This past Saturday evening, the Old State Capitol historic site was ablaze with candles and decorated with greenery in celebration of the annual holiday open house.
It is one of three main annual events in which the stately building is featured, the other two being Abraham Lincoln’s birthday celebration and the Grande Leveé. The annual open house brings history to life.
During this event, ornaments were presented to the first 100 visitors (one per family) who began lining up an hour before the doors opened at 4:30 p.m. Refreshments of mulled cider and homemade cookies, provided by Friends of the Old Capitol, were served to those attending the event, while strains of music provided by the Baroque Folk wafted through the air.
Rooms that are generally closed off during self tours were open. Guided tours were given of the four governmental offices on the lower level, with a costumed guide on hand to tell those visiting of the importance of the duties performed by officeholders during the time Vandalia was the capital.
This year, I had the honor of being asked to perform duties of a guide in the secretary of state’s office.
One of the most important offices in state government was that of secretary of state. Appointed by the governor, with approval of the senate, the secretary of state had many duties, including the job of ensuring that all laws, whether passed or not, were recorded.
He was charged with keeping abreast of all federal laws enacted in Washington, and with his budget, hired the three to five clerks that it took to keep up with the state’s paperwork. He was also a secretary to the sitting governor and delivered messages between the senate and governor.
It was the duty of the secretary of state to see that the census was taken and that paperwork generated by the legislature and senate was preserved and archived. His job also included making certain that there were enough candles, firewood and whale oil for use in the capitol.
For these duties, the secretary of state was paid $600 annually.
Alexander Pope Field, appointed in 1828 by Gov. Ninian Edwards as secretary of state, served in that position until 1840, although not without a little controversy.
In addition to his state functions, Field was also a practicing attorney.
Born on Nov. 30, 1800, in Louisville, Ky., Field was 21 years old when he first came to Vandalia after being elected to a seat in the Third General Assembly from Union County. In 1823, he was elected to a four-year term as state treasurer.
In 1838, Thomas Carlin was elected governor, and he appointed John A. McClernand as secretary of state. Field refused to leave office. The courts upheld him in his refusal, and he remained in that position until late 1840, when the senate confirmed Stephen A. Douglas as secretary of state.
It was about this time that Field was appointed secretary of the Wisconsin Territory, and he moved to St. Louis, Mo. From there, he relocated to New Orleans, La., and within a short time was elected attorney general of Louisiana. Alexander Pope Field died there in 1877.
Field made history while living in Vandalia, when he, James T.B. Stapp and Levi Davis, “without any authority and on their own responsibility,” erected the third state capitol building.
These three men were not alone in their concern about the structural integrity of the second capitol building, and received $6,000 from a contingency fund by Gov. Joseph Duncan toward construction of the building that stands today.
Not only is the old capitol historic site important in the history of Vandalia and Illinois, the stories of the lives of the men who served within its walls add drama and bring that history alive.