In May of 1861, as men throughout the state answered Governor Oliver P. Morton’s call for volunteers to suppress the rebellion, well-known abolitionist and evangelical speaker Sojourner Truth visited Indiana to speak in support of the war. This would ultimately lead to her arrest. The reformer was born a slave in Ulster County, New York, sometime in the late 1790s, and named Isabella. She became free in 1827 under New York’s gradual emancipation law, and took the name Isabella Van Wagenen, after her last master. That year, she had a religious conversion experience and became a Methodist. In June, Isabella Van Wagenen was inspired to change her name to Sojourner Truth and became an itinerant preacher. She settled among the Northampton Association and for the remainder of her life spoke widely on behalf of spiritual, anti-slavery, feminist, and temperance causes.
Sojourner Truth first visited northeastern Indiana in 1858, probably because it was not far from her new home in the Harmonia community near Battle Creek, Michigan. By setting foot in Indiana she broke the law, as Article 13 of Indiana’s 1851 Constitution provided that “No negro or mulatto shall come into or settle in the State, after the adoption of this Constitution.” This was of no concern for a woman of her ideals and determination. It was at the small town of Silver Lake in Kosciusko County that a hostile crowd insisted that she was really a man in disguise. Challenged to reveal her breasts to women of the audience, she uncovered her breasts for the entire audience, saying that she “had suckled many a white babe.” Accounts of this “symbolic rape,” as modern scholars describe it, were published both locally and in the nation’s leading abolitionist newspaper, William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator.
Her 1861 appearance at the Steuben County courthouse in Angola was, according to abolitionist accounts, disrupted by a drunken mob, which pushed and cursed her, threatening tar and feathers or even worse. Reports noted that she made a dramatic figure: unusually tall (some said nearly six feet), thin, very dark complexioned, and dressed for this occasion in red, white, and blue. According to the Steuben Republican, “Sojourn Truth” did speak, although her words were not recorded. Local residents were divided on her right to speak, but the Republican said nothing about a mob or threats of violence. Its seven headlines tell a story of confusion in five distinct typefaces:
A BLOODLESS VICTORY.
Free Speech Tolerated in Angola.
GRAND MILITARY DISPLAY!
NEGROES NOT TOLERATED IN INDIANA.
Arrest for Harboring Negroes.
Arrest and Trial of Sojourn Truth.
ANGOLA BECOMING HERSELF AGAIN.
Apparently many local Republicans were reluctant to allow Sojourner Truth to speak, although they were equally opposed to allowing anti-abolitionist Democrats to prevent her from speaking. The Republican seemed to be more concerned with the community’s reputation for law and order than for printing a clear account of what actually happened:
Although the freedom of speech had not been questioned here, yet the free speech of colored persons was not thought advisable at this time and under the excited state of the country, which met with opposition by some and encouragement by others, which resulted in favor of free speech, although but of short duration.
Sojourner Truth was arrested “by her would be friends on a charge of being in the State contrary to the laws of the State,” tried before a friendly justice of the peace, and set free. Other local residents, dissatisfied by this “mock trial,” had her arrested again and taken before a less-friendly justice, whereupon her friends won a change of venue to a court ten miles to the north in Jamestown, very near the state line. As she told the story afterward, she and her white companion Josephine Griffing were called before the courts on six occasions, but she was never convicted. A local abolitionist named Horatio Roby was arrested and bound over to the circuit court “for harboring a negro.” He was released on bail set at $500, but there is no record that he was ever brought to trial.
Sojourner Truth remained for about a month during her 1861 visit, and she certainly spoke at a number of places in northeastern Indiana, not only in favor of the war itself, which was not a matter of great controversy in that part of the state, but also on the evils of slavery and the necessity for its destruction. Abolition did not become government policy until President Abraham Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of September 22, 1862.
Sojourner Truth’s visit emphasizes how divided was public opinion in Indiana in the late spring of 1861. Most Hoosiers were enthusiastically in favor of preserving the Union, far fewer favored the abolition of slavery, and few of those would have welcomed freed slaves to live in Indiana. Although it was unenforceable during and after the Civil War, Article 13 was not formally repealed until 1881. Nevertheless, despite accusations of intimidation by a drunken mob published by the abolitionist press, Sojourner Truth did speak publicly in Steuben County. She was threatened but not injured, she was protected by armed members of the Scott Township Home Guard, and she was never convicted for the crime of entering the state although obviously guilty of the charge. The Steuben Republican believed that “Negro excitement has run very high in Angola for the last ten days, very much to the discredit of the town.” Those who invited, sheltered and defended Sojourner Truth on her visits to Indiana held a much different opinion.
The author wishes to acknowledge the generous assistance of Peg Dilbone of Angola, independent researcher and Steuben County Historian.
Painter, Nell Irvin, editor, Narrative of Sojourner Truth. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.
Painter, Nell Irvin, Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.
Steuben Republican [Angola, Indiana].
Thornbrough, Emma Lou. Indiana in the Civil War Era, 1850-1880. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau and Indiana Historical Society, 1965.
Thornbrough, Emma Lou,The Negro in Indiana: A Study of a Minority. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1957.
Washington, Margaret, Sojourner Truth’s America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009.
When I started researching him, William Hayden English seemed like a pretty typical figure for the 19th century: Congressman, businessman, Vice-Presidential candidate. However, I soon realized how complicated his life and his politics really were.
English played a key role in the unrest in Kansas during the antebellum period, yet supported the Union during the Civil War (but was still antagonistic towards Lincoln’s presidency). A deal broker, English often chose the middle of the road. He was a conciliator, a compromiser, and a tactical politician who was a Pro-Union Democrat who held misgivings about both slave-sympathizers in the South and radical Republicans in the North. In more ways than one, he was truly a man apart.
William Hayden English was born on August 27, 1822. Early in his life, English received some formal education. According to a letter by E. D. McMaster from 1839, English received education in the “Preparatory and Scientific departments” of Hanover College. Additionally, he received accreditation to teach multiple subjects at common schools by examiners Samuel Rankin and John Addison. He would eventually leave school and pursue law, where he passed the bar in 1840.
His major break in politics came with his selection as the principal Secretary of the Indiana Constitutional Convention of 1850. During his time as Secretary, he earned the reputation as being a thoughtful and balanced tactician, someone who was willing to work with others and make things happen.
In his election speech, he stated his praise for the new Constitution and called for a full new legal code to be established. He additionally called for a “spirit of concession and compromise” and for his colleagues to “zealously apply himself to the completion of the great work intrusted [sic] to us by a generous constituency.” In effect, the Indiana House of Representatives under Speaker English had consolidated state government and extended its purview to neglected regions of the state.
After his time in state government, English was called for national service. He won his first election to the United States House of Representatives in 1852, and was reelected in 1854, 1856, and 1858. During his tenure in Congress, English would be remembered for his “wise and patriotic course in Congress,” notably his important role in crafting a controversial bill that gave Kansas the choice of whether to come into the Union as a free or slave state.
English’s time in Congress, much like the rest of his political career, can be seen as pragmatic. While he morally abhorred slavery, he condemned abolitionists and believed in the notion of “popular sovereignty,” which argued that the people of a state or territory should choose for themselves whether to have slavery. He stated his view in a speech in 1854:
Sir, I am a native of a free State [sic], and have no love for the institution of slavery. Aside from the moral question involved, I regard it as an injury to the State where it exists….But sir, I never can forget that we are a confederacy of States, possessing equal rights, under our glorious Constitution. That if the people of Kentucky believe the institution of slavery would be conducive to their happiness, they have the same right to establish and maintain that we of Indiana have to reject it; and this doctrine is just as applicable to States hereafter to be admitted as to those already in the Union.
During this session, Congress was debating a bill named the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would repeal the Missouri Compromise (also known as the Compromise of 1820) and allow for states and their citizens to decide whether they wanted to be admitted as a slave state or free state. English voted for the bill and it was later signed into law by President Franklin Pierce on May 30, 1854. Almost immediately, violence erupted between pro-slavery and anti-slavery advocates in the state, who could not agree on the direction of the state constitution.
After his reelection in 1856, English, along with congressional colleague Alexander Stephens, went to work on a compromise bill that would potentially quell the violence and political unrest. This compromise, known as the English Bill, allowed the citizens of Kansas to either accept or reject the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution. However, if the citizens of Kansas chose to be a slave state by referendum, they had to additionally let go of federal land grants within the territory.
The bill passed and the voters of Kansas did not reject the land grants, thus rejecting the Lecompton Constitution. Upon the Bill’s passage, English declared that, “The measure just passed ought to secure peace, and restore harmony among the different sections of the confederacy.” The Kansas issue would be not resolved until its admission to the Union as a free state in 1861. As he did in the Indiana House, English struck a compromise that hoped to quell the violence, using federal land grants as a way to take heat off the slavery issue.
While the English Bill attempted to stave off conflict within Kansas, the harmony among the nation was short lived. The growing tensions among pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions of the country were mounting, and English lamented this development in one of his final speeches to Congress. He chastised both the abolitionists and radical Republicans, who he believed had appealed to the “passions and prejudices of the northern people, for the sake of getting into office and accomplishing mere party ends.” To English, the cause of all this strife was the agitation of the slavery question and the solution would be to elect a Democrat President and ensure that the national discussion be reverted back to other issues of state. This did not happen; in the fall of 1860, voters chose Republican Abraham Lincoln and the first seven southern states seceded from the union.
By 1861, right as English was leaving Congress, the United States became engulfed in Civil War. While many within the national Democratic Party either defected to the Confederacy or took a tenuous position of support in the north, English was unequivocally for the Union. In an August 16, 1864 article in the Indiana Daily State Sentinel, the Committee of the Second Congressional District, under the chairmanship of English, wrote a platform that supported the Union and decried the act of secession. However, it did reserve criticism for President Lincoln, particularly with regards to supposed violations of freedom of speech. English’s pragmatic, even-handed political gesture fell in line with many of his past political actions.
After his time in Congress, he was the President of the First National Bank of Indianapolis for 14 years. He established the bank in 1863, taking advantage of the reestablished national banking system during the Civil War. According to historian Emma Lou Thornbrough, the First National Bank of Indianapolis became “the largest bank of Indianapolis, and one of the largest in the Middle West.” He is also listed as a “banker” in the 1870 Census and as a “capitalist” in the 1880 Census. By the time of his death in 1896, English had become one of the wealthiest men in Indiana.
English served as the President of the Indiana Historical Society, from 1886 until in his death ten years later. During his tenure, English wrote a two-volume history of the Northwest Territory and the life of George Rogers Clark. It was published in 1896, shortly after his death. An 1889 article in the Indianapolis Journal noted his compiling of sources and his emerging methodology; a two-volume general history that would be divided at the 1851 revised State Constitution. By 1895, the project materialized into the history mentioned above, with English using documents from leaders involved, such as Thomas Jefferson and Clark himself. He also conducted interviews with other key figures of the revised Indiana Constitution. English’s historical research became the standard account of the Northwest Territory for those within the Historical Society and the general public for many years.
His legacy in Indiana is lesser known, but he does have some monuments. A sculpture in the Indiana Statehouse commemorates his place in history. The town of English, Indiana is also named after the late politician. According to historian H. H. Pleasant and the Crawford County Democrat, the unincorporated town was originally named Hartford. It was changed to English in 1886 after the town was officially incorporated, in honor of election to Congress from the area. He also has an IHB marker at his former home in Lexington, Scott County, Indiana.
To many who enter the Statehouse and see his statue on the fourth floor, he might be just another leader of Indiana’s past. However, English’s political career attempted to stave off Civil War (at least temporarily) and reinforced Indiana’s political tradition of measured, temperate leaders who sought a middle ground on most issues. In that regard, English might be one of Indiana’s most emblematic statesmen.