Wayne County Seminary: Higher Education for Higher Aspirations

A farmer woke up on a cool fall day in the 1820s, not long after Indiana became a state, with a lot on his mind. He worried that he might not get all of the crops in before the first frost and that his hogs wouldn’t fetch as high a price at the market this year. His wife worried about whisperings in town that the milk sickness had claimed another neighbor. Their children didn’t have much time to worry though. They were up before the sun to feed the animals and clear the wild back acres. Whatever their specific trials, they had more immediate concerns than learning algebra, astronomy, philosophy, or the history of ancient Greece.

History of Wayne County Indiana, Together with Sketches of Its Cities, Villages and Towns…, Vol. I (Chicago: Inter-State Publishing Co., 1884), 362, accessed Google Books.

For many Hoosiers, education was not a priority compared to the immediate needs of the family farm or business. But others craved knowledge beyond the basic reading and arithmetic taught in one-room school houses. These ambitious students desired knowledge of the wider world, and fortunately for them, the State of Indiana worked to provide institutions of learning to meet their aspirations. In the case of the Wayne County Seminary, in the small but thriving town of Centreville (later Centerville), the mission was an incredible success. Over several decades hundreds of young men and women pursued advanced education within its walls.

ONE ROOM SCHOOLHOUSES. Left: “Old Schoolhouse and Students,” December 1882, Syracuse-Wawasee Historical Museum,  Indiana Memory Digital Collections; Center: “One-Room Schoolhouse, Hope, Indiana,” 1908, postcard, Dortha C. May Collection, Indiana Album; Right: Children at a One-Room Schoohouse, Lafayette, Indiana,” c. 1880,stereograph, Joan Hostetler Collection, Indiana Album. All images accessed via Indiana Memory.

The 1816 Indiana Constitution and subsequent acts of the Indiana General Assembly encouraged and provided for the creation of an educational center in each county open to all citizens (although not free of tuition) known as a “county seminary.” By the late 1820s, many Indiana counties had established such an institution. While today “seminary” refers to a theological school preparing students for ministry, the county seminaries were non-denominational. They included primary and secondary classes and in some cases even collegiate and classical courses of study. In counties where the township schools flourished, the seminaries offered only the higher education classes . In January 1827, the Indiana General Assembly passed an act requiring the appointment of “County Seminary Trustees,” who were charged with acquiring land and contracting a building. Wayne County appointed its trustees in June 1827. Over the following year and a half, the trustees secured a location and built a fine brick structure that would house eager students for over sixty years.

COUNTY AND TOWNSHIP SEMINARIES Left: “Seminary Building: Copy of a photograph of the the Vigo County Seminary,” n.d. Indiana State University Archives, Cunningham Memorial Library, Wabash Valley Visions & Voices: A Digital Memory Project; Center: “Seminary Place, Hope, Indiana,” 1909, Dortha May Collection, Indiana Album; Right: “Sand Creek Tsp. Seminary, Bartholow County,” photograph, 1932, Frank M. Hohenberger Photograph Collection,” Lilly Library, Indiana University Image Collections Online. All images accessed Indiana Memory.
(Richmond) Western Times, October 17, 1829, 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Wayne County Seminary opened humbly. Teacher and administrator Nathan Smith announced via local newspapers that  he would, “commence teaching a school in the Seminary in this town” on October 26, 1829, for a term of “three months, or longer, if the pleasure of those concerned requires it.” Tuition during this first term ran parents two dollars if their young scholar studied geography and English grammar and two dollars and fifty cents if mathematics was included. At the time, this was a good amount of money. For comparison sake, on the same page of the Western Times that the seminary announcement appeared, the Centreville Market advertised a dozen eggs for three to four cents and “Hams, good” for four to five cents, while whiskey would have cost you a whopping eighteen to twenty cents for a gallon. So, in 1829, fifty good hams could get you into Wayne County Seminary. This calculation is more than an exercise. Over the following years, the school would allow the mainly agrarian locals to trade produce and farm products for education.

Wayne County Record, May 31, 1843, 3, accessed NewspaperArchive.com
History of Wayne County, Indiana: Together with Sketches of Its Cities, Villages and Towns…(Chicago: Inter-State Publishing Co., 1884), 349, accessed Archive.org.

By 1835, the school blossomed into a more advanced academy, though several newspaper articles imply this did not happen with ease. The greatest challenge was likely promoting  the need for higher education to the residents of the surrounding regions. In a public announcement, the Wayne County Seminary Trustees stated: “An academy in which the higher branches are taught has long been wanted in our county, and we should be pleased to see the present attempt to establish one, patronized.” By this point, the school was attracting some students “residing distant from Centreville” and the trustees noted that boarding could be found in town for “as cheap as in any other town in the west.”

By this point, the school was “under the superintendence” of Giles C. Smith. The new superintendent had a stronger educational background than the average Indiana teacher at this time, evidenced by the fact that he went on to become a respected Methodist minister and leader within the Methodist Episcopal conference. In fact, for much of the school’s history, notable Methodist leaders made up the board and administration. The school, however, remained non-denominational, with no religious classes and with boarders attending the Sunday church service chosen by their parents. The trustees described the growing institution as “commodious and pleasantly situated,” and noted that the seminary trustees, if they did say so themselves, were “gentleman of liberality and integrity.”

This “liberality and integrity” was not simply promotional. It  extended into the trustees’ educational philosophy as evidenced by one important element of the school: Wayne County Seminary provided young women the same educational opportunities as the young men. In 1835, the trustees made their case to local parents in the Richmond Palladium:

Considering, that the reputation and utility of the Seminary stand closely allied with the literary interests of this county, and knowing that the location of the one is nearly equidistant to the boundaries of the other, [the trustees] do earnestly invite those gentlemen, who know and appreciate the worth of a good education in the youth of the country, to place their sons, daughters and wards within this institution.

From the casual tone of appeal to parents to send their daughters, it seems likely that women had been included for some time, if not from the start. This 1835 trustees’ statement is no declaration that the school recently started accepting young women. Instead, it assumes some sort of general knowledge that young women had already been attending the school and expresses their hope that more young women would enroll.

The Register and Annual Catalogue of Centreville Collegiate Institute (Richmond, Indiana: Crawley & Maag Printers and Binders, July 1866), 33, Indiana State Library.

Also from this 1835 announcement, we’re offered a look at the elementary and higher education curriculum. The elementary students could study reading, penmanship, orthography (spelling), and arithmetic. The secondary classes included English grammar, history, bookkeeping, geography, “and the use of the Globes.” Finally, the higher education classes included algebra, geometry, surveying, astronomy, Greek and Latin, and “Natural and Moral Philosophy.”

The Register and Annual Catalogue of Centreville Collegiate Institute (Richmond, Indiana: Crawley & Maag Printers and Binders, July 1866), 33, Indiana State Library.

The trustees also announced in 1835 that superintendent Smith would “be aided in his labors by the additional services of Mr. S. K. Hoshour.” By the following year, Samuel K. Hoshour took charge of the seminary and became perhaps the school’s most influential administrator. During Hoshour’s time at the Wayne County Seminary, he mentored several students who went on to become important Hoosiers, including Jacob Julian, Oliver P. Morton, and Lew Wallace. It’s worth stepping away from the seminary story to look briefly at the careers of these Wayne County luminaries.

“Jacob Julian [James T. Layman] House, 29 S. Audubon Rd. (Irvington) Indianapolis,” photograph, 1929, Indiana Landmarks Wilbur D. Peat Collection, Center for Digital Scholarship, IUPUI University Library, accessed Indiana Memory.
After completing his schooling, Jacob Julian became a prominent Centerville lawyer and briefly the law partner of his brother George Washington Julian. Jacob was involved in local politics as a staunch supporter of the Whig party. In 1846, Wayne County residents elected Jacob Julian to the Indiana House of Representatives and reelected him in 1848. Later Julian co-founded the town of Irvington, just east of Indianapolis.

History of Wayne County Indiana, Together with Sketches of Its Cities, Villages and Towns…, Vol. I (Chicago: Inter-State Publishing Co., 1884), 362, accessed Archive.org.

Oliver P. Morton also began his career as a lawyer in Centreville. He represented Wayne County at the seminal first convention of the new national Republican Party in 1856. He was elected lieutenant governor of Indiana in 1860, but almost immediately became governor when Henry S. Lane left the position for a U.S. Senate seat. Morton served as governor throughout the Civil War and won election to a second term in 1864. He completed Lane’s term in the U.S. Senate in 1867 and was reelected again in 1873.

Lew Wallace, the son of an Indiana governor and grandson of a congressman, began a law practice in 1849, and settled in Crawfordsville in 1853. With the start of the Civil War in 1861, he volunteered for service and before the war’s end was a major general. Wallace later served as governor of the New Mexico Territory and U.S. minister to Turkey (the Ottoman Empire). He is best remembered and acclaimed as the author of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880).

Snippet from one of the many versions of Ben-Hur. This one was taken from an illustrated volume “The Chariot Race from Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace,” Illustrated by Sigismond Ivanowski (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1908, accessed Google Books.

Later in life, Wallace expressed how important his time at the Wayne County Seminary was to his creation of his famous novel. In his autobiography, Wallace described the profound influence that Professor Hoshour had on his writing. Wallace remembered attending the seminary in his “thirteenth year” because “there was a teacher of such repute that my father decided to send me to him.” Wallace wrote:

Professor Hoshour was the first to observe a glimmer of writing capacity in me. An indifferent teacher would have allowed the discovery to pass without account; but he set about making the most of it, and in his method there was so much wisdom that it were wrong not to give it with particularity… The general principle on which the professor acted is plan to me now. The lack of aptitude for mathematics in my case was too decided not to be apparent to him; instead of beating me for it, he humanely applied to cultivating a faculty he thought within my powers and to my taste.

“Lew Wallace, Age 21,” photograph, in Lew Wallace: An Autobiography, Vol. I (New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1906), 208, accessed Google Books.

Hoshour gave Wallace great works of literature and advice on writing. Wallace remembered Hoshour explaining the most important rule of writing: “In writing, everything is to be sacrificed for clearness of expression – everything.” Finally, Hoshour encouraged Wallace to read the Bible through a literary lens as opposed to a dogmatic focus. Wallace recalled:

This was entirely new to me, and I recall the impression made by the small part given to the three wise men. Little did I dream then what those few verses were to bring me – that out of them Ben-Hur was one day to be evoked.

Wallace referred to his time with Hoshour as “the turning-point of my life.”

While the seminary forged some great Hoosier men, the young women of the Wayne County Seminary thrived as well. Although the prejudices and legal obstacles of the period kept them from the public successes of their male peers, sources show the female students equaled the male students’ academic achievement, and perhaps even exceeded them in some areas. The young women took classes on the same subjects as the young men, but their classes were separate and taught by female teachers.

Several sources show that these women were highly respected in their community, praised by newspaper writers, and in in many ways treated as peers by their male colleagues. For example, when the county’s teachers formed the Wayne County Education Society in the early 1840s, seminary teachers Mary Thorpe and Sarah Dickson were not only included, they served on various committees that decided appropriate school texts, punishments, and funding. They served side by side with their male colleagues and prominent community members such as Levi Coffin, George Washington Julian, and Solomon Meredith.

Richmond Palladium, October 8, 1845, 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Female teachers also served as the administrators of the girls’ school, which maintained a surprising degree of autonomy. Evidence of this autonomy can be gleaned from Wayne County newspapers. For example, in February 1842, the Richmond Palladium reported that a new principal, Rawson Vaile, had replaced the former seminary administrator, George Rea. The following month, Rea placed an announcement in the Wayne County Record somewhat dramatically decrying his removal and announcing his plan to open a rival school. Through this unrest at the seminary, teacher and administrator Mary Thorpe, calmly steered the girls’ school through the storm. She ran her own advertisement in the Wayne County Record, assuring her students:

Miss Thorpe Respectfully informs the Citizens of Centreville, that the late change in the Wayne County Seminary, will in no way affect her School; but that it will, as heretofore, remain under her exclusive control.

Throughout the 1840s, the Wayne County Record covered the “public examinations” of both the male and female students. During these student exhibitions, parents and other Wayne County residents packed into the nearby Methodist church as it was the only building large enough to hold the interested crowds. The program featured original essays, debates, as well as musical and dramatic performances. In March 1842, the Wayne County Record covered the examination of the male students and praised Principal Vaile, focusing on his penchant for strict discipline. However, the newspaper was harshly critical of the enunciation and articulation of the male students.

In contrast, a month later on April 13, the same newspaper raved about the “Female Department of the Wayne County Seminary” and called their public exhibition “one of the best examinations we have ever attended in this place.” The writer noted that the students did not just repeat rote, memorized facts, but had a deep understanding of their subject matter. The article stated:

From the lowest classes, studying the simple elements of Geography, or numbers, up to those in the higher branches of Natural Philosophy, Grammar, Astronomy, Algebra and Political Geography, all, as far as they had severally* advanced, seemed to understand the ground over which they had traveled. They did not possess a mere smattering knowledge but could readily tell the why and wherefore of the question propounded to them.

“United Terrestrial Globe,” 1854, Hollbrook’s Apparatus Mfg. Co., David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, Cartography Associates.The collection caption states: This three inch solid wood, paper covered globe is hinged to open and reveal the western and eastern hemispheres on a flat globular projection on the two inside surfaces. It was used as a teaching device to show students how a globe can be represented on a flat surface.

The Wayne County Record also praised Sarah Dickinson, the able teacher of these impressive young women: “We feel assured that no one has ever taught here, either Male or Female, that has given more general satisfaction.” Let’s hazard a guess that the young women would have been quite pleased with their success, and maybe even by their besting of the young men in the press’s estimation.

The Wayne County Seminary continued to flourish and grow in both enrollment and size. By 1843, the school expanded classroom space and lodging and the addition of more upper level classes in languages and sciences. The women could also now pursue a music focused curriculum if desired. The article noted that the seminary included “Three several Schools,* one Male and two Female,” and reiterated that “Pupils, in either the Male or Female departments” could pursue “the ordinary branches of an English Education” or the higher level courses of “Astronomy, Botany, Natural Philosophy, Mathematics, Geology, and the Latin and French Languages.”

By the late 1840s, the institution reorganized and the new board of trustees changed its name to Whitewater Female College and Academy. Despite this somewhat misleading name, the school continued to educate both young men and women. While the board was now under the administration of the Methodist Episcopal Northern Indiana conference, classes remained secular and boarding students could still attend the church of their parents’ choice on Sundays. Notably, in 1849, the female students founded the prestigious Sigournian Society, a literary organization with its own library at the school. The society held exhibitions of original essays, hosted lively political debates, and performed music. The crest of the society featured an open book with a halo of light with their motto: “Many shall run to and fro and knowledge shall be increased” (Daniel 12:4).

Richmond Weekly Palladium, January 12, 1855, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Over the following decades the school saw many changes but ardently continued its lofty educational mission. By the 1850s, the school, still under the “patronage” of the Methodist Conference, became known simply as “White Water College.” By this point, over 200 students attended the institution. In the early 1860s, after some financial trouble, the board sold the institution to Wiliam H. Barnes who remodeled and reopened the school and served as its president for a time. In 1865, the academy again changed administration and name, reopening in September 1865 as the Centerville Collegiate Institute. In the early 1870s, the site that once hosted the prestigious Wayne County Seminary became a public school. All signs of the original school were destroyed by fire in 1891.

Register of Centreville Collegiate Institute, 1866, submitted by applicant for the Wayne County Seminary state historical marker, 4-5. Available in Indiana Historical Bureau marker file.
William Holmes McGuffey, The Ecclectic First Reader (Cincinnati: Truman and Smith, 1841), accessed Wikipedia.

Today, not far from the site of the seminary, local kids attend Centerville Elementary School. If the teachers were to have their kids look out of the school’s east facing windows, perhaps they can imagine their distant relatives walking into the old seminary carrying “McGuffey’s Eclectic Series of School Books” and maybe even “country produce or building materials . . . in payment of Tuition.” And the teachers can appreciate that, while they might still have the same problems that Professor Vaile had in 1842 in getting his students to enunciate clearly, at least they don’t have to “procure all the fuel necessary” this icy winter as Professor Smith did back in 1829 at the opening of the ambitious, progressive, and democratic Wayne County Seminary.

Sources and Research Note:

Most of the primary sources referenced in this are newspaper articles accessed via Hoosier State Chronicles. A complete list of all articles used can be downloaded here: Wayne County Seminary timeline.

Most secondary information came from: Richard G. Boone, A History of Education in Indiana (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1892), 42-86.

*I came across scattered mentions of the term “several schools” in the contemporary newspapers. Though I was not able to find a precise definition, I gleaned from the context of the articles that the term refers to the level of education after primary and before college, roughly equivalent to what would be middle school through high school today.

Thomas A. Hendricks: “The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was”

Governor Thomas Andrew Hendricks, Governors’ Portrait Collection, accessed Indiana Historical Bureau.

Thomas A. Hendricks (1819-1885), an attorney from Shelbyville and, later, Indianapolis, became the most prominent Democrat in Indiana during the Civil War era. As such, he articulated the conservative Democratic position most forcefully and memorably. This stance can be summed up in the words, “The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was.” Hendricks was also known for his outspoken white supremacist, but antislavery, views.  His frequently quoted remark, uttered on the floor of the U.S. Senate, reveals this attitude: “This is the white man’s Government, made by the white man, for the white man.”

In a storied career that included single terms as senator, governor, and election in 1884 to the vice presidency of the United States, Hendricks spent nearly four decades in public life.  First elected to the Indiana House of Representatives in the late 1840s and then to Congress in 1851, he was appointed by President Franklin Pierce (and later reappointed by President James Buchanan) to lead the extremely busy General Land Office during a period of numerous and generous land grants.  Increasingly out of step with Buchanan’s proslavery and anti-homestead bill policies, Hendricks resigned his Washington position in 1859.

Governor Oliver P. Morton, Governors’ Portraits Collection, accessed Indiana Historical Bureau.

He returned to Indiana, and almost immediately found himself at the head of the Democratic Party ticket as it attempted to retain control of the state’s reins of power. However, although 1860 was a Republican year, Hendricks fared better against his gubernatorial opponent, Henry S. Lane, than did the rest of the Democratic ticket.  Then, according to a pre-arranged agreement, Governor Lane was chosen by the Republican-controlled General Assembly to become Indiana’s new United States senator.  The energetic and ambitious lieutenant governor, Oliver P. Morton, then became governor and served throughout the Civil War.

It was a different story in the off-year elections of 1862, when the unpopularity of the war and many of President Abraham Lincoln’s policies—especially his emancipation plan—resulted in a Democratic sweep of state offices, including control of the Indiana General Assembly.  When this body elected another new senator, the popular Hendricks was chosen.  In office from 1863 to 1869, Senator Hendricks was involved with the final years of the Civil War and the first years of Reconstruction. Initially, he stoutly supported the Union’s war effort, but not the plans for the emancipation of African American slaves. After the war, he spoke out against (and voted against) the three so-called Civil War Amendments (the 13th, 14th and 15th) to the federal Constitution.  In his view, the impassioned feelings of the immediate postwar era and the absence of representatives in Congress from eleven states, made the times “unpropitious” for making basic constitutional changes.

Governor Conrad Baker, Governors’ Portraits Collection, accessed Indiana Historical Bureau.

Obviously, Hendricks’s views resonated with his fellow Hoosier Democrats, and while still a senator he was nominated to run again for governor in 1868.  Hendricks was narrowly defeated by the incumbent governor, Conrad Baker, who had succeeded Morton when he went to the U. S. Senate in 1867. Hendricks retained his personal popularity and ran a third time, successfully, for the governor’s seat in 1872, serving from 1873 to 1877.  Still not done with electoral politics, the charismatic governor was Samuel J. Tilden’s running mate in the famous “disputed election of 1876,” in which the Democratic team received more votes than did their opponents, but a partisan Electoral Commission awarded the victory to Republicans Rutherford B. Hayes and William A. Wheeler.

Campaign poster for Grover Cleveland and Thomas A. Hendricks, 1884, courtesy of PBS Learning Media.

Hendricks’ final campaign came in 1884 when he reluctantly, for health reasons, agreed to join Grover Cleveland at the head of the Democratic Party ticket. Successful this time, Hendricks’ service as vice president was destined to be short.  Inaugurated in March 1885, the Hoosier politician died at his home in Indianapolis in November 1885.

Regarding Hendricks’ Civil War years in Indiana, there is no evidence that he was a member of any “dark lantern” society, the Knights of the Golden Circle, the Sons of Liberty, or the Order of American Knights; nor was he a Copperhead, if one defines that term as a Northerner who supported the South during the war.  If, however, one defines the term more broadly to include those who opposed the Lincoln administration and, following Lincoln’s death, the Radical Republican agenda, then, of course, Hendricks certainly belongs in that category.

Greenback bill, issued March 1863, courtesy of Museum of American Finance.

He was an outspoken critic of what he considered the excesses of Lincoln’s wartime policies, including emancipation, suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, high tariffs, the issuance of “greenbacks” and other banking policies that he believed aided the New England states at the expense of western states, and many more extra-military actions by both the state and national administrations. In particular, Hendricks lambasted the Lincoln administration in a major speech in Indianapolis on January 8, 1862, during the state Democratic Party convention, which in its platform condemned the Republicans for rejecting compromises that might have averted war, and for its violations of freedom of the press and the domestic institutions of sovereign states. But Hendricks consistently supported the war to save the Union, urged compliance with the draft, and deplored armed resistance to its enforcement.

Thomas A. Hendricks monument at the Indiana State House, accessed Wikipedia.org.

In May 1863, at the time of another party gathering in Indianapolis, Hendricks was threatened by an unauthorized band of roaming soldiers when he attempted to speak.  The melee that followed led up to the events known as the “Battle of Pogue’s Run.”  Hendricks was also at the center of a volatile situation when he joined Governor Morton on the steps of the state house in eulogizing the assassinated president; Morton’s stern demeanor quieted the protesters, following cries of “Hang him” aimed at Hendricks, and the Democrat was able to continue his remarks. Ironically, this episode occurred near the site on the current State House grounds where a tall monument with a larger than life-size statue of Hendricks was erected in 1890 and still stands.


Gray, Ralph D. “Thomas A. Hendricks:  Spokesman for the Democracy,” in Gray, ed., Gentlemen from Indiana: National Party Candidates, 1836-1940. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1977.

Holcombe, John W., and Hubert M. Skinner. Life and Public Services of Thomas A. Hendricks with Selected Speeches and Writings. Indianapolis: Carlon and Hollenbeck, 1886.

Neely, Jr., Mark E., The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Stampp, Kenneth M.  Indiana Politics during the Civil War. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1949.

Tredway, G. R. Democratic Opposition to the Lincoln Administration in Indiana. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1973.

Lincoln’s Forgotten Visit to Indianapolis

Portrait of presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln prior to delivering his Cooper Union address in New York City, February 27, 1860, image courtesy of the Library of Congress. Lincoln reportedly said, “Brady and the Cooper Institute made me president.” Read this blog to decide if that actually was the case.

Quick, Abraham Lincoln buffs! Can you name all the dates Lincoln delivered a public address in Indiana after moving to Illinois in 1830?

Did you guess February 11 and 12, 1861?  Identifying those days were probably fairly easy since that was when Lincoln journeyed through Indiana en route to Washington for his first inauguration. According to historical records, he delivered whistle-stop speeches at State Line City, LafayetteThorntown, Lebanon, and Zionsville. His train stopped at Indianapolis that evening where Governor Oliver P. Morton and 20,000 Lincoln supporters welcomed him. He addressed the citizens of Indiana from the train platform before he disembarked to his hotel room at the Bates House. Lincoln adherents called upon the president-elect later that evening, and he delivered an ad hoc speech from a balcony of the hotel. He resumed his journey east the next morning, which also happened to be his fifty-second birthday.  Lincoln continued to greet and deliver short speeches to well-wishers in Shelbyville, Greensburg, Morris, and Lawrenceburg as his train steamed on to Cincinnati, Ohio.

If you are an advanced Lincoln enthusiast, you may be able to identify another Lincoln visit to Indiana that occurred in 1844 while he campaigned for Whig presidential candidate Henry Clay. During that fall visit, he spoke at the Spencer County Courthouse in Rockport.

Site of Rockport Tavern
This Indiana Historical Bureau marker in Rockport references Lincoln’s visit in 1844.

According to oral lore and tradition, he made several other speeches around Spencer County (and allegedly spoke in Knox, Daviess, Warrick, and Vanderburgh counties). However, the Rockport address is the only southern Indiana speech corroborated with a contemporary source. While in Spencer County, Lincoln visited his boyhood home and the graves of his mother and sister. This would be Lincoln’s first and only return to his childhood home since he left Indiana in 1830.

Aside from those two visits in 1844 and 1861, most Lincoln fans would be hard-pressed to identify the other time that Lincoln visited Indiana for political purposes. It happened on September 19, 1859 in Indianapolis, where he delivered a speech so obscure that it was largely forgotten for 70 years before a Lincoln researcher and an Indiana State Library employee uncovered it in an issue of a short-lived Indianapolis newspaper, the Daily Evening Atlas.

First, some historical context is helpful to illuminate Lincoln’s Indianapolis speech. In January 1859, Lincoln lost his U.S. Senate campaign to Stephen A. Douglas. Financial necessity forced him to pay more attention to his legal career in the aftermath of this political defeat.  Practicing law, however, had lost some of its luster after the political-high of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. As the foremost Republican in Illinois, Lincoln felt an obligation to lead the fractious Illinois Republican political alliance and craft a vision for party success in 1860. Lincoln was particularly concerned about Douglas’s attempts to position himself as a centrist presidential candidate who could siphon off some of the fledgling Republican Party’s conservative-to-moderate-leaning internal factions.

In early September 1859, Lincoln declined an invitation to speak in Illinois citing the necessity of devoting himself to private business. However, two things occurred in September that changed Lincoln’s mind. Harper’s Magazine published his arch-rival’s article that extolled the political virtues of popular sovereignty. Ohio Democrats also invited Douglas to campaign for state candidates. These two events compelled Lincoln to confront the Little Giant, albeit indirectly.

“The Undecided Political Prize-Fight,” political cartoon from 1860. Source: http://www.paperlessarchives.com/lincoln_douglas_debates.html

There was no formal head-to-head continuation of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in September 1859, but Lincoln shadowed his nemesis throughout the Buckeye State, and delivered speeches in Columbus and Cincinnati following Douglas’s wake. On September 16 and 17, Lincoln spoke at the Ohio capitol, Dayton, and briefly at Hamilton. The overall texts of these speeches were similar to one another, and presented sharper arguments than Lincoln first introduced during the formal debates in 1858.

Of all the oratory Lincoln delivered during this circuit, his Cincinnati speech on the evening of September 17, 1859 stood out from the rest, as he crafted his address to speak directly to the many southern Ohioans and Kentuckians in the audience. It was probably the best attended speech during his tour through the state. The speech also reached a much larger audience when newspapers throughout the North widely reprinted and commented on the Cincinnati address. The text so thoroughly saturated the 19th-century news network that few journalists covered the Indianapolis speech that he gave two days later.

Image from Jacob Piatt Dunn’s History of Greater Indianapolis (Chicago: Lewis Publishing, 1910).  The street shown is Louisiana Street.

On the morning of September 19, 1859, Abraham Lincoln, his wife, and one of their sons departed Cincinnati for Indianapolis.  They arrived at the Union Depot in the Hoosier capital at four o’clock.  A party of political friends, led by Atlas editor John D. Defrees, welcomed the Lincolns as they disembarked.  The hosts escorted their visitors across the street to the American Hotel (located near present-day 18 W. Louisiana St.) where they would spend the night.

Masonic Hall in Indianapolis, ca. 1850s, image courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

At seven o’clock that evening, an audience packed the Masonic Hall (then located on the southeast corner of Washington Street and Tennessee, which is now Capitol Avenue) to hear the Illinoisan speak.  Among those in attendance were political dignitaries from both sides of the aisle, including Indiana’s Democratic Governor Ashbel P. Willard, Lincoln’s future cabinet member Caleb Blood Smith, future Indiana governor Oliver P. Morton, and Congressman Albert G. Porter (also a future governor).  Although not mentioned in newspaper coverage as being in attendance, the Atlas reported that Henry S. Lane registered at a hotel that day.  Most likely he attended too.  If Lane was in the audience, then his presence would be of interest since he became an instrumental lobbyist for Lincoln’s presidential nomination at the 1860 Republican National Convention, and later as a U.S. Senator during the Civil War he voted for many of President Lincoln’s legislative proposals.

One wonders how Lincoln appeared and sounded to his Midwestern audiences during the late summer of 1859. The descriptions of Lincoln in the Indianapolis newspapers are somewhat limited. However, the audience’s impression of the orator were perhaps not unlike the Democratically leaning Cincinnati Enquirer‘s colorful introduction of the then not-so-well-known Lincoln to their readers:

“Hon. Mr. Lincoln is a tall, dark-visaged, angular, awkward,
positive-looking sort of individual, with character written on his face and energy expressed in his every movement.  He has the appearance of what is called…a Western man – one who, without education or early advantages, has risen by his own exertions from an [sic] humble origin….He makes no pretension to oratory
or the graces of diction, but goes directly to his point…regardless of elegance or even system….With orthoepy [correct pronunciation of words] he evidently has little acquaintance, pronouncing words in a manner that puzzles the ear sometimes to determine whether he is speaking his own or a foreign tongue.”

Ambrotype, September 1858, unidentified artist, courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.  A year before Lincoln lectured in Indianapolis, he sat for this portrait around the time of the fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate in Charlestown, Illinois.  Lincoln probably did not look too different a year later while speaking to Hoosiers.

After Lincoln’s old congressional colleague Caleb Smith introduced the lecturer to the Indianapolis crowd, Lincoln opened his address with some reminiscences of growing up in Indiana. The Atlas, the best extant source for this speech, reported his words in the third person:

“Away back in the fall of 1816, when he was in his eighth year, his father brought him over from the neighboring State of Kentucky, and settled in the State of Indiana, and he grew up to his present enormous height on our own good soil of Indiana. [Laughter.] The scenes he passed through to-day are wonderfully different from the first scenes he witnessed in the State of Indiana, where he was raised, in Spencer county, on the Ohio river. There was an unbroken wilderness there then, and an axe was put in his hand; and with the trees and logs and grubs he fought until he reached his twentieth year.”

The Democratic-leaning Sentinel, while not fully reporting on Lincoln’s oration, did supply a few anecdotes from Lincoln’s youth in Indiana that the Atlas omitted.  The Sentinel supplemented:

“[H]e had chopped wood, raised log cabins, hunted bears, drank out of the same bottle as was the fashion of those days, with the woodsmen of Indiana for years. He gave a graphic account of a bear hunt in the early days of this wooden country, when the barking of dogs, the yelling of men, and the cracking of the rifle when Bruin was treed, would send the blood bounding through the veins of the pioneer. Those were the days when friendships were true, and he did not think any other state of society would ever exist where men would be drawn so close together in feeling and affection.”

It is an interesting addition considering Lincoln had authored a poem about a bear hunt, and evidently the incident left quite an impression on him.

Lincoln stopped with his reminiscences, and admitted that he expected that his audience came to hear him say something about politics. At this point, he transitioned into a critique of Stephen Douglas’s advocacy of popular sovereignty. Lincoln opened his political remarks by recalling his famous words: “this government cannot endure permanently, half slave and half free; that a house divided against itself cannot stand.” He pointed out that Douglas had critiqued this thesis, and counter argued, “Why cannot this government endure forever, part free, part slave, as the original framers of the constitution made it?” Lincoln set out to answer Douglas’s question over the next two hours.

Stephen A. Douglas, ca. 1855-1861, image courtesy of the Library of Congress.  Lincoln challenged the Democratic incumbent for the U.S. Senate in 1858.  After a series of well-publicized debates, Lincoln lost the election in January 1859.  Douglas and Lincoln would continue challenging each other over the next few years, culminating in their respective candidacies for the presidency in 1860.

Lincoln reasoned that the U.S. Constitution was silent about slavery’s continued existence in America, and he disputed Douglas’s contention that the country was to endure “part free, part slave.”  Lincoln’s main support for this argument was legislation near and dear to the history of Indiana: the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which prohibited the introduction of slavery into the Northwest Territory. Lincoln correctly pointed out that the Second Continental Congress passed the ordinance at the same time as legislators were crafting the U.S. Constitution.  Therefore, Lincoln maintained,

“There was nothing said in the Constitution relative to the spread of slavery in the Territories, but the same generation of men said something about it in this ordinance of ’87, through the influence of which you of Indiana, and your neighbors in Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan, are prosperous, free men….Our fathers who made the government, made the ordinance of 1787.”

Lincoln proved to be an astute student of Indiana history, and related to his audience that a few Indiana Territory residents had once petitioned Congress to amend the ordinance to allow for the introduction of slavery.  Lincoln likened this to the residents trying to exercise popular sovereignty. Yet in this case, Congress denied the petition. Lincoln reasoned, “[H]ad it not been for the ordinance of ’87, Indiana would have been a slave State.” He thereby refuted Douglas’s key political doctrine, by citing an example where the federal government had prohibited the spread of slavery, and ignored the supplications of some citizens seeking to exercise popular will. “Popular sovereignty,” Lincoln argued, “has not made a single free State in a run of seventy or eighty years [of the nation’s existence].”

In addition to focusing on popular sovereignty, Lincoln’s speech also focused on economics by contrasting slave labor and free labor. Lincoln summed up Douglas’s popular sovereignty in this way: “If one man choose[s] to make a slave of another man, neither that other man [n]or anybody else has a right to object.”

The Atlas reported, “The speaker himself had been a hired man twenty-eight years ago.” This Indiana Historical Bureau Marker tells about some of the hired work Lincoln performed while living in Indiana. The opposite side of the marker tells about Lincoln ferrying customers across the Ohio River, and his flatboat journey to New Orleans in 1828 with a load of goods.

For Lincoln, that was a dangerous proposition. As a counter to this prospect, he praised the merits of free labor. Citing Indiana’s labor force, Lincoln said, “[O]f all that is produced, seven-eighths of it is produced by the hands of men who work upon their own ground; and no more than one-eighth is produced by hired men.  The condition of the hired man was not worse than that of the slave.”  Lincoln recalled his own work in Indiana as a hired man, and assessing his own experience at that time he did not consider himself worse off than a slave.  He concluded:

“Men who were industrious and sober, and honest in the pursuit for their own interests, should after a while accumulate capital, and after that should be allowed to enjoy it in peace, and if they chose, when they had accumulated capital, to use it to save themselves from actual labor and hire other people to labor for them, it was right.”

At this time and before this audience, Lincoln spoke out against slavery not on moral grounds, but on economic grounds. Near the end of his two hour address, he said, “The mass of white men were injured by the effect of slave labor in the neighborhood of their own labor.” In other words, free labor’s value was depressed because of the existence of slave labor in the United States.

After Lincoln concluded, Oliver Morton took the stage to say a few words, but on account of the lateness of the hour, he kept his remarks brief. The next day the Lincolns continued their westward journey home to Springfield.  The Indianapolis press, both Republican and Democratic organs, gave accounts of the previous night’s events, but other papers largely ignored the future president’s remarks.

In the grand scheme of things, one could conclude that Lincoln’s visit to Indianapolis in 1859 was rather insignificant. Chalk it up as one of those “George Washington slept here” historical moments. However, there is another interpretation of his visit, which adds historical significance to it.  Historian Gary Ecelbarger in a Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association article argued against the common narrative that Lincoln’s Cooper Union Speech delivered in New York City in February 1860 was the speech that made Lincoln president. Ecelbarger persuasively argues that before Lincoln could get an east-coast endorsement for his candidacy, he first needed to mobilize political support among Midwesterners. Obviously, Lincoln was a well-known figure in Illinois politics, but his first deliberate and substantial politicking outside of his home-state’s borders started with his September 1859 trip to Ohio and Indiana.

These speeches were the first of about 30 addresses Lincoln delivered in eight states and the Kansas Territory in the nine months leading up to his nomination for president in May 1860. As Ecelbarger interpreted it, “[This] is evidence that Lincoln sought to increase his exposure outside of Illinois for a run for the presidency.” In this light, Lincoln’s visit to Indianapolis takes on greater significance, as he introduced himself to the Hoosier demographic that would aid his political ascent. Many of the Republican attendees who heard him that night in Indianapolis would become influential brokers in helping him secure the presidential nomination, electoral influencers that would enable him to carry the Hoosier state in the general election, and strong backers of his executive and military policies as president during the Civil War.

To read the full text of Lincoln’s Indianapolis speech, click here.  View summaries of some of Lincoln’s most poignant assertions in his Indianapolis speech via the Atlas:

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