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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In May 1863, at the time of another party gathering in Indianapolis, Hendricks was threatened by an unauthorized band of roaming soldiers when he attempted to speak. The melee that followed led up to the events known as the “Battle of Pogue’s Run.” Hendricks was also at the center of a volatile situation when he joined Governor Morton on the steps of the state house in eulogizing the assassinated president; Morton’s stern demeanor quieted the protesters, following cries of “Hang him” aimed at Hendricks, and the Democrat was able to continue his remarks. Ironically, this episode occurred near the site on the current State House grounds where a tall monument with a larger than life-size statue of Hendricks was erected in 1890 and still stands.
Gray, Ralph D. “Thomas A. Hendricks: Spokesman for the Democracy,” in Gray, ed., Gentlemen from Indiana: National Party Candidates, 1836-1940. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1977.
Holcombe, John W., and Hubert M. Skinner. Life and Public Services of Thomas A. Hendricks with Selected Speeches and Writings. Indianapolis: Carlon and Hollenbeck, 1886.
Neely, Jr., Mark E., The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Stampp, Kenneth M. Indiana Politics during the Civil War. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1949.
Tredway, G. R. Democratic Opposition to the Lincoln Administration in Indiana. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1973.
Henry S. Lane was the consummate politician for the turbulent times that spurred him into action. He regularly put party before personal ambition and was modest enough to affect change from behind the scenes with little glory. He was, perhaps more than any of the other political players involved, the prescient architect responsible for creating the Indiana Republican Party in the 1850s. But he is often overlooked and overshadowed by more dramatic characters. He did not make bold and controversial decisions like Oliver P. Morton. He did not bravely stand in opposition to slavery like George Washington Julian. Instead, he was a discerning compromiser and a shrewd political operative, essential qualities in a period marked by division and the gathering clouds of Civil War. Perhaps no man except Lane could have united the disparate factions squabbling over an array of issues to create a stalwart party able to challenge the Southern-sympathizing Indiana Democrats.
From such a grand description, one might picture Lane as a stately figure in the vein of peers such as Thomas A. Hendricks or Schuyler Colfax. However, Lane’s outward appearance did not reflect his astute political brain. He was tall, skinny, and pale. He was missing his front teeth and, in donning a blue denim suit, he did nothing to craft the appearance of a statesman. On top of everything, he chewed tobacco, a custom associated with the antebellum South.
This seemingly unimpressive figure, however, delivered some of the finest speeches ever orated by a Hoosier politician. For example, the Fort Wayne Standard described his 1854 keynote address at the People’s Party Convention as “soul-stirring and eloquent” and lamented their inability to describe his language sufficiently. His political savvy and oratory skills played no small part during one of the most exciting and tempestuous periods of Indiana political history.
Henry Smith Lane was born February 24, 1811 in Kentucky. By 1834, he settled in Crawfordsville, Montgomery County, Indiana, where he would maintain his permanent residence for the rest of his life. He quickly rose to prominence in Crawfordsville. He gained admission to the Indiana bar soon after arriving in the community. In 1837, at the age of twenty-six, he won a seat in the Indiana House of Representatives as a member of the Whig Party.
On August 3, 1840, as the result of a special election, Lane won an open seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. In Congress, he caucused with fellow Whigs such as former President John Quincy Adams, future president Millard Fillmore, fellow Hoosiers Richard W. Thompson, and ex-governor David Wallace. Lane won re-election to a full term on May 3, 1841 and served until August 6, 1843. Historian Walter Rice Sharp described Lane’s time in the U.S. House: “He delivered few speeches and introduced no measures of his own. But upon occasion he would launch forth with an impromptu outburst of feeling which indicated a depth of conviction.” Apparently, Lane’s limited but impassioned participation was enough to earn the respect of his idol and Whig Party leader Henry Clay.
When Clay won the Whig Party’s presidential nomination in 1844, Lane took to the campaign trail. Although he recently considered dropping out of politics due to a personal tragedy, Lane consented to be named as a candidate for state elector on the Whig ticket. He traveled across Indiana, and delivered public speeches in support of Clay for president. For example, the Evansville Journalreported on a June meeting to ratify Clay’s nomination at Tippecanoe Battle Ground: “Hon. Henry S. Lane of Montgomery, being loudly called for, took the stand and addressed the immense multitude in exposition of the principles and aims of the Whig party.” After Lane enthusiastically praised Clay and the party, the Indiana Whigs heartily ratified the nomination. He increased his efforts on behalf of Clay in the fall and one can follow his speaking trail through the newspapers using Hoosier State Chronicles. From August through October the (Brookville) Indiana American reported on Lane’s appearances at “Whig Mass Meetings” in Rockville, Lafayette, Logansport, Goshen, Fort Wayne, LaPorte, and Terre Haute.
The Democratic Party, however, was re-gaining dominance in Hoosier politics. The Whigs lost major ground in the 1844 state elections. In the presidential election, Hoosiers reflected the national choice of Democrat James K. Polk over Clay. Among other issues, the Whig Party failed to sense a changing economic climate. The country was in an expansionist mindset and the Democrats catered to this hunger for land and the imagined opportunities associated with it. Polk advocated for the addition of Texas and Oregon into the Union, satisfying the public’s desire for expansion, but also rocking the delicate balance of Slave and Free states that would soon lead to the Civil War. Lane had thought little about slavery thus far, and it would have been hard to imagine at this point in time, that he would one day unite the anti-slavery factions in Indiana.
Clay’s defeat reinforced Lane’s earlier desire to withdraw from politics. In 1845, he re-married (after being widowed) and focused his efforts on building a large white house in Crawfordsville which he named Lane Place. It was built to last – it still stands – and to serve as a quiet retreat from the national stage. His country, however, soon needed him. According to Lane biographer Michael Hall, Lane objected to Polk’s declaration of war on Mexico in 1846 on partisan political grounds. Yet as a patriot, he felt called to serve. He organized a group of volunteers who assembled outside Lane Place in June of 1846 and left home for war.
Over a month later, Major Lane and the First Infantry Regiment of Indiana Volunteers arrived at the Texas-Mexico border. The camp they found there was “hell upon earth,” according to Lane. The regiment waited in vain for months to be ordered into battle. Meanwhile, Lane and the other officers watched as their troops contracted and succumbed to malaria, dysentery, yellow fever, and other diseases. Lane wrote in his journal, “We shall bury a great many of our best men before we leave this miserable camp.” Despite repeated requests for an active assignment, Lane (now a lieutenant colonel) and his men returned to Indiana after ten months of inaction, disillusioned by their experiences. According to Hall, this event also embittered Lane to both the Whig and Democratic parties and “the bureaucratic bungling that caused the inefficiency he witnessed and had contributed to the war’s cause.” By 1847, Henry S. Lane anticipated the need for a new political party, but the climate would not be ripe for another seven years.
Zachary Taylor was the last Whig to win the presidency when he defeated Democrat Lewis Cass in the 1848 election. The new president was also a slaveholder. Hall claims that Lane “constantly criticized” Taylor, and thus further distanced himself from the Whig Party. However, a search through Indiana newspapers using Hoosier State Chronicles shows that Lane, putting party before personal sentiment, offered half-hearted support for Taylor. For example, the Indiana State Sentinel reported in February 1848, that Lane spoke to an audience of “Taylorites” in Crawfordsville. Lane described Taylor as “an American of capacity, of honesty, and merit” and reported that he offered his support for the obscure reason that “as the people are all going for him, I wish to keep out of the crowd.” However, Lane seemed more enthusiastic about his party that fall. The (Brookville) Indiana American reported on a gathering of many leading Midwestern Whigs and a large audience “who had left their shops, farms, and daily occupations to spend a day of two in honor of Zachary Taylor – the people’s candidate for the Presidency.” The paper described Lane, one of the main speakers at the event: “[T]hat gallant Whig champion and eloquent orator of our own State, Henry S. Lane, of Montgomery [County], was called for, and mounting a table at the door, he poured forth a flood of political truths which elicited shouts of applause! The old Whig fire seemed to be rekindled anew upon every altar, and not until a late hour, was he permitted to leave the stand.”
Political defeat, however, soon doused Lane’s fire. His 1848 loss to Joseph E. McDonald for the U.S. House of Representatives made clear that, much like the Whig Party itself, his political and moral stances were in flux. He was a Whig “in name only,” according Hall, but newspapers such as the Indiana State Sentinelrecognized him as “the most prominent member of that body.” More importantly, he had yet to take a clear position on slavery. While the Montgomery (County) Journal called him a “champion of human rights and freedom” who would check the expansion of slavery, the Sentinel noted that he had made no anti-slavery promises on the campaign trail. The paper reported that they hoped he would “define his position . . . and . . . openly declare whether he will support Taylor’s bidding or not.” Lane lost the election, and by this point in history, Indiana was solidly Democratic.
Lane’s response to the Compromise of 1850 epitomized his ambivalent stance on slavery. Like most Whigs, Lane supported this set of bills that temporarily eased tensions between pro and anti-slavery interests at the expense of actually solving the problem of slavery. Like Clay, Lane was morally opposed to the institution of slavery but politically only opposed the extension of slavery into new U.S. states and territories. (This is a marked contrast to George Washington Julian, for example, a staunch abolitionist who fought to rid the nation of slavery completely.) Also like Clay, Lane did not imagine the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which put limits on slavery’s expansion in the U.S. Territories, would ever be repealed. All Whigs, however, did not see the issues the same way as Lane and Clay. The Compromise of 1850 highlighted the sectional divisions in the Whig Party, while at the same time creating an uneasy peace. Henry Clay’s death in 1852 served as a harbinger of the Whig Party’s fate. A few short years thereafter, the party membership fractured over a piece of legislation that destroyed the tentative sectional truce.
In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act which repealed the Missouri Compromise. The bill was sponsored by Illinois Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas (who would later run for president against Abraham Lincoln) and signed into law by Democratic President Franklin Pierce. While initially a huge setback for the anti-slavery movement, opposition to this law and to the Democratic administration worked to mobilize disparate political groups against a common cause. This was the perfect climate to organize the new party that Lane and others had envisioned years earlier.
Among those Americans who were united against the extension of slavery into new territories their opinions on slavery itself varied widely. Many anti-slavery adherents opposed the western spread of slavery, but had little interest in the fate of enslaved peoples in the South. Whites who worked in agriculture and industry opposed slavery’s expansion because they did not want to compete with slave labor in the North or in new territories. For the anti-slavery politicians and electorate who favored emancipation, there were debates on how to accomplish this. Some groups favored emancipation only over an extended period of time. Even within this “gradual emancipation” position there were debates as to whether or not slaveholders should be compensated or not as a result of their loss of “property.” Even if an anti-slavery faction favored emancipation they often advocated that the freed African Americans should be removed from America and colonized in Africa. Only a small percentage of anti-slavery supporters abhorred the institution as an affront to God and labored for its immediate abolition and citizenship rights for African Americans. Despite these sometimes vastly different positions, the desire to stop slavery’s spread was a unifying aim, and in July 1854, former Whigs, anti-slavery Democrats, Free Soilers, and others organized to form a new national party: the Republican Party.
In Indiana, Lane and other prominent ex-Whigs called for a state convention to be held July 13, 1854 for the purpose of organizing a new party. Historian Walter Sharp wrote that “Lane, with his wealth of persuasive eloquence and his unblemished character, was clearly the prime mover of this inner council.” That day, ten thousand people reportedly rallied at Indianapolis to protest the Kansas-Nebraska Act. These included Hoosiers favoring political issues that ranged from alcohol-adverse temperance advocates to anti-Catholic, xenophobic Know-Nothings to defecting Democrats to staunch abolitionists. It was clear to Lane that the new party must include all of these diverse political voices, and unite them against slavery’s expansion. Thus, Indiana’s arm of what would in ensuing years become the Republican Party, had to be more moderate in order to be more inclusive. Lane and other leaders chose to call it the People’s Party. They reasoned that by avoiding the name “Republican” they could avoid the association with the eastern abolition movement that many Hoosiers saw as too radical.
Democratic newspapers had their own, more colorful names, for the new party. The Indiana State Sentinel referred to the July meeting as the “Isms Convention” and the “Great Mongrel Convention,” criticizing the sheer number of different ideologies that the party was attempting to reconcile. Another Democratic paper, the Worcester (Massachusetts) Transcript, called it “a Free Soil Convention in disguise.” The Sentinel also hyperbolized, calling the People’s Party the “Abolition Free Soil Party” in an attempt to scare off the conservative Know-Nothings and defecting Democrats.
Despite the efforts of detractors, the convention was a success. This was due in large part to Lane’s unifying speech where he outlined the platform of the new party. He appeased the prohibitionists by calling for a liquor ban and the Know-Nothings by calling for a “lengthy citizenship” process, all without offending the German immigrant members in their midst. Mostly, however, he set the party in opposition to the detested Kansas-Nebraska Act and the expansion of slavery into the territories. Lane biographer Hall explained that his speech, “Molded the various confederations of political doctrine into one shaky, but significant movement.” The (Huntington) IndianaHerald praised Lane’s speech and delighted over his criticism of Democratic U.S. Senator John Pettit who recently spoke in Indianapolis in support of the reviled Kansas-Nebraska Act and famously stated during the Senate debate on the act that Jefferson’s statement included in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” was “a self-evident lie.” The paper reported:
[Lane’s] address was of the most soul-stirring and eloquent character. We cannot pretend to give his language, and if we could, no one, unless they heard him, could form an idea of his style oratory. His defense of the glorious Declaration of Independence from the foul aspirations of Petit [sic], was the finest specimen of terrible denunciations that we have listened to for many years. Had that individual been present, as brazenfaced as he is, he must have wilted down under the Atlas load of scorn piled upon him by the eloquent Lane.
Of course, the Democratic Indiana State Sentinel had a different view of Lane’s speech. The paper complained that Lane’s stance was simply to oppose anything the Democrats advocated. The Sentinel also made fun of Lane’s folksy, rustic manner of speaking:
If a set of Democratic resolutions were to embody the Ten Commandments, Henry S. Lane would be “agin ’em”. . . If he knows which side the Democrats are on, he is always on the other side, and his only guide has ever been opposition to Democracy.
In a way, the Sentinel was right. Lane knew that perhaps the only thing this heterogeneous group of Hoosiers had in common, was opposition to the Democratic Party and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The official platform set forth by the People’s Party was simple. First, they opposed the extension of slavery. Second, they advocated for laws to “suppress the traffic in ardent spirits as a beverage.” And third, they opposed everything laid out by the Indiana Democratic Party during their recent convention. One example of the platform’s moderation was seen when the abolitionist George Washington Julian introduced a minority report calling for a stronger stance against slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law. The convention quickly tabled Julian’s request. Nonetheless, the Indiana People’s Party rode their non-traditional platform to success in the 1854 elections statewide; they took nine out of eleven congressional races and gained a majority in the lower house of the Indiana General Assembly.
Lane exerted great influential in steering the new party toward a moderate stance on slavery. He recognized that most of Indiana’s electorate saw the abolition movement as too radical. At this delicate time, he was careful to speak only against the extension of slavery, and did not advocate for its abolition. In 1855, he wrote to Indiana Congressman Schuyler Colfax, “We must resist the encroachment of Slavery, if we would preserve the rights of Freedom.” Despite his moderation, Democratic papers charged Lane with being an abolitionist. While Lane was certainly not an abolitionist, his views on slavery were shifting towards opposing the institution itself, not just its extension.
During the 1856 election year Lane remained a key figure in the Indiana party and began making waves nationally as well. In 1856, Lane chaired the People’s Party Convention in Indianapolis and the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia that nominated John C. Frémont for president (and had the crafty campaign slogan: “Free labor, free soil, free men, Frémont”). In his 1856, Lane addressed the Republican National Convention, and reiterated that the party opposed only extension of slavery, not its abolition, but added that he believed the Declaration of Independence to be “an anti-slavery document.” He described the Republican Party as representing “every shade of Anti-slavery sentiment in the United States” and that the party hoped to see a time when God would “look upon no slave North or South.” He continued:
Freedom is national. Freedom is the general rule. Slavery is the exception. It exists by sufferance. Where it does exist under the sanction of the law, we make no war upon it. Does that constitute us Abolitionists, simply because we are opposed to the extension of slavery? If that makes an Abolitionist, write ‘Abolitionist’ all over me.
The Crawfordsville Journal reprinted Lane’s speech. The only editorial comment the Journal provided was this: “We give it to our readers without note of comment, as it was reported for that paper. We consider it, however, a master stroke of Western eloquence. Let everybody read it.”
Back home in Indiana, Lane again demonstrated his political savvy and ability to put party before personal ambitions in an attempt to strengthen it for the 1856 election. Lane was the preferred pick for gubernatorial nominee among some party leaders for his skill, experience, and unifying effect. However, Lane knew Oliver P. Morton would be the candidate with a better chance of winning. Morton had been a Democrat until just before the People’s Party’s organization and had no record of anti-slavery rhetoric. A former Democrat was likely to draw the support moderate and disillusioned Democrats as well as former Know-Nothings, who were not thrilled with the participation of Lane and others in the Republican National Convention (as they still considered the national party too radical). Despite this creative maneuver, Morton lost the election. Democrats won the state and the national election making James Buchanan, supporter of strict fugitive slave laws and the rights of states to decide the slavery issue, the leader of a divided nation.
Over the next four years, the People’s Party aligned itself with the national platform and adopted the name “Republican.” As the Indiana party looked toward the 1860 election year, Lane looked toward Washington and a Senate seat. He also applied what he knew about offering the voters moderate candidates who could appeal to various factions. He used this knowledge when he threw the Indiana delegation’s support behind Abraham Lincoln’s nomination at the 1860 Republican National Convention. Check back for a second post on Lane and his role in Lincoln’s 1860 presidential nomination and scheme to win both the governorship and a Senate seat for his party.
For more information see:
Michael Hall, The Road to Washington: Henry S. Lane, The Rise of an Indiana Politician, 1842-1860 (Crawfordsville: Montgomery County Historical Society, 1990).
Walter Rice Sharp, “Henry S. Lane and the Formation of the Republican Party in Indiana,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 7:2 (September 1920): 93-112.
Quick, Abraham Lincoln buffs! Can you name all the dates Lincoln delivered a public address in Indiana after moving to Illinois in 1830?
Did you guess February 11 and 12, 1861? Identifying those days were probably fairly easy since that was when Lincoln journeyed through Indiana en route to Washington for his first inauguration. According to historical records, he delivered whistle-stop speeches at State Line City, Lafayette, Thorntown, Lebanon, and Zionsville. His train stopped at Indianapolis that evening where Governor Oliver P. Morton and 20,000 Lincoln supporters welcomed him. He addressed the citizens of Indiana from the train platform before he disembarked to his hotel room at the Bates House. Lincoln adherents called upon the president-elect later that evening, and he delivered an ad hoc speech from a balcony of the hotel. He resumed his journey east the next morning, which also happened to be his fifty-second birthday. Lincoln continued to greet and deliver short speeches to well-wishers in Shelbyville, Greensburg, Morris, and Lawrenceburg as his train steamed on to Cincinnati, Ohio.
If you are an advanced Lincoln enthusiast, you may be able to identify another Lincoln visit to Indiana that occurred in 1844 while he campaigned for Whig presidential candidate Henry Clay. During that fall visit, he spoke at the Spencer County Courthouse in Rockport.
According to oral lore and tradition, he made several other speeches around Spencer County (and allegedly spoke in Knox, Daviess, Warrick, and Vanderburgh counties). However, the Rockport address is the only southern Indiana speech corroborated with a contemporary source. While in Spencer County, Lincoln visited his boyhood home and the graves of his mother and sister. This would be Lincoln’s first and only return to his childhood home since he left Indiana in 1830.
Aside from those two visits in 1844 and 1861, most Lincoln fans would be hard-pressed to identify the other time that Lincoln visited Indiana for political purposes. It happened on September 19, 1859 in Indianapolis, where he delivered a speech so obscure that it was largely forgotten for 70 years before a Lincoln researcher and an Indiana State Library employee uncovered it in an issue of a short-lived Indianapolis newspaper, the Daily Evening Atlas.
First, some historical context is helpful to illuminate Lincoln’s Indianapolis speech. In January 1859, Lincoln lost his U.S. Senate campaign to Stephen A. Douglas. Financial necessity forced him to pay more attention to his legal career in the aftermath of this political defeat. Practicing law, however, had lost some of its luster after the political-high of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. As the foremost Republican in Illinois, Lincoln felt an obligation to lead the fractious Illinois Republican political alliance and craft a vision for party success in 1860. Lincoln was particularly concerned about Douglas’s attempts to position himself as a centrist presidential candidate who could siphon off some of the fledgling Republican Party’s conservative-to-moderate-leaning internal factions.
In early September 1859, Lincoln declined an invitation to speak in Illinois citing the necessity of devoting himself to private business. However, two things occurred in September that changed Lincoln’s mind. Harper’s Magazine published his arch-rival’s article that extolled the political virtues of popular sovereignty. Ohio Democrats also invited Douglas to campaign for state candidates. These two events compelled Lincoln to confront the Little Giant, albeit indirectly.
There was no formal head-to-head continuation of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in September 1859, but Lincoln shadowed his nemesis throughout the Buckeye State, and delivered speeches in Columbus and Cincinnati following Douglas’s wake. On September 16 and 17, Lincoln spoke at the Ohio capitol, Dayton, and briefly at Hamilton. The overall texts of these speeches were similar to one another, and presented sharper arguments than Lincoln first introduced during the formal debates in 1858.
Of all the oratory Lincoln delivered during this circuit, his Cincinnati speech on the evening of September 17, 1859 stood out from the rest, as he crafted his address to speak directly to the many southern Ohioans and Kentuckians in the audience. It was probably the best attended speech during his tour through the state. The speech also reached a much larger audience when newspapers throughout the North widely reprinted and commented on the Cincinnati address. The text so thoroughly saturated the 19th-century news network that few journalists covered the Indianapolis speech that he gave two days later.
On the morning of September 19, 1859, Abraham Lincoln, his wife, and one of their sons departed Cincinnati for Indianapolis. They arrived at the Union Depot in the Hoosier capital at four o’clock. A party of political friends, led by Atlas editor John D. Defrees, welcomed the Lincolns as they disembarked. The hosts escorted their visitors across the street to the American Hotel (located near present-day 18 W. Louisiana St.) where they would spend the night.
At seven o’clock that evening, an audience packed the Masonic Hall (then located on the southeast corner of Washington Street and Tennessee, which is now Capitol Avenue) to hear the Illinoisan speak. Among those in attendance were political dignitaries from both sides of the aisle, including Indiana’s Democratic Governor Ashbel P. Willard, Lincoln’s future cabinet member Caleb Blood Smith, future Indiana governor Oliver P. Morton, and Congressman Albert G. Porter (also a future governor). Although not mentioned in newspaper coverage as being in attendance, the Atlas reported that Henry S. Lane registered at a hotel that day. Most likely he attended too. If Lane was in the audience, then his presence would be of interest since he became an instrumental lobbyist for Lincoln’s presidential nomination at the 1860 Republican National Convention, and later as a U.S. Senator during the Civil War he voted for many of President Lincoln’s legislative proposals.
One wonders how Lincoln appeared and sounded to his Midwestern audiences during the late summer of 1859. The descriptions of Lincoln in the Indianapolis newspapers are somewhat limited. However, the audience’s impression of the orator were perhaps not unlike the Democratically leaning Cincinnati Enquirer‘s colorful introduction of the then not-so-well-known Lincoln to their readers:
“Hon. Mr. Lincoln is a tall, dark-visaged, angular, awkward,
positive-looking sort of individual, with character written on his face and energy expressed in his every movement. He has the appearance of what is called…a Western man – one who, without education or early advantages, has risen by his own exertions from an [sic] humble origin….He makes no pretension to oratory
or the graces of diction, but goes directly to his point…regardless of elegance or even system….With orthoepy [correct pronunciation of words] he evidently has little acquaintance, pronouncing words in a manner that puzzles the ear sometimes to determine whether he is speaking his own or a foreign tongue.”
After Lincoln’s old congressional colleague Caleb Smith introduced the lecturer to the Indianapolis crowd, Lincoln opened his address with some reminiscences of growing up in Indiana. The Atlas, the best extant source for this speech, reported his words in the third person:
“Away back in the fall of 1816, when he was in his eighth year, his father brought him over from the neighboring State of Kentucky, and settled in the State of Indiana, and he grew up to his present enormous height on our own good soil of Indiana. [Laughter.] The scenes he passed through to-day are wonderfully different from the first scenes he witnessed in the State of Indiana, where he was raised, in Spencer county, on the Ohio river. There was an unbroken wilderness there then, and an axe was put in his hand; and with the trees and logs and grubs he fought until he reached his twentieth year.”
“[H]e had chopped wood, raised log cabins, hunted bears, drank out of the same bottle as was the fashion of those days, with the woodsmen of Indiana for years. He gave a graphic account of a bear hunt in the early days of this wooden country, when the barking of dogs, the yelling of men, and the cracking of the rifle when Bruin was treed, would send the blood bounding through the veins of the pioneer. Those were the days when friendships were true, and he did not think any other state of society would ever exist where men would be drawn so close together in feeling and affection.”
It is an interesting addition considering Lincoln had authored a poem about a bear hunt, and evidently the incident left quite an impression on him.
Lincoln stopped with his reminiscences, and admitted that he expected that his audience came to hear him say something about politics. At this point, he transitioned into a critique of Stephen Douglas’s advocacy of popular sovereignty. Lincoln opened his political remarks by recalling his famous words: “this government cannot endure permanently, half slave and half free; that a house divided against itself cannot stand.” He pointed out that Douglas had critiqued this thesis, and counter argued, “Why cannot this government endure forever, part free, part slave, as the original framers of the constitution made it?” Lincoln set out to answer Douglas’s question over the next two hours.
Lincoln reasoned that the U.S. Constitution was silent about slavery’s continued existence in America, and he disputed Douglas’s contention that the country was to endure “part free, part slave.” Lincoln’s main support for this argument was legislation near and dear to the history of Indiana: the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which prohibited the introduction of slavery into the Northwest Territory. Lincoln correctly pointed out that the Second Continental Congress passed the ordinance at the same time as legislators were crafting the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, Lincoln maintained,
“There was nothing said in the Constitution relative to the spread of slavery in the Territories, but the same generation of men said something about it in this ordinance of ’87, through the influence of which you of Indiana, and your neighbors in Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan, are prosperous, free men….Our fathers who made the government, made the ordinance of 1787.”
Lincoln proved to be an astute student of Indiana history, and related to his audience that a few Indiana Territory residents had once petitioned Congress to amend the ordinance to allow for the introduction of slavery. Lincoln likened this to the residents trying to exercise popular sovereignty. Yet in this case, Congress denied the petition. Lincoln reasoned, “[H]ad it not been for the ordinance of ’87, Indiana would have been a slave State.” He thereby refuted Douglas’s key political doctrine, by citing an example where the federal government had prohibited the spread of slavery, and ignored the supplications of some citizens seeking to exercise popular will. “Popular sovereignty,” Lincoln argued, “has not made a single free State in a run of seventy or eighty years [of the nation’s existence].”
In addition to focusing on popular sovereignty, Lincoln’s speech also focused on economics by contrasting slave labor and free labor. Lincoln summed up Douglas’s popular sovereignty in this way: “If one man choose[s] to make a slave of another man, neither that other man [n]or anybody else has a right to object.”
For Lincoln, that was a dangerous proposition. As a counter to this prospect, he praised the merits of free labor. Citing Indiana’s labor force, Lincoln said, “[O]f all that is produced, seven-eighths of it is produced by the hands of men who work upon their own ground; and no more than one-eighth is produced by hired men. The condition of the hired man was not worse than that of the slave.” Lincoln recalled his own work in Indiana as a hired man, and assessing his own experience at that time he did not consider himself worse off than a slave. He concluded:
“Men who were industrious and sober, and honest in the pursuit for their own interests, should after a while accumulate capital, and after that should be allowed to enjoy it in peace, and if they chose, when they had accumulated capital, to use it to save themselves from actual labor and hire other people to labor for them, it was right.”
At this time and before this audience, Lincoln spoke out against slavery not on moral grounds, but on economic grounds. Near the end of his two hour address, he said, “The mass of white men were injured by the effect of slave labor in the neighborhood of their own labor.” In other words, free labor’s value was depressed because of the existence of slave labor in the United States.
After Lincoln concluded, Oliver Morton took the stage to say a few words, but on account of the lateness of the hour, he kept his remarks brief. The next day the Lincolns continued their westward journey home to Springfield. The Indianapolis press, both Republican and Democratic organs, gave accounts of the previous night’s events, but other papers largely ignored the future president’s remarks.
In the grand scheme of things, one could conclude that Lincoln’s visit to Indianapolis in 1859 was rather insignificant. Chalk it up as one of those “George Washington slept here” historical moments. However, there is another interpretation of his visit, which adds historical significance to it. Historian Gary Ecelbarger in a Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association article argued against the common narrative that Lincoln’s Cooper Union Speech delivered in New York City in February 1860 was the speech that made Lincoln president. Ecelbarger persuasively argues that before Lincoln could get an east-coast endorsement for his candidacy, he first needed to mobilize political support among Midwesterners. Obviously, Lincoln was a well-known figure in Illinois politics, but his first deliberate and substantial politicking outside of his home-state’s borders started with his September 1859 trip to Ohio and Indiana.
These speeches were the first of about 30 addresses Lincoln delivered in eight states and the Kansas Territory in the nine months leading up to his nomination for president in May 1860. As Ecelbarger interpreted it, “[This] is evidence that Lincoln sought to increase his exposure outside of Illinois for a run for the presidency.” In this light, Lincoln’s visit to Indianapolis takes on greater significance, as he introduced himself to the Hoosier demographic that would aid his political ascent. Many of the Republican attendees who heard him that night in Indianapolis would become influential brokers in helping him secure the presidential nomination, electoral influencers that would enable him to carry the Hoosier state in the general election, and strong backers of his executive and military policies as president during the Civil War.
To read the full text of Lincoln’s Indianapolis speech, click here. View summaries of some of Lincoln’s most poignant assertions in his Indianapolis speech via the Atlas: