December.Vandalia's second statehouse was built during the summer of 1824 by residents who feared removal of the capital to another town. Like its predecessor, the building served primarily as a meeting place for the general assembly. State executive offices and the supreme court seem to have had no permanent quarters. The building had been constructed hastily, and the effects were soon apparent. By 1834 its floors sagged badly and the walls bulged dangerously. Two years later people refused to enter the building for fear it would collapse.Vandalia residents, frightened by an 1834 referendum to relocate the capital, constructed a third statehouse, the one that stands today. Work began in the summer of 1836 with efforts to salvage material from the old building. Though workers attempted to finish the building rapidly, much remained to be done when the legislature convened in early December. Plaster in second-story rooms was still damp, and rooms on the first floor were barely begun.The third statehouse was of simple Federal design. Larger than any of its predecessors, the building provided, for the first time, space for all three branches of the government. The first floor contained offices for the auditor of public accounts, secretary of state, treasurer and all members of the executive branch as well as chambers for the supreme court. There was no space specifically assigned to the governor. The whole second floor was devoted to the needs of the general assembly.The Legislature at VandaliaThe legislature was the most powerful branch of state government in the 1830s, a fact symbolized by the Senate and House chambers' domination of building space. The governor and lieutenant governor were the only statewide officials elected by popular vote. Members of the general assembly elected all other executive and judicial officers, including those who had offices on the statehouse's first floor. A weak veto power was placed in the hands of the Council of Revision. A simple majority of each house of the legislature, however, could override that veto.The business of Illinois state government in the 1830s was conducted during the biennial and special sessions of the legislature.Counties and courts were organized, officials elected, and statutes enacted. More importantly, the legislature promoted development in Illinois by granting special privileges including the right to dam rivers and establish toll bridges and ferries to would-be entrepreneurs. Freshman legislator Abraham Lincoln, for instance, introduced an 'act to authorize Samuel Musick to build a toll bridge across Salt Creek in Sangamon County' in 1834. The legislature also granted corporate charters that conferred special powers to the holders.The general assembly's great power made its sessions a mecca for people with special interests. The approach of a legislative session brought large numbers of men to Vandalia, some hoping for appointment to a state office, others to lobby for bills that would promote their individual business or speculative interests. Meetings were also held by organizations to promote such reform efforts as temperance and the organization of a public school system. By the late 1830s a large portion of each session was taken up by bills intended to benefit individuals or small groups, leading Thomas Ford to write that 'offices and jobs were created, and special laws for individual benefit passed, and divided out by bargains, intrigues, and logrolling combinations.'Lincoln at VandaliaAbraham Lincoln assumed the first statewide office of his political career at Vandalia. He arrived in the capital city in late November 1834, and the freshman legislator took his seat on December 1, 1834, in the dilapidated second statehouse. He began his second term in December 1836 in the capitol building that stands today.While at Vandalia, Lincoln worked for passage of an ambitious internal improvements hill and made a long speech in the House of Representatives on January 11, 1837, opposing a resolution to investigate the state bank, a move that would have damaged the state's ability to finance improvement projects. In his first published speech, Lincoln announced that he would oppose any move to injure the bank's credit.Lincoln studied in earnest for a career in law during his time as a legislator, and he was enrolled as an attorney before he left Vandalia following the legislative session that ended in March 1837. He returned to Vandalia twice for sessions before the capital was moved to Springfield in 1839.Capitol Relocation LawCharges of logrolling and corruption surrounded the 1837 legislation that relocated the state capital from Vandalia to Springfield. By law the seat of government could not be moved from Vandalia before 1840. Relocation efforts, however, began in 1834, when a statewide referendum was held to decide the issue. No town received the necessary majority, Alton, Vandalia, and Springfield each taking about one-third of the vote. The inconclusive results only temporarily slowed the movement.In January 1837 the Senate passed a bill calling for permanent location of the capital, the place to be chosen by a joint ballot of the legislature. The House of Representatives passed the bill on February 24, after several attempts to dilute it had been defeated. Balloting for the permanent location was held on February 28 in the House chamber. Springfield led on the first ballot, receiving more than double the vote of its nearest competitor. Each succeeding poll added to Springfield's strength, resulting in a win on the fourth ballot.Charges of corruption came almost immediately from the foes of relocation. Many claimed that Springfield-area legislators, Abraham Lincoln among them, had supported public works projects throughout Illinois in return for votes to make Springfield the new capital. Residents of the town hotly denied the charges. Disagreement exists among historians today as to the roles logrolling and Abraham Lincoln played in moving Illinois' capital.Courthouse and Historic SiteThe last session of the Illinois General Assembly to meet in the Vandalia Statehouse closed on March 4, 1839. Before adjournment the legislature passed an act presenting the building to Fayette County and the town of Vandalia. The western half of the building was used as the county courthouse, while the eastern portion was to be used by the town for school purposes. In 1856 Vandalia sold its interest in the building for $3,150. Shortly thereafter county commissioners authorized an extensive remodeling, including the addition of the porticoes visitors see today.On August 5, 1918, the State of Illinois purchased the old statehouse and public square in order to ensure its preservation for future generations. Though owned by the state, the building continued to serve as the Fayette County Courthouse until 1933, when county offices moved to new quarters. In the 1930s and 1940s the State of Illinois carried out a major effort to restore the building to its Lincoln-era appearance. Spectators' galleries were reconstructed in the Senate and House chambers in the 1970s, and restoration continues today.
Admission
Vandalia Statehouse State Historic Site is open daily from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. It is closed on major holidays. Groups of 25 or more must have a reservation. The Statehouse is handicapped accessible, but restrooms are not. The Vandalia Statehouse is home to two popular special events. The Grand Levee, held each June, recalls the social life that was part of Vandalia during its days as capital. The event includes music, craft dernonstrations, and a candlelight tour of the statehouse. A candlelight tour is also part of the holiday celebration held each December. Hours: 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. seven days a week.