Hardin County lies along the Ohio River, 325 miles straight down Illinois Highway 1 from Chicago. It is the least populous county in the state, but also one of the most historic and picturesque, for in Hardin County is Cave-in-Rock State Park, a niche in the bluff overlooking the river. The 18th Century charlatan Samuel Mason put up a sign advertising Cave-in-Rock as a “Liquor Vault and House of Entertainment.” When thirsty, horny flatboat crews stopped to be liquored and entertained, Mason robbed them. Cave-in-Rock remained a hideout for “scoundrels, thieves and counterfeiters” until they were routed by Davy Crockett and Mike Fink. You’d know that if you saw the Disney movie Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, which was filmed in Cave-in-Rock.

Hardin County has made marvelous contributions to the folklore of Illinois, but it no longer wants to be part of this state. Last November, its 3,650 residents voted to “collaborate in discussions with the remaining 101 counties in the state of Illinois, with the exception of Cook County, regarding the possibility of forming a new state and ultimately seeking admission to the federal union, as the 51st state.” The non-binding resolution passed by a 3-1 margin, making Hardin the 27th county to vote to explore secession — almost all of them in Southern Illinois.

Chicago and Southern Illinois have rarely agreed on anything. That goes back to the 19th Century, when Chicago voted for Lincoln and Southern Illinois for Douglas. Little Egypt was settled first, and its leading lights were so convinced that the new settlement on Lake Michigan would never amount to anything that in 1825, the Bank of Shawneetown refused it a $10,000 loan. But, according to the book The Other Illinois, by Baker Brownell, “Chicago beat out Saint Louis and Alton and New Orleans as the big market and railroad center. This deflected traffic and business and grabbed industry. Chicago shouldered us out of the sunshine. To hell with Chicago.”

Today, Illinois’s government is dominated by Chicago-area Democrats who pass laws that go against the grain of rural Egyptians. Religious fundamentalism has always been an important feature of life in Southern Illinois, but Carbondale is about to become the abortion destination for the entire mid-South, because those danged libruls from Chicago passed the Reproductive Health Act.

“Our state government skews so much in the direction of our largest urban area that policies are passed that are good for Chicago, but not the rest of the state,” said G.H. Merritt, chair of the pro-secession group New Illinois. “When the state doubled the gasoline tax, for example, that affected people outstate more than people in urban areas who take public transportation.”

Given those grievances, maybe it’s time to take the “Illinois” out of Southern Illinois. We can’t let them form a 51st state, though, because that new state would elect two conservative Republican senators, changing the balance of power in Washington. Here’s a better idea: let’s trade Southern Illinois to Missouri — for St. Louis. That would make folks on both sides of the Mississippi River happier. Southern Illinoisans would go from a Blue state where it’s easy to get an abortion but hard to get a gun, to a Red state where it’s hard to get an abortion but easy to get a gun. 

St. Louis, on the other hand, is a Blue city trapped in a Red state. In 2020, St. Louis gave 81 percent of its vote to Joe Biden, only one point lower than Chicago. After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, rural Missouri legislators proposed making it a crime to cross the river to Illinois for an abortion. Politically, culturally, and even linguistically, St. Louis has more in common with Chicago than it does with the rest of its own state, which it considers a benighted hillbilly backwater. Because the two cities are joined by Interstate 55, the traditional St. Louis accent has been supplanted by a Chicago-influenced Great Lakes accent. (Just listen to St. Louis native John Goodman play northern Illinois dad Dan Conner on The Conners.)

“St. Louis is the only city outside the Great Lakes that participates in the Northern Cities Vowel Shift,” says Randy Vines, who studies the St. Louis language as owner of StL Style, a boutique that sells T-shirts with such local sayings as “Highway Midland Farty” and “Where’d You Go to High School?”

Says Vines, “St. Louis has more in common with the northern and eastern cities than the rest of Missouri. You go 35 miles out, and there’s a major difference.”

Back in 2011, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan (a Chicago native and Fenger High School graduate), proposed joining Illinois and renaming the city West East St. Louis.

“Let’s split and get on with our lives,” McClellan wrote. “Many of us in West East St. Louis have seen enough of this legislative session to know we want out. The legislators in Jefferson City want to repeal child labor laws, lift the restrictions on puppy mills, do away with the voter-approved cost of living increases to the minimum wage and kill unions. Oh yeah, slap teachers around, too…It is really just a matter of dividing the assets. We’ll take urban street crime. They can have the meth labs.”

We already have plenty of urban street crime in Illinois, so a little more won’t hurt us. And just think of everything else we’d gain in the trade. Yes, we would lose Cave-in-Rock, but we would gain Lacelde’s Landing. We would lose the 198-foot-tall cross outside Effingham, but we would gain the 630-foot-tall Gateway Arch. We would lose Shemwell’s Barbecue in Cairo, but we would gain Bogart’s Smokehouse in Soulard — a whole new style of barbecue for our state. We would have to take the Cardinals — but that would triple the number of World Series won by Illinois baseball teams.

On top of that, the Chicago area can stop supporting a backward region of the state that takes $2.88 in tax money for every $1 it puts in. And the good conservative folks of Southern Illinois can finally find out what it’s like to belong to a small-government state that skimps on funding for parks, universities, and public works. That’s what they’ve always wanted, right?