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Happy 200th Birthday to Illinois, the Most Average American State

The Land of Lincoln may be unremarkable — but that’s helped it move America forward more than perhaps any other state.

Photo: Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

In 2004, at the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama began his historic keynote speech with a paean to the state he was running to represent in the Senate.

“On behalf of the great state of Illinois,” said the then–state senator, “crossroads of a nation, Land of Lincoln.”

Those two distinctions are not at all unrelated. Abraham Lincoln, Illinois’s greatest contribution to this country, won the Republican nomination for president in 1860 because he came from a state that was a microcosm of America.

Illinois had been colonized in equal measure by Yankees from New England, Midlanders from Indiana and Ohio, and Southerners from Kentucky and Tennessee. As a result, Lincoln was forced to develop a position on slavery that was acceptable to all those factions.

William Seward, an abolitionist from upstate New York and Lincoln’s main competition for the nomination, was too radical for the delegates. Another contender, Edward Bates, a slaveholder from Missouri, was too conservative. The moderate Lincoln, who wanted to tolerate slavery where it existed but prevent it from spreading, was just right.

Today is Illinois’s 200th birthday, and it’s a great time to celebrate how average, middle-of-the-road, and unexciting our state is. Through history, our failure to deviate from the norm has made America a fairer, more tolerant, more enlightened place to live. (The official Illinois bicentennial bash takes place tonight at Navy Pier, featuring performances by the Superfans, Buddy Guy, and Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon — middlebrow indeed.

A century-and-a-half after Lincoln, Illinois is still the nation’s most typical state — the dead-solid middle of middle America.

In 2016, NPR set out to find a state more representative of America than Iowa or New Hampshire to hold the first nominating convention of election season. They created “the Perfect State Index,” which “looked at five categories: race, education, age, income, and religion." 

Which state did they identify as perfect? Illinois, of course. Our racial makeup is almost exactly the same as greater America’s; 29.3 percent of Americans have bachelor’s degrees, compared to 31.9 percent of Illinoisans; the nation’s median age is 37.7, while Illinois’s is 37.5; America’s median household income is $53,482, versus our $57,166; and 53 percent of Americans consider religion “very important,” a sentiment shared by 50 percent of Illinoisans.

Wrote NPR:

Illinois borders a traditional East-West divide in the country — the Mississippi River. It snakes across the state’s western edge, separating it from Iowa. And it’s a microcosm of the country in nearly ever category. Specifically, it ranked in the top 10 for race, age, and religion.

“It’s as diverse as the country, but not overly diverse,” [Brookings Institution demographer William] Frey said. “It’s probably a little more urban than the country as a whole because of the greater Chicago metropolitan area, but a lot of that is the suburbs and the suburbs are representative of much of America.”

Plus, he added, Illinois also has a “rural component, which is important.” “[Illinois] … may not be a swing state,” Frey said, “but in terms of its demographics, I think people would do well to look at how the voting goes there to get a better understanding of what’s going on in the country as a whole.”

So what’s our secret? Location, location, location.

Illinois isn’t just what Obama called the Crossroads of America because we’re at the intersection of the continent’s two greatest water systems, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. Or because the old National Road ran through Southern Illinois. Or even because Chicago is the nation’s rail and air transportation hub.

We’re the Crossroads of America because all the elements that make up this country have assembled here. In the 19th Century, Illinois was a 425 mile–long sieve lying along the path of westward migration, capturing Yankees who arrived on Great Lakes schooners and hillbillies on Ohio River keelboats. If you look at a map of author Colin Woodard’s 11 American nations — regional nation-states that define attitude and culture — we contain portions of the three most populous: Yankeedom, the Midlands, and Greater Appalachia. 

In the 20th Century, we gathered every migrant group in our greatest city: Poles, Jews, Italians, southern African-Americans, Mexicans, and later, those from eastern Asia and the Middle East. As Frey put it to NPR, “Chicago has been this kind of central place that has been emblematic of these different kinds of movements. I don’t think there’s any other metropolitan area, or any other state really, that has all of these elements.”

Illinois is remarkable because it’s so unremarkable. We’re so aggressively average that in the vaudeville era, one of our cities came to symbolize the tastes of the quintessential American. The phrase “Will It Play in Peoria?", popularized by Groucho Marx, originated with performers who saw Peorians as an ideal test audience for new material. If you could get a laugh there, you could get a laugh anywhere.

Later, Peoria’s Middle Americanness was put to use by corporate marketers, who tested Pampers, the McRib sandwich, and New Coke there before selling the products nationally.

Of course, Illinois’s averageness is also the source of its greatness. It has enabled us to play a special role in American history, as the engine of the nation’s racial progress.

First, we produced Lincoln, the president who won the Civil War and freed the slaves. Then, we nurtured the career of Barack Obama, the president who was the culmination of Lincoln’s work.

Obama learned to sell himself as the nation’s first black president by first selling himself to the diverse electorate of Illinois. In the 2004 U.S. Senate election, he won 52.8 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, then carried 92 of 102 counties in the general election, from the streets of Chicago to the coal fields of Little Egypt.

Lincoln and Obama could not have built their careers anywhere but Illinois — Lincoln because the state’s diverse electorate forced him into a centrist position on slavery, and Obama thanks to Illinois’s unmatched record of electing black politicians, which is related to the fact that it’s been a destination for so many ethnic groups. 

Illinois Pride isn’t really a thing. We’re too modest for that, or maybe we feel that we don’t have anything to be proud of — that we’re just another Midwestern state that begins with an ‘I.’

On our birthday, though, let’s be proud: Not being so different from all the other states has allowed Illinois to make a bigger difference in this country’s fortunes than almost any other state. As NPR proclaimed, we are the perfect state.

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