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The Famous And Ignominious In Illinois’s History: You Decide

August 30, 2007


Blatantly piggybacking an ongoing post at Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory weblog, prompted first there by a Virginia newspaper, I propose that H&E readers try and figure out the Greatest Illinoisans. Here are my criteria for selection (paraphrasing what was asked for Virginians):

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For each half-century of Illinois’s “official” existence — 1818-1868, 1868-1918, 1918-1968, 1968-present — please name and write a short explanatory paragraph (200 words or less) for a (1) most influential Illinoisan and (2) greatest Illinoisan. Please do not name the same person twice, and do not feel that the most influential person must necessarily have left a 100-percent positive legacy. Fill in names only for the fifty years that match your knowledge and comfort-level support. If you choose to cover only one or two periods, please feel free to do so.

And if you would like to include a name and paragraph for a most important Illinoisan the public doesn’t know about, or an Illinoisan with the most destructive legacy, please feel free to do that as well. Be creative.

After an appropriate period of time, perhaps one or two months, I’ll make an attempt to return the results to H&E readers.

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Here are a few resources to get you started:

(1) The Naperville Public Library’s starter list of famous Illinoisans (bottom of page);
(2) A starter Illinois timeline (bottom folder);
(3) The Illinois Review’s list of famous Illinoisans; and
(4) 50States.com’s list of famous Illinoisans.

My thoughts on history’s greatest and most influential Illinoisans in history will be in the comments. – TL

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One Comment
  1. Here are my choices for the most influential and greatest Illinoisans in the abovementioned periods. I apologize for the Chicago slant, but it ~is~ a part of the state, yes?! Here goes:

    I. 1818-1868

    – Greatest: Stephen A. Douglas. He came to Illinois in 1833. Look at the rest of his accomplishments: Helped make Chicago a major hub of railroads; Elected to Illinois legislature in 1836; Judge of Supreme Court of Illinois 1841-1843; Elected to US House of Representatives in 1843; Elected to US Senate in 1847 [Senator until 1861]; Participated in the famous debates with Lincoln during the senate election campaign in 1858; Nominated for US Presidency in 1860; Offered his services to President Lincoln after the outbreak of the Civil War; Died 3 June 1861 in Chicago, two months after Fort Sumter Incident; Buried at 36th Street near Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois.

    – Most Influential: Abraham Lincoln. This was a no-brainer for at least one of these categories. Of course Hoosiers like to remind Illinoisans that he was born in Indiana (he moved to Illinois in 1830). But where was Lincoln's greatest work done? Where did he arise as a politician and public figure? Finally, wasn't the Union preserved (at least politically) under his leadership?

    Comment on both: This was tough. At first I had these reversed, but then I remembered that this post is about the state of Illinois, not America in general. Should these be reversed?

    II. 1868-1918

    – Greatest: Jane Addams. No apologies here. She mixed with some of the greatest – John Dewey, etc. – and influenced some of the greatest. She's definitely my favorite from this period, but I also believe she represents some of the best virtues the state has to offer. Here's a link that describes some of her activities.

    – Most Influential: Frank Lloyd Wright. Some of his most important – and copied – work was done in this period. See this Wikipedia entry for more.

    III. 1918-1968

    – Greatest: Richard J. Daley. With '68 being the final year, I just can't rid myself of his foolish actions at the Democratic National Convention. But still, he made Chicago a national presence, for better or for worse. In the process, he dragged Illinois – kicking and screaming – along for the ride.

    – Most Influential: Al Capone. This is a regrettable pick. I hate to say it, but Illinois's best-known citizen – err inhabitant – casts a shadow over the state's image until the very end of the twentieth century. Prohibition and the 1920s still capture the public's imagination, and Capone is as much a part of that as any other figure. Popular culture may not reflect virtue, but it does relay certain truths about our culture.

    IV. 1968-Present

    – Greatest: Senator Paul Simon. Here's the Wikipedia entry. Did anyone do more concrete good (no “public works pun” intended) for the state on the whole in this period?

    – Most Influential: Michael Jordan. Is it wrong to pick a sports star? This was about as painful a pick as Capone. Again, popular culture reveals something about the state's inhabitants. I understand that some may not see him as a great role model, nor want to acknowledge the worst aspects of “star culture” that this pick represents. But did anyone do more for the national and international visibility of state, or the city of Chicago, than Jordan did from about 1988 to 1998? Wow.

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    Well, that's it for my subjective take on things. I look forward to thoughts from you on my list, as well as your own nominations (with explanations). – TL

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