ROCKFORD HISTORICAL SOCIETY
IN THE LIMELIGHT -- ANSON MILLER
Anson S. Miller (1811-1891) came to Rockford in 1841. He was a well-known and highly respected Rockford lawyer, judge, state legislator, orator and Whig and Republican party leader,
He was a friend of Abraham Lincoln and was appointed by Lincoln as Rockford's Postmaster in 1864.
In 1845 he gave a powerful and exceptional speech on the "Black Laws of Illinois" before the state legislature. Abraham Lincoln attended that speech and commended Miller warmly on the speech, especially on his condemnation of slavery.
He lived in Rockford until 1875, active in many aspects of the community and always sought as a speaker. He supported equality for women, Indians and blacks.
He was born a farmer's son and farmed as a young man in Oneida County, New York where he was born. When he moved with his family to California in 1875, he started growing grapes for wine. He was, as you might guess, successful at that, too. He died in Santa Cruz, CA in 1891.
The Rockford Forum said the following about the Black Laws speech.
Wednesday, May 28, 1845
"We take great pleasure in laying before our readers today, Mr. Miller's speech of the Repeal Bill. to the exclusion of nearly all other original matter. It is a bold and powerful argument against the "Black Laws," the injustice and unconstitutionality of which are so thoroughly exposed. Mr. M's Bill is the first introduced into our Legislature, for the repeal of these laws. He has maintained the principles, and uttered the sentiments of his constituents of all parties."
THe Black Laws were not defeated until the end of the Civil War, nearly twenty years after Judge Miller proposed repeal of these laws. An excerpt follows.
I propose, sir, in the first place, to show the laws excluding a portion of the people of this Free State from being witnesses in our Courts of Justice to be Unconstitutional. --
Art VIII, SEC I of our State Constitution declares--
"That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent and indefeasible rights, among which are those of enjoying, and defending life and liberty, and of acquiring, possessing and protecting property and reputation and of pursuing their own happiness."
Sir, this is a little improvement on the Declaration of Independence, itself, and is worthy of a Free State.
Must not the members of this House say at once, that this section is wholly prohibitory of laws which deprive persons of any of the natural rights of Freemen? First look at the Constitution, then at the degrading Statutes concerning witnesses which we propose to repeal, and then candidly judge. Sir, comments are unnecessary, as the strongest argument against the laws, is the declaration of the Constitution itself. How men can be said to possess, the right to "enjoying and defending life and liberty, and of acquiring, possessing and protecting property and reputation, and of pursuing their own happiness," when they can be deprived of all these without redress in any earthly tribunal, I am at a loss to determine. The mere statement of the case proves the Statute a gross violation of the Constitution.
The whole speech is online.
The newest edition of NUGGETS OF HISTORY (Vol. 52, No. 4) contains a short play about Miller and the Black Laws speech.