BLOOMINGTON — “I denounce these men and their aiders and abettors as rank traitors and secessionists,” declared Isaac Funk on the floor of the Illinois Senate. “Hell itself could not spew out a more traitorous crew than some of the men who disgrace this legislature, this state and this country … I will denounce them as long as God gives me breath, and I am ready to meet the traitors themselves here or anywhere, and fight them to the death.”
And we think today’s climate of hyper-partisanship and political name-calling is nasty! If anything, Funk’s February 1863 speech (150-years-old this month) reminds us of the bitter political divisions that wracked the North during the Civil War.
Funk directed his vitriol at Copperheads, the term for Northern Democrats who opposed the war effort led by the Republican administration of Abraham Lincoln. Copperheads also played to the endemic racism of Northern whites by fear mongering Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and other supposedly “Black Republican” measures.
Raised in Ohio, Funk came to Illinois in 1824 and settled in what would become known as Funk’s Grove in McLean County, though the latter would not be established for another six years. He married Cassandra Sharp in 1826 and the pioneer couple had nine sons and one daughter. He invested in livestock, marched his cattle and hogs to Chicago and other meatpacking centers, and used the profits to acquire land. By 1861, his holdings totaled some 25,500 acres in McLean County alone.
What apparently got the 65-year-old cattle king’s blood boiling that February day was opposition by Copperheads to an appropriations bill, funds of which were to support the health and welfare of Illinois’ soldiers. “I say that there are traitors and secessionists at heart in this senate,” Funk declared. “I am ready to meet any man on this floor, in any manner, from a pin’s point to the mouth of a cannon on this charge against these traitors.”
He also dismissed as unpatriotic complaints in some Democratic circles about wartime taxation. “I came to Illinois a poor boy,” he said. “I have made a little something for myself and family. I pay $3,000 a year in taxes. [I] am willing to pay $6,000, aye $12,000; aye, I am willing to pay my whole fortune, and then give my life to save my country from these traitors who are seeking to destroy it.”
Apparently not content to act as judge and jury, Funk also was happy to serve as executioner. “Mr. Speaker,” he continued, “these traitors on this floor should be provided with hempen collars. They deserve them. They deserve — they deserve hanging, I say. The country would be better off to string them up. I go for hanging them, and I dare tell them so, right here, to their traitors’ faces. Traitors should be hung … I would rejoice at it.”
The Republican press rallied around Funk’s battle cry, with accounts appearing in newspapers from Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. “No speech delivered by any member of any state legislature or even Congress itself during the past year has had so great a run or received so many compliments,” observed Springfield’s Illinois State Journal in March 1863.
That same month, The Pantagraph ran an excerpt of a letter from former Bloomington Mayor Franklin Price. Writing from Washington, D.C., Price reported the “immortal speech is the subject of comment and rejoicing in all quarters except secesh” (the term for real or suspected secessionists). “Mr Funk, by his boldness and patriotism, has established a national reputation far more enduring and permanent than many who have occupied seats in the Senate of the United States.”
The anti-Copperhead rant also served as a morale booster for Union soldiers. In April, The Pantagraph published a letter from an eyewitness to the Union campaign to capture Vicksburg, Miss. “[Funk’s speech] has been read with delight around a thousand [regimental] camp fires, whilst cheer after cheer for ‘Old Ike Funk’ had made Heaven’s blue arch ring,” noted the correspondent. “I have heard the soldiers say, that ‘Old Funk and one more like him would protect their homes and their firesides against the combined malignities of all the Copperheads,’ and I remarked — ‘amen.’”
Funk, re-elected to the Senate in 1864 as “The Soldier’s Friend,” passed away on Jan. 29, 1865. His wife, Cassandra, followed a few hours later.