1839: Levi Davis to William Hollingsworth

This letter was written by Levi Davis (1808-1897), son of Levi and Elizabeth (Rammage) Davis. He was educated at Delaware & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, and was licensed to practice law in Baltimore, Maryland, before beginning his profession career in 1831 at Vandalia, Illinois — then the capital of the state. Davis was a friend of Abraham Lincoln. They first met in 1835 when Davis was commissioned auditor of public accounts in Illinois, and Lincoln — newly elected to the Legislature — was assigned to the Committee on Public Accounts and Expenditures.

In 1837, Lincoln and several other prominent legislators in Illinois pushed for the passage of an internal improvements bill in Illinois that called for the appropriation of $10 million dollars towards the construction of canals, harbor improvements, etc. To gain the support of legislators across the state, an omnibus bill was finally passed that not only delivered the internal improvements but called for the relocation of the state capital from Vandalia to Springfield, Illinois. It took two years — until the summer of 1839 — for all of the offices in Vandalia to be relocated to Springfield. It took until 1882 for the state to work off the debt created by the passage of this bill.

Davis wrote the letter to William Hollingsworth (1780-1844), the son of Zebulon Hollingsworth (1735-1812) and Mary Evans (1740-1815) of Elkton, Maryland. He was married to Mary Eliza Evans in 1827. We learn from the letter that Hollingsworth had land holdings in the military tracts of Illinois (between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers), and also stock in the City of St. Louis.

The letter is significant for two reasons. First, it mentions the recent revenue law in Illinois that first imposed “actual valuation” as the method for assessing property taxes. It also candidly shares Davis’ personal opinion about the reckless omnibus bill that he felt certain would lead to financial embarrassment. Time would prove Davis right, though some historians have criticized Davis for not blowing the whistle on this disaster, alleging he valued his job more.

Stampless Letter

Addressed to William Hollingsworth, Esq., Elkton, Maryland

Auditor’s Office, Illinois
Vandalia [Illinois]
April 12, 1839

Dear Sir,

Yours of the 31st ult. is at hand, and in reply I have to inform you that you have misapprehended my report in supposing that it exhibits the fact that nonresidents pay higher tax than residents. It is an express provision of our Constitution that no destruction shall be made in taxation between Residents and nonresidents. We have a law authorizing the Co. Commission Courts of the different counties to assess a tax for Road purposes if they think proper to do so, and under this law, the Counties on the Military tract where most of the non-resident lands are situated have assessed a road tax; while in other counties the Commission have not done so. The consequence is that nonresidents owning lands in the Military tract as well as the Residents owning lands there have a higher tax to pay than in any other part of the state. This law operates unequally, but it affects the citizens on the military tract as much as non-residents owning lands there.

Our Revenue Laws have, however, undergone a radical change at the late session of our Legislature, and now all property is taxed according to actual valuations; and my impression is that under this law your taxes will be increased. The law, however, does not — and cannot — tax non-residents higher than residents. You are in an error supposing that our banks have stopped payment. Our banking institutions are entirely solvent and ably managed, and stand as high in the estimation of the commercial community here, and also in New York & Philadelphia, as any institutions of the kind west of the mountains.

In relation to your certificates of stock of the City of St. Louis, I am unable to give you any satisfactory information. I will, however, write to some of my friends in St. Louis in case I should not go ther myself shortly, and obtain all the information you ask.

Our state has undertaken a most stupendous system of internal improvements, and one which I fear will not be profitable, but will involve our state in a great embarrassment. Our agents have started to Europe for the purpose of negotiating a further loan. Please remember me to any friends in Elkton who may think proper to enquire for me.

I am, Sir, very respectfully your obedient servant, — Levi Davis


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