Language Translation
  Close Menu

The 1851 Indiana Constitution by David G Vanderstel

1851 Indiana Constitution

by David G. Vanderstel

The constitution of 1816 served Indiana well during the earliest years of statehood. However, over the ensuing three decades, Indiana experienced numerous changes which necessitated a revision of the document. The population grew from approximately 64,000 in 1816 to 988,000 by 18501; the economy moved beyond pioneer subsistence to a more diverse, specialized system which depended upon mercantile, manufacturing, and agricultural production2; and the society in general became much more complex. Consequently, Hoosiers recognized that they needed to rewrite their constitution in order to address the problems and issues that had emerged during these early years and to prepare the state for the years to come.

Since the original state constitution was the product of a concern for popular democratic government, it provided the means by which the citizens of Indiana could amend or alter their governing document in later years. Article 8 stated that "every twelfth year, . . . at the general election held for Governor there shall be a poll opened, in which the qualified Electors of the State shall express, by vote, whether they are in favour of calling a convention, or not." 3

Between the years 1820 and 1847, Hoosiers attempted fifteen times to call a convention for the purpose of revising their constitution; they were successful five times in bringing the matter to a referendum vote. It was not until 1848, however, that Governor James Whitcomb, members of the General Assembly, and Indiana voters in general united in a call for a constitutional convention.4

It was a fairly long and detailed process from Governor Whitcomb's call in December, 1848 for a convention to the actual convening of the delegates in October, 1850. Once the Indiana General Assembly and the governor approved the legislation in January, 1849 to call a convention, they presented the issue to the voters of Indiana during the statewide elections of August, 1849.

Of the 138,918 votes cast in the election, 81,500 favored a convention; 57,418 were opposed to the measure. Consequently, the General Assembly was bound to provide for the election of delegates to the planned constitutional convention. This legislation, passed by the Assembly in January, 1850 and subsequently approved by Governor Joseph Wright, called for the election of convention delegates on the first Monday in August, 1850.5

Indiana voters selected 150 delegates to the constitutional convention of 1850-1851; 95 were Democrats and 55 were Whigs. Of these representatives, 42 percent were farmers, 25 percent were lawyers, and 12 percent were physicians. Only thirteen of the 150 delegates were native-born Hoosiers, while one half were Southern-born. Seventy-nine of the men had had previous experience as lawmakers.6

These delegates assembled in the Hall of the House of Representatives in Indianapolis on 7 October 1850. They deliberated for 127 days before completing their work and adjourning on 10 February 1851.7

The constitution that emanated from those four months of deliberations was not a radical revision of the original document nor did it significantly alter the existing form of state government. Rather, the proposed draft addressed numerous concerns and problems that had emerged during the formative years of the state:

  1. The delegates adopted biennial sessions of sixty-one days for the General Assembly and limited special sessions to forty days. This was intended to reduce the costs of state government and to encourage concentrated legislative efforts by the Assembly, thereby preventing the elected representatives from doing mischief and becoming involved in unnecessary and questionable "special interest" and local legislation.8
  2. The new constitution prohibited the General Assembly from incurring any debt except "to meet casual deficits in the revenue, to pay the interest on the [present] State debt; to repel invasion [or to] suppress insurrection."9 This provision was necessary to remedy the serious financial failures brought about by canal and road development under the Mammoth Internal Improvements Act of 1836.10
  3. The constitution encouraged a stronger commitment to a uniform system of common schools supported by taxes and other state funds.11 This was a remedy for the state's failure to address and act upon the educational system proposed by the constitution of 1816. It also served as a detailed response to those who saw the common school system as essential to the education of the citizenry and the preservation of democracy in the years to come.12
  4. The constitution increased the number of elected officers in the state to include judges, treasurer, auditor, and secretary of state.13
  5. The constitution extended the right to vote to foreign immigrants if they stated their intention to become citizens of the United States and had resided in the country for one year and in Indiana for six months. However, the right of suffrage continued to be denied to women and blacks.14
  6. The constitution legitimized a special form of racism in Article 13 which stated "No negro or mulatto shall come into or settle in the State, after the adoption of this Constitution." 15 This act reflected a growing antipathy of Hoosiers toward blacks due to increased tensions over the issue of slavery and the fear of racial intermixing. It also demonstrated the strength of the exclusion and colonization movements, which sought to remove blacks to Africa.16

The Indiana electorate was able to consider the entire constitution except for the special provision relating to the exclusion of blacks from the state, which appeared as a special proposition on the ballot. In the election of 4 August 1851, Hoosier voters overwhelmingly approved the new constitution, 113,230 to 27,638.

At the same time, voters approved the exclusion of blacks from the state by a vote of 113,828 to 21,873, thereby indicating the strong antiblack sentiment that pervaded the state and the nation at midcentury.17 On 3 September 1851 Governor Wright issued a proclamation declaring the new state constitution to be in effect as of 1 November 1851.18

Historian Logan Esarey concluded that the 1851 constitution "suffers in comparison with the one it displaced."19 Yet, it was a new and improved document, revised and updated to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing society. It was dedicated to the preservation of popular democratic government - at least for adult white males - and the overall rights of citizens, as exemplified by an expanded bill of rights in Article 1. While Hoosier citizens and legislators continuously sought over the years to amend the constitution of 1851 (per the provisions contained in Article 16) and to adapt it to the specific needs of each respective age, the basic constitutional document has remained intact. It is the cornerstone of Indiana's government and society, serving as a symbol of political continuity, tradition, and popular democratic government in the modern age.

1 James H. Madison, The Indiana Way: A State History (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press and Indiana Historical Society, 1986), Appendix A, 325-26.

2 Madison, 74-97.

3 Charles Kettleborough, Constitution Making in Indiana, 3 vols. (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Commission, 1916, 1930; reprint ed., Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1971), 1:111.

4 Kettleborough, 1:xxxiii-lxxii.

5 Kettleborough, 1:lxxii-lxxxiii.

6 Madison, 139; Justin E. Walsh, The Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly, 1816-1978 (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1987), 178.

7 Kettleborough, 1:lxxxix.

8 Article 4, section 29. See also Kettleborough, 1:314, 322.

9 Article 10, section 4. See also Kettleborough, 1:352.

10 Donald F. Carmony, "Historical Background of the Restrictions Against State Debt in the Indiana Constitution of 1851," Indiana Magazine of History, 47 (June 1951):129-42; Madison, 82-86; Walsh, 31-40.

11 Article 8. See also Kettleborough, 1:346-49.

12 Richard G. Boone, A History of Education in Indiana (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1892; reprint ed., Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1941), 10-42, 87-217; Madison, 108-15, 179-80; Charles W. Moore, Caleb Mills and the Indiana School System (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1905).

13 Article 6, section 1, and Article 7, sections 3 and 9. See also Kettleborough, 1:334, 339, 342.

14 Article 2. See also Kettleborough, 1:304-9.

15 Kettleborough, 1:360.

16 Emma Lou Thornbrough, The Negro in Indiana: A Study of a Minority (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1957; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, reprint, 1993), 55-91; Walsh, 146-56; Madison, 107-8, 169-70.

17 Kettleborough, 2:617-18.

18 Kettleborough, 1:xcii.

19 Logan Esarey, A History of Indiana from Its Exploration to 1850 (Fort Wayne, 1924), 519.

  • Barnhart, John D., and Donald F. Carmony. Indiana, from Frontier to Industrial Commonwealth. 4 vols. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1954.
  • Boswell, Jessie P., comp. Index to the Journal and Debates of the Indiana Constitutional Convention, 1850-1851. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1938.
  • Burns Indiana Statutes Annotated, Containing the State and Federal Constitutions. Charlottesville, VA: The Michie Company.
  • Cottman, George S. Indiana: Its History, Constitution and Present Government. Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1925.
  • Esarey, Logan. A History of Indiana. Indianapolis: B. F. Bowen, 1915-1918. Reprinted by Hoosier Heritage Press, Indianapolis, 1970.
  • Hawkins, Hubert H., comp. Indiana's Road to Statehood: A Documentary Record. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1964, reprinted 1997.
  • Here Is Your Indiana Government. Indianapolis: Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, (biennial editions).
  • Journal of the Convention of the People of the State of Indiana to Amend the Constitution. Reprinted by Indiana Historical Bureau, Indianapolis, 1936.
  • Kettleborough, Charles F., ed. Constitution Making in Indiana. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1971-1978. Vols. 1-3 reprinted from earlier editions; Vol. 4 edited by John A. Bremer.
  • Madison, James H. The Indiana Way: A State History. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press and Indiana Historical Society, 1986.
  • Report of the Debates and Proceedings of the Convention for the Revision of the Constitution of Indiana, 1850. Reprinted by Indiana Historical Bureau, Indianapolis, 1935.
  • Walsh, Justin E. The Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly, 1816-1978. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1987.
  • West's Indiana Code. With cumulative annual pocket parts. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Co.
  • A Guide to the Study of the Indiana State General Assembly--a video and guide providing important data on the state legislative function. May be borrowed at no cost from Shared Information Services at four locations in Indiana: Ball State University, 800-322-1248; Purdue University, 800-347-2948; IUPUI, 800-942-4072; or Wilson Education Center, Jeffersonville, 800-326-5467.
  • Close Up Foundation
  • Indiana Judiciary
  • Indiana State Archives