Jonathan Jennings: Honoring the Autonomy and Democratic Values of Pioneer Hoosiers

Governors’ Portrait of Jennings, Artist: James Forbes, American, c. 1800-?, oil on canvas, 36 x 29 (91.5 x 73.6) Signed l.l.: Jas. Forbes/Pinxt, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Bureau.

Jonathan Jennings was born in 1784 in New Jersey, the sixth child of Jacob and Mary Jennings. His father was a physician and minister. The future first governor of the State of Indiana grew up in western Pennsylvania. He moved to the Indiana Territory at age 22, settling first in Jeffersonville, where he began a law practice. In 1807, Jennings moved to Vincennes, capital of the territory. There, he clerked for the land office, the General Assembly of the Indiana Territory, and for Vincennes University. An incident at the the university between Jennings and Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison and his supporters, prompted Jennings to leave Vincennes. In search of a more hospitable residence and career, he returned to Clark County and settled in Charlestown by 1809.

Jennings’ move would prove to be very timely for his political ambitions. Congress separated the Illinois Territory from the Indiana Territory, which lessened Governor Harrison’s political influence. Furthermore, Congress mandated that the Indiana Territory’s delegate to Congress be popularly elected, as opposed to elected by the territorial legislature.

William Henry Harrison, circa 1813, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Mrs. Herbert Lee Pratt, Jr.

While Jennings was an outsider to Harrison’s clique, he was extremely personable and a great campaigner. His outsider status was also relatable to the population in the eastern counties, who resented the patriarchal political power structures in Vincennes. Indiana historian William Wesley Woollen described Jennings’ appeal, noting he was “a man of polished manners . . . he was always gentle and kind to those about him. He was not an orator, but he could tell what he knew in a pleasing way.”

An oft-repeated story about Jennings illustrates his political populism in contrast to his patrician political opponents. Author John Bartlow Martin described the scene this way:

Jennings’s opponent, a Harrison man, arrived during a logrolling [at a Dearborn County farm], chatted at the farmhouse a short time, then rode away. But Jennings, arriving next day, pitched into the logrolling and when it was done, tossed quoits and threw the maul with the men, taking care to let them beat him. He was a natural politician, the kind the Hoosiers lived, almost the original model of the defender of the people against the interests.

Historical marker located in Jennings County, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Bureau.

In 1809, only white, property-holding men could vote in the Indiana Territory. At age 25, Jennings ran for Congress and defeated an older and better politically connected candidate. Jennings won re-election in 1811, 1812, and 1814. As a territorial delegate, and not a fully vested member of Congress, Jennings could not vote on legislation. However, his role was very important to Indiana’s road to statehood as he advocated for legislation from Indiana Territory constituents, including petitions for statehood. The first statehood petition was sent to Jennings in 1811, which Congress denied on account of the territory’s population not yet reaching 35,000. The United States had more pressing problems in subsequent years, most notably the War of 1812, which raged until 1814. The war disrupted the business of Congress when the British Army burned the U.S. Capitol and the White House.

A year after the Treaty of Ghent ended the war, Congress was back to lawmaking. On December 28, 1815, Jennings introduced another territorial petition for statehood. This time the U.S. House leadership referred the petition to a committee and named Jennings as chairman. A week later the committee reported a bill, which eventually passed. On April 19, 1816, President James Madison signed it into law. Known as the Enabling Act, the legislation authorized residents of the Indiana Territory to hold a Constitutional Convention. On June 10, 1816, convention delegates convened in Corydon to draft a constitution. Jennings was one of the delegates. He was so esteemed by his peers that he became president of the convention. The resulting document borrowed from previous state constitutions, but reinforced a lot of democratic ideals. Although there was a system of checks and balances, most of the power lay with the elected representatives, which many people viewed as being closer to the people than the governor. The constitution also allowed for universal white, adult male suffrage, gave voters the right to call for a new constitution, recommended a state-supported education system, prohibited establishment of private banks, and prohibited slavery.

Portrait of Posey, Artist: John Bayless Hill, American, 1849-1874 oil on canvas, 30 1/8 x 26 3/16 (76.5 x 65.6) Unsigned, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Bureau.

Indiana held its first state elections in August 1816, and Jennings won the gubernatorial election over Territorial Governor Thomas Posey. Jennings was then only thirty-two years old. For the next six years he would serve as Indiana’s first executive. Keep in mind, under the 1816 Constitution, a governor’s powers were limited, and he could not set legislative agendas. He could make appointments, including judges, and could also sign or veto legislation.

According to Carl E. Kramer’s profile of Jennings in The Governors of Indiana, the state’s first governor faced the daunting challenge of “placing Indiana on a sound financial footing, implementing a court system, and developing rudimentary educational and internal improvements systems, while also attempting to prevent government from becoming so burdensome that it obstructed personal advancement and enterprise.” Kramer noted that as governor, Jennings concentrated on “organizing an educational system that reached from the common schools to a state university; creating a state banking system; preventing illegal efforts to capture and enslave blacks entitled to their freedom; organizing a state library; and developing a plan of internal improvements.” His limited success in accomplishing these, was “as much a reflection of the governor’s limited powers and the state’s impoverished financial condition as it is upon his political skills and knowledge of the issues.”

Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Bureau.

His most far-reaching action during the time he served as governor actually occurred when he was not acting in that capacity. In 1818, Jennings served as a treaty negotiator on the Treaty of St. Mary’s which obtained title to a large part of land from the Miami Indians. As an aside, while Jennings was absent from Corydon during these negotiations, Lieutenant Governor Christopher Harrison tried unsuccessfully to take power and remove Jennings from office.

The low-light of Jennings time as governor came in 1820 as the State Bank teetered and eventually collapsed. As historian Dorothy Riker noted, “Jennings was severely criticized for his failure to supervise the Bank and his refusal to instigate and investigation earlier.”

In 1822, with only months left to serve in his second term, Jennings resigned as governor so that he could return to Congress, where he served from 1822-1831. Internal improvements like roads and canals were hallmark pieces of legislation at this time in American history, especially under President John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) and his proto-Whig Party (Adams/Anti-Jackson) adherents like Jennings. For Jennings, internal improvements were a way for Indiana to advance, economically by allowing for Indiana’s agricultural goods to make it more easily to markets, and for finished goods to make their way into the state. Good roads and canals would also encourage immigration into the state, especially along the National Road, and would facilitate communication with other parts of the nation. Because of Jennings advocacy of better transportation networks, it is fitting that the Indiana Department of Transportation designated this section of I-65 as the “Governor Jonathan Jennings Memorial Highway.”

Historical marker located in Charlestown, Indiana, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Bureau.

According to Woollen, Jennings lost his congressional seat in 1830 due, in part, to his drinking problem. He retired to his Charlestown farm, where he died on July 26, 1834. Historians have conflicting views on Jennings legacy. He was not an activist executive, which present-day observers have come to expect when rating their leaders. However, he was an incredibly popular politician. He played important leadership roles in Indiana reaching statehood, including at the Constitutional Convention. As for his role as governor, it is important to think about his service in the context of the time. Hoosiers at the time did not want an aristocratic leader like William Henry Harrison. Rather, Jennings set a precedence as the first governor which sought to honor the autonomy and democratic values of pioneer Hoosiers.

Micajah C. White: Forgotten Victim of the Assault on Frederick Douglass

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Frederick Douglass, image courtesy of pbs.org.

Whenever the great abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass and the State of Indiana are mentioned together, it is usually in reference to the mobbing of Douglass at Pendleton. Interestingly, were it not for a typographical error, a Westfield man would be included in the historic accounts as one of the defenders of Douglass. However, even aside from his brush with history, Micajah C. White and his connection to the anti-slavery movement make for an inspiring story.

The story of Douglass’ assault is well known. In 1843, he was on a speaking tour of the midwestern states. He and several members of the New England Anti-Slavery Society were trying to rouse abolitionist support in what was then considered the Western U.S. Regrettably, they were met with hostility and threats. On September 16, they were to speak at a church meeting in Pendleton. As they tried to speak, a mob stormed the platform, tearing it down and attacking the speakers. Douglass attempted to defend himself and the others by grabbing a club and swinging it vigorously. However, a stone was thrown, breaking his hand, and another stone knocked him briefly unconscious. Eventually the mob relented, and the party retreated to a safe house.

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Douglass defending himself against mob, courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections, accessed Kaily Kos.

In Douglass’s autobiography, My Life and Times (1881), he used a curious sentence to describe what happened, saying, “They tore down the platform on which we stood, assaulted Mr. White and knocked out several of his teeth, dealt a heavy blow on William A. White, striking him on the back part of the head, badly cutting his scalp and felling him to the ground.” Most historians have assumed that it was William A. White of Massachusetts who received this terrible beating alone. However, it turns out that an overzealous editor simply trimmed someone out of the manuscript.

Other sources supply the name. William A. White himself wrote a description of the event in the October 13, 1843 issue of the newspaper The Liberator. Indiana Quaker abolitionist Levi Coffin mentions it in his Reminiscences published in 1876.  Frederick Douglass himself mentions it in an August, 1889 article for Cosmopolitan. After Douglass died in February of 1895, Thomas Lindley of Westfield and J. B. Lewis of Fall Creek Township wrote down their memories of the incident which were published in the local papers. Lindley’s father had been at the meeting and had gotten his hat knocked off. Lewis did not witness the assault, but he was able to see Douglass speak a few nights later at Jonesboro, Indiana. According to all of these people, the injured man was Micajah C. White of Westfield, Indiana. This would explain the odd sentence in the autobiography. Obviously, someone was confused by the two men named White.

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IHB historical marker, image courtesy of Panoramio.

Unfortunately this confusion has obscured Micajah White’s involvement, a man who deserves to be mentioned with the early abolitionists. He was born in New Garden, North Carolina in 1819 to a family of staunch Quakers with strong abolitionist leanings. His father’s sister married Levi Coffin, the famous conductor on the Underground Railroad. The family moved from North Carolina to Milford, Indiana, in 1827, and from there to Hamilton County. In 1833, the Whites were founding members of the Spiceland Quaker Meeting and in 1838, at the age of 19, Micajah was appointed recorder of Meeting Minutes. Sometime in the 1840’s, he married his first wife, Elizabeth. In 1845, his sister Martha began keeping a diary, which presents a clear picture of the family’s fortunes.

Micajah, or “M.C.” as his family called him, joined the newly formed Anti-Slavery Meeting in Eagletown in 1845, two years after the assault. This was a group of dissident Quakers who felt they needed to take a proactive stance on the ending of slavery. These people were the ones most commonly involved in the local Underground Railroad. M.C. was disowned by the Spiceland Meeting for this action.

It seems to be obvious that M.C. would be involved in the Underground Railroad. There is the standard problem that, because it was a secret organization, there is little written evidence of its activities. However, Levi Coffin reported in his Reminiscences that M.C. did assist him.

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coffin 1
IHB historical marker, image courtesy of Hmdb.org.

The only local story that survives about M.C.’s activities in the UGRR involves a slave woman who reached Westfield just a step ahead of slave-hunters sometime around 1850. M.C.’s mother, Louisa White, owned an inn and the fugitive was placed in hiding there just as the slave-hunters happened to walk in and asked for food and lodging. Mrs. White calmly served them and then dressed the slave woman in some of her own clothes, including a large bonnet. The two of them coolly walked past the hunters and over to her son M.C.’s house, where the woman was helped on her way.

Of course, there were other concerns in M.C.’s life. His daughter, Madeline, had been born in 1851. His second child, Eugene, was born in January of 1852. Tragically, his wife died in March and his son died in April of that year. He had to balance his own grief with the lives of the people he was assisting.

M.C. was recognized as a key figure in the local anti-slavery movement. His mother’s brother, William Bundun, died in 1855. M.C. and Martha’s husband, Aaron Talbert, were witnesses of his will. After making bequeaths to his wife and children, Bundun said, “I direct also that the sum of 100 dollars when collected by placed in the hands of Micajah C. White or Aaron V. Talbert for the purpose of aiding or assisting destitute fugitive slaves on their way in making their escape from slavery to a land of Liberty – to Canada”. The Talbert and White families were very close. When M.C. remarried in 1856, his new wife was Aaron’s sister, Patience.

Because of their abolitionist sympathies, the Whites were probably more aware of national affairs than most people. The execution of John Brown on Dec. 2 1859, takes up two pages in Martha Talbert’s diary. It was particularly sad for her because it was the same date that her adored infant daughter had died seven years before. M.C. and Aaron Talbert went to the Republican National Convention in Chicago in May of 1860. It is unknown whether they attended as delegates or just spectators. This was, of course, the convention where Abraham Lincoln was nominated to the presidency.

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“The Republicans in Nominating Convention in Their Wigwam at Chicago, May 1860,” from Harper’s Weekly, May 19, 1860, accessed Library of Congress.

While at the Convention, Underground Railroad activity continued at home and Martha Talbert possibly referenced escaped slaves in her diary. She refers to the people as “Kentucky refugees” and simply states that they are staying there. Any more detail probably would have been dangerous to write down.

When the Civil War started in April of 1861, members of the White family left the Quaker church and joined the Army. M.C.’s brother Isaac joined the 12th Indiana Infantry, a one-year regiment. In 1862, he re-enlisted and joined the 101st Indiana and was appointed a Second Lieutenant. The regiment saw action in Kentucky and Tennessee and Isaac was later promoted to Captain. Another brother, Mordecai, became a recruiter for one of the new black regiments. He traveled to Vicksburg in 1864 to try to enlist ex-slaves. He finally enlisted himself in March of 1865 at about the same time Isaac was discharged for disability.

M.C. probably would have been more proactive at the beginning of the war, but was suffering from a series of lung ailments. In 1862, he became the Military Agent for Washington Township. The job of the Military Agent was to assist the families of soldiers who may have been suffering while the breadwinner was away from home. Then in October of 1863, M.C. decided to move his family to Minneapolis, Minnesota, probably for better economic opportunity. Whatever the reason, he was eventually joined by his sister Martha’s family, his mother, and the rest of his brothers and sisters. They prospered there and M.C. became a druggist. He died at the age of 70 on March 31, 1889, six years before Frederick Douglass.