The state motto of Illinois is “State Sovereignty, National Union.” Although the phrase seems simple and straightforward, at the time of its adoption it had a very potent symbolic meaning for Illinois and for the US. Later, with the approach of America’s Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865, the meaning of the motto literally became fighting words. President Abraham Lincoln, probably Illinois’ most renowned citizen in American history, made the decision to put those words into action to preserve the Union. Political disputes about the motto and the arrangement of its words continued even after the war ended.
The extent of state sovereignty and federal power were important issues from America’s inception. The Ninth Amendment in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution provided that those powers not specifically given to the federal government were reserved to the states or to the people. The Framers of the Constitution were rebelling against what they saw as unconscionable government tyranny and were careful to guard against it. The constitutional provisions protecting state sovereignty were greatly prized by the individual states that joined the Union.
The motto “State Sovereignty, National Union” made its appearance on an Illinois emblem as part of the first Seal of the State of Illinois, which was authorized by the newly created Illinois General Assembly on 19 February 1819. The seal bears the date August 26, 1818, when the first Illinois Constitution was signed. The seal replicated the seal replicated the Great Seal of the United States, with the exception that the eagle depicted in the seal held in its beak a banner bearing the state motto of Illinois.
Like the true scope of states’ rights, the issue of slavery was to become a divisive one in the new Union. Illinois joined the Union in 1818 as a state in which slavery was outlawed. Just before its admission, Mississippi and Alabama joined as states where slavery was legal. By 1861, following Lincoln’s election to the presidency as an anti-slavery republican, tensions between the individual states and the federal government on these issues led to civil war. The resulting conflict was the deadliest ever fought on American soil, and by the war’s end in 1865, many smaller towns in the US had been deprived of their entire male population.
In 1867, the precise political interpretation to be given to the state motto of Illinois was still a matter of dispute. Illinois Secretary of State Sharon Tyndale, the keeper of the Great Seal of Illinois, approached Senator Allen C. Fuller about sponsoring a bill authorizing a new state seal. Tyndale’s idea had been to change the state motto of Illinois to “National Union, State Sovereignty” because of events of the Civil War.
The Illinois Senate vehemently objected to this change, and passed legislation specifically preventing Tyndale from the altering the order of the wording in the motto. Following the letter but not the spirit of the senate’s legal prohibition, Tyndale expressed his sentiments through strategic placement of the banner held by the eagle.
Although the phrase National Union still followed the words State Sovereignty, the banner is vertical instead of horizontal, as it had been in the previous seal. This made the phrase National Union appear at the top of the banner. In addition, with the new placement of the banner, “Sovereignty” appeared in a furl in the banner upside down. Tyndale’s subtle but significant alteration remains part of the state seal of Illinois today.