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The Politics of Slavery

Richard Nation
Eastern Michigan University



As the issue of slavery arose in the 1840s and 1850s to become the chief political issue in the nation, Indiana politicians had to respond to an electorate who generally believed slavery was wrong. At the same time, to maintain the viability of both major political parties to achieve victory in national elections, Indiana politicians had to accede to at least some of the demands of their slaveholding Southern brethren.  Fortunately for Hoosier politicians, much of their electorate appreciated the need to compromise.  Most Hoosiers’ antislavery beliefs did not outweigh their devotion to the Union, in part because their concerns about slavery were limited by their racist beliefs.  Some even condemned Northern abolitionists for promoting a politics that threatened the Union.  Over the late 1840s and through the 1850s, though, many Hoosiers of both parties, like many other Northerners, came to believe that efforts at compromise with the South were doomed to failure. These Hoosiers saw that every compromise with the South begat a new Southern demand for additional concessions, leading them to believe that Southerners placed the institution of slavery above the Union.  When the Southern states began to secede after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Hoosiers of many political stripes came together to condemn the South for attempting to destroy the Union.

Hoosiers and Slavery before 1850

The 1816 Indiana Constitution forbade slavery in Article 8, sec. 1 and Article 11, sec. 7. Source: The full text of the 1816 Indiana Constitution is available at “Road to Indiana Statehood,” The Digital Collections of IUPUI University Library at http://www.ulib.iupui.edu/digitalscholarship/collections/ISC .

While many Hoosiers thought slavery was wrong, few could be labeled as abolitionists—persons who desired the abolition of slavery.  Many 1840s Hoosiers appreciated that the institution of slavery was undesirable—they or their parents had left slaveholding states to settle in a state that declared unequivocally in its 1816 Constitution that slavery could never be permitted in the state—to the point of making the slavery clause un-amendable.  Nevertheless, the undesirability of slavery was rooted only partially in the moral condemnation of what the institution did to enslaved African Americans.  Some Hoosiers opposed slavery precisely because they opposed living in a society with African Americans, in part because of racist fears, and in part because they did not believe free white laborers could compete with African American laborers, especially those held in slavery.  Others opposed slavery because they believed that slavery gave slaveholders undue wealth and power.  Finally, some Hoosiers, even while aware of the wrongness of slavery, thought the moral problem belonged to the South entirely; it was not their concern, having left the South and washed their hands of the sin.  Many of these positions could coalesce in support of the policy of “Free Soil,” the belief that the nation’s territories should be free from slavery, so that white men could prosper.  The “Free Soil” spirit emphasized that slavery wronged white men, not African Americans, and could be embraced even while reassuring Southerners that they could keep slavery where it already existed.  However, a small group of Indiana men and women, including the state’s small African American population, believed that slavery needed to come to an end.  These abolitionists founded the Indiana Anti-Slavery Society in 1838; the abolitionist cause, rooted in the Friends church, as well as portions of Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist churches, raised its voice in Indiana, sometimes at personal peril.  But any such sympathy for African Americans was limited.

Indiana’s 1851 Constitution

In 1851, a vote on Indiana’s new constitution included a separate vote on whether African Americans were to be excluded from the state, and this vote provided a clear measure of Indiana racial attitudes.  Of the state’s then ninety-one counties, only four provided a majority against exclusion; only sixteen more had less than 75% of the population in favor of exclusion.  Most Hoosiers did not want more African Americans in the state.

Article 13 of the 1851 Indiana Constitution was adopted separately from the rest of the new Constitution; only 4 of the 91 counties voted against adoption. This is an excerpt from a longer article; the paper was begun in January 1847 by the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Source: Washington D.C. The National Era, September 4, 1851.

That there was a new state Constitution in 1851, however, underscores that politics in Indiana in the years before the Civil War was not just about slavery; many political causes animated Hoosiers in this period.  The Constitutional Convention in 1850 had been called to address issues that had arisen since the original 1816 Constitution, most notably those economic issues raised in the failed efforts of the state to implement a series of transportation improvements in the state, the Internal Improvements system of 1836.  These efforts had been embraced by Hoosier men throughout the political spectrum, although some of the hard-core followers of Andrew Jackson—taking a cue from his vetoes of the Second Bank of the U.S. re-charter and the Maysville Road bill—had rejected the notion that the state should be involved in the economy, embracing the notion of laissez-faire. The system of 1836 failed, in part because it came on the eve of the Panic of 1837.  The failure left the state deeply indebted; much of the legislative efforts of the mid-1840s focused on the means to pay the interest on that debt, as the state’s creditors strolled on the floor of the legislature.  

The Democratic Party in the state coalesced around the notion of keeping the state government out of the economy; the Indiana Whig Party, while not rejecting the role of state government in the economy, limited its proposals in the 1840s because of the state’s dire circumstances.  After some success early in the decade, the Whigs found themselves generally in the minority in the state, as Hoosier voters gravitated towards the Democrats and their laissez-faire program.  The Whigs maintained strength in counties with large Quaker populations and in the far northern tier of the state; the core of the Democratic Party was in the south-central portion of the state; much of the rest of the state was in play, at least through 1852, but leaned Democratic.  Ultimately, by the time the Constitutional Convention met in 1850, the two parties had achieved some agreement on economic programs, allowing for the passage of a number of constitutional measures that limited the size of the state government, its role in the economy, and its ability to borrow money.  With the economic issues that defined what historians call the Second Party System of Whigs and Democrats fading, newer issues, especially temperance and concern about immigration, arose by the early 1850s among the central concerns defining state and local politics in Indiana.  Likewise, on the national scene, slavery joined these concerns in defining the politics of the period.

Indiana and National Politics, 1830s to 1848

Slavery was slow in getting started as in issue in Indiana politics, as most Hoosiers in the 1830s were comfortable with the political compromises, notably the Missouri Compromise of 1820, that had marginalized slavery in the political realm.  In 1840, a third party—the Liberty Party—emerged with James G. Birney as its nominee for president, but it polled just thirty votes in the state, in just four counties. Far more Hoosiers were excited by the incumbent Martin Van Buren and former Indiana Territory governor William Henry Harrison; voter turnout increased fifty percent from 1836, drawing eighty-four percent of the eligible voting population.  Many committed abolitionists followed William Lloyd Garrison in seeking solutions outside of what they believed to be a thoroughly corrupted political process, a belief that undermined support for antislavery politics for a number of years.  Of course, in Indiana, as in many states, the African Americans who made up a sizeable portion of the abolitionist movement were prohibited from voting at all.  By the 1844 presidential election, the Liberty Party, again with James G. Birney at the head of its ticket, improved its appeal in Indiana, gaining nearly 2,100 votes out of 140,000 cast; nevertheless, in twenty-six of the state's then ninety counties the Liberty Party had no votes, and in thirty more it gained fewer than ten.  The 1844 election, however, was fought over territorial expansion.  Henry Clay, the Whig nominee, opposed the annexation of Texas in particular, because he believed it would re-open the slavery question and possibly provoke war with Mexico.  Martin Van Buren, seeking the Democratic nomination, also opposed annexation, which he believed many Northern Democrats opposed.  The eventual Democratic nominee James K. Polk advocated both the annexation of Texas and the settlement of the Oregon question in favor of the United States, the former open to slavery and the latter closed to it; he calmed sufficient Northern Democratic fears that he won the presidency.  In Indiana, the election again had a turnout of almost eighty-five percent, but the presidential election swung dramatically into the Democratic column, with over 18,000 more votes cast for Polk than had been cast for Van Buren in 1840; Hoosiers apparently liked Polk’s program of territorial expansion, as long as it was bringing in territories free from slavery.

Slave and Free Areas after the Missouri Compromise, 1815-1825. The Missouri Compromise, 1820, admitted Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a non-slave state to maintain the balance between slave and free states in the nation. It also outlawed slavery above latitude 36°30’. Source: Jacques W. Redway, F.R.G.S., The Redway School History (New York, NY: Silver, Burdett and Company, 1910). Downloaded from Maps ETC, on the web at http://etc.usf.edu/maps. [map #07719]. Courtesy the Private Collection of Roy Winkelman.

However, Clay’s fears came to pass.  Texas annexation helped bring about war with Mexico, and in Indiana, as in the rest of the nation, Whigs opposed “Mr. Polk’s War,” while Democrats supported it.  However, the Democratic Party fractured over the fate of the new territories.  Since many Northerners opposed the extension of slavery, and the Whig Party shared that commitment, many Northern Democrats believed that they would have to oppose it, too, or risk losing political office.  The Wilmot Proviso, first attached to an appropriation bill for purchase of territory from Mexico, passed the U.S. House of Representatives on a nearly sectional vote. The Wilmot Proviso, language advanced by Pennsylvania Democrat David Wilmot, would have banned slavery in any lands obtained from Mexico. Indiana Congressmen John Pettit and William Wick were among the few Northern Democrats to oppose the Wilmot Proviso during the first debates in the House.  During subsequent attempts to pass the Proviso, Hoosier Senators Edward Hannegan and Jesse Bright helped to kill the Proviso. Other Hoosier Democrats, some of whom apparently supported the initial Proviso, showed greater reluctance when it was subsequently offered for consideration, because of its threat to break apart the Democratic Party.  At home in Indiana, however, reaction to the Proviso was initially muted, muffled perhaps in the greater debates over the war with Mexico itself.

Indiana and National Politics, 1848 to 1854

By 1848, the impact of these debates on politics and the Democratic Party in particular was realized. The Wilmot Proviso’s threat to split apart the Democratic Party led to consolidation behind Lewis Cass of Michigan, whose popular sovereignty proposal promised to give the power to allow slavery in a territory to the voters of that territory.  However, this policy was ambiguous about when those voters could exercise the power.  Southerners argued for the vote to be at the moment of statehood, which was too late in the process for many Northern Democrats.  Northerners suggested the decision could take place during the territorial stage, which seemed to many Southerners to be unconstitutional and ultimately unworkable.  These ambiguities damaged Cass’s candidacy; Democrats in many Southern states stayed home rather than vote for a man insufficiently committed to slavery. In Northern states a new Free Soil Party, with Martin Van Buren as its candidate, rose up to draw former Liberty Party voters, abolitionist Whigs, and sufficient numbers of Northern Democrats to swing the national election to the Whig Party, led by Mexican War hero and Southern slaveholder Zachary Taylor.  The Free Soil Party, in contrast to the more abolitionist Liberty Party, emphasized the need to keep the territories free from slavery, for the benefit of its white settlers.

In Indiana in 1848, Democrats emphasized their own free soil credentials. The Free Soil Party gained nearly 6,000 votes more than the 1844 Liberty Party, and it apparently drew more of that support from the Whigs than the Democrats; in contrast to the national election, the Democrat Cass won Indiana with a plurality of 4,000 votes.  Voter turnout, however, probably played a role, as fewer voters showed up to the polls, suggesting a distaste for the politics of slavery.  Many Hoosiers, in 1848 just as in 1844, believed that politics demanded compromise, even if those compromises were morally ambiguous.

The United States, September 1850. Source: Dixon Ryan Fox, Harper’s Atlas of American History (New York, NY: Harper & Brothers Publishers , 1920). Downloaded from Maps ETC, on the web at http://etc.usf.edu/maps. [map #03329]. Courtesy the Private Collection of Roy Winkelman.

The rapidity with which portions of the lands ceded by Mexico filled up with settlers, however, forced the hand of those who tried to avoid dealing with the issue of slavery in the territories.  With the beginning of the Gold Rush in 1849, tens of thousands migrated to California, raising its population to a level that deserved statehood.  From this situation, Henry Clay attempted once more to fashion a compromise, connecting the admission of California as a free state with the establishment of the Texas border, the opening of the New Mexico territory to slavery, the strengthening of the Fugitive Slave Law, and the end to the slave trade in the District of Columbia.  Clay’s theory was that this compromise would force all sides to concede things that they opposed in order to get what they desired.  Nevertheless, the forces of compromise—Northern Democrats and Southern Whigs—were generally fairly weak in the Congress, and as a single bill Clay’s compromise failed.  However, the elements of the compromise were shepherded through by Stephen Douglas, an Illinois Democrat, as a series of separate bills, with no true compromise being brokered.  However, this Compromise of 1850 was popular with the public, and both Southern Democrats and Northern Whigs found their electorates demanding that they back the compromise.  This demand, together with the fears of secession driven by the rhetoric of the Southern extremists, led both parties to support the Compromise in their 1852 platforms.

In Indiana in 1852, the Democrats, with Franklin Pierce as their nominee, rode to victory once more, gaining 20,000 votes over their 1848 total, while the Whigs, led by Winfield Scott, gained only 10,000 votes.  Voter turnout increased from 78.5 percent in 1848, rebounding to 80.3 percent, still off the earlier highs.  The Free Soil Party, despite having Hoosier Congressman George W. Julian as its Vice Presidential nominee, nevertheless lost votes from 1848; some were probably Free Soil Democrats following Van Buren back into the folds of the Democratic Party, but others were probably reluctant to endorse the Northern extreme, lest it destroy the Union.  

On the surface, the 1852 election in Indiana would suggest that the party system had returned to its old stability, but cracks in both parties were evident.  In the Democratic Party, policy distinctions initially were not as important as personal ones.  At the head of the Hoosier party were two men, Senator Jesse Bright and Governor Joseph Wright, who held much antipathy for one another.  Wright was extremely popular among Hoosier voters, serving as governor from 1849 to 1857, but the leadership of the party looked more to Jesse Bright as the head; as Senator, Bright had a major hand in how patronage was distributed in the state, and he used that patronage to bring many local Democratic leaders under his sway.  The issue of slavery did not clearly divide them in the beginning, even though Wright was a cheerleader for compromise, and Bright, who had slaveholdings in Kentucky, was among the most pro-slavery of Northerners.  Temperance may have divided them politically more than the issue of slavery, since Wright supported it and Bright did not; likewise, Wright’s concerns about banks won him popular support from Democrats raised on Jackson’s 1832 bank veto, but it led to pushback from other Democratic leaders who benefited from the banking system—leading Wright to accuse them of corruption.  In the Whig camp, however, slavery had become the dividing issue, with the Free Soil Party threatening to siphon off voters should the Whigs sway too far towards compromise.  Many Whigs, while believing that compromise was necessary to maintain a strong national party, also were increasingly frustrated with what they believed was the increasing unwillingness of many Southern politicians to compromise—fading fast were leaders like Henry Clay, who had died in 1852.  Finally, the Fugitive Slave Act that came as part of the Compromise of 1850 burned at many in the North, but especially Whigs, since it forced Northerners to become slavecatchers for the South. In Indiana, the iniquities of this law were driven home in 1853 when John Freeman, a well-off free black Indianapolis resident of ten years, was arrested, humiliated, and bankrupted in order to prove that he was indeed a free man.

Indiana and National Politics, 1854 to 1857

By 1854, the Whig Party had for all intents and purposes vanished. These cracks began to widen when Stephen Douglas introduced a bill in the U.S. Congress to organize the territories of Kansas and Nebraska on the basis of popular sovereignty: that the residents of the territory should decide whether it permitted slavery or not.  When Southern Whigs broke party lines to support the bill, it helped lead to the destruction of the Whig Party, together with divisions on immigration and temperance.  In the Democratic Party, the Pierce Administration, with Bright as his Indiana hatchet-man, used the Kansas-Nebraska Act as a test of party loyalty; only two Indiana Democrats voted against the measure, joining the state’s one Whig representative.

In the 1854 state and local conventions, Indiana Democrats were forced to pledge support for a party platform that endorsed the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  These actions drove a number of Hoosier Democrats from that party, convinced that if the Northern leadership of the Democratic Party—Pierce, Douglas, and Bright—were unwilling to guarantee “Free Soil” under the Missouri Compromise of 1820, then the party had been hopelessly sold to Southern interests.  In Indiana, Governor Wright kept mum on his position, but a number of leading Hoosier Democrats bolted—including Michael Garber, editor of the Madison Democratic newspaper and another nemesis of Jesse Bright, his neighbor; Jacob P. Chapman, former editor of the Democratic Party organ, the Indiana State Sentinel; Daniel Mace, one of two Hoosier Democrats to defy the Pierce administration and vote against the Kansas-Nebraska Act; and Oliver P. Morton. These disaffected Democrats searched for a new political home together with the now party-less Whigs.

One new home was the Know-Nothing movement, a secret organization focused on the dangers of immigration and accompanying vices like drinking; the Know-Nothings were beginning to form a political party, the American Party.  A second movement of Free Soilers was forming in nearby states, soon to be called the Republican Party.  In Indiana, some drifted into the Know-Nothing movement, but even those who joined that secret organization participated in a broad movement that formed in 1854 called the People’s Party.  This People’s Party, formed from anti-Nebraska Democrats, Free Soil Party members, and former Whigs, sought to oppose the pro-Nebraska Democrats.  The People’s Party nominated a slate of candidates for the 1854 election that included former Democrats, Whigs, and Free-Soilers; there was probably more emphasis on Democrats than their numbers in the movement warranted, in order to attract even more Democratic votes.  Temperance played a role almost the equal of slavery; in fact, some Free-Soilers in the People’s Party believed it was too tame on the issue of slavery.  The People’s Party ticket was victorious, taking all the statewide elections in 1854, electing nine of eleven Congressmen, and taking power in the lower house of the state legislature.  

In 1856, the People’s Party continued as a broad, fusion party at the state and local level, despite the party’s sending a delegation to the Republican national convention, to the dismay of the Know-Nothings in it.  This action may have also driven some of the anti-Nebraska Democrats away from the polls entirely or back into the folds of the Democratic Party itself, despite the nomination of former Democrat Oliver P. Morton as the People’s Party candidate for governor.  The Democrats prevailed statewide in both the gubernatorial and Presidential races, gaining an outright majority in the latter despite the two opposing parties, Republican and American.  Turnout rose dramatically in the presidential election to 88 percent, suggesting that those who sat out some previous elections were drawn back into the election, with their votes split between the parties; Democratic votes increased by over 23,000, but the increase from the Whig/Free Soil tickets to the Republican/American tickets was 28,000.  The American Party had nominated Millard Fillmore for the presidency, gaining fewer than 23,000 votes in Indiana to Republican John Fremont’s 94,000 plus; Hoosier voters who voted for the American Party were probably as leery of Republicans’ antislavery stand as they were attracted to the American Party’s anti-immigrant position.  The Republicans worked hard to make clear that their support for free soil in the territories was not an extremist abolitionist position:  their slogan “Free soil, free labor, free men” meant that in a land free of slavery, where (white) men were free to contract their labor, (white) men would be free.  The People’s Party (and Republicans and Americans by extension) may also have been damaged by the extreme alcohol prohibition law they put into effect in 1855.

On the Democratic side, despite the increasing evidence coming out of Kansas that the Democratic doctrine of popular sovereignty was inadequate to the task of deciding the question of slavery, many Hoosier Democrats still believed that their party was sufficiently committed to “free soil” to maintain their votes; once again the Democratic leadership fed that perception by nominating a Northern Democrat, James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, who was elected. Analysis of the Democratic and American Party vote totals suggests that many Hoosiers remained committed to a national vision; as a regional party, Republicans embodied the danger of splitting the Union.  But the dramatic rise of violence in Kansas, together with the vicious attack in 1856 on antislavery senator Charles Sumner, on the floor of the U.S. Senate by a Southern representative, had committed many other Hoosiers to a regional party precisely to combat the power of the slaveholder.  For Hoosier Republicans, the “Slave Power,” a political power rooted in the wealth that slavery created for its masters, had subjugated the South for generations, and it sought to extend its control to the territories.  Indeed, to many Republicans, a rehearsal of the history of the republic up to that point showed how Southern slaveholders, although they accounted for a small minority of the American people, had dominated the Presidency, the Supreme Court, and the Congress, and holding these reins of power, had generally demanded and received benefits and concessions to their region and their peculiar institution.  For Republicans, the time for compromise had passed.

Indiana and National Politics, 1857 through the Election of 1860

The Dred Scott decision issued by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857 confirmed to Republicans what they already believed, that the South was controlling the country for its own benefit.  The decision, which denied to Congress the power over slavery in the territories, seemed to some Republicans to signal that the next move of the Supreme Court would be to open the door to the spread of slavery into the North.  For many Northern Democrats, continuing events in Kansas would further fracture the party.  Despite evidence that a clear majority of Kansans opposed slavery, the proslavery forces that controlled the Kansas constitutional convention held in Lecompton managed to create a constitution that protected the slaveholding interests that were already in the state, denied residents the opportunity to reject it, and submitted it to Congress. Democratic President Buchanan supported acceptance of the Lecompton constitution as the basis for Kansas statehood.  For Stephen Douglas, the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Buchanan’s actions and those of the proslavery forces in Kansas, made a mockery of the doctrine of popular sovereignty, going against the clear wishes of the majority of Kansans.  In the House of Representatives, three Hoosier Democrats—William English, John G. Davis, and James B. Foley—joined the state’s five Republican representatives in preventing the acceptance of the statehood bill.  William English led the select committee that created a compromise, often called the English Bill, which referred the Lecompton constitution back to Kansas with a land grant reduced, thereby necessitating a new vote.  The Lecompton constitution, now faced with an up or down vote in Kansas, went down to defeat; antislavery Kansans preferred no statehood to living in a state with slavery.

Quoting a Resolution from a Republican meeting after the Dred Scott decision, the Democratic newspaper responded on the issue of slavery; the excerpt is from the Indianapolis Weekly Indiana State Sentinel, March 19, 1857. The Resolution quoted is one of many from a Republican “Centre” Township (Marion County) Convention to prepare a slate of nominees for township elections; it was published in the Republican Indianapolis Journal, March 18, 1857.

In the wake of these debates, the Democrats in some parts of Indiana formed separate pro- and anti-Lecompton parties, building on the old Bright/Wright division—although the former governor at the time was out of the country as the U.S. minister to Prussia.  In the fall elections in 1858, the divisions among the Democrats allowed the Republicans, who had finally embraced that name for local and state elections, to gain seats in the districts of the Democrats who voted for the Lecompton constitution; John G. Davis ran as an anti-Lecompton Democrat and was elected, as were two new Democrats and William English, who attempted to bridge the gap between the Lecompton and anti-Lecompton forces.  In Indiana, the Democratic Party became split between the Jacksonian laissez-faire, free soil wing ultimately rooted in Joseph Wright’s camp and the proslavery wing led by Jesse Bright.

The division of the Democratic Party in Indiana foretold the division of the party in the 1860 presidential election.  For anti-Lecompton Democrats, Stephen Douglas of Illinois was their hero, and Douglas followers wrested control of Indiana’s Democratic Party from Jesse Bright early in 1860.  Douglas’s doctrine of popular sovereignty, they believed, was the surest and most democratic means to resolve the issue of slavery in the territories, as long as it was not corrupted, as it had been in Kansas.  However, the Northern version of the doctrine of popular sovereignty—that residents of a territory could decide—had seemingly been nullified in the Dred Scott decision:  if Congress did not have the authority to legislate on slavery in the territories, it could not convey such an authority to the territorial government.  Douglas’s answer was that slavery could not exist where there was not positive law to protect it, that without laws, for instance, governing the sale of enslaved peoples or criminalizing their theft, then slavery could not exist.  Douglas’s answer proved popular among Northern Democrats, but such an argument, combined with his efforts against the Lecompton constitution, made him an anathema to Southern Democrats.  

After two conventions, the national Democratic Party split, with the Northerners nominating Douglas and the Southerners nominating John Breckenridge of Kentucky.  Former Southern Whigs, many of whom had drifted into the American Party, only to see it disintegrate, rallied behind the Constitutional Union Party and John Bell of Tennessee.  Both “Southern” parties ran national campaigns and nominated northerners for vice-president; Joseph Lane, formerly of Indiana, and then current governor of Oregon Territory, got the Southern Democratic nod.  The Southern parties emphasized maintenance of the Union on the basis of the Constitution, which they believed protected slavery; although Breckinridge and the Southern Democrats emphasized the Constitution, Bell and his party placed more emphasis on Union.  Republicans, the only sectional party, nominated Abraham Lincoln.  Indiana Republicans ran on a platform of preventing the territorial expansion of slavery and thus beginning the slow process of limiting the power of slaveholders over the country, eventually opening the way for prosperous growth.  Indiana Republicans repeatedly stressed that they did not seek to abolish slavery.

The 1860 election in Indiana involved all four parties.  The Constitutional Union Party was strongest along the Ohio River; the lanes of commerce connected them to the commercial classes of the South, who were at the core of Bell’s supporters.  The Southern Democrats also showed strength along the Ohio, as well as in some interior counties in which Jesse Bright’s political machinery was still in place.  Douglas and the Northern Democrats retained strength in south-central and southwestern Indiana, at least in those places where the Southern parties did not sap some of their strength.  Republicans actually did better in those counties in which the Southern Democrats still showed strength, perhaps because the Southern influence in local politics made other voters receptive to the Republican message about the slave power.  The real triumph of the Republican Party, however, was to transform much of the central portion of the state from balanced—or even Democratic leaning—to strongly Republican.  The Republicans nominated Montgomery County’s Henry Lane for governor and Wayne County’s Oliver P. Morton, the former Democrat, for lieutenant governor, with the understanding that if the Republicans won the state legislature, Lane would become Senator and Morton ascend to the governorship.  The Republican Party successfully mobilized voters in the state elections that took place in October, as the party swept the state offices, claimed the state legislature, and kept the seven Congressional seats it won in 1858.  The substantial Republican victory in that election, together with similar victories in New York and Ohio, signaled to the nation that the November presidential election was likely to go to Lincoln.  That prediction came true; for the first time since 1840, Indiana did not deliver its electoral votes to the Democratic candidate, and it joined with every non-slaveholding state except New Jersey in delivering its electoral votes to the Republicans to give Lincoln the victory.

And secession came.  In the days leading up to the November presidential election, Southerners threatened to secede if a sectional man, Lincoln, were elected President.  Many northerners, especially Republicans, thought these were the same idle threats that Southerners had made all along, as one of the sharpest weapons in the Slave Power arsenal.  But Southerners, especially those in the Deep South, viewed the election of Lincoln as a usurpation of their right to have representative government, to have a man elected President who represented the interests of all Americans, including Southerners.  Lincoln was not even on the ballot in most of the South.  Southerners believed that his election revealed that the majority could not be trusted to protect the rights of the minority.  In this case, of course, the right they most feared would be taken away by a party, which had no roots in the South, was the South’s right to hold human beings of African descent as slaves.  Without slavery, Southerners might likely have blustered for four years about a sectional man being elected President; but the South perceived, despite Lincoln and many Republicans’ protestations otherwise, that the abolition of slavery, a goal of the abolitionists who made up a portion of the Republican coalition, was the goal of the whole Republican Party.  To protect their way of life, the states of the Deep South seceded, and joined together as the Confederate States of America.

Hoosiers and Secession

Hoosiers’ reactions to secession were mixed.  The importance of the Mississippi River to commerce in Indiana made many believe that secession must be resisted, and many across the political spectrum put some hope on negotiations.  Republicans suggested that slavery should be constitutionally protected where it existed, but its spread be prohibited.  Upper South politicians replied by suggesting re-instituting the Missouri Compromise line.  The two sides never quite met, and the already seceded states put little faith in the negotiations.  Even as the negotiations took place, the issue of U.S. government posts in the now seceded South rose to prominence.  President Buchanan abandoned all but two, Fort Pickens in Florida, and Fort Sumter in South Carolina, holding those as a symbolic gesture of resistance to secession.  For the honor of South Carolina, which had led the Deep South out of the Union, such a gesture was a tweak of the nose, and they refused to allow the garrison to be re-supplied.  Lincoln, upon his inauguration, inherited this situation, and eventually South Carolina fired on the fort.

The firing on U.S. troops unified an Indiana that, fearing that its southern border on the Ohio River might become the scene of conflict, had sought to find a non-violent solution to the secession crisis.  Many in Indiana who had some sympathy with the Southern position lost it when the South chose to fight rather than to negotiate.  When Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers to help put down the rebellion, Hoosiers turned out in far greater numbers than the initial call.  To preserve the Union was a message with which many Hoosiers could agree, even if they differed on the particularities of slavery.  Some even marched to war condemning its occurrence and blaming extremists in both North and South.  But there remained a small number of Indiana men—most notably Jesse Bright, but extending to others, many of whom had supported the Southern Democratic party in the election of 1860—who believed the actions of Lincoln and the Republicans were criminal; their sympathies remained with the South and with the doctrine of state rights.  For most Hoosiers, though, the Union was paramount; the South, by refusing to compromise, had brought about its own fate.


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