The release of the new Ben-Hur movie this summer reminded us of the story’s Hoosier origins. This latest production from Mark Burnett and Roma Downey is the fifth time that film producers have interpreted Crawfordsville native Lew Wallace’s best-selling novel for the screen. Many are familiar with the 11 Academy Award winning adaptation starring Charlton Heston in 1959 and most film buffs know that there were two earlier versions in 1907 and 1925. The 1907 film prompted a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that protected copyrighted works from unauthorized motion picture adaptation. The 1925 film arguably has a better chariot race than the 1959 movie. There was also a forgettable and regrettable Canadian mini-series reboot of Ben-Hur in 2010.
In a world of constant movie reboots, one ponders: if Lew Wallace were alive today and re-wrote Ben-Hur in a contemporary setting, would he have Ben-Hur racing in the Indianapolis 500?
What if we told you that Ben-Hur did, in fact, race at Indianapolis? Of course, the race did not take place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; instead it took place in 1902 at English’s Theater during the Ben–Hur stage play’s first visit to Indianapolis.
On November 13, 1902, the Indianapolis News reported “J.J. Brady is here in advance of ‘Ben-Hur,’” and “brings with him a corps of stage carpenters and mechanics, who have practically to reconstruct the stage . . . so that the play may be given properly.” Although English’s stage was new, crews needed to rebuild it in order to accommodate the chariot race. Producing that scene called for eight live horses running at full gallop on treadmills, cycloramic scenery and, other apparatus. All this equipment and animals imposed an estimated weight of over 50 tons on the stage, which required pouring a special cement foundation. The public was anxious to see the spectacle, even if it meant staking out a place in line many hours in advance. The Indianapolis News reporter observed:
“A few individuals sat and shivered all night in the lobby of English’s waiting in patience and with an unwonted supply of cash in their pockets for the box office to open. They were men who had been hired to buy seats for some of the performances of ‘Ben-Hur.’”
Ticket prices ranged from fifty cents to two dollars. Even at that rate, a day after the tickets went on sale, the English Theater reported “over $10,000 was taken in at the box office window” and representatives for the producers of the play (Marc Klaw and Abraham Erlanger) announced that the sales “beat all records for the play in advance sales.” The Supreme Tribe of Ben-Hur, a national benevolent society headquartered in Wallace’s hometown of Crawfordsville, nearly bought out one performance by itself. The Tribe planned to run an excursion via train for its members from Crawfordsville to see the play.
However, a few members of the Hoosier public were dubious about purchasing tickets. In particular, one woman was of the opinion that the play was to take two weeks to complete. When the box office manager informed her that the entire play was presented every night, she remained quite suspicious that anyone “could put all that book into a one-night drama.”
Production managers sought to cast extras from Indianapolis’s denizens, advertising a salary of $4.25/week. That was enough to encourage a crowd of men, women, and children to stand outside in a late Indiana autumn for an hour and a half waiting for their opportunity at show business. An assistant stage director eventually made an appearance and sorted through the crowd. One “gray beard” was turned away because the assistant director believed him not to be “nimble afoot.” The rejected man futilely protested to the assistant director and argued “he could get around faster than two-thirds of the younger fellows that had been accepted.”
With the extras cast, the production opened on Monday, November 25, 1902. After witnessing opening night, an Indianapolis reporter wrote, “There [will] be critics who see nothing good in the American stage or in the works of American dramatist: if the American stage had done absolutely nothing worthy in its long career but this, had its fame to rest solely on this production of ‘Ben-Hur’ it has justified its existence.”
The cast, as it appeared in Indianapolis, included William Farnum as Ben-Hur and Basil Gill as Messala. Farnum’s performance was described as realizing the part to the fullest degree. Among the other actors and actresses in the production, Mabel Bert’s portrayal as the mother of Hur is worth noting because she was the only cast member with a major role to be with the company continuously since the production opened on November 29, 1899 in New York City. Mrs. Bert told a reporter,
“I have always been the mother of Ben-Hur – various Ben-Hurs, however, for Mr. Farnum is the third I have mothered on the stage…It does make me a trifle lonely sometimes to lose my stage children and stage friends that way. But then, too, it affords a certain amount of variety that is interesting and keeps my work from becoming at all monotonous.”
The public certainly found nothing monotonous about the play. In fact, the production was originally slated to run for two weeks in Indianapolis, but four days after opening night the Indianapolis News reported that the high demand for tickets had prompted producers to extend the play for another week. Box office receipts for the first two weeks alone were estimated in excess of $35,000. That figure broke all box office records for Indianapolis and was the highest figure for all productions of Ben-Hur to that date.
“‘Ben-Hur’ occupies a unique position on the native stage, since it appeals alike to habitual theater patrons and those who seldom find enjoyment in offerings of the stage. While the elaborate scenic equipment and realistic chariot race command the admiration of the spectators, the rare beauty and force of ‘Ben-Hur’ as a drama give a lasting distinction to this most uplifting, inspiring and soul-stirring play.”
This description of the popularity of Ben-Hur, while no doubt true, neglects that a major reason for the large turnouts was because the author of Ben-Hur was a native Hoosier son. Some Indiana cities, such as Covington, Franklin, and Noblesville, brought large numbers of their population and sold out individual performances. In fact, Covington could not secure as many tickets as they had citizens who wanted to attend; the Indianapolis Sentinel reported that a small riot broke out as a result.
While various Indiana cities were hoping to witness the performance, Crawfordsville was no exception, as it was Ben-Hur’s birthplace. A contingent of Athenians and Montgomery county residents had the theater to themselves for a performance on December 2. Among those in attendance at that performance was James Buchanan Elmore, aka the Bard of Alamo. After witnessing the arrest of the Hur family, Buchanan leaned over to a newspaper reporter and said, “Seems to me if I was bossing that show I would make the actors speak softer and not so rough, it don’t seem like Scripture voices.”
Although the December 2 performance hosted one Montgomery County literary celebrity, another one was conspicuously absent, that being General Lew Wallace, the author of Ben-Hur. Wallace was recovering from an illness during the Crawfordsville excursion. However, he was sufficiently recovered to attend a matinee with his son, daughter-in-law, and his two grandsons on December 12. Wallace watched most of the play from a private box and tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible, lest he be called upon to deliver a speech. Wallace and his party were invited behind the stage so that they could witness how some of the scenes were produced, especially the chariot race. Wallace took special interest in watching the race and all of the mechanization that was involved. While backstage, Wallace met the starring members of the cast and reportedly chatted for several minutes with the actor incarnating his literary creation. Before returning to his box Wallace remarked to a stage manager that the production had reached a state of perfection. Ben-Hur ended its stay in Indianapolis the day after Wallace’s visit, before moving to Milwaukee for a two-week engagement.
Eleven years later, when Ben-Hur was making another visit to Indianapolis, Hector Fuller aptly noted in the Indianapolis Sunday Star,
“If Indiana had contributed nothing else, save this one play to the American stage it might be counted that the Hoosier state had done its part. For ‘Ben-Hur’ is the dramatic marvel of the age. It has held the stage now for fourteen years, and in that time over 10,000,000 people have seen it.”
Ross Lockridge Sr. and Jr. left an indelible mark on Indiana history through traditional history publications and fictional depiction. However, the father and son have yet to be cemented in the annals of state history. We hope to contribute to that reversal.
The senior Lockridge was born in Miami County, Indiana in 1877 and went on to graduate from Indiana University in 1900. He married and returned to his north central Hoosier home. He became the principal of Peru High School, and later earned a law degree from IU in 1907. Not long after, he moved to Fort Wayne and worked as employment manager and welfare director at Wayne Knitting Mills. He also served three years as executive secretary of the Citizen League of Indiana, which lobbied for a new state constitution and advocated for women’s suffrage.
While in Fort Wayne, Lockridge Sr. helped organize the Allen County Fort Wayne Historical Society. During this time his reputation grew as a writer of pioneer Indiana history. According to Larry Lockridge, his grandfather, Ross Sr.,”developed his own brand of ‘Historic Site Recital,’ combing public speaking, drama, and local history.” Between 1937 and 1950, Lockridge Sr. served as a director of IU Foundation’s Hoosier Historic Memorial Activities Agency. Some of his published works include: George Rogers Clark (1927), A. Lincoln (1930), LaSalle (1931), The Old Fauntleroy Home (1939), and Labyrinth (1941), Theodore F. Thieme (1942). His The Story of Indiana (1951) was primarily used as a text in Indiana at the junior high school level.
The historian also wrote about Johnny Appleseed, the Underground Railroad, and Indiana’s trails, rivers, and canals. Another extended work, which continues to aid transportation history researchers, is Historic Hoosier Roadside Sites, commissioned in 1938 by the Indiana State Highway Association. He worked tirelessly to mark the state’s landscape with monuments and markers, preserve records, and execute historical pageants. His clear and concise writing style has added to Hoosier’s knowledge of their past.
According to Larry Lockridge, his grandfather “didn’t exactly whitewash history,” but he “certainly edited it. He attempted to bind people to their own local history through heroic narrative.” After the tragic drowning of Ross Sr.’s 5-year-old son, Bruce, in Fort Wayne, his dedication to historical work intensified. Larry contends:
“Preaching history as resurrection of the worthy dead was his idealistic, nonmetaphysical challenge to time and mortality, grounded in the tragedies of his own life and the pettiness of the contemporary scene.”
Ross Jr. assisted his father with historical projects, but according to Larry was “not his father’s puppet at such performances” and “never approached his father’s ease of performance and lack of self-consciousness.”
Ross Jr. was born in Bloomington, Indiana and moved to Fort Wayne. When he was 9-years-old the family returned to Bloomington and his literary dreams took root.
According to an Indiana Public Media article (IPM), Junior attended Indiana University, where he was known as “A+ Lockridge,” graduating with the highest GPA ever awarded by the school (4.33). Scarlet fever precluded his plan to join IU’s English Department, leaving him bedridden for eight months. He was later accepted as at doctoral student at Harvard University, where he began his famed novel.
According to an Altered Books Arts article, he withdrew from his studies and taught at a nearby college, so he could focus on his literary magnum opus. The IPM article reports that he studied abroad in Europe in 1934, where he “first had the vision of writing a novel that would draw upon the would-be literary heritage of his maternal grandfather, a schoolteacher and poet who had lived in Indiana’s Henry County.” This evolved into the character of John Shawnessy, who after losing his wife went on to fight in the Civil War, attempted to write the Great American Novel, and ended up in the fictional Raintree County.
Although Johnny had his successes, the character flashed back in memory wondering about the country’s future. He is influenced by several cultural concepts, one of which is to find the legendary Rain Tree, supposedly planted somewhere in the Raintree County by the celebrated Johnny Appleseed, who is buried in Allen County. The tree Lockridge sought to feature is based on a real Golden Rain Tree, which blooms in the summer with subtle yellow flowers that drop like a raining of yellow pollen dust.
In addition to Allen County, Monroe County is represented in the book. Larry noted, “We have county fairs and patriotic programs and outdoor sex and footraces and weddings and temperance dramas and rough talk . . . all of this he picked up in the culture of Bloomington” (IPM). Ross Jr.’s wife, Vernice, did the final typing of the novel, an 18 month endeavor and, unlike many writers, her husband gave her full credit for her help in constructing the 1060-page novel.
Altered Books Arts summarizes the novel’s themes, stating:
“In the course of its thousand pages philosophy, religion, sex, and history all flow together in a narrative that spans 40 years, recollected in a single day. In some ways it is an Indiana Ulysses, though Lockridge said that whereas Joyce wished to make the simple obscured, he wished to make the obscure simple. When it came out Thomas Wolfe and Walt Whitman were frequently cited for comparison, but it seems closer to in technique and feeling to the panoramic narrative of John Dos Passos’ U.S.A.“
Ross Jr.’s labor of love was met with much anticipation from his publisher, Houghton Mifflin. However, in order to win MGM’s high-profile contest for best new literary work, an award of $150,000, he was pressured to revise and cut several sections from his masterpiece. His likely selection as Book of the Month club winner, meant that he had to make many more extensive cuts. He conceded reluctantly and worked tirelessly to trim it for publication. His publisher Dorothy Hillyer wrote “Ross was quite capable of fussing eighteen hours a day over that manuscript. He was in love with it, almost sexually.” (He ended up cutting out a 356-page dream sequence, which is retained at Bloomington’s Lilly Library).
These compromises, the killing of his darlings, so to speak, and the completion of his life’s work plunged him into a deep depression. Despite generally rave reviews about the novel and winning MGM’s literary award, Lockridge’s depression worsened and he returned to Bloomington. His son regarded this as a mistake, “not because of Bloomington’s particular atmosphere but because it felt to him as if he had come full circle. . . . It was the symmetry of fate that he was returning home to die.”
Larry noted that his father began exhibiting bizarre behavior, inspecting knives in the kitchen and opening and closing cupboards, claiming he was “looking for a way out.” Public backlash about the book’s sexuality and irreverence, especially by his Bloomington neighbors, made him doubt the quality of his work and worsened his fragile state. (According to IPM, the publication of his neighbor Alfred Kinsey‘s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male promoted Lockridge to quip “It seems Mr. Kinsey and I have succeeded in making Bloomington the sex center of the universe”).
Ross Jr.’s father hoped to combat his son’s malaise with recitation, the memorization of the Declaration of Independence, hearkening back to their old historical endeavors. Ross Jr. reluctantly entertained his mother’s Christian Science ministrations, but remained in a debilitated state. Ross Jr. was not alone in his distress; his cousin Mary Jane Ward suffered from mental illness, which she depicted in her successful autobiographical novel The Snake Pit.
Witnessing her husband’s ongoing suffering, Vernice convinced him to seek treatment at Indianapolis’s Methodist Hospital, where he underwent electroshock convulsive therapy and insulin-induced coma. Further distressed and embarrassed by the procedures, he gave staff the impression he had recovered and was released.
According to Larry, his father tried to write a second novel, a “thinly disguised autobiography, from Fort Wayne days to the present.” He had planned to begin the story with his young brother’s tragic death and,
“the tranquil Avenue of Elms, Creighton Avenue in Fort Wayne, whose backdrop was the Great War. It is in this city that his brother Bruce drowns, that his house catches fire, that there is a great strike at the mill, that he falls in love with Alicia Carpenter, that he decides to become a writer, and that through ‘the brutality of fate’ his personality is set by the age of ten.”
He was never able to finish a second novel. On March 6, 1948, the day after Raintree County was declared a number one best seller, Ross Lockridge, Jr. took his own life at age 33 in Bloomington. Unable to locate her husband, Vernice went out to their garage. There she discovered his limp body in the running car, a vacuum cleaner hose piping exhaust into the car. The death of the new literary star stunned the nation, attracting over 2,000 to his funeral and prompting an obituary on the front page of the New York Times.
In 1957, MGM produced a big screen depiction of Raintree County, featuring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Eva Marie Saint.
Weeks after the death, Vernice found a note written by her husband, stating “‘Dearest, Have gone for early morning walk to clear head. Love, Ross.” On the back side he wrote:
“The purpose of Raintree County is to present life in its many-sided variety with idealism triumphant. An irreverent character in a book does not mean an irreverent book. In any event it is an old and good rule that every reader is entitled to his own opinion of a book.”
Surviving the death of a second son, Ross Sr. passed away a few years later in 1952.
Tracking down a portrait of Jennie C. Ralston, wife of Indiana Governor Samuel Ralston, was our most pressing challenge last week. The problem? It appeared as though no one had actually seen the painting since 1970. When we got a call from Jennie’s great-great granddaughter, who thought the portrait had been donated to the Indiana State Library, we were honored to help track it down.
Though most well-known as wife of Indiana Governor Samuel Ralston, Jennie was a civic leader in Indiana in her own right. Born on November 15, 1861 on a farm near Danville, Indiana, she met Samuel while attending Central Normal College in Danville. She graduated in 1881. The two married in 1889 and lived on a farm near Lebanon, Indiana. Throughout her life, she participated in numerous clubs, often holding leadership roles. A few of her positions included President of the Pioneer Woman’s Memorial Association, in which she helped organize the Parent-Teachers’ Association, Trustee of the Indiana Girls School, and Vice-President of the Indiana Federation of Clubs. She was also a member of the Democratic National Committee from 1934 until she retired on her 91st birthday in 1953.
The first place we looked for Jennie’s portrait was the Indiana Governors’ Portrait collection, managed by the Indiana State Library and the Indiana State Museum. The collection contains portraits of all of Indiana’s
governors (except for one) since Indiana became a territory. The state museum makes sure every newly elected governor has their portrait painted and added to the collection. Most of the paintings are currently on display in the State House or in government offices.
However, no records indicated that Jennie’s portrait came with her husband’s to the Indiana Governors’ Portrait Collection. We contacted nearly every other major archive and museum in Indianapolis and no one seemed to have record Jennie’s portrait in their collection or knew where it currently was.
Next, we scoured books and digital publications for reprints or references of Jennie’s portrait, with the hope that a citation might lead to a repository that currently owned the painting. After searching through several books from First Ladies of Indiana and the Governors to Portraits and Painters of the Governors of Indiana, there was still no trace of the portrait. Without paperwork, the name of the artist who completed the portrait, or even an image of the painting itself, it seemed difficult to know where else to look. However, there was one source left to check.
Perhaps one of the best places to find information at the Indiana State Library is the trusty clippings files, collected in the 1920s and having grown to nearly 250 linear feet since then. The library maintains a vertical file of clippings from newspaper and magazine articles, pamphlets, and various publications on a number of Indiana topics for public perusal. There are folders dedicated to broad subjects, such as women or health, and others for specific individuals, events, places, and organizations.
Luckily, Samuel and Jennie Ralston had a folder dedicated to them in the biography section of the clippings files. Ironically, the first clipping in the folder was a small captioned photo cut from the Indianapolis Star, dated May 22, 1956. The photo showed the portrait of Jennie Ralston presented at the Sycamore Hall girls’ dormitory in Indiana University-Bloomington. Apparently, Jennie’s brother John Cravens, worked at the university as a registrar for many years.
Eventually, we connected with the Campus Art Collection at Indiana University. After sending a scan of the article, Amy Patterson, Campus Art Collection Manager and Registrar at Indiana University told us Jennie’s portrait was indeed in their collection. SUCCESS!
The portrait is currently in storage to undergo restoration and will be rehung next summer. Moral of the story; always check the ISL Clippings Files. You never know what you’ll find in there.
Legendary baseball player George “Babe” Ruth graced Fort Wayne with his presence during a personal visit on October 26, 1926. After putting on a show during at practice, he joined the Fort Wayne Lincoln Lifers, a semiprofessional team sponsored by Lincoln National Life Insurance Co., in a game against a very good Kips team. Ruth proceeded to put on a demonstration by playing every position except catcher. He topped the game off by hitting two balls out of the park. With the Bambino in their arsenal, the Lifers won 11 to 1.
Ruth returned to the Indiana town on May 6, 1927 with the New York Yankees to play an exhibition game against the Lifers. In his Fort Wayne Sports History, Blake Sebring wrote that the Yankees, who were in first place in the league, made the stop on their way to take on Chicago. The game took place at League Park, now called Headwaters Park, located between Calhoun and Clinton streets. A wooden structure was erected at the park in 1883. Rebuilt several times, the place received a major overhaul in 1908 with new grandstands and a grass infield. After the damage caused by the Great Flood of 1913, additional restoration was required. It was readied as a host park for semi-pro Central League teams, including the Lifers when they moved up to a minor league status.
That 1927 exhibition season, League Park’s grandstand was filled with more than 3,000 fans, occupying all sitting and standing room. Enthusiastic Fort Wayne fans streamed in, eager to witness high drama from Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and the other Yankee legends. The fans were not disappointed, as they sensed Babe’s charge into the annals of American history.
The regulation 9 innings were played. The Lifers held the Yankees to a 3–3 tie in the 10th, with two out and a runner on first when “The Sultan of Swat,” another of Ruth’s appellations, came to the plate. He took two strikes and then in classic style belted the next pitch over the center field wall, landing on the roof of one of the city utility barns across Clinton Street. The hit enable the Yankees to defeat the Lifers 5-3. The stands emptied and adoring fans mobbed Babe.
It has been said that the Bambino often referred to that blow as possibly the hardest hit ball of his career. According to John Ankenbruck, after citing the official long hits by Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle, one sportswriter declared that, Ruth hit a longer one in Fort Wayne, according to the Bambino’s version.
After the 1927 season, Ruth went on a barn storming tour, playing again at League Park. He belted a ball over the left-centerfield fence and claimed that the ball landed in a freight car that was passing the park at the time. Local baseball historians are quick to note that, if true, the ball would have had to clear the fence then make a right angle, travel another 600 feet to land on the railroad tracks. Even so, 1927 was a banner year for Fort Wayne baseball and Babe Ruth was on hand to help make it a big hit.
Wired magazine aptly noted “Inebriation is apparently a subject of some interest in Indiana.” Indeed, one of the greatest deterrents against drunk driving has roots with Indiana University School of Medicine’s professor Dr. Rolla N. Harger. The professor taught biochemistry and toxicology from 1922-1960 and headed the school’s department of biochemistry and pharmacology from 1933-1956. Harger began developing the first successful breath-testing instrument in the 1930s, descriptively dubbing it the Drunkometer. Although a somewhat bulky device, it proved innovative in the rapid detection of alcohol consumption. After subjects breathed into a balloon, a chemical solution was applied to the air, darkening in color according to the amount of alcohol detected.
Wired elaborated that:
From there, the level of alcohol in the person’s bloodstream was estimated using a mathematical formula, which Harger also developed. As he pushed for his patent, Harger also pushed to outlaw drunk driving, which, in the wake of Prohibition’s end, was becoming more than a nuisance.
Harger’s Drunkometer was patented in 1936 and Indianapolis police successfully tested the device on New Years Eve of 1938. Harger’s crusade against inebriated drivers didn’t end there. He served as a member of a subcommittee of the National Safety Council that drafted an act to use chemical tests as evidence of impaired driving. The subcommittee also established limits for motorist alcohol consumption, which went into effect nationally.
Harger’s invention was foundational to the Breathalyzer, invented by Hoosier Robert F. Borkenstein. Born on August 31, 1912, Borkenstein grew up in Fort Wayne. He entered the work force as a photographic technician. During the early 1930s he developed a color printing process, which was received favorably by the commercial market.
In 1936, Borkenstein took a position with the Indiana State Police and became involved with the early research and development of lie detector technology. Eventually this work led to his being named captain and head of laboratory services. It was then that he noticed the importance of the Drunkometer technology, but also recognized the difficulty in operating it effectively in the field.
Borkenstein enrolled at IU and began his collaboration with Dr. Harger in advancing the Drunkometer. By 1954, Borkenstein independently invented a more practical, user-friendly means of detecting Blood Alcohol Content (BAC), now known as the Breathalyzer. His ingenuity served him well and when he had earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1958 from IU, Borkenstein was named a professor in the school’s Department of Forensic Studies that same year. When IU formed its department of Police Administration he was named its chairman.
The Breathalyzer revolutionized law enforcement’s efforts to measure alcohol in the blood when investigating an accident and suspecting drink as the culprit. By exhaling, breath alcohol vapors can be proportionally measured. The Breathalyzer instrument can calculate the proportion of alcohol in the blood.
When Borkenstein was elected to the National Safety Council’s Safety and Health Hall of Fame International in 1988, the Council noted that,
“This technological innovation enabled traffic enforcement authorities to determine and quantify blood alcohol concentrations with sufficient accuracy to meet the demands of legal evidence.”
Borkenstein continued to invent devices that could combat drunk driving by determining BAC. According to an IU Archives blog post, in 1970 he “introduced a coin-operated Breathalyzer that could be installed in cocktail lounges. For 25 cents, a person could blow into a straw that popped out of the machine.” Depending on the BAC, the machine would provide users with the messages: “Be a safe driver,” “Be a good walker,” or “You’re a passenger.”
Borkenstein devoted his life’s work to prohibiting drunk driving, serving president of the Academy of Criminal Justice Services, as well as the International Committee on Alcohol, Drugs and Traffic Safety and consultant to the President’s Task Force on Highway Safety. He supervised a 1981 liquor sturdy which revealed that driving with less than two ounces of alcohol prove less dangerous than a driver who abstained. The study concluded that a little alcohol could possibly assist a driver by relaxing him behind the wheel.
Borkenstein retired from IU professorship in the late 1980s. According to the Chicago Tribune, he “helped launch a class on alcohol and highway safety that became a requirement for law-enforcement personnel and forensic specialists in many jurisdictions. The university calls it the Borkenstein Course.” Despite his 1981 study, Borkenstein advocated abstinence of any drink prior to driving, before he died in Bloomington on August 15, 2002.
Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) remains one of the most influential leaders and intellectuals in “The Golden Age of Freethought” in the United States from the 1870s to the 1910s. Its adherents advocated for skepticism, science, and the separation of church and state. Ingersoll, a Civil War veteran, parlayed his success as a lawyer into an influential career in Republican politics, social activism, and oratory. Ingersoll served as a counterpoint to rising participation and influence in government of religion in the United States, delivering speeches to sell-out crowds that decried religiosity and its public entanglements. Ingersoll was also an early champion of women’s rights, influencing such early feminists as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and later ones such as Margaret Sanger.
He also spent considerable time and energy in Indiana, a state whose own religious diversity towards the late nineteenth century expanded, including German Lutherans to Catholics and other protestant denominations. From giving lectures throughout the state to influencing some of Indiana’s well-known historic figures, Ingersoll left a profound impact on the state and its development during the Gilded Age. As an example, Ingersoll delivered lectures at the illustrious English’s Opera House several times. The Indianapolis News wrote in 1899 that his lecture on “Superstition” was well attended and that “several people were shocked by the lecturer’s utterances, and left, some of them stopping in the lobby to ‘talk it over.’ The remainder seemed to enjoy the walk.”
To get a further sense of this influence, one particular story bears recalling, which involved a train ride with an old Civil War colleague. Lew Wallace, Indiana native, Civil War general, and the author of the novel Ben-Hur, cited Ingersoll as his influence in writing the Christian epic. As Wallace biographers Robert and Katharine Morsberger noted, Wallace “had written the story [Ben-Hur] partly to refute Robert G. Ingersoll’s agnosticism. . . .” The story surrounding this influence is near apocryphal to scholars of both Ingersoll and Wallace. However, Wallace intimated the story’s veracity in the preface to a selection from Ben-Hur entitled The First Christmas.
On September 19, 1876, both Wallace and Ingersoll supposedly shared a train ride to Indianapolis to attend a Civil War soldiers’ reunion (although one of Wallace’s accounts says it was a Republican convention); both men served the Union Army during the Civil War and fought at the battle of Shiloh. Wallace recounted the highlights of their conversation in his preface to The First Christmas:
[I] took a sleeper [car] from Crawfordsville the evening before the meeting. Moving slowly down the aisle of the car, talking with some friends, I passed the state-room. There was a knock on the door from the inside, and some one [sic] called my name. Upon answer, the door opened, and I saw Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll looking comfortable as might be considering the sultry weather.
Ingersoll invited Wallace to join him in conversation. Wallace accepted on the condition that he could dictate the subject. From there, Wallace asked Ingersoll if he believed in the afterlife, the divinity of Christ, and the existence of God, with the “Great Agnostic” answering in the resounding, “I don’t know, do you?” Then, Wallace asked Ingersoll to present his best case against the doctrines of Christianity, which Ingersoll did with such “a melody of argument, eloquence, wit, satire, audacity, irreverence, poetry, brilliant antitheses, and pungent excoriation [concerning] believers in God. . . .” Ingersoll’s views of both theological and biblical skepticism shook Wallace to the core, with the latter remarking that, “I was in a confusion of mind unlike dazement.”
Lew Wallace’s own theological confusion, what he called “absolute indifference,” seemed spurred into action by Ingersoll’s words: “. . . as I walked into the cool darkness, I was aroused for the first time in my life to the importance of religion.” Thus, Wallace began his own investigation into the doctrines and traditions of Christianity, culminating in the authorship of Ben-Hur and a “conviction amounting to absolute belief in God and the divinity of Christ.” This story found its way into newspapers as well, with reporters recounting the meeting in the Terre Haute Sunday Evening Mailand the Indianapolis News. According to Wallace’s accounts and its echoes in newspapers, his evening with Ingersoll led to a full conversion to Christianity and the writing of one of the most successful religious novels of the period.
Wallace’s conversation with Ingersoll spurring him on to a religious awakening is indeed a compelling story. However, a recently uncovered letter from Ingersoll gives cause to question the tale’s veracity. In 1887, seven years after Ben-Hur‘s publication, Ingersoll responded to a correspondent, Joseph Vardamann, asking about his role in inspiring Wallace’s novel. Ingersoll wrote that he was “never well acquainted with” Wallace and did “not remember ever to have had a conversation with him on the subject of religion.” Ingersoll stressed that the story of their meeting on the train appeared to him as “without the slightest foundation.”
For Wallace’s part in creating Ben-Hur, we know from documentary evidence that he was already well-advanced in writing the novel before the time he claimed the interaction with Ingersoll took place. In 1874, Wallace wrote in a letter to his half-sister, “I have just come out of the court room, and business is over for the day. Now, for home, and a Jewish boy whom I have got into terrible trouble, and must get out of it as best I can.” This letter clearly alludes to some of Judah Ben-Hur’s trials, whether being charged with the assassination of Valerius Gratus, being enslaved in a Roman galley, or surviving the sea battle.
While Wallace’s recollections with the “Great Agnostic” may have been a fiction, the story’s enduring popularity among Wallace scholars nevertheless speaks to Ingersoll’s intellectual and rhetorical power. The story of their supposed train ride in 1876 continues to interest scholars and the general public, but whether the event actually happened may be lost to history.
Prior to the Civil War, Indiana experienced a swell in its African American population due to the migration of free persons of color from other states. The arrival of recently emancipated people and freedom seekers also contributed to the growth in Indiana’s black population. As population increased, so did discrimination against African Americans. The Indiana General Assembly passed laws requiring African Americans to register with county authorities and pay a bond as guarantee of good behavior. They were also prohibited from voting, serving in the state militia, testifying in court cases against white persons, and their children were banned from attending public schools.
Land ownership offered African Americans the opportunity to circumvent this oppression. James Overall, a free black man, purchased land in Corydon, Indiana as early as 1817 before moving and acquiring land in Indianapolis in 1830. The ownership of land afforded him prominence in his community, as did his work as a trustee for the African Methodist Episcopal church.
Overall was also notable for his efforts to aid escaping slaves. One such slave from Tennessee, Jermain Loguen, was told to seek the help of “Mr. Overrals of Indianapolis.” After escaping slavery, Loguen became a well-known New York Underground Railroad activist. He described Overall as “an educated man, and had a large character and acquaintance among colored people; and was much respected by white ones, for his probity, industry and good sense. He received and befriended the fugitives, as was his custom with all other who came to him.”
Indianapolis in the 1830s was a violent place, as described by early Indianapolis historian Ignatius Brown:
The work on the National road . . . had attracted many men of bad character and habits to this point. These, banded together under a leader of great size and strength, were long known as ‘the chain gang,’ and kept the town in a half subjugated state. Assaults were often committed, citizens threatened and insulted, and petty outrages perpetrated.
The events of the night of March 18, 1836 reflected the tense atmosphere. According to Overall, David Leach and other members of a white gang came to Overall’s door carrying arms and fence rails, trying to break into the home and threatening to kill Overall and his family. Overall defended his property and family by shooting the white gang member. White allies came to Overall’s aid and his testimony was corroborated by prominent white Indianapolis citizen Calvin Fletcher.
Despite an 1831 Indiana law that barred black testimony against whites in court, Overall sought legal protection from further attack. His affidavit of the attack put Leach in jail for a short time. He was released on bond, pending a hearing in Marion County Circuit Court. On the first day of the Term, May 2, 1836, Overall declined to proceed with his complaint against Leach. However, public outcry about whether Overall, a black man, could “make an oath against Leach, a white man,” prompted Marion County Circuit Court Judge William W. Wick to write a lengthy statement that was printed May 7, 1836 on the front page of the Indianapolis Journal.
The judge’s opinion affirmed Overall’s “natural rights” to defend his family and property from attack. He wrote:
The sages who formed our constitution did not leave those rights undefined. On the contrary they have declared them in language so clear as to set at defiance the mystification of sophistry, and all perversions, but the blind misapprehensions of visionary philosophy, stupid bigotry, or mistaken violence. The rights thus secured are, 1st. The defence of life and liberty. 2d. The acquisition, possession and protection of property; and 3d. The pursuit and obtention of happiness and safety.
However, Judge Wick’s interpretation of an Indiana law in 1836 did not affect any change in the actual law. African Americans in Indiana continued to be without legal recourse in causes where only black testimony was available against a white party.
*This post is based on research conducted by IHB historian Dani Pfaff for a historical marker commemorating Overall, and can be found here.
George Washington Julian was a radical political leader defined by his strong moral convictions. During a period marked by slavery, Civil War, monopolies, and discrimination against African Americans, immigrants, and women, Julian tirelessly advocated for abolition, equal rights, and land reform. He served as a U.S. representative from 1849-1851, served as an attorney in several fugitive slave cases in the 1850s (one which included a daring escape plan), ran for vice president on the Free Soil ticket in 1852, and again served as a U.S. representative 1861-1871.
Julian was born 1817 in Centerville (then called Centreville), Indiana. He resided there for most of his life and maintained a law practice. Julian was admitted to the Indiana bar in 1840 and practiced law when not serving in Congress. Julian worked within the legal system and various political parties to achieve goals shaped by his moral convictions. His commitment to abolition and equal rights (including equality in land distribution) remained remarkably consistent for over fifty years. In order to pursue reform in those areas, Julian often changed political parties, working with whichever party would advance these goals. He explained his position repeatedly throughout his career in his letters, articles, and speeches, including a description of his conversion to these causes in the Unitarian Review. In 1853 he wrote to fellow abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison, “you will not be blinded or disheartened by the irregular ebb and flow of political currents, or by facts which drift about upon their surface, but you will penetrate beneath it, to those great moral tides, which underlie, and heave onward, the political, the religious, and the whole framework of society.” While he modified arguments and approaches he never wavered from working toward equality. In the introduction to a collection of his Speeches on Political Questions, he wrote that “while in a few instances opinions are advanced which have since been modified, my constant and inspiring aim was to declare what I believed to be the truth.” An examination of the table of contents to this collection of speeches shows that he constantly and consistently addressed abolition, equal rights, and land reforms, in Congress and throughout the country. Looking back on his career to 1884, Julian wrote in his Political Recollections, “My triumph had no taint of compromise in it.”
United State House of Representatives, Thirty-First Congress
Julian took office in 1849 as U.S. Representative of the Fourth Indiana Congressional District, a largely Quaker and antislavery area based around Wayne County referred to as the “Burnt District.” Julian was a Free Soil Party leader, a single-issue party dedicated to opposing slavery extension, and later the institution of slavery itself. During his term, he supported legislation providing for abolition and equal access to public lands.
Julian gave several speeches in Congress advocating for the end of slavery and the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act. His most poignant speech was likely “The Slavery Question” which he delivered to the House in 1850. He also frequently presented petitions from abolitionist citizens of states across the county where he spoke or attended meetings. In 1851, he presented petitions from citizens of Massachusetts for the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act. Julian also presented a petition from Indiana Quakers “against the existence of slavery generally and particularly against the Fugitive Slave Law.” Julian then requested that the committee to which the petition was referred “report a bill for the repeal of the fugitive slave law.”
In 1851, Julian spoke to Congress about why he supported the Homestead Bill, which would distribute public land in limited quantities freely to settlers who would live on and improve their plot, or “homestead.” Julian argued that all people had an “inalienable” and “natural right” to make a home from the soil. He argued against the contemporary practice of providing large grants to companies and speculators who then required that people work for and rent from them. He referred to land monopolies in the North as “white slavery.” He used the opportunity to make a strong argument against slavery as well. He argued in front of Congress that the vast plantations of rich slave owners were not as productive as they would be if they were broken into plots held by individual owners. Julian said:
“The freedom of the public lands is therefore an anti-slavery measure. It will weaken the slave power by lending the official sanction of the government to the natural right of man, as man, to a home upon the soil, and of course to the fruits of his own labor. It will weaken the system of chattel slavery, by making war upon its kindred system of wage slavery, giving homes and employment to its victims, and equalizing the condition of the people.”
The bill failed in both the House and the Senate. According to historian James L. Roark’s 1968 article in the Indiana Magazine of History, Julian’s abolition argument may have hurt the bill’s chances of passing. Eleven years later however, after Julian’s return to Congress, the Homestead Act was passed.
Nomination for Vice-Presidency, 1852
The 1852 presidential election was mainly a contest between Whig candidate General Winfield Scott and Democratic candidate Franklin Pierce. The Free Soil Party, however was the strongest third party in the running, ahead of the Know-Nothings, Union, and Southern Rights parties. The Free Soil Party named founding member Senator John P. Hale of New Hampshire as their candidate and chose George Washington Julian as his running mate. The Free Soilers had little hope of winning. Most people were tired of the agitation around slavery issues and were satisfied by the Compromise of 1850, which temporarily neutralized the problem for many. However, for those morally opposed to slavery, a compromise was unthinkable and so they continued their political agitation for free soil. Wanting to maintain unity for the Union, most people voted for those candidates who supported the Compromise. The Hale-Julian ticket received only 155,825 votes out of over three million cast and no electoral votes. However, the Free Soil Party leaders, including Julian, went on to become essential in the establishment of the new Republican Party only two years later. After the loss, Julian returned to his law practice.
Fugitive Slave Cases
In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act , which not only prohibited Hoosiers from aiding escaping slaves but required them to return self-emancipated African Americans to their enslavers. Many opposed the law and challenged it in the courts. In the 1850s, Julian acted as a lawyer both for African Americans who were claimed as slaves and for those white Hoosiers who had helped slaves escape. According to Julian biographer Patrick W. Riddleberger, “after 1850 a lawyer in any of the states lying on the north shore of the Ohio River could, if he were so inclined, devote some of his practice to fugitive slave cases.”
In December 1854, Julian and E. H. Brackett acted as defense attorneys in a case against Benjamin Waterhouse, who was accused of harboring fugitive slaves named Tom and Jim. Tom and Jim allegedly escaped from Kentucky slave master Daniel Payne and travelled through Indiana to Canada. Waterhouse was found guilty of harboring the men while in Indiana. The law provided for a much harsher penalty, but due to Julian and Brackett’s efforts, Waterhouse served only one hour in prison and paid a $50 fine – a small success for those working to defeat the Fugitive Slave Act.
In December 1857, Julian served as an attorney in a complex set of related cases challenging the Fugitive Slave Act on behalf of an African American man, likely named West. A Kentucky slaveholder named Austin Vallandingham claimed that West was his slave and that he had escaped into Illinois. Vallandingham sent a slavecatcher to apprehend West. When the slavecatcher took West from Illinois, intending to bring him to Kentucky, they passed through Indianapolis. This gave Julian and other abolitionist lawyers an opportunity to challenge the Fugitive Slave Act and possibly aid West. The abolitionists tried several different tactics, and were involved in trials at the local and federal levels. They began by charging Vallandingham with kidnapping a free man. Indianapolis Judge William Wallace released West but he was immediately arrested by a U.S. marshal on charges from Vallandingham of being an escaped slave. Julian and other abolitionists now acted as West’s defense in a trial before U.S. Commissioner John H. Rea. Vallandingham was unable to provide official documentation of ownership and gave inconsistent testimony and evidence throughout the trial. Strangely, in an attempt to prove that West was indeed his slave, Vallandingham testified that he had cut off one of West’s finger joints — but West had no such injury. Among other tactics, the defense tried to delay the case, cited the Dred Scott Case, and argued that by bringing West into Indiana, where slavery was illegal, Vallandingham had unwittingly freed West. Despite their best efforts, the abolitionists were unable to help West. In his Political Recollections, Julian wrote, “After allowing secondary proof where the highest was attainable, and permitting hearsay evidence and mere rumor, the Commissioner [Rea] granted his certificate for the removal of the adjudged fugitive…” When the case was brought again to Judge Wallace, Julian explained that “under cover of an infamous law, and by the help of truculent officials, he [West] was remanded into slavery.”
When all hope of a fair outcome was lost, Julian and others sympathetic to West, attempted to plan his escape. Julian recalled:
“The counsel for the negro, with a dozen or more who joined them, resolved upon one further effort to save him. The project was that two or three men selected for the purpose were to ask of the jailer the privilege of seeing him the next morning and giving him goodbye; and while one of the party engaged the jailer in conversation, the negro was to make for the door, mount a horse hitched near by, and effect his escape… unfortunately [he] mounted the wrong horse…and when he saw the jailer in pursuit, and heard the report of his revolver, he surrendered, and was at once escorted South… This is the only felony in which I was ever involved, but none of the parties has any disposition whatever to confess it at the time.”
United State House of Representatives, Thirty-Seventh through Forty-First Congress
In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act which repealed the Missouri Compromise and allowed slavery into the U.S. Territories. The bill was sponsored by Illinois Democratic Senator Stephen Douglass and supported and signed into law by Democratic President Franklin Pierce. Opposition to the Democratic administration and especially the extension of slavery united various disparate political groups into a new party –called the Republican Party nationally, but called the People’s Party in Indiana. In 1854, the young Indiana party was more conservative than the national Republican Party. The People’s Party resisted adopting the name “Republican” because of its association with the eastern abolition movement that many Hoosiers saw as too radical. Henry S. Lane was essential in organizing the People’s Party in Indiana. Lane’s influence over the older Whigs brought most into the People’s Party, while abolitionists joined because of the anti-Kansas-Nebraska Act platform. A dynamic and popular speaker, Lane also helped to convince many Democrats and Know-Nothings who were opposed to slavery extension to join the People’s Party. With the goal of bringing as many people to the new party as possible, leaders maintained a moderate position in the 1850s, publicaly speaking against only the extension of slavery, not advocating for its abolition. Julian, however, was considered a Radical Republican as he opposed the institution itself and called for abolition.
In Indiana and nationally, many Republican leaders catered to the Know-Nothing members, but Julian vehemently opposed the nativist, xenophobic party. Julian believed that immigrants made the country stronger. In an 1855 speech delivered in Indianapolis, Julian said of immigrants:
“Let them come. Trodden down by kingly power, and hungering and thirsting after the righteousness of our free institutions, let them have a welcome on these shores. Their motive is a very natural and at the same time honorable one, — that of bettering their lot. They prefer our country and its government to every other. . . To proscribe him on account of his birthplace is mean and cowardly as to proscribe him for his religious faith or color of his skin. It is the rankest injustice, the most downright inhumanity”
Julian served as a delegate to the 1856 Republican National Convention, the first for the newly organized party. In 1860, Julian was again elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, this time as a Republican. The Goshen (Indiana) Times reported that Julian was elected by a “nearly 6,000 majority” and called him “one of the ablest men in the State.” Other newspapers complained that he was too radically abolitionist and would cause discord in the tentatively united and relatively new Republican Party where many were adamantly anti-African American despite being anti-slavery. Julian arrived in Washington D.C. February 1861, in time for the secession crisis. He opposed compromise measures that would have sacrificed the abolitionist cause to avoid secession. Julian disagreed with abolitionists who would have let the south secede, abandoning four million people into slavery.
During the Civil War, Julian served on the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War which investigated management of the war and encouraged emancipation and employment of African Americans, first as laborers, and later also as soldiers, as means of winning the war. In an 1862 congressional speech, Julian argued: “In the battles of the Revolution, and in the War of 1812, slaves and free men of color fought with a valor unexcelled by white men. Are we afraid that a like honor to the colored man would be repeated, and thus testify against his enslavement?”
Throughout the Civil War, he worked to make clear that slavery was the cause of the war and that only complete freedom for all people would justify the losses caused by that war. In an 1862 speech to Congress printed in the Liberty (Indiana) Weekly Herald, Julian stated:
“Sir, the people of the loyal states understand . . . They know that slavery lies at the bottom of all our troubles. They know that but for this curse this horrid revolt against liberty and law would not have occurred. They know that all the unutterable agonies of our many battlefields, all the terrible sorrows which rend so many thousands of loving hearts, all the ravages and desolation of this stupendous conflict, are to be charged to slavery.”
According to Vernon Burton’s 2001 essay in A Companion to 19th Century America, “Despite the mountains of scholarship that has been produced, no consensus exists on the causes or consequences of the war, except that all serious historians credit slavery as its underlying root.” Julian and other Radical Republicans were ahead of their time in recognizing slavery as the main cause of unrest and war. Once abolition was achieved Julian worked toward rights for African Americans and women, especially that of suffrage. He also fought for the common person’s right to hold land, standing up to large railroad companies that were taking public lands for private use. However, he did see a shift in attitude in his own lifetime. Julian wrote in his Political Recollections, “step by step I saw my constituents march up to my position” and accept that ending slavery was essential to moving forward as a democratic nation.
Julian argued in Congress in support of the Homestead Act in 1862 as a measure to benefit the Union. By this time, land appropriation by railroads, capitalist groups, and speculators had increased and a more effective homestead measure was called for by Republicans. Julian spoke during the debate, advocating for homesteading as the best way to bring money to the Union and repay the nation’s debt to it’s soldiers, black and white. Lincoln signed the Homestead Act May 20, 1862. Julian stated that its passage was “a magnificent triumph of freedom and free labor over the slave power.”
Julian also supported the Second Confiscation Act of 1862 which would confiscate all property from rebels and redistribute it as homesteads for people who had aided the Union – including African American soldiers and laborers. He championed bringing homesteading to the South to break up the plantations, thus destroying both the aristocracy and the land monopolies. Julian furthered his ideas on abolition and land confiscation during a debate in Congress in 1862. He stated that the war was a fight to end slavery and demanded “instant, decisive, defiant action” to emancipate enslaved people (not just a proclamation of emancipation). His plan included: arming freedmen, confiscation of all rebel property, and redistribution of plantation land to freedmen. Redistribution of rebel lands to freedman became one of Julian’s main concerns during the war.
Julian was appointed Chairman of the Committee on Public Lands in December 1863. For the next eight years he used this office to work to combine abolition (later reconstruction) and land reform. Julian presented a sweeping land reform bill to Congress March of 1864, that would redistribute millions of acres of southern land to soldiers and freedmen, a repeal of the joint resolution of the previous year. Julian argued for homesteads for black soldiers in Congress:
“They have enlisted in the service of their country; they are enduring all the perils and hardships of war; they are helping by their valor achieve our victories and save the nation from impending destruction; they are to-day covering themselves with glory under General Grant, in driving back General Lee and his legions . . . Why would [one] . . . refuse to grant them, at the end of the war, a home on the land of their oppressors, who have enslaved their race for more than two hundred years, and at last sought both their lives and the life of the Republic?”
The bill narrowly passed the House May 12, 1864, but before it reached the Senate, the Attorney General ended confiscation. In 1866 Congress passed Julian’s Southern Homestead Bill which gave 50,000,000 acres of public land in the South to homesteaders.
In 1865, Julian argued for suffrage rights for southern blacks. In a speech to Congress, Julian advocated for “the immediate bestowal of the elective franchise on all loyal men of the South, irrespective of color.” According to the Union City (Indiana) Eagle, “Not alone from motive of philanthropy or of exclusive justice to the black man — by the aid of whose blood and toil the rebellion had ultimately prostrated — was this urged, but also from the consideration that the best interests of the entire country, and especially the salvation of the Sothern States, demanded it.” The Indiana State Sentinel reported that Julian made a speech in Muncie in which he said the people of Indiana will have to decide on negro suffrage, not Congress but that he “fully committed himself to the principle of universal suffrage.” While Julian believed in universal suffrage, he worked to achieve the vote for southern blacks first as it was more likely to be granted because northerners worried about southern leaders returning to power. Julian recalled this suffrage campaign in his Political Recollections:
“My task was an arduous one, but I found the people steadily yielding up their prejudices, and ready to lay hold of the truth when fairly and dispassionately presented… The question involved the welfare of both races … not merely the fate of the negro, but the safety of society. It was, moreover, a question of national honor and gratitude, from which no escape was morally possible. To leave the ballot in the hands of the ex-rebels, and withhold it from these helpless millions, would be to turn them over to the unhindered tyranny and misrule of their enemies…and making the condition of the freedmen more intolerable than slavery itself through local laws and police regulations.”
According to the House Journal and Congressional Globe, Julian proposed a constitutional amendment to Congress December 8, 1868 (H.R. 371). The bill was ordered to be printed, but does not appear with the other Bills and Resolutions of the 40th Congress. According to Julian’s Political Recollections, the amendment read: “the right of suffrage in the United States shall be based on citizenship, and shall be regulated by Congress… all citizens of the United States whether native or naturalized shall enjoy this right equally, without any distinction or discrimination whatever founded on race, color or sex.” After the resolution was voted down, Julian attempted to make further inroads for women’s suffrage by presenting more targeted bills, including House Resolution 1530 which would have given the women of the District of Columbia the right to vote, and House Resolution 1531 which would have provided women in the territories with the right to vote. He continued this tactic for the rest of his term in the House. According to the House Journal and the Congressional Globe, Julian introduced another resolution (H. R. 15) during the 41st Congress, First Session, proposing a constitutional amendment granting universal suffrage in the next Congress, which he modeled after the recently passed Fifteenth Amendment. Women were not granted the right to vote until Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.
Julian slowed the pace of his work only slightly after he left Congress in 1871. He moved from his long-time home in Centerville to Irvington (Marion County) in 1873. (Julian’s home in the Irvington Historic District still stands). By this time he had become disillusioned with the corruption of the Grant administration, and drifted from the Republican Party to a tentative commitment to the Liberal Republican movement which was working for civil service reform. Julian represented Indiana at the Liberal Republican Convention of 1872 where the other delegates put his name forward as a vice-presidential candidate, but he did not receive the nomination.
At the 1872 Democratic Convention, Julian’s name was put forward as a congressional candidate. While this may seem strange, there are several reason Julian would have been amenable to this proposal. Again, there was his dissatisfaction with the Republican Party, but also Julian had changed his views on southern Democrats drastically. While he called for their punishment immediately following the war, he now felt that the 14th and 15th Amendments had settled the war and the goal should be peace, amnesty, and unity. In many ways, he naively though that his work for equal rights for African Americans had been successful and accomplished. The Liberal Republicans were overwhelmingly defeated in 1872 and Julian moved further toward the Democratic Party. By 1876 he actively campaigned for the Democrats, while stressing his role as an independent voter and political parties as temporary organizations useful only as long as they work for specific goals. Still claiming his independence, Julian campaigned for the Democrats in 1880 and 1884. In 1885 Julian took public office for the last time in his life. President Grover Cleveland appointed him Surveyor General of New Mexico as a reward for his service to the party. He served until 1889, dealing mostly with land claims. In 1889 he moved back to Irvington where he lived relatively privately and quietly until his death in 1899. He is buried at Crown Hill Cemetery.
It is not unusual to hear people new to the Allen County, Indiana area mention that local history seems to be an exceptionally prominent topic. Some suggest that this is because northeast Indiana was the stage for much of the nation’s early history. It was through this county that a crossroads was shaped from natural formations that sent rivers flowing in each of the four corners of the compass.
From this point a traveler could move up the Saint Joseph River into Michigan or follow the Saint Mary’s River well into Ohio or head down the Maumee to the Eastern Great Lakes. To the west too, much of this history unfolded because of a short land barrier over which travelers could portage to the headwaters of the Wabash River. It led directly to the Mississippi Valley and to the heart of the continent. Militarily, whoever controlled this crossway of trails, and the rivers they followed, commanded one of North America’s critical sites in the wilderness era. Savage battles were witnessed in the region and resulted in the displacement of the indigenous American Indian peoples.
Popular history tells of battles such as those fought at Concord, Yorktown, and Gettysburg or developments such as the Wright Brothers’ first flight or Edison’s light. However, northeast Indiana’s region is filled with significant, untold stories founded by its unique location. The area is perhaps best described by Miami Chief Little Turtle in 1795 when he described the Three Rivers vicinity to General Anthony Wayne as “that glorious gate . . . through which all good words of our chief’s had to pass from north to south and from east to west.”
Historian Michael Hawfield once described this region:
“In later years, long after the wilderness had been tamed, transportation enterprises, financial corporations, and major manufacturing companies continued to be drawn to this crossroads in the heartland of the American marketplace and industry. Also, attracted to the crossroads were all those extraordinary and wonderfully ordinary individuals who conceived the inventions, made the components, drove the trolleys, designed the buildings, built the parks, and served in wars, put out the fires, developed the businesses, created the hospitals and much more.”
Signs of this lively heritage endure and represent a dynamic present and promising future, as summarized by Hawfield:
“There are churches of touching compassion and beautiful architecture full of meaning, and parks full of recreation, tradition, and natural beauty, and there are noble and curious monuments, the oldest buildings, and the grand homes of bygone magnates. These are the constant reminders of our origins, our challenges and our promise.”
When I started researching him, William Hayden English seemed like a pretty typical figure for the 19th century: Congressman, businessman, Vice-Presidential candidate. However, I soon realized how complicated his life and his politics really were.
English played a key role in the unrest in Kansas during the antebellum period, yet supported the Union during the Civil War (but was still antagonistic towards Lincoln’s presidency). A deal broker, English often chose the middle of the road. He was a conciliator, a compromiser, and a tactical politician who was a Pro-Union Democrat who held misgivings about both slave-sympathizers in the South and radical Republicans in the North. In more ways than one, he was truly a man apart.
William Hayden English was born on August 27, 1822. Early in his life, English received some formal education. According to a letter by E. D. McMaster from 1839, English received education in the “Preparatory and Scientific departments” of Hanover College. Additionally, he received accreditation to teach multiple subjects at common schools by examiners Samuel Rankin and John Addison. He would eventually leave school and pursue law, where he passed the bar in 1840.
His major break in politics came with his selection as the principal Secretary of the Indiana Constitutional Convention of 1850. During his time as Secretary, he earned the reputation as being a thoughtful and balanced tactician, someone who was willing to work with others and make things happen.
In his election speech, he stated his praise for the new Constitution and called for a full new legal code to be established. He additionally called for a “spirit of concession and compromise” and for his colleagues to “zealously apply himself to the completion of the great work intrusted [sic] to us by a generous constituency.” In effect, the Indiana House of Representatives under Speaker English had consolidated state government and extended its purview to neglected regions of the state.
After his time in state government, English was called for national service. He won his first election to the United States House of Representatives in 1852, and was reelected in 1854, 1856, and 1858. During his tenure in Congress, English would be remembered for his “wise and patriotic course in Congress,” notably his important role in crafting a controversial bill that gave Kansas the choice of whether to come into the Union as a free or slave state.
English’s time in Congress, much like the rest of his political career, can be seen as pragmatic. While he morally abhorred slavery, he condemned abolitionists and believed in the notion of “popular sovereignty,” which argued that the people of a state or territory should choose for themselves whether to have slavery. He stated his view in a speech in 1854:
Sir, I am a native of a free State [sic], and have no love for the institution of slavery. Aside from the moral question involved, I regard it as an injury to the State where it exists….But sir, I never can forget that we are a confederacy of States, possessing equal rights, under our glorious Constitution. That if the people of Kentucky believe the institution of slavery would be conducive to their happiness, they have the same right to establish and maintain that we of Indiana have to reject it; and this doctrine is just as applicable to States hereafter to be admitted as to those already in the Union.
During this session, Congress was debating a bill named the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would repeal the Missouri Compromise (also known as the Compromise of 1820) and allow for states and their citizens to decide whether they wanted to be admitted as a slave state or free state. English voted for the bill and it was later signed into law by President Franklin Pierce on May 30, 1854. Almost immediately, violence erupted between pro-slavery and anti-slavery advocates in the state, who could not agree on the direction of the state constitution.
After his reelection in 1856, English, along with congressional colleague Alexander Stephens, went to work on a compromise bill that would potentially quell the violence and political unrest. This compromise, known as the English Bill, allowed the citizens of Kansas to either accept or reject the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution. However, if the citizens of Kansas chose to be a slave state by referendum, they had to additionally let go of federal land grants within the territory.
The bill passed and the voters of Kansas did not reject the land grants, thus rejecting the Lecompton Constitution. Upon the Bill’s passage, English declared that, “The measure just passed ought to secure peace, and restore harmony among the different sections of the confederacy.” The Kansas issue would be not resolved until its admission to the Union as a free state in 1861. As he did in the Indiana House, English struck a compromise that hoped to quell the violence, using federal land grants as a way to take heat off the slavery issue.
While the English Bill attempted to stave off conflict within Kansas, the harmony among the nation was short lived. The growing tensions among pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions of the country were mounting, and English lamented this development in one of his final speeches to Congress. He chastised both the abolitionists and radical Republicans, who he believed had appealed to the “passions and prejudices of the northern people, for the sake of getting into office and accomplishing mere party ends.” To English, the cause of all this strife was the agitation of the slavery question and the solution would be to elect a Democrat President and ensure that the national discussion be reverted back to other issues of state. This did not happen; in the fall of 1860, voters chose Republican Abraham Lincoln and the first seven southern states seceded from the union.
By 1861, right as English was leaving Congress, the United States became engulfed in Civil War. While many within the national Democratic Party either defected to the Confederacy or took a tenuous position of support in the north, English was unequivocally for the Union. In an August 16, 1864 article in the Indiana Daily State Sentinel, the Committee of the Second Congressional District, under the chairmanship of English, wrote a platform that supported the Union and decried the act of secession. However, it did reserve criticism for President Lincoln, particularly with regards to supposed violations of freedom of speech. English’s pragmatic, even-handed political gesture fell in line with many of his past political actions.
After his time in Congress, he was the President of the First National Bank of Indianapolis for 14 years. He established the bank in 1863, taking advantage of the reestablished national banking system during the Civil War. According to historian Emma Lou Thornbrough, the First National Bank of Indianapolis became “the largest bank of Indianapolis, and one of the largest in the Middle West.” He is also listed as a “banker” in the 1870 Census and as a “capitalist” in the 1880 Census. By the time of his death in 1896, English had become one of the wealthiest men in Indiana.
English served as the President of the Indiana Historical Society, from 1886 until in his death ten years later. During his tenure, English wrote a two-volume history of the Northwest Territory and the life of George Rogers Clark. It was published in 1896, shortly after his death. An 1889 article in the Indianapolis Journal noted his compiling of sources and his emerging methodology; a two-volume general history that would be divided at the 1851 revised State Constitution. By 1895, the project materialized into the history mentioned above, with English using documents from leaders involved, such as Thomas Jefferson and Clark himself. He also conducted interviews with other key figures of the revised Indiana Constitution. English’s historical research became the standard account of the Northwest Territory for those within the Historical Society and the general public for many years.
His legacy in Indiana is lesser known, but he does have some monuments. A sculpture in the Indiana Statehouse commemorates his place in history. The town of English, Indiana is also named after the late politician. According to historian H. H. Pleasant and the Crawford County Democrat, the unincorporated town was originally named Hartford. It was changed to English in 1886 after the town was officially incorporated, in honor of election to Congress from the area. He also has an IHB marker at his former home in Lexington, Scott County, Indiana.
To many who enter the Statehouse and see his statue on the fourth floor, he might be just another leader of Indiana’s past. However, English’s political career attempted to stave off Civil War (at least temporarily) and reinforced Indiana’s political tradition of measured, temperate leaders who sought a middle ground on most issues. In that regard, English might be one of Indiana’s most emblematic statesmen.