School Law of 1852
The newly adopted state Constitution required the election of a Superintendent of Public Instruction and the creation of a system of Common Schools. In response to those requirements, the General Assembly adopted a school law in 1852. The law created the State Board of Education. The Superintendent of Public Instruction was to be the President of the Board and the only member directly involved in education. The other members were the Governor, the Secretary of State, the Treasurer, and the Auditor. In 1855, the Attorney General was added to the list. “The Board was directed to meet annually for the purpose of promoting education through conferences, interchange of views, introduction of uniform schoolbooks, establishing township libraries and determining questions that might arise in connection with the public schools.” William Larrabee was the first Superintendent. Caleb Mills, so instrumental in creating the position, was the second.
The School Law also provided that that schools would be supported through state taxation but delegated the responsibilities of erecting school buildings and hiring school teachers to the township trustees. The law declared each civil township a township for school purposes as well. The old district schools became property of the townships. The quality of these facilities varied wildly, and sometimes there were no buildings available at all.
Many cities and townships raised taxes of their own. However, in 1858, the Supreme Court, in the case of Jenners v. Lafayette, a tax for a township in Lafayette (50 cents on the hundred dollars) was struck down as impermissible. (“This decision deprived the schools of most of their revenue and caused almost a complete shutdown of the schools. This decision was as unpopular as the Dred Scott Decision. “) The Court reasoned that the new Constitution’s prohibition on special laws regarding public education forbade local units of government from taxing themselves to pay for schools. For several years, this decision ground school progress to a halt. Some cities tried to muddle along with private donations. Others simply gave up. The General Assembly subsequently passed legislation saying this was permissible, but the Supreme Court continued to strike down such measures through the 1850s and 60s. The General Assembly finally wore down the Court and an 1885 decision found one of these measures acceptable.
Fugitive Slave Act
In 1850, as part of the Compromise of 1850, the U.S. Congress adopted the Fugitive Slave Act. This law placed all black people, free and fugitive alike, at risk. The standard of proof for a slave catcher was trivial — he simply had to swear an oath to a justice of the peace and received the legal authority to carry a black person away into bondage. Federal commissioners had the power to deputize private citizens to assist in the capture of fugitives. The commissioners received $10 for each person they returned to bondage.
John Freeman – 1853
In 1853, John Freeman, a wealthy black man who lived in Indianapolis was accused of being a slave. Freeman had come to Indianapolis from Georgia in 1844. By 1853, he had acquired about 4 acres in the vicinity of what’s now Capitol and Michigan Street. He worked as a painter and also owned a restaurant in town. That year, a Methodist minister from St. Louis came to town with an affidavit claiming that Freeman was his slave who had run away 17 years ago. Being the rare black man with the wherewithal and social connections to fight this kind of thing, some of the city’s best legal talent came together to litigate the matter. However, while the charges were pending, the law did not authorize bail. So Freeman was stuck in jail for 9 weeks.
Freeman’s side located witnesses who knew him as a free man in Georgia during the relevant time period and even seem to have located the real runaway slave who was up in Canada (and, for obvious reasons, would not come to Indiana to testify.) However, the minister’s side came up with three people willing to testify that Freeman was the runaway (after Freeman was compelled to let these witnesses view him naked). During the course of these proceedings, local sentiment was aroused against the minister and the marshals enforcing the Slave Act. The minister fled the area before the trial took place.
Even though Freeman’s lawyers did not charge him for their services, he still took a substantial financial hit from the experience. He was forced to pay for his own jailing ($3 per day), and the costs of transporting witnesses from Georgia were substantial.
Freeman attempted to recoup his losses by filing civil suits against the minister and against the federal marshal. The suit against the marshal was dismissed on a technicality (the suit was filed in Marion County but the marshal lived in Rush County.) Freeman obtained a judgment against the minister in the amount of $2,000, but he fled further — selling his house in St. Louis and making himself scarce. Freeman’s finances were decimated, but, comparatively speaking, his was a fortunate outcome. There is no telling how many black northerners were falsely accused and lacked the resources to fight the accusation. (Though, given the immorality of slavery, a truthful accusation doesn’t make the federally-assisted intrusion of the South’s peculiar institution much more palatable.)
Calvin Fairbank – 1851
Of some note, in part because it involved the signing of an arrest warrant by Governor Wright, was the matter of Calvin Fairbank. He was a Methodist Episcopal minister, educated at Oberlin, who had become an abolitionist after a woman who had been a slave told her story of being separated from her family as a child. Fairbank had been sentenced to jail and released previously for his work helping slaves escape. He was enlisted to help with the escape of a Kentucky slave named Tamar and was in Clark County after having successfully assisted with Tamar’s case. On November 9, 1851, Fairbank was arrested by the Sheriff of Clark County on a warrant signed by Wright, acting on a request from Kentucky’s governor. However, the sheriff allowed Fairbank to be taken by men from Kentucky, apparently in violation of the law on how such extradition was to take place. After that, he was run through a sketchy legal proceeding in Kentucky where he wasn’t allowed to call witnesses on his own behalf, and then subjected to some brutal treatment at the hands of the Kentucky penal system — flogging and overwork being the primary methods of punishing Fairbank. He was said to have sustained over 30,000 lashes in the 12 years he was imprisoned in Kentucky.
West – 1857
There was also the case of a slave named West in 1857. A slave catcher had taken West in Illinois and was passing through Indianapolis, waiting to catch a train back to Kentucky. (Railroads were growing during this period — by 1853, the Monon Railroad had extended from the Ohio River to Lake Michigan.) Abolitionists in Indiana initiated a trial, accusing the slave catcher of kidnapping a free black man, hoping – if nothing else – to drive up costs for slave owner in an amount that exceeded the value of West to the slaveowner. They hoped that, if the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze, maybe slavers would stop operating in Indiana.
One issue in the case was whether a cause of action could be instituted by a black man, such as West, who had entered Indiana after the new Constitution in contravention of the new Article XIII. Fairly early on in the proceedings, the kidnapping charge was dropped, but then a new proceeding was instituted on whether a warrant under the Fugitive Slave Act was appropriate. Lawyers for West scrutinized every undotted “i” and uncrossed “t.” For example, they challenged the affidavit that spoke of West’s status as a slave in “Kentuck.” Of course – they argued, “Kentuck” is not a state, so the affidavit should be stricken and the cause dismissed. When the evidence showed pretty clearly that West was, in fact, a runaway slave; his counsel shifted gears and offered up abolitionist sermons designed to arouse the public:
The fugitive act is a godless law, it is an unutterably infernal law and if its provisions are carried out, it will drag God Almighty from his throne, and inaugurate the reign of the devil upon the earth. There is not a doctrine taught by Jesus Christ which is not derided and trampled under foot by the law.
When these appeals to the federal commissioner were unsuccessful, West’s attorneys tried filing for a writ of habeas corpus in the federal court. The federal judge denied the petition because his jurisdiction was concurrent with that of the federal commissioner, and he had no authority to second guess the Fugitive Slave Act or the commissioner’s decision under the circumstances. After that, there was a brief, failed escape attempt followed by the process of transporting West from Indianapolis to Louisville. The crowds surrounding the train were ugly, and a great deal of security was required. There were at least two attempts to block or derail the train by blocking the tracks. The whole undertaking had cost West’s purported owner a great deal, and angry sentiment had been aroused in the people of Indianapolis.
If you read the Southern articles of secession, when the individuals purporting to secede from the United States are not talking about how they are seceding to preserve slavery; very often, they are talking about their dissatisfaction with northern compliance with the federal Fugitive Slave law. I mention this, not because it’s so important to Indiana history, but because modern revisionists seeking to slap some lipstick on the pig of Southern motivations at the time, offer up nonsense about how secession was really about a deep commitment to state’s rights and federalism. Their commitment to the Fugitive Slave Act exposes this as nonsense. In any event, it’s clear that sectional tension over the issue of slavery was a festering wound in the country during the 1850s.
Next time: More on Governor Wright and the Election of 1854.