This is installment 4.2 of my bicentennial series, covering Governor Paris Dunning and the rise of sectional conflict in the State.
Paris Dunning (1848-1849)
Dunning was a journeyman in Indiana government. After being a teacher, a doctor, and a lawyer, he was elected to be a state representative for Monroe County then a state senator for Monroe and Brown counties. He had voted for the Mammoth Internal Improvement Act and, when that went south, he did not get re-elected. Dunning returned to private practice in Bloomington for awhile. However, Governor Whitcomb chose Dunning as a running mate in the 1846 election. The previous lieutenant governor, Jesse Bright (about whom I’ve written before), had been elected to the Senate by the legislature in 1844. When Whitcomb arranged to have himself elected by the legislature to the other U.S. Senate seat in 1848, the office of governor was vacant, and Dunning took Whitcomb’s place as Governor. As governor, Dunning spoke out against slavery. He asked for and received a resolution from the General Assembly urging Congress to oppose expansion of slavery in the territories.
Gov. Dunning also followed Governor Whitcomb’s work in advocating for a ballot initiative to replace Indiana’s 1816 Constitution. Under the 1816 state constitution, every twelfth year at the general election for governor, a poll was to be taken to determine if electors favored calling a constitutional convention. “Although there was much debate, this provision was interpreted to mean that the General Assembly could call for a convention at any time.” The 1846 election had included a referendum where a small majority favored amendment. However, there was some question about the vote. In particular, while the votes for amending the constitution exceeded those against such an amendment, the votes in favor made up less than 50% of those casting votes. However, responding to Governor Whitcomb’s recommendation in 1848, the Indiana General Assembly adopted legislation providing for another referendum in 1849. Governor Dunning signed that legislation, and a new referendum was conducted in 1849 with 81,500 in favor and 57,418 voting against.
Governor Dunning recommended that the legislature adopt legislation to provide for the districting of the state for delegates and adopt a tax to pay for the constitutional convention. He also noted the need to curb special legislation in the general assembly which, by his estimation, took up three-fourths of the General Assembly’s time.
Sectional conflict and state party politics
During this period, the sectional conflict was making itself felt within State politics. When the Whigs nominated Zachary Taylor, his status as a slave owner caused some consternation among antislavery Whigs and defections among Democrats. The Free Soilers attracted some bleed off from disaffected members of both parties. The Lafayette Journal was apparently one of the few publications willing to give voice to Free Soil sentiment. Schuyler Colfax considered buying the Journal to rid it of editor John Semans who wrote in 1848:
“The nomination of Gen. Taylor is a disgrace to the Convention and an insult to the intelligence and virtue of the American people. The Whig party is basely betrayed—aye, sold to the Southern slaveholder. For ourselves we are against the nomination might and main, heart and soul.”
Meanwhile, there was further anti-Taylor animosity in Indiana that had little to do with the question of slavery but more with his treatment of Indiana’s soldiers during the Mexican-American War. In particular, there was a feeling that Indiana’s Second Regiment had been unfairly smeared as cowardly and, consequently, Indiana “suffered the stigma of military ineptness for many years after.” In the election of 1848, the Free Soilers were an irritant to dyspeptic Democratic party boss and Senator, Jesse Bright:
The Free Soilers, however, proved to be thorns in the side of the Democrats and managed to put Jesse Bright in a bad humor all day. He had left Washington to supervise personally the Jefferson County election in his native town of Madison. As he watched the polls, he roared at the Free Soilers: “G-d damn you—I wish you and they were in Hell…. If I had the power I’d send you there.”
While the Democrats were still ascendant in the General Assembly, the process of selecting Gov. Whitcomb as Indiana’s U.S. Senator, among other things, highlighted that antislavery sentiment was politically useful. The Whigs and abolitionists were able to make some hay out of the Democrats’ ties to the South. For their part, in 1849, Indiana Democrats were shifting gears and coming out in opposition to slavery in the territories and Southern intransigence on the subject. Their opponents were not inclined to let them off the hook so easily:
Said the State Journal of its Democratic rival: “The Sentinel now begins to talk of ‘freedom’ and ‘southern dictation’ as glibly as though to such language it had long been accustomed. It does not sound beautifully from the lips of those who bowed so submissively to ‘Southern dictation’ and supported Mr. Polk for the Presidency—and who bowed still lower to the same dictation when they supported General Cass, who sold himself to the South! Then how harmoniously it sounds from those who aided in annexing Texas to the Union, with territory out of which to make four more Slave States! They talk of ‘Southern dictation’ who have been its most abject worshippers, and now ask to be thought sincere.”
The appeals of the major parties to attract Free Soil sentiment seems to have done its job, and the Free Soilers made no nominations in 1849. However, national sectional tensions were pulling the parties apart. As the state Democrats tried to distance themselves from the South, the state Whigs were being pulled under by their association with the slave owning Taylor. In general, the Free Soilers fused with the Democrats, and the sound defeat of the Whigs in 1849 took most of the life out of the party. Democrats took the lead on the common school law and the question of the new Indiana constitution which, in addition to the question of slavery, seem to have captured most of the state’s political attention for the next few years.