Once Upon a Time

Disgraced county clerk creates 'Third House'

The courthouse in Vandalia served as the fourth Illinois Statehouse from 1836 to 1839. It was here that James W. Whitney organized what he called a “Third House,” for entertainment. | Courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library
Posted: Jun. 17, 2018 12:40 am Updated: Jun. 17, 2018 12:46 am

The life and times of James W. Whitney of Pike and Adams counties may be among the strangest of any in early Illinois history.

In the heavens that hung over Pike County, Ill., in 1821 and 1822, Whitney's was among the brightest of stars. Well educated in law and letters, the Massachusetts native--born in the revolutionary year of 1776--was simultaneously Pike County's first clerk, circuit clerk and an early justice of the peace. Whitney's star rose, plummeted and rose again.

When the first commissioners of the newly organized Pike County court called for their clerk on April 24, 1821, Whitney was absent. Three years later, the court ruled that Whitney "for some time past has not resided at the county-seat, nor kept the records and papers belonging to the county at this place."

Whitney had chosen not to move from Coles Grove to the relocated county seat at Atlas in 1823. The court ruled that Whitney had vacated his position and removed him from office July 29, 1824. The next day, however, still without a clerk, the court reinstated Whitney, now present at Atlas, as clerk on a temporary basis and recommended him to the governor for an additional position as a county surveyor. Whitney was circuit clerk until April 27, 1825, when he was indicted for malpractice in office.

Among the charges a grand jury handed up was that Whitney failed to certify the votes cast in the Atlas Precinct on Aug. 2, 1824. In a referendum whose aim was to make Illinois a slave state, 96 of 100 men voted against the proposition. Whitney's failure negated the votes of John Wood and 49 other men who voted "vive voce" (by voice vote) in the Atlas precinct. Despite an apparent conflict, Wood and John Droullard, both of whom were voters, were selected for the grand jury that handed the indictments against Whitney. State's attorney James Turney dropped the charges after Whitney agreed to resign as clerk.

Just as strange was that Whitney in September 1825 moved to Adams County, which his indicting grand juror Wood had organized in January that year. Despite his blemished record, Whitney was among the first six pioneer lawyers in Adams County and handled cases in several other counties. He was largely unsuccessful in his practice. By 1830, a lawyer in name only, he found a new opportunity. Acquiring an Elizabethan title, "Lord Coke," Whitney was to become one of the most influential men around the state capitols in Vandalia and Springfield.

What he discovered was that after the first few days and weeks of the typical 60- to 90-day biennial sessions of the Illinois General Assembly, life in Vandalia became tedious and uninteresting. He organized what he called a "Third House" of the General Assembly at which visitors, judges, administration executives, even legislators themselves could assemble for fake ceremony and entertainment.

These events were usually held in the chamber of the House of Representatives in evenings after the House adjourned for the day. Eccentric and dressed virtually in rags, Whitney as Lord Coke would mount a stand and call the house to order and preside magisterially. Adorning himself with the title "Speaker," he filled the evenings with jokes and sarcasm, often at some government official's expense, and his presentations were greeted by cheers and laughter.

Whitney added structure to the Third House, appointing officers and titles, creating committees and functions for them, and winning attendance for those seeking to be entertained.

Whitney, for example, named Supreme Court Justice Thomas Brown and Judge Jesse Burgess Thomas Jr., both rotund jurists and "suitable members of a committee on gymnastics and ground and lofty tumbling."

Thomas succeeded Stephen A. Douglas to the bench in Quincy after Douglas' election to Congress in 1843.

Lord Coke also revealed humorously that former Democratic Sen. Thomas Mather of Kaskaskia had strongly opposed a controversial state bank measure until promoters promised to make him the bank's president. Mather's vote helped assure a new state bank.

Beyond entertainment, the meetings took on a new importance when some recognized that Whitney's platform could be useful in other ways. Ideas floating through the Third House started taking on lives of their own. Stephen A. Douglas, who immigrated to Jacksonville in Morgan County in November 1833, persuaded Whitney in late 1834 to allow him to promote a bill to change the way state's attorneys were appointed. The General Assembly passed the bill and appointed the 21-year-old Douglas state's attorney in the largest judicial district in Illinois. Legislators, including Abraham Lincoln, saw the effectiveness of Whitney's Third House for floating trial balloons and influencing legislation.

Speakers found Whitney's Third House useful because their speeches were unrestrained by rules. Rules of Order decided procedures in the House and Senate. Lord Coke would decide the rules of the Third House. Since the meetings were not reported, the Third House provided a useful way to avoid the scrutiny of legislators' constituents.

Whitney reigned as speaker of the Third House for nearly a quarter century. Even in Springfield, which offered other entertainment venues, Whitney's Third House continued to draw the interest of the influential.

When he died Dec. 13, 1860, at age 84, Whitney "passed away less noticed in his demise than many men of less note," said his fellow attorney and Pike County historian Jackson Grimshaw. But the institution Whitney created in the early 1830s lives on in the halls of the Statehouse in Springfield. As it was in his day, the Third House was called the Lobby and the speeches and debates that were made to persuade others from the Third House were just as often called "lobbying."


Reg Ankrom is a former executive director of the Historical Society and a local historian. He is a member of several history-related organizations, the author of a history of Stephen A. Douglas, and a frequent speaker on pre-Civil War history.



Reg Ankrom, "Obscure county clerk certified fraudulent Pike County election." Quincy Whig, June 3, 2018, p. 8.


----------, Stephen A. Douglas: The Political Apprenticeship, 1833-1843. (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Publishing Co., 2015), p. 78.


William E. Baringer, Lincoln's Vandalia: "A Pioneer Portrait." (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 19490, p. 52.


Jackson Grimshaw, "History of Pike County," Speech on the Occasion of the Centennial of Pike County.


History of Pike County, Ill. (Chicago: Charles C. Chapman, 1880), p. 253.


Richard Lawrence Miller, Lincoln and His World: Prairie Politician, 1834-1842. (Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2008), p. 103.


Martin Quitt, "In the Shadow of the Little Giant: Lincoln before the Great Debates," Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association. Vol. 36, p. 18.


"Whitney, James W.," Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois, Joseph O. Cunningham, Editor. (Chicago: Munsell Publishing Co., 1905), p. 587.


William G. Thomas, "Reminiscences," Chicago Legal News, Myra Bradwell, editor, Vol. 10. (Chicago: Legal News Co., 1880), p. 274.


Jess M. Thompson, Pike County History as Printed in Installments in the Pike County Republican, Pittsfield, Ill., 1935-1939, pp. 35, 56.


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