The Indiana General Assembly, a History: Part Four (1866-1890)

Eugene V. Debs, ca. 1890s. His frustrating, short-lived career in the Indiana Senate catalyzed his labor activism and Presidential campaigns under the Socialist Party ticket. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

Eugene V. Debs, ca. 1890s. His frustrating, short-lived career in the Indiana Senate catalyzed his labor activism and Presidential campaigns under the Socialist Party ticket. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

James Sidney Hinton, 1881. Hinton was the first African-American in the Indiana General Assembly and the first African-American to hold a public office in Indiana state government. Courtesy of  Statehouse File.

James Sidney Hinton, 1881. Hinton was the first African-American in the Indiana General Assembly and the first African-American to hold a public office in Indiana state government. Courtesy of Statehouse File.

Governor Isaac P. Gray. His desire to become a U.S. Senator lead to the violent

Governor Isaac P. Gray. His desire to become a U.S. Senator lead to the violent “Black Day” of the Indiana General Assembly. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

The Reconstruction Era and the Gilded Age

            After the Civil War, Indiana’s economy and society progressed in multiple ways, but the politics were still divided, problematic and, at least on one occasion, violent. During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, the party “bosses” (often embodied in party committeemen), controlled a large portion of the political dialogue, especially in the election of legislators and the framing of state legislative accomplishments.[1] Members elected to the General Assembly were also extremely local; as historian Philip Vandermeer notes, “63% were lifetime residents of their communities.”[2] An internal divide existed between the state parties’ leadership and the local politicians, always trying to find a balance of power. Furthermore, a contraction of money during the recessions of 1868 and 1873 precipitated legislative remedies from the General Assembly, including regulations on railroad rates. It even inspired a whole political movement around sound monetary policy, the Greenback Party, which won a minority of seats in the legislature during the 1874 election.[3] The Republican Party had a nice foothold on the politics of Indiana immediately after the Civil War, but during the Gilded Age, the General Assembly was mostly a Democratic institution.

The movement for temperance, and outright prohibition, grew in the immediate years after Reconstruction. In Indiana, many powerful organizations emerged whose main mission was to limit or to outlaw alcohol all together. The Indiana Temperance Alliance, in conjunction with the national Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), held conferences throughout the 1870s that favored prohibition and limited alcohol use. This activism inspired only minor legislation from the Indiana General Assembly, most notably a law that outlawed Sunday and holiday liquor sales. Public drunkenness was also given stronger punishments. Despite all this, the temperance movement didn’t back down. In response to growing complaints from citizens and temperance groups, a prohibition amendment was proposed by the Indiana House of Representatives in 1881, but was shot down. Temperance would continue to shape the state throughout the late nineteenth century and would lead to the implementation of national Prohibition during the 1920s.[4]

The Rise of Suffrage

Along with temperance, Women’s suffrage emerged as an influential force the late nineteenth century, and it equally influenced Indiana. Dr. Mary Thomas and Amanda Way, both motivated by their Quaker upbringing, helped to found the Indiana Women’s Rights Association (IWRA) in 1851. In 1859, Dr. Thomas was the first woman to speak in front of the Indiana General Assembly, where she introduced a petition to extend full political equality to women. Historian James H. Madison described the General Assembly’s response: “Legislators listened, some ridiculed, nothing resulted.”[5] After a hiatus in the 1850s, Way and Thomas reinstated the IWRA in 1869, which led to another presentation to the Indiana General Assembly in 1871. This time, Way spoke to the legislature and argued for the same legal and political equality that Thomas had called for a generation prior.[6] The General Assembly decided against Way’s requests, and even passed a law in 1873 that limited divorces in the state.[7] Nevertheless, Way and Thomas’s activism on suffrage and equality impacted generations of women’s rights activists who eventually saw the passage of the Women’s suffrage amendment in 1920.

The “Black Day” of the Indiana General Assembly

            Beginning as an electoral dispute that turned into outright violence, the “Black Day” of the Indiana General Assembly remains one of the darkest moments in Indiana political history. In 1885, Governor Isaac P. Gray voiced interest in an appointment to Benjamin Harrison’s U. S. Senate seat after Harrison’s presumed election to the Presidency in 1888. From this, an internal battle over the Lieutenant Governor’s position began. Robert Roberson’s election to Lieutenant Governor in an 1886 run-off race bitterly pitted Democrats against Republicans. The Democrats even went so far as to ignore the wishes of the people and not seat Robertson as President of the Senate in the 1887 legislative session. As a countermeasure, Assembly Democrats chose their own Lieutenant Governor, Alonzo Green Smith, and decided to seat him instead of Robertson. This action led to a four-hour melee in the General Assembly on February 24, 1887. Fighting went throughout the state house, and some legislators were seriously injured. It led to a complete breakdown of state government that lasted throughout the 1887 session. This terrible example, among others, inspired the federal government to pass a Constitutional amendment mandating the direct election of U.S. Senators, so as to avoid these transgressions in the future.[8]

Completion of the New State House

            The first state house in Indianapolis, built in 1835 and structurally problematic, was eventually demolished in 1877. In March of that year, the General Assembly approved the construction of a new state house, one that reflected the respectability and integrity of Indiana.[9] The legislation appropriated $2 million to its construction and selected Edwin Way as its chief architect. Construction began in the fall of 1878, and the functions of state government moved into the Marion County Courthouse. The Courthouse itself was only two years old, so facilitating the needs of the state’s government while still continuing its original purposes presented a challenge to administrators. The building was completed on October 2, 1888, on time and nearly $20,000 under budget. As historian Justin Walsh notes, the new state house presented a “rare example of a public building erected for less than the original estimate.”[10] Two years later, in 1890, a statue of former Governor and Vice-President Thomas Hendricks was installed on the southeast lawn, flanked by statues of History and Justice. The new state house represented government at its best: a well-built building made on time and on budget and still serves as the state house to this day. It is such a testament to the effectiveness of the government of its era, even when they fiercely, and sometimes violently, disagreed.

Notable Legislators

  • James Sidney Hinton

Hinton holds a special place within the history Indiana government: he is the first African-American elected to the Indiana General Assembly. Born in 1834 in the slave-holding state of South Carolina, Hinton’s family moved to Terre Haute in 1848. Hinton’s parents died when he was quite young and he was educated within the Quakers’ school system. He even had an interest in becoming a doctor. During the Civil War, Hinton became a recruiter for black infantrymen in Massachusetts, and when Indiana changed its rules on black servicemen, Hinton became a recruiter for the 28th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops.

After the war, Hinton went into public service. As trustee of the Wabash and Erie canals from 1873-75, he was the first African American to serve in Indiana public office. In 1880, he was elected to the Indiana House of Representatives, becoming the first African American member of the Indiana General Assembly. After the legislature, Hinton remained a sought-after public speaker and Republican Party leader until his death in 1893. Reflecting on his place in history and the advancement of African Americans, Hinton said, “The forces of truth and the principles of liberty, born in the days of the revolution, and proclaimed in the Declaration of 1776 have placed the negro for the first time in his history on this continent in position to realize that he is a man and an American citizen.”[11]

  • Eugene V. Debs

Politician and labor activist Eugene V. Debs consolidated his place in American history with memorable Presidential campaigns in the early 20th century, running on the Socialist Party ticket. However, his roots in politics go much further. Born November 5, 1855 in Terre Haute, Indiana, Debs seemed destined for a revolutionary life. His two given names, Eugene and Victor, came from radicals in their own right: European revolutionary Eugene Sue and author Victor Hugo.[12] A lumber and railroad worker, Debs eventually served as Terre Haute City Clerk from 1879-1883. He was elected in the 1884 election to the Indiana Senate as a Democrat.[13] While in session, Debs worked hard to secure the passage of a bill that would, “require corporations to compensate employees for job-related injuries.”[14] After the bill failed to get passed, he did not seek reelection and left electoral politics in the state of Indiana.

Debs’ activism and keen insight showed itself in the Pullman Railcar Strike of 1894. Debs appeared reluctant to advance the strike, especially if violence was involved. When violence did break out and the federal government sent in soldiers to quell the strike, Debs saw the brighter side of the strike. As historian H. Wayne Morgan notes, the Pullman Strike, “impressed something on his mind that he never forgot: the strikers had stood together for a common cause until the power of the state itself had been called in to crush them. Here was the secret of success for any movement, whether it be in labor or politics-unity of purpose and action.”[15] Learning from his experience, Debs went on to help found the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Social Democrat Party of America (1897). He ran for President five times of the Socialist Party ticket, receiving nearly a million votes in the 1920 election. A strong voice for labor and the working class, Debs remains, “one of the most influential Americans to have served in the Indiana legislature between 1850 and 1890.”[16]

[1] Philip R. Vandermeer, “Bosses, Machines, and Democratic Leadership: Party Organization and Managers in Indiana,1880-1910”, Social Science History 12, no. 4 (Winter 1988): 418-419.

[2] Ibid, 405.

[3] William G. Carleton, “The Money Question in Indiana Politics: 1865-1890,” Indiana Magazine of History 42, no. 2 (June 1946): 117-118, 122-124.

[4] For an excellent overview of temperance in Indiana, see Charles E. Canup, “The Temperance Movement in Indiana,” Indiana Magazine of History 16, no. 2 (June 1920): 112-151.

[5] James H. Madison, The Indiana Way: A State History (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1986), 226.

[6] Eric L. Hamilton, “The Role of Quakerism in the Indiana Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1851-1885: Towards a More Perfect Freedom for All,” (Master’s Thesis, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, 2013), 63.

[7] Madison, The Indiana Way, 226.

[8] For more on the “Black Day” of the Indiana General Assembly, see Justin E. Walsh, The Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly, 1816-1978 (Indianapolis, Indiana Historical Bureau, 1987), 203-207.

[9] Walsh, Centennial History, 275.

[10] Ibid, 276.

[11] “Speech Delivered by J.S. Hinton at Woods Hill, Vigo County, IN, July 4, 1876,” (Indianapolis: Indiana State Library, Indiana Division, 1876). A great overview of Hinton’s life can be found in Alan F. January and Justin Walsh, A Century of Achievement: Black Hoosiers in the Indiana General Assembly: 1881-1986 (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1986), 19.

[12] H. Wayne Morgan, “The Utopia of Eugene V. Debs,” American Quarterly 11, no. 2 (Summer 1959): 129.

[13] Charles W. Calhoun, Alan F. January, Elizabeth Shanahan-Shoemaker and Rebecca Shepherd, A Biographical Directory of the Indiana General Assembly, Volume 1: 1816-1899 (Indianapolis, Indiana Historical Bureau, 1980), 96.

[14] Justin E. Walsh, Centennial History, 257.

[15] H. Wayne Morgan, “The Utopia of Eugene V. Debs,” 123.

[16] Walsh, Centennial History, 257.

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One thought on “The Indiana General Assembly, a History: Part Four (1866-1890)

  1. Pingback: Indiana Bicentennial 6.4: Isaac Gray (1885 – 1889) Part One: Gas Boom

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