Joseph Wright (1849-1857)
Wright was the son of a bricklayer who moved his family from Pennsylvania to Bloomington and helped build the first halls of Indiana University. Wright himself worked his way through IU and eventually became a lawyer and found his way into politics. In 1849, with the support of Governor Whitcomb, Wright was the Democratic nominee. Slavery was the dominant question of the election, and Wright had a record of opposing slavery when he was in Congress, and that seemed to have helped his cause; defeating Whig John Matson.
During Wright’s term, the State adopted a new constitution, the State Board of Education was created, and the Department of Agriculture was founded. (One of its first initiatives was the Indiana State Fair which first took place in 1852.) Throughout his term, he wrestled with Jesse Bright — largely without success — for control of the Democratic Party. (Bright was an unlikable bully who was skilled at working committees, rewarding friends, and punishing enemies. More on him later.)
Constitution of 1851
Through the 1840s, there had been a push for a new Constitution. In part, this was a sign of the times — a commitment to progress and reform. A number of other states in the Old Northwest went through constitutional re-writes at this time. In part, it was a reaction to the failed Mammoth Improvement Act. There was a concern that the General Assembly did not operate efficiently — wasting money by meeting every year and considering a great deal of specific, local legislation. In 1850, the General Assembly adopted legislation facilitating the Constitutional convention. Ultimately, the districting for electing the 150 delegates was very similar to the districts in place for electing the 150 senators and representatives. A couple of tweaks were made: Boone and Tipton counties were in a senatorial district with Hamilton County. But, for the constitutional convention, only Hamilton County voters got to vote for that particular convention delegate. Also, Daviess and Martin counties jointly elected a representative and a senator. Instead of jointly electing those two convention delegates, each county got to elect its own convention delegate. The delegates were to meet in the Capitol Building in Indianapolis (efforts to retain the Masonic Hall apparently having failed), and the General Assembly appropriated $40,000 for the convention.
Most of the delegates were farmers, lawyers, and physicians. Very few of the delegates were native Hoosiers. About half were born in the South. Democrats were dominant at the time and made up 2/3 of the delegates. The rest were Whigs.
Much of the underlying structure of the Constitution of 1816 was retained, however there were some major new features. Under the Constitution of 1851, the General Assembly would meet only once every two years for sessions lasting 61 days. The new constitution was also somewhat more forceful on the subject of education than the 1816 version had been. As you might recall, the 1816 version had some good language about education but gave the government a loophole by saying it should be implemented “as soon as circumstances will permit.” Thanks to the agitation of Caleb Mills and the education reformers, the Framers of the 1851 deemed that the circumstances were ripe, stating that the General Assembly was “to provide, by law, for a general and uniform system of Common Schools, wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all.” This led promptly to the School Law of 1852 (which was blocked by the Supreme Court a couple of times before it was allowed to take effect in the 1860s).
Immigrants (male and white) were allowed to vote if they had been in the country a year, in the state for 6 months, and expressed an intent to become citizens. (Irish and German immigrants were regarded as more likely to vote for Democrats). This expansive attitude toward the vote did not, of course, extend to women and blacks. Black people were singled out for particular abuse by this new constitution. A new Article XIII was added:
Section 1. No negro or mulatto shall come into or settle in the State, after the adoption of this Constitution.
Section 2. All contracts made with any Negro or Mulatto coming into the State, contrary to the provisions of the foregoing section, shall be void; and any person who shall employ such Negro or Mulatto, or otherwise encourage him to remain in the State, shall be fined in any sum not less than ten dollars, nor more than five hundred dollars.
Section 3. All fines which may be collected for a violation of the provisions of this article, or of any law which ay hereafter be passed for the purpose of carrying the same into execution, shall be set apart and appropriated for the colonization of such Negroes and Mulattoes, and their descendants, as may be in the State at the adoption of this Constitution, and may be willing to emigrate.
Adding insult to injury, this Article was the subject of an independent vote and was more popular with Hoosiers (passing 113,828 to 21,873) than the rest of the constitution. Fortunately, this article was declared invalid by the Supreme Court in 1863.
Next time: The Fugitive Slave Act & the School Law of 1852