Stephenson County’s Namesake Owned Slaves, Voted For Slavery In Illinois

Benjamin Stephenson owned 11 slaves, including 4 children, and used his political power to support slavery in Illinois.

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Benjamin Stephenson, the man who Stephenson County is named for, was a slaveowner who used his political power to vote for slavery in Illinois. 

Portrait of Benjamin Stephenson. Photo courtesy of Benjamin Stephenson Historical Home in Edwardsville, Illinois.
Portrait of Benjamin Stephenson. Photo courtesy of the Benjamin Stephenson Historical Home in Edwardsville, Illinois.

Stephenson owned 11 slaves over the course of his life. 4 of those slaves were children under the age of 14. One girl, named Deborah, was born into servitude. 

These totals are known because of Census forms uncovered by historians at Southern Illinois University and the Benjamin Stephenson Historical Society in Edwardsville, Illinois.

Stephenson brought three slaves from Kentucky, a slave state, into the then-territory of Illinois in 1807. He continued to buy slaves in the years after he moved to Illinois. One year before his death, he purchased a man named Jess and his 9-month-old son named Will. 

In addition to his personal status as a slaveowner, Stephenson used his political influence to fight for slavery in Illinois. 

In 1818, Stephenson was a voting delegate at the Illinois Territory’s Constitutional Convention. There, he voted for a compromise that allowed slavery to continue in part of the Illinois Territory until 1825.

Despite voting for slavery, Stephenson had told his county that he was opposed to slavery when he was chosen to be a delegate at the convention. 

This was the same year that Deborah was born into servitude in his home. 

Historical records from the Benjamin Stephenson Historical Society indicate that Stephenson was a powerful man in frontier Illinois. He served in Congress and was a sheriff.

Stephenson’s record indicates he was a pro-slavery politician. Historian Kurt Leichtle notes that Stephenson had a contentious relationship with a fellow Illinois politician, Edward Coles, who was fighting against slavery at the same time that Stephenson was encouraging it. Leichtle is an Emeritus Professor of History at University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

While Illinois is often described as a “free state”, many legal loopholes allowed early Illinoisans to own slaves.

Slaves were induced by their owners to sign contracts of indentured servitude which lasted for years. This legally classified them as contract workers, not slaves.

Benjamin Stephenson’s 1800s-era house in present-day Edwardsville, Illinois. Stephenson never actually lived in northwest Illinois. Photo courtesy of the Benjamin Stephenson Historical Home.

However, the Edwardsville, Illinois newspaper has called this loophole a “legal fiction.”

Historians describe situations in which indentured servants whose contracts were nearly up were taken across the border to Missouri or Kentucky and sold into southern slavery.

Leichtle even relayed a story to The Voice about how Mary Todd Lincoln’s household used the servitude loophole. When the family’s so-called servants neared the end of their employment contract, the northern Todd family would “trade [the servants] out” with different slaves from the Todd family who lived in the South. 

Recordkeeping of slaves in the early 1800s was very spotty. In many cases, Stephenson neglected to record the names and precise ages of the people who he bought and sold.

Stephenson died in 1822, and his slaves were sold at auction to his widow. Records of what happened to them after Stephenson’s death are unclear.

This article is dedicated to them and to the exploited.