“A Solemn, Consecrated Act of the People Themselves:” Rep. Louis Ludlow and the Power to Declare War

Harris & Ewing, “Louis Ludlow,” 1937, photograph, Harris & Ewing photograph collection,  courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Describing the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt for the 2014 Ken Burns documentary The Roosevelts, conservative political writer George E. Will stated:

The presidency is like a soft leather glove, and it takes the shape of the hand that’s put into it. And when a very big hand is put into it and stretches the glove — stretches the office — the glove never quite shrinks back to what it was. So we are all living today with an office enlarged permanently by Franklin Roosevelt. [1]

Seventy-five years after President Roosevelt’s death, the debate continues over how much power the president should have, especially in regards to taking military action against a foreign power. On January 9, 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to restrict that power, requiring congressional authorization for further action against Iran. The issue now moves to the Senate.

But the arguments over this balance of war powers are not new. In fact, in 1935, Indiana congressmen Louis Ludlow forwarded a different solution altogether – an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would allow a declaration of war only after a national referendum, that is, a direct vote of the American people. Had the Ludlow Amendment passed, the U.S. would only engage militarily with a foreign power if the majority of citizens agreed that the cause was just. Ludlow’s ideas remain interesting today as newspaper articles and op-eds tell us the opinions of our Republican and Democratic representatives regarding the power of the legislative branch versus the executive branch in declaring war or military action. But what do the American people think, especially those who would have to fight? According to Brown University’s Cost of War Project, “The US government is conducting counterterror activities in 80 countries,” and the New York Times reported last year that we now have troops in “nearly every country.” [2]  But what does it mean to say “we” have troops in these countries? And does that mean that we are at war? Do the American people support the deployment of troops to Yemen? Somalia? Syria? Niger? Does the average American even know about these conflicts?

Stephanie Savell and 5W Infographics, “This Map Shows Where in the World the U.S. Military Is Combatting Terrorism,” Smithsonian Magazine, January 2019.

Expanding Executive War Power

Many don’t know, partly because the nature of war has changed since WWII. We have a paid professional military as opposed to drafted private citizens, which removes the realities of war from the daily lives of most Americans. Drone strikes make war seem even more obscure compared to boots on the ground, while cyber warfare abstracts the picture further. [3] But Americans also remain unaware of our military actions because “U.S. leaders have studiously avoided being seen engaging in ‘war,’” according to international news magazine the Diplomat. [4] In fact, Congress has not officially declared war since World War II. [5] Instead, today, Congress approves “an authorization of the use of force,” which can be “fuzzy” and “open-ended.” [6] Despite the passage of the War Powers Act of 1973, which was intended to balance war powers between the president and Congress, presidents have consistently found ways to deploy troops without congressional authorization. [7] And today, the Authorization for Use of Military Force Joint Resolution, passed in the wake of the September 11 attacks, justified an even greater extension of executive power in deploying armed forces.[8]

“To Give to the People the Right to Decide . . .”

Indiana congressman Louis L. Ludlow (Democrat – U.S. House of Representatives, 1929-1949), believed the American people should have the sole power to declare war through a national referendum. [9] After all, the American people, not Congress and not the President, are tasked with fighting these wars. Starting in the 1930s, Representative Ludlow worked to amend the Constitution in order to put such direct democracy into action. He nearly succeeded. And as the debate continues today over who has the power to send American troops into combat and what the United States’ role should be in the world, his arguments concerning checks and balances on war powers remain relevant.

“Portrait of Indiana Politician Louis Ludlow, Indiana,” photograph, 1929, accessed Indiana Album.

Ludlow maintained two defining viewpoints that could be easily misinterpreted, and thus are worth examining up front. First, Ludlow was an isolationist, but not for the same reasons as many of his peers, whose viewpoints were driven by the prevalent xenophobia, racism, and nativism rooted in the 1920s. In fact, Ludlow was a proponent of equal rights for women and African Americans throughout his career. [10] Ludlow’s isolationism was instead influenced by the results of a post-WWI congressional investigation showing the influence of foreign propaganda and munitions and banking interests in profiting off the conflict. [11]

Second, Ludlow was not a pacifist. He believed in just wars waged in the name of freedom, citing the American Revolution and the Union cause during the American Civil War. [12] He supported the draft during WWI and backed the war effort through newspaper articles. [13] Indeed, he even voted with his party, albeit reluctantly, to enter WWII after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. [14] He believed a direct attack justified a declaration of war and included this caveat in his original resolution. What he did not believe in was entering war under the influence of corporations or propaganda. He wanted informed citizens, free of administrative or corporate pressure, to decide for themselves if a cause was worth their lives. He wrote, “I am willing to die for my beloved country but I am not willing to die for greedy selfish interests that want to use me as their pawn.” [15]

So, who was Louis Ludlow and how did he come to advocate for this bold amendment?

“I Must and Would Prove My Hoosier Blood”

Ludlow described himself as a “Hoosier born and bred” in his 1924 memoir of his early career as a newspaper writer. [16] He was born June 24, 1873 in a log cabin near Connersville, Fayette County, Indiana. His parents encouraged his interests in politics and writing, and after he graduated high school in 1892, he went to Indianapolis “with food prepared by his mother and a strong desire to become a newspaperman.” [17]

He landed his first job with the Indianapolis Sun upon arrival in the Hoosier capital but quickly realized he needed more formal education. He briefly attended Indiana University before becoming seriously ill and returning to his parents’ home. After he recovered, he spent some time in New York City, but  returned to Indianapolis in 1895. He worked for two newspapers, one Democratic (Sentinel) and one Republican (Journal) and the Indianapolis Press from 1899-1901. While he mainly covered political conventions and campaign speeches, he interviewed prominent suffrage worker May Wright Sewall and former President Benjamin Harrison, among other notables. He also became a correspondent for the (New York) World. [18]

In 1901, the Sentinel sent Ludlow to Washington as a correspondent, beginning a twenty-seven-year career of covering the capital. During this time, he worked long hours, expanded his political contacts, and distributed his stories to more and more newspapers. He covered debates in Congress during World War I and was influenced by arguments that membership in the League of Nations would draw the U.S. further into conflict.[19] By 1927 he was elected president of the National Press Club. He was at the height of his journalistic career and had a good rapport and reputation within the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Ludlows Vote Early,” Indianapolis Star, November 7, 1928, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.

With the backing of Democratic political boss Thomas Taggart, Ludlow began his first congressional campaign at the end of 1927 and announced his candidacy officially on February 23, 1928. [20] The Greencastle Daily Herald quoted part of Ludlow’s announcement speech, noting that the candidate stated, “some homespun honesty in politics is a pressing necessity in Indiana.” [21] He won the Democratic primary in May 1928 and then campaigned against Republican Ralph E. Updike, offering Hoosiers “redemption” from the influence of the KKK. [22] Ludlow “swept to an impressive victory” over Updike in November 1928, as the only Democrat elected from 269 Marion County precincts. [23] He took his seat as the Seventh District U.S. Representative from Indiana on March 4, 1929. [24]

The Indianapolis Star noted that while Ludlow was only a freshman congressman, his many years in Washington as a correspondent had made him “familiar with the workings of the congressional machinery” and “well known to all [House] members,” earning him the “confidence and respect of Republicans and Democrats alike.” [25] The Star claimed: “Perhaps no man ever entering Congress has had the good will of so many members on both sides of the aisle.” [26] This claim was supported by Ludlow’s colleagues on the other side of that aisle. Republican senator James E. Watson of Indiana stated in 1929, “Everybody has a fondness for Louis Ludlow, and as a congressional colleague, he shall have the co-operation of my office in the advancement of whatever he considers in the interest of his constituency.” [27] Republican representative John Cable of Ohio agreed stating:

Louis Ludlow has character and ability. He is the sort of a man who commands the respect and confidence of men and women without regard to party lines. He will have the co-operation of his colleagues of Congress, Republican as well as Democrats, and no doubt will render a high class service for his district.[28]

Cable went so far as to recommend Ludlow for the vice-presidential candidate for the 1932 election.

Ludlow achieved some modest early economic successes for his constituents, including bringing a veterans hospital and an air mail route to Indianapolis. By 1930, however, he set his sights on limiting government bureaucracy and became interested in disarmament as a method to reduce government spending. Concurrently, he threw his support behind the London Naval Treaty which limited the arms race, and he became a member of the Indiana World Peace Committee. During the 1930 election, he stressed his accomplishments and appealed to women, African American, Jews, veterans, businessmen, and labor unions. He was easily reelected by over 30,000 votes. [29]

Back at work in the House, he sponsored an amendment to the Constitution in 1932 to give women “equal rights throughout the United States” which would have addressed legal and financial barriers to equality. He was unsuccessful but undaunted. He introduced an equal rights amendment in 1933, 1936, 1939, 1943, and 1945. [30] [A separate post would be needed to do justice to his work on behalf of women’s rights.] He also worked to make the federal government responsible for investigating lynching, as opposed to the local communities where the injustice occurred. He introduced several bills in 1938 that would have required FBI agents to investigate lynchings as a deterrent to this hate crime, but they were blocked by Southern Democrats. His main focus between 1935 and 1945 was advocating for the passage of legislation to restrict the government’s war powers and end corporate war profiteering.

 “To Remove The Profit Incentive to War”

[McAllen, Texas] Monitor, January 11, 1938, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.
In 1934 the Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry, known as the Nye Committee after its chairman Senator Gerald Nye (R-ND), began to investigate the undue influence of munitions interests on U.S. entry into WWI. Like many Americans, Ludlow was profoundly disturbed by the committee’s conclusions. As Germany rearmed and Hitler’s power grew during the 1930s, Ludlow worried that the threat of a second world war loomed and the U.S. government, especially the executive branch was vulnerable to the influence of profiteers, as highlighted by the Nye Committee reports. He stated:

I am convinced from my familiarity with the testimony of the Nye committee and my study of this question that a mere dozen – half a dozen international financiers and half a dozen munitions kings, with a complaisant President in the White House at Washington – could maneuver this country into war at any time, so great are their resources and so far reaching is their power. I pray to God we may never have a President who will lend himself to such activities, but, after all, Presidents are human, and many Presidents have been devoted to the material aggrandizement of our country to the exclusion of spiritual values . . . [31]

Although he admired President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s diplomatic abilities Ludlow thought, as historian Walter R. Griffin asserted, that “it was entirely possible that a future President might very well possess more sordid motives and plan to maneuver the country into war against the wishes of the majority of citizens.” [32] As a protection against the susceptibility of the legislative and especially the executive branches to financial pressures of the munitions industry, Ludlow introduced a simple two-part resolution [HR-167] before the House of Representatives in January 1935. It would amend the Constitution to require a vote of the people before any declaration of war. He summed up the two sections of his bill in a speech before the House in February 1935: “First. To give the people who have to pay the awful costs of war the right to decide whether there shall be war. Second. To remove the profit incentive to war.” [33] He believed that the resolution gave to American citizens “the right to a referendum on war, so that when war is declared it will be the solemn, consecrated act of the people themselves, and not the act of conscienceless, selfish interests using the innocent young manhood of the Nation as its pawns.”[34]

More specifically, Section One stated that unless the U.S. was attacked, Congress could not declare war without a majority vote in a national referendum. And Section Two provided that once war was declared, all properties, factories, supplies, workers, etc. necessary to wage war would be taken over by the government. Those companies would then be reimbursed at a rate not exceeding 4% higher than their previous year’s tax values. [35] This would remove the profit incentive and thus any immoral reasons for a declaration of war.

In an NBC Radio address in March 19235, Ludlow told the public:

The Nye committee has brought out clearly, plainly and so unmistakably that it must hit every thinking persons in the face, the fact that unless we write into the constitution of the United States a provision reserving to the people the right to declare war and taking the profits out of war we shall wake up to find ourselves again plunged into the hell of war . . . [36]

He added that “a declaration of war is the highest act of sovereignty. It is a responsibility of such magnitude that it should rest on the people themselves . . .” [37]

Ludlow’s resolution, soon known as the Ludlow Amendment, was immediately referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary. During committee hearings in June 1935, no one spoke in opposition to the bill and yet the committee did not report on the resolution to the House before the end of the first session in August, nor when they reconvened in 1936. Ludlow attempted to force its consideration with a discharge petition but couldn’t round up enough congressional signatures. Congress was busy creating a second round of New Deal legislation intended to combat the Great Depression and was less concerned with the war clouds gathering over Europe. Despite Ludow’s passionate advocacy both in the House and to the public, his bill languished in committee. In February 1937, he made a fresh attempt, dividing Sections One and Two into separate bills. The same obstacles persisted, and despite gathering more congressional support for his discharge petition, these resolutions too remained in committee. [38]

Harris & Ewing, “Louis Ludlow,” photograph, Harris & Ewing photograph collection, courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Library of Congress caption: Denouncing the present war-declaring mechanism as ‘autocratic,’ Rep. Louis Ludlow appealed for approval of a constitutional amendment requiring a Nat’l referendum on participation in a foreign war.

“What Might Have Been”

During a special session called by Roosevelt in November 1937 (to introduce what has become known as the “court-packing plan”), Ludlow was able to obtain the necessary signatures to release his resolution from committee. While congressional support for the Ludlow Amendment had increased, mainly due to the advocacy of its namesake, opposition had unified as well. Opponents argued that it would reduce the power of the president to the degree that the president would lose the respect of foreign powers and ultimately make the U.S. less safe. Others argued that it completely undermined representative government by circumventing Congress and thus erode U.S. republican democracy. Veterans’ organizations like the American Legion were among its opponents, and National Commander Daniel J. Doherty combined these arguments into a public statement before the January 1939 House vote. He stated that the bill “would seriously impair the functions and utility of our Department of State, the first line of our national defense.” He continued: “The proposed amendment implies lack of confidence on the part of our people in the congressional representatives. This is not in accord with the facts. Other nations would readily interpret it as a sign of weakness.” [39] The Indianapolis Star compared the debates over the resolution to “dynamite” in the House of Representatives. And while Ludlow had the backing of “1,000 nationally known persons,” who issued statements of support, his opponents had the backing of President Roosevelt who continued to expand the powers of the executive branch. In a final vote the Ludlow Amendment was defeated 209-188. [40]

Ludlow continued to be a supporter of Roosevelt and when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Indiana congressman voted to declare war, albeit reluctantly. He stated:

Japan has determined my vote in the present situation. If the United States had not been attacked I would not vote for a war declaration but we have been attacked . . . American blood has been spilled and American lives have been lost . . . We should do everything that is necessary to defend ourselves and to see that American lives and property are made secure. That is the first duty and obligation of sovereignty. [41]

[Indianapolis] Jewish Post, November 3, 1944, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
After the close of World War II, Louis Ludlow continued his work for peace at an international level, calling on the United Nations to ban the atomic bomb. But he no longer advocated for his bill, stating that with the introduction of the bomb and other advanced war technology it was “now too late for war referendums.” [42] He told Congress in 1948:

Looking backward, I cannot escape the belief that the death of the resolution was one of the tragedies of all time. The leadership of the greatest and most powerful nation on earth might have deflected the thinking of the world into peaceful channels. Instead, we went ahead with tremendous pace in the invention of destruction . . . I cannot help thinking what might have been. [43]

Ludlow continued his service as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives until January 1949 after choosing not to seek reelection. Instead of retiring, he returned to the Capitol press gallery where his career had begun some fifty years earlier. And before his death in 1950, he wrote a weekly Washington column for his hometown newspaper, the Indianapolis Star.

“The People . . . Need to Have a Major Voice in the Use of Force . . .”

Ludlow’s eighty-five-year-old argument for giving Americans a greater voice in declaring war gives us food for thought in the current debate over war powers. Today, the conversation has veered away from Ludlow’s call for a direct referendum, but the right of the people’s voices to be heard via their elected representatives is being argued over heatedly in Congress. Many writers for conservative-leaning journals such as the National Review agree with their liberal counterparts at magazines like the New Yorker, that Congress needs to reassert their constitutional right under Article II to declare war and reign in the powers of the executive branch. This, they argue, is especially important in an era where the “enemy” is not as clearly defined as it had been during the World Wars. Writing for the National Review in 2017, Andrew McCarthy argued:

The further removed the use of force is from an identifiable threat to vital American interests, the more imperative it is that Congress weighs in, endorses or withholds authorization for combat operations . . . to ensure that military force is employed only for political ends that are worth fighting for, and that the public will perceive as worth fighting for. [44]

Writing for the New Yorker in 2017, Jeffery Frank agreed, stating:

The constitution is a remarkable document, and few question a President’s power to respond if the nation is attacked. But the founders could not have imagined a world in which one person, whatever his rank or title, would have the authority to order the preemptive use of nuclear weapons – an action that . . . now seems within the realm of possibility. [45]

And in describing the nonpartisan legal group Protect Democracy’s work to create a “roadmap” for balancing congressional and executive powers, conservative writer David French wrote for the National Review that “requiring congressional military authorizations in all but the most emergency of circumstances will grant the public a greater voice in the most consequential decisions any government can make.” [46]

So, if many liberals and conservatives agree that Congress should hold the balance of war powers, who is resisting a return to congressional authorization for military conflicts? According to the Law Library of Congress, the answer would be all modern U.S. Presidents. The library’s website explains that “U.S. Presidents have consistently taken the position that War Powers Resolution is an unconstitutional infringement upon the power of the executive branch” and found ways to circumvent its constraints. [47]

This bloating of executive war power is exactly what Ludlow feared. When his proposed amendment was crushed by the force of the Roosevelt administration, Ludlow held no personal resentment against FDR. He believed that this particular president would always carefully weigh the significance of a cause before risking American lives. Instead, Ludlow’s feared how expanded executive war powers might be used by some future president. In a January 5, 1936 letter, Ludlow wrote:

No stauncher friend of peace ever occupied the executive office than President Roosevelt, but after all, the period of one President’s service is but a second in the life of a nation, and I shudder to think what might happen to our beloved country sometime in the future if a tyrant of Napoleonic stripe should appear in the White House, grab the war power, and run amuck. [48]

A bridge between Ludlow’s argument and contemporary calls for Congress to reassert its authority can be found in the words of more recent Hoosier public servants. Former Democratic U.S. Representative Lee Hamilton and Republican Senator Richard Lugar testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on April 28, 2009 on “War Powers in the 21st Century.” Senator Lugar stated:

Under our Constitution, decisions about the use of force involve the shared responsibilities of the President and the Congress, and our system works best when the two branches work cooperatively in reaching such decisions. While this is an ideal toward which the President and Congress may strive, it has sometimes proved to be very hard to achieve in practice . . . The War Powers Resolution has not proven to be a panacea, and Presidents have not always consulted formally with the Congress before reaching decisions to introduce U.S. force into hostilities . . . [49]

In 2017, in words that echo Rep. Ludlow’s arguments, Rep. Hamilton reiterated that “the people who have to do the fighting and bear the costs need to have a major voice in the use of force, and the best way to ensure that is with the involvement of Congress.”[50] While the “enemy” may change and while technology further abstracts war, the questions about war powers remain remarkably consistent: Who declares war and does this reflect the will of the people who will fight in those conflicts? By setting aside current political biases and looking to the past, we can sometimes see more clearly into the crux of the issues. Ludlow would likely be surprised that the arguments have changed so little and that we’re still sorting it out.

Further Reading:

Stephen L. Carter, “The Constitutionality of the War Powers Resolution,” Faculty Scholarship Series, January 1, 1984, accessed Yale Law School Legal Scholarship Repository.

Richard F. Grimmet, “War Powers Resolution: Presidential Compliance,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, September 25, 2012, accessed Federation of American Scientists.

Walter R. Griffin, “Louis Ludlow and the War Referendum Crusade, 1935-1941” Indiana Magazine of History 64:4 (December 1968), 270-272, accessed Indiana University Scholarworks.

___________________________________________

Footnotes:

[1] The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, A Film by Ken Burns, Premiered September 14, 2014, accessed Public Broadcasting Service.

[2] “Costs of War,” Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs, Brown University; The Editorial Board, “America’s Forever Wars,” New York Times, October 22, 2017. The Times cites the Defense Manpower Data Center, a division of the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

[3] Sarah E. Kreps, “America’s War and the Current Accountability Crisis,” The Diplomat, June 8, 2018.

[4] Ibid.

Kreps writes that this “light footprint warfare,” made possible by technological advancement, creates a “gray zone” in which it’s unclear which actors are responsible for what results, thus fragmenting opposition.

[5] Official Declarations of War by Congress, The United States Senate.

[6] Garance Franke-Tura, “All the Previous Declarations of War,” The Atlantic, August 31, 2013; Robert P. George and Michael Stokes Paulsen, “Authorize Force Now,” National Review, February 26, 2014.

Franke-Tura wrote about congressional use of force in Syria in 2013: “If history is any guide, that’s going to be a rather open-ended commitment, as fuzzy on the back-end as on the front.” Writing for the National Review in 2014, Robert P. George and Michael Stokes Paulsen agreed that in all cases of engaging in armed conflict not in response to direct attack, the president’s power to engage U.S. in military conflict (without an attack on the U.S.) is “sufficiently doubtful” and “dubious.”

[7] “War Powers,” Law Library of Congress; Jim Geraghty, “Is There A War Powers Act on the Books or Not?,” National Review, August 29, 2013.

While the purpose of the War Powers Resolution, or War Powers Act, was to ensure balance between the executive and legislative branches in sending U.S. armed forces into hostile situations, “U.S. Presidents have consistently taken the position that War Powers Resolution is an unconstitutional infringement upon the power of the executive branch” and found ways to circumvent its constraints, according to the Law Library of Congress. Examples include President Reagan’s deployment of Marines to Lebanon starting in 1982, President George H. W. Bush’s building of forces for Operation Desert Shield starting in 1990, and President Clinton’s use of airstrikes and peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s.

Writer and National Review editor Jim Geraghty wrote in 2013: “There are those who believe the War Powers Act is unconstitutional – such as all recent presidents . . .” Journals as politically diverse as the National Review and its liberal counterpart the New Yorker, are rife with articles and opinion pieces debating the legality and constitutionality of the Act. Despite their leanings, they are widely consistent in calling on Congress to reassert its constitutional authority to declare war and reign in the war powers of the executive branch.

[8] Ibid.

According to the Law Library of Congress, in 2001, Congress transferred more war power to President George W. Bush through Public Law 107-40, authorizing him to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against nations, groups, or even individuals who aided the September 11 attacks.

[9] Louis Ludlow, Hell or Heaven (Boston: The Stratford Company, 1937).

[10] Walter R. Griffin, “Louis Ludlow and the War Referendum Crusade, 1935-1941,” Indiana Magazine of History 64, no. 4 (December 1968), 270-272, accessed Indiana University Scholarworks. Griffin downplays Ludlow’s early congressional career, however, he pushed for many Progressive Era reforms. Ludlow worked for an equal rights amendment for women, an anti-lynching bill, and the repeal of Prohibition.

[11] Ibid.; United States Congress,“Report of the Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry (The Nye Report),” Senate, 74th Congress, Second Session, February 24, 1936, 3-13, accessed Mount Holyoke College.

[12] “Speech of Hon. Louis Ludlow of Indiana, in the U.S. House of Representatives,” February 19, 1935, Congressional Record, 74th Congress, First Session, Pamphlets Collection, Indiana State Library.

[13] Ernest C. Bolt, Jr., “Reluctant Belligerent: The Career of Louis Ludlow” in Their Infinite Variety: Essays on Indiana Politicians, eds. Robert Barrows and Shirley S. McCord, (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1981): 363-364.

[14] Griffin, 287.

[15] Louis Ludlow, Public Letter, March 8, 1935, Ludlow War Referendum Scrapbooks, Lilly Library, Indiana University, cited in Griffin, 273.

[16] Louis Ludlow, From Cornfield to Press Gallery: Adventures and Reminiscences of a Veteran Washington Correspondent (Washington D.C., 1924), 1. The section title also comes from this source and page. Ludlow was referring to the Hoosier tendency to write books exhibited during the Golden Age of Indiana Literature.

[17] Ibid., 17; Bolt, 361.

[18] Bolt, 355-359.

[19] Ibid., 360-365.

[20] “Evans Wollen Is Best of the Democrats,” Greencastle Herald, November 7, 1927, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; Charles J. Arnold, “Say!,” Greencastle Herald, February 24, 1928, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Bolt, 371.

[23] “G.O.P. Wins in Marion County,” Greencastle Herald, November 7, 1927, 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Ludlow Wins Congress Seat,” Indianapolis Star, November 27, 1928, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[24] Everett C. Watkins, “Ludlow Will Leap from Press Gallery to Floor of Congress,” Indianapolis Star, March 3, 1929, 13, accessed Newspapers.com.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] “Republican Advances Ludlow’s Name as 1932 Vice Presidential Candidate,” Indianapolis Star, January 4, 1929, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

[29] Bolt, 376-377.

[30] “Discuss Women’s Rights,” Nebraska State Journal, March 24, 1932, 3, accessed Newspapers.com; “Women Argue in Favor of Changes in Nation’s Laws,” Jacksonville (Illinois) Daily Journal, March 24, 1932, 5, accessed Newspapers.com; “Woman’s Party Condemns Trial of Virginia Patricide,” Salt Lake Tribune, December 2, 1925, 1, accessed Newspapers.com; “Equal Rights Demanded,” Ada (Oklahoma) Weekly News, January 5, 1939, 7, accessed Newspapers.com; Bolt, 383.

The National League of Women Voters crafted the language of the original bill which Ludlow then sponsored and introduced. In 1935, the organization passed a resolution that “expressed gratitude  . . . to Representative Louis Ludlow of Indiana for championing women’s rights.”

[31] “Ludlow Asks War Act Now,” Indianapolis Star, March 13, 1935, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.

[32] Griffin, 281-282.

[33] “Speech of Hon. Louis Ludlow of Indiana, in the U.S. House of Representatives,” February 19, 1935, Congressional Record, 74th Congress, First Session, Pamphlets Collection, Indiana State Library.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] “Ludlow Asks War Act Now,” Indianapolis Star, March 13, 1935, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.

[37] Ibid.

[38] “To Amend the Constitution with Respect to the Declaration of War,” Hearing before Subcommittee No. 2 of the Committee on the Judiciary House of Representatives, 74th Congress, First Session, On H. J. Res. 167, accessed HathiTrust; Griffin, 274-275.

[39] Everett C. Watkins, “Ludlow Bill ‘Dynamite’ in House Today,” Indianapolis Star, January 10, 1938, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[40] Griffin, 285.

[41] “Indiana’s Votes Solid for War,” Indianapolis News, December 8, 1941, 4, accessed Newspapers.com.

[42] Congressional Record, 80th Congress, Second Session, Appendix, 4853, in Griffin, 287-8.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Andrew C. McCarthy, “War Powers and the Constitution in Our Body Politic,” National Review, July 8, 2017.

[45] Jeffery Frank, “The War Powers of President Trump,” New Yorker, April 26, 2017.

[46] David French, “Can Congress Get Its War Powers Back?,” National Review, July 5, 2018.

[47] “War Powers,” Law Library of Congress.

[48] Louis Ludlow to William Bigelow, January 5, 1936, in Griffin, 282.

[49] U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, War Powers in the 21st Century, April 28, 2009, Hearing before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, 111th Congress, First Session, (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Press, 2010), accessed govinfo.gov.

[50] Bolt, 380-381.

Representative Katie B. Hall’s Fight for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Katie Beatrice Hall, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Coretta Scott King and Katie Hall observe President Reagan signing the bill commemorating Dr. King’s birthday on November 2, 1983, courtesy of the White House Photo Office, accessed achievement.org.

On September 7, 1982, U.S. Representative Adam Benjamin (D-Indiana), a Gary native, was found dead of a heart attack in his Washington, D.C. apartment. Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher, the first African American mayor in the State of Indiana, was tasked with selecting a candidate to run in a special election to complete the last few months of Benjamin’s term. After some intra-party debate, Mayor Hatcher chose Indiana State Senator Katie Hall to serve out the remainder of Benjamin’s term in the U.S. House of Representatives. In November, Hall was elected to Indiana’s first congressional district seat, becoming the first African American to represent Indiana in Congress. When Hall arrived in Washington, D.C., she served as chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Census and Population, which was responsible for holidays. Her leadership in this subcommittee would successfully build on a years-long struggle to create a federal holiday honoring the civil rights legacy of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his birthday.

Each year since Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, U.S. Representative John Conyers (D-Michigan) had introduced a bill to make Dr. King’s January 15 birthday a national holiday. Over the years, many became involved in the growing push to commemorate Dr. King with a holiday. Musician Stevie Wonder was one of the most active in support of Conyers’s efforts. He led rallies on the Washington Mall and used his concerts to generate public support. In 1980, Wonder released a song titled “Happy Birthday” in honor of Dr. King’s birthday. The following year, Wonder funded a Washington, D.C. lobbying organization, which, together with The King Center, lobbied for the holiday’s establishment. Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow, ran The King Center and was also heavily involved in pushing for the holiday, testifying multiple times before the Subcommittee on Census and Population. In 1982, Mrs. King and Wonder delivered a petition to the Speaker of the House bearing more than six million signatures in favor of the holiday. For Dr. King’s birthday in 1983, Mrs. King urged a boycott, asking Americans to not spend any money on January 15.

Opponents objected to the proposed holiday for various reasons. North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms led the opposition, citing a high cost to the federal government. He claimed it would cost four to twelve billion dollars; however, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost to be eighteen million dollars. Furthermore, a King holiday would bring the number of federal holidays to ten, and detractors thought that to be too many. President Ronald Reagan’s initial opposition to the holiday also centered on concern over the cost; later, his position was that holidays in honor of an individual ought to be reserved for “the Washingtons and Lincolns.”

Earlier in October, Senator Helms had filibustered the holiday bill, but, on October 18, the Senate once again took the bill up for consideration. A distinguished reporter for Time, Neil MacNeil described Helms’s unpopular antics that day. Helms had prepared an inch-thick packet for each senator condemning Dr. King as a “near-communist.” It included:

‘a sampling of the 65,000 documents on [K]ing recently released by the FBI, just about all purporting the FBI’s dark suspicions of commie conspiracy by this ‘scoundrel,’ as one of the FBI’s own referred to King.’

Helms’s claims infuriated Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) because they relied on invoking the memory of Senator Kennedy’s deceased brothers—former President John Kennedy and former U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy—against King. Kennedy was “appalled at [Helms’] attempt to misappropriate the memory” of his brothers and “misuse it as part of this smear campaign.” Senator Bill Bradley (D- New Jersey) joined Kennedy’s rebuttal by calling out Helms’s racism on the floor of the Senate and contending that Helms and others who opposed the King holiday bill “are playing up to Old Jim Crow and all of us know it.” Helms’s dramatic performance in the Senate against the holiday bill had the opposite effect from what he had intended. In fact, Southern senators together ended up voting for the bill in a higher percentage than the Senate overall.

The next day, at an October 19 press conference, Reagan further explained his reluctance to support the bill. Asked if he agreed with Senator Helms’s accusations that Dr. King was a Communist sympathizer, Reagan responded, “We’ll know in about 35 years, won’t we?” His comment referred to a judge’s 1977 order to keep wiretap records of Dr. King sealed. Wiretaps of Dr. King had first been approved twenty years prior by Robert Kennedy when he was U.S. Attorney General. U.S. District Judge John Lewis Smith, Jr. ruled that the records would remain sealed, not until 2018 as Reagan mistakenly claimed, but until 2027 for a total of fifty years. However, President Reagan acknowledged in a private letter to former New Hampshire Governor Meldrim Thomson in early October that he retained reservations about King’s alleged Communist ties, and wrote that regarding King, “the perception of too many people is based on an image, not reality.”

[Munster] Times, August 28, 1983, accessed Newspapers.com.
After fifteen years of struggling to commemorate King with a federal holiday, why did the effort finally succeed in 1983? It was the culmination of several factors that together resulted in sufficient pressure on the Washington establishment. Wonder’s wildly successful “Happy Birthday” pulled a lot of weight to raise the public profile of the holiday demand. Mrs. King’s perennial work advocating for the holiday kept the issue in the public eye.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. According to House.gov, “This hand bill, noting the anniversary of King’s 1968 assassination, sought to rally public support for the creation of the holiday.”

Support was gaining ground around the country; by 1983 eighteen states had enacted some form of holiday in honor of Dr. King. Politicians could see the tide of public support turning in favor of the holiday, and their positions on the holiday became something of a litmus test for a politician’s support of civil rights.

After Helms’s acrimonious presentation in late October, Mrs. King gave an interview, published in the Alexandria, Louisiana Town Talk, saying that it was obvious since Reagan’s election that:

‘he has systematically ignored the concerns of black people . . .  These conservatives try to dress up what they’re doing [by attempting to block the King holiday bill] . . . They are against equal rights for black people. The motivation behind this is certainly strongly racial.’

Town Talk noted that “Mrs. King said she suspects Helms’s actions prompted a number of opposed senators to vote for the bill for fear of being allied with him.” Some editorials and letters-to-the-editor alleged that Reagan ultimately supported and signed the King holiday bill to secure African American votes in his 1984 reelection campaign. In August 1983, Mrs. King had helped organize a rally at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, at which King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Between 250,000 and 500,000 Americans attended; all speakers called on Reagan to sign the MLKJ Day bill.

Indianapolis Star, August 28, 1983, accessed Newspapers.com.

Hall was busy building support among her colleagues for the holiday; she spent the summer of 1983 on the phone with legislators to whip votes. As chair of the House Subcommittee on Census and Population, Hall led several hearings called to measure Americans’ support of a holiday in memory of King’s legacy. According to the Indianapolis Recorder, “among those who testified in favor of the holiday were House Speaker Thomas ‘Tip’ O’Neill, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), Sen. Edward Kennedy (D.-Mass.), singer Stevie Wonder and Coretta Scott King.” Additionally, a change in the bill potentially helped its chances by addressing a key concern of its opponents—the cost of opening government offices twice in one week. At some point between when Conyers introduced the bill in January 1981 and when Hall introduced the bill in the summer of 1983, the bill text was changed to propose that the holiday be celebrated every third Monday in January, rather than on King’s birth date of January 15.

After the House passed the bill on August 2, Hall was quoted in the Indianapolis News with an insight about her motivation:

‘The time is before us to show what we believe— that justice and equality must continue to prevail, not only as individuals, but as the greatest nation in this world.’

For Hall, the King holiday bill was about affirming America’s commitment to King’s mission of civil rights. It would be another two and a half months of political debate before the Senate passed the bill. 

The new holiday was slated to be officially celebrated for the first time in 1986. However, Hall and other invested parties wanted to ensure that the country’s first federal Martin Luther King Jr. Day would be suitably celebrated. To that end, Hall introduced legislation in 1984 to establish a commission that would “work to encourage appropriate ceremonies and activities.” The legislation passed, but Hall lost her reelection campaign that year and was unable to fully participate on the committee. Regardless, in part because of Hall’s initiative, that first observance in 1986 was successful.

Stevie Wonder and Coretta Scott King, 1984, courtesy of Medium.com.

In Hall’s district, Gary held a celebration called “The Dream that Lives” at the Genesis Convention Center. Some state capitals, including Indianapolis, held commemorative marches and rallies. Officials unveiled a new statue of Dr. King in Birmingham, Alabama, where the leader was arrested in 1963 for marching in protest against the treatment of African Americans. In Washington, D.C., Wonder led a reception at the Kennedy Center with other musicians. Reverend Jesse Jackson spoke to congregants in Atlanta where Dr. King was minister, and then led a vigil at Dr. King’s grave. Mrs. King led a reception at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center, also in Atlanta.

Representative Hall knew the value of the Civil Rights Movement first hand. Born in Mississippi in 1938, Hall was barred from voting under Jim Crow laws. She moved her family to Gary, Indiana in 1960, seeking better opportunities. Her first vote ever cast was for John F. Kennedy during the presidential race that year. Hall was trained as a school teacher at Indiana University and she taught social studies in Gary public schools. As a politically engaged citizen, Hall campaigned to elect Mayor Hatcher and ran a successful campaign herself when in 1974 she won a seat in the Indiana House of Representatives. Two years later, she ran for Indiana Senate and won. Hall and Julia Carson, elected at the same time, were the first Black women elected to the state senate. While in the Indiana General Assembly, Hall supported education measures, healthcare reform, labor interests, and protections for women, such as sponsoring a measure to “fund emergency hospital treatment for rape victims,” including those who could not afford to pay.

Rep. Hall, courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Hall was still serving as Indiana state senator in 1982 when Representative Benjamin passed away and Mayor Hatcher nominated her to complete Benjamin’s term. She made history in November 1982, when in the same election she won the campaign to complete Benjamin’s term, as well as being elected to her own two year term, becoming the first African American to represent Indiana in Congress. However, Hall lost her bid for reelection during the 1984 primaries to Peter Visclosky, a former aide of Rep. Benjamin who still holds the seat today. Hall ran for Congress again in 1986, this time with the endorsement of Mrs. King. Although she failed to regain the congressional seat, Hall remained active in politics. In 1987, Hall was elected Gary city clerk, a position she held until 2003 when she resigned amid scandal after an indictment on mail fraud, extortion, and racketeering charges. In June 1989, Dr. King’s son Martin King III wrote to Hall supporting her consideration of running again for Congress.

Hall passed away in Gary in 2012. The establishment of the federal Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday law was Hall’s crowning achievement. Her success built upon a fifteen-year-long struggle to establish a national holiday in honor of Dr. King. The Indiana General Assembly passed a state law in mid-1989 establishing the Dr. King holiday for state workers, but it was not until 2000 that all fifty states instituted a holiday in memory of Dr. King for state employees.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday has endured despite the struggle to create it. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed a bill sponsored by Senator Harris Wofford (D-Pennsylvania) and Representative John Lewis (D-Georgia) that established Martin Luther King Day as a day of service, encouraging wide participation in volunteer activities. Inspired by King’s words that “everyone can be great because everyone can serve,” the change was envisioned as a way to honor King’s legacy with service to others. Today, Martin Luther King Day is celebrated across the country and politicians’ 1983 votes on it continue to serve as a civil rights litmus test.

Mark your calendars for the April 2019 dedication ceremony of a state historical marker in Gary commemorating Representative Hall and the origins of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Click here for a bibliography of sources used in this post and the forthcoming historical marker.

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.

Bibliography

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.

Roberta West Nicholson: Eviscerator of Gold-Diggers & Champion of Social Reform

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If Roberta West Nicholson has received any recognition at all, it’s been from Men’s Rights Groups, who have praised her revolutionary Anti-Heart Balm Bill. However, the bill, like much of her work, was progressively liberal and centered around equality. As the only woman legislator in 1935-1936, in her work to educate the public about sexual health, efforts against discrimination in Indianapolis, and champion children’s causes, West was a public servant in the purest sense. Despite her tireless work, she struggled to escape the shadow of her father-in-law, famous Hoosier author Meredith Nicholson, and to be associated with social reform rather than her “cuteness.” In an interview with the Indiana State Library (ISL) conducted in the 1970s, she did just that, but unfortunately, it has been largely overlooked.

Even as a young college student, the Cincinnati, Ohio native deviated from the norm. Nicholson attended one semester at the University of Cincinnati, leaving after an exasperating experience with the sorority system, which she found “excessively boring.” Unbending to sorority policies which required dating male pledges and attending numerous parties, it became evident that Nicholson interests were incompatible with those of her sisters. After one of several instances of bullying, she proudly returned the sorority pin, withdrew from the college, and went to finishing school.

Roberta met her husband, Meredith Nicholson Jr., at a summer resort in Northport Point, MI. In 1926, the two were married and she moved to Indiana, where she was “absolutely bowled over by the fact that it was virtually the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan and their vile machinations.” From a politically conservative family, Mrs. Nicholson soon found that in Indiana “the Republican party, as far as I could ascertain, was almost synonymous with the Ku Klux Klan. Well, how could you be anything but a Democrat, you know? That was to be on the side of angels so to speak.”

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Thomas Hart Benton’s “Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press,” scene on a mural representing Indiana at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, courtesy of Indiana University, accessed Indiana Public Media.

The day of her wedding, Roberta’s father received two letters, “terrible penmanship-pencil on cheap lined paper-warning him to stop the marriage of his daughter to that ‘nigger loving Jew.'”* Her father spent a large amount of money trying to identify the author of the “vitriolic hatred,” an attempt that proved unsuccessful. The couple’s wedded bliss was also impeded by the Great Depression, in which Meredith Jr. lost everything in the stock market and “this beautiful dream world we’d been living in is all of a sudden gone.” Following the bankruptcy of her husband’s company, Roberta took a job at Stewarts book store, supporting the family on $15 a week.

After the adoption of liberal principles, Nicholson engaged in her first real reform work in 1931. Birth control activist Margaret Sanger solicited Nicholson to establish a Planned Parenthood center in Indianapolis. A New York representative visited Nicholson in the city, describing the “very, very disappointing lack of progress they seemed to be making because there was apparently very little known about family planning and very little support in general terms for such a concept.” Nicholson was convinced that this should change and established a chapter in Indianapolis. Thus began Nicholson’s 18 years-long work as a family planning and social hygiene advocate.

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Margaret Sanger, circa 1917, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Outside of her role in Planned Parenthood, she worked as a public educator, going into cities, sometimes “very poor, miserable ghetto neighborhood[s],” to increase awareness of the “menace of venereal disease.” It became clear to Nicholson that ignorance about sexual health was widespread, including her own lack of knowledge about diseases, which she had referred to syphilis as the “awful awfuls” and gonorrhea the “never nevers.” During these often uncomfortable meetings with the public, Nicholson sought to inspire an open dialogue and a back and forth about taboo subjects. Nicholson also showed reproduction films to middle schoolers a job that provoked titters by students and sometimes outrage on the part of parents.

Her dedication to improve the welfare of children intensified during the Great Depression, when she witnessed impoverished children modeling clothes made by WPA employees. This was an effort to prove to those Indianapolis newspapers highly critical of Roosevelt’s New Deal that social programs were effective. Seeing these children being used to “get some bigoted publisher to change his views on some very necessary emergency measures” made her think of her own children and brought her to tears. In her ISL interview, she stated that “I decided that I was going to spend the rest of my life helping children that were disadvantaged, and I have.”

In 1932, Nicholson founded the Juvenile Court Bi-Partisan Committee, to convince politicians to reform juvenile justice and “keep the court out of politics and to employ qualified persons to handle the children.” These efforts proved successful, when in 1938 Judge Wilfred Bradshaw reformed the court. Nicholson served as a longtime committee member and in 1946, when other members became frustrated with progress and resigned, Nicholson stayed, saying “I feel that because you are going to sometimes lose your point of conviction doesn’t mean you throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Nicholson also worked to improve the lives of Indianapolis children as the president of the Children’s Bureau, an adoption agency and group home, and in her work on the board of Directors of the Child Welfare League.

At the encouragement of her mother-in-law, she worked with the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Repeal. In her interview with ISL, she explained her motive for joining the effort to repeal the 18th Amendment:

“These women felt very deeply about the fact that prohibition had inaugurated the era of of the gangsters: the illicit traffic in liquor, with no taxes and everything. They were building this empire of crime…And I said, ‘I am interested in it because these are the craziest days.’ Everybody had a bootlegger. I suppose real poor people didn’t but you never went to a party where there weren’t cocktails. I remember feeling very deeply ashamed to think that my children would be growing up with parents who were breaking the law. How was I going to teach them to fly right? I certainly wasn’t up to bucking the trend. So I thought, ‘All right, Ill work on this, that’s fine.’”

In 1933, Governor Paul V. McNutt appointed her to the Liquor Control Advisory Board and she was elected secretary to the state constitutional convention that ratified the 21st Amendment, repealing prohibition.

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Terre Haute Brewing Company, circa 1934, likely celebrating the repeal of prohibition, image courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

Her experience and qualifications made her a natural choice for public office. In 1934, she was convinced by the county chairman to run for Legislature during the FDR administration because “the Democrats smelled victory, because of the dramatic actions of the president. They wanted to get some names they thought would be meaningful to the voters so they invited me.” Although Nicholson had studied the issues in depth, it turned out that in order to be elected “all that was expected of one was to step up to the podium and say, ‘I stand four square behind FDR.’ That did it.”

Win she did, becoming the only woman to serve in the 1935-1936 Legislature, where she routinely faced sexism. According to the Indianapolis Star, during her time as secretary of the public morals committee, she informed her committeemen, “‘If you you think you’re going to stop me from talking just because I’ll be taking minutes, you’re wrong-I’ve got some things to say, and I’m going to say them.'” Nicholson elaborated that many of her colleagues thought:

“Wasn’t it cute of her. She’s got a bill. She’s going to introduce it just like a man. Isn’t that darling?’ I restrained myself, because after all I was in the distinct minority. I could not offend them. So I would just bat my eyelashes and beam at them and act as if I thought it was the way I wanted to be treated. Wasn’t that the only thing to do?”

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Indianapolis Star, January 16, 1935, accessed Newspapers.com.

Not only did she “have” a bill, but her breach of promise bill, dubbed the “Anti-Heart Balm Bill,” made waves in Indiana and across the country. Nicholson’s proposal would outlaw the ability of a woman to sue a man who had promised to marry them, but changed their minds. She felt that deriving monetary gain from emotional pain went against feminist principles and that if a man did the same to a woman he would be absolutely condemned. Nicholson described her reasoning for the bill,  which had been protested by some women’s groups:

“…it just seemed perfectly silly to me, that from time immemorial, a female being engaged to be married could change her mind and say, ‘Sorry Joe, it’s all off.’ But if the man did, and if he had any money, he could be sued. I thought that was absolutely absurd. . . . The thing that was so amazing and truly surprising to me is that it was widely interpreted as giving free reign to predatory males to take advantage of chaste maidens which, of course, was diametrically opposed to what my conception was. I thought-and I still think-that it was an early blow for women’s liberation. I thought it was undignified and disgusting that women sued men for the same changing their mind about getting married.”

Nicholson’s bill passed the House fairly easily, but was held up in the Senate because, in her opinion, “Something new was being tried and several of the senators felt, ‘Why should we be first?” The bill also encountered resistance by lawyers who profited from breach of promise suits. Eventually the bill passed, inspiring similar legislation in other states. The Indianapolis Star credited Nicholson’s bill with bringing the “Spotlight, Pathe News, Time and Look magazines hurrying to Indiana by sponsoring and successfully promoting the famous heart-balm bill which has saved many a wealthy Indianian embarrassment, both social and financial by preventing breach of promise suits.”

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Karl Kae Knecht Cartoon, courtesy of Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library, accessed Indiana Memory.

After passage of the “Gold-Diggers bill,” Nicholson was invited to speak around the country. At an address to the Chicago Association of Commerce and the Alliance of Business and Professional Women, she said “It seemed to me that we should say to these gold diggers and shyster lawyers, as did the Queen in ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ‘Off with their heads!” She added, “I am not a professional moralist, but I have attempted to set up a deterrent to irregular relations by removing the prospect of pecuniary profit from them.”

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The Post-Democrat (Muncie), March 20, 1936, accessed Ball State University Digital Media Repository.

Nicholson also received criticism during her legislative career for supporting the Social Security Act, for which a special session was called in 1936. The Head of the Indiana Taxpayers Association stopped her near the statehouse and asked if she would be voting for “‘that terrible communist social security.'” When she confirmed she was, Nicholson noted that his face creased with rage and he sped off in his chauffeured car. A state senator shared his conviction, contending that the act’s supporters were “‘Trying to turn this country into a GD Ethiopia!'”

Perhaps the most intense scrutiny Nicholson faced as a lawmaker was in her role as a working mother. The Indianapolis Star noted that nothing made Nicholson madder than “to have interfering friends charge that she is neglecting her family to pursue the career of a budding stateswoman.” The paper relayed Nicholson’s response:

“‘Some of my friends have told me that they think it is ‘perfectly terrible’ of me to get myself elected to the Legislature and spend the greater part of sixty days away from the children. . . . I told them, ‘I don’t spend any more time away from my children than other mothers do who play bridge and go to luncheons all the time.’ I try to be a good mother and so far as my being in the the Legislature preventing me from going to parties is concerned, I don’t care much for parties anyway!'”

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Nicholson with her daughter, Indianapolis Star, March 23, 1941, p.55, accessed Newspaper.com.

Despite criticism, Nicholson proved steadfast in her political convictions and was perceived of as a “force” by many observers; the Indianapolis Star proclaimed “Mrs. Nicholson yesterday wore a modish dark red velvet dress and smoked cigarettes frequently during the proceedings, and if any of her fellow legislators didn’t like it, it was just too bad. It was a pleasure to watch her.” When her term ended, the tenacious legislator ran for reelection, but lost because the political climate swung in favor of the Republican Party. However, this was far from the end of her public service.

Check back for Part II to learn about her WPA work alongside Ross Lockridge Sr.; visit with Eleanor Roosevelt; tiresome efforts to find housing for African American soldiers in Indianapolis who had been turned away; and observations about the Red Scare in local politics.

*The Nicholsons were not Jewish. It is likely that the author of the letter used the word “Jew” as a derogatory term for progressives.