The bicentennial is finally upon us. 200 years ago today — on December 11, 1816 — President Madison signed the Congressional resolution admitting Indiana into Union as a state.
So we come now to the end of our story. It was a tale that, as they say, grew in the telling. When I started writing, I had a vague notion of a couple of posts each month devoted to the bicentennial. By the end, the project had consumed my blog activity and resulted in 12 to 13 posts per month. We are going to end just shy of 115,000 words. In this, I suppose, it’s a metaphor for Indiana which started as a small affair, huddled in a crescent from the Whitewater, across the Ohio, and back up the lower Wabash but has grown to a population of about 6.6 million people. Additionally, when I wrote about the national background, it was originally conceived as a few paragraphs to give some flavor of what was going on in the rest of the country. It progressively came to dominate more and more of the entries. I think this is reflective of how transportation and communication came to tie Indiana (as it did with the rest of the states) to the country as a whole. For the first half of our history, the barriers to communication and travel contributed to our state having a unique identity. As those barriers eroded, so too, has the uniqueness of our identity has eroded.
In the beginning, there was William Henry Harrison, Jonathan Jennings, Native Americans, and the slavery question. Native Americans, slavery, and Harrison were pushed out. Jennings spent some time on top but ended his days in an unmarked grave. Nevertheless, the state was on its way. The first order of business was to claw its way out of the wilderness. Hoosiers pushed out the natives and focused on internal improvements. The Indiana Mammoth Internal Improvement Act was a seminal event in our history. It laid the skeleton for our transportation system and plunged us into bankruptcy.
With the Constitution of 1816, our educational system was more aspirational than real. But, before long, educational reformers like Caleb Mills prompted changes that led to the Constitution of 1851 and our public school law. Of course, the Constitution of 1851 had its dark side as well — notably the infamous Article 13 and the exclusion of “negroes and mulattoes” from the state. During this period, the dyspeptic Jesse Bright rose to power, dominating the Democrats and the state political structure. As Indiana was drawn into the sectional conflict over slavery, Indiana’s Democratic Party fractured. Republicans rose out of the ashes of the Whigs, Democrats became the Party of the South, and Bright was eventually tossed out of the U.S. Senate for introducing Confederate President Jefferson Davis to an arms dealer.
The question of slavery dominated the country’s politics for a decade, and it seemed like everything was on hold until the Civil War finally burst the bubble. In Indiana, as elsewhere in the North, the federal Fugitive Slave Act (enthusiastically embraced by “states rights Southerners”) caused consternation and some dramatic incidents as slavers attempted to abduct black people in the north so Southerners could steal their labor.
In the dramatic election of 1860, Henry Bright led the Republican ticket in Indiana as the gubernatorial candidate, then immediately turned the governor’s office over to his lieutenant in exchange for the U.S. Senate seat. As governor, Oliver Morton faced abolitionist Quakers like George Julian on his left and, more numerously, Copperhead southern sympathizers on his right. Through force of will and, occasionally questionable methods, Morton kept Indiana fighting for the Union.
After the Civil War, Indiana hit its stride. Over a period of 50 years or so, its politicians would become politically relevant. Its authors would become world renowned. Indiana would supply four Vice-Presidents and one President. Schuyler Colfax served with President Grant from 1869 through 1873, Thomas Hendricks would serve with President Cleveland in 1885, Charles Fairbanks with Theodore Roosevelt from 1905 to 1909, and Thomas Marshall with Woodrow Wilson from 1913 to 1921. And, of course, Benjamin Harrison was the President from 1889 to 1893. Indiana was a swing state during those years with Republicans and Democrats fairly evenly matched. Having a Hoosier candidate on the ticket helped the odds. William English and John Kern were on the losing ticket in 1880 and 1908, respectively. Thomas Marshall, always good with a quote, quipped that Indiana was the “mother of vice presidents,” because it is “home of more second-class men than any other state.”
The development of industry in Indiana was powered by a gas boom from the 1880s through the early 20th century. Rapid growth and industrialization took place in Indiana’s gas belt in eastern Indiana. Cities like Muncie, Kokomo, Anderson, and Marion competed to attract new industries with offers of free natural gas, land, railway sidings, and tax credits.
Lured by the generous incentives, 162 factories were built, creating over 10,000 jobs by 1890. Among these new industries were tinplate mills in Anderson, Gas City, and Elwood as well as 21 new glass factories. “Ball Brothers Glass Manufacturing” relocated to Muncie from Buffalo, N.Y.
About the same time, the state experienced the Golden Age of Indiana literature. Probably the most commercially successful was Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, published in 1880. It has been called “the most influential Christian book of the 19th century” and outsold “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” It was an action adventure of sorts that was popular even if it received mixed reviews from critics. The works of Edward Eggleston and James Whitcomb Riley depicted nostalgic views of early Indiana. Eggleston at least, was motivated by a desire to be regarded as an equal of the New Englanders. Celebrating what Indiana had to offer, he wrote:
It used to be a matter of no little jealousy with us, I remember, that the manners, customs, thoughts, and feelings of New England country people filled so large a place in books, while our life, not less interesting, not less romantic, and certainly not less filled with humorous and grotesque material, had no place in literature. It was as though we were shut out of good society.
Booth Tarkington was somewhat later, mostly the first two decades of the twentieth century, but he wrote a number of well-received novels, including The Gentleman from Indiana, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Alice Adams. His novels detailed the changes experienced by middle and upper-class Hoosiers in the face of dramatic changes in society, hopeful but fearful the urban and industrial would threaten traditional Hoosier values of stability and individualism.
By the time of its centennial in 1916, Indiana was understandably proud of its accomplishments. In many ways, the ambitions of those first Hoosiers had been realized. Indiana had carved its way out of the wilderness and risen to prominence as an important part of what was becoming the most powerful nation on the planet. The centennial observations were extensive. Among other things, Governor Ralston founded the state park system to “stand forever as a token of the past,” and “bring health, wealth and happiness” to future generations.
But, the dislocation and transition that Tarkington wrote about left its mark on Indiana after the upheavals of the Progressive Era and World War I. Post-war Indiana saw the rapid rise of the Klan. The Industrial Revolution has been disruptive, and the switch to a more urban and less rural way of life was disconcerting. After World War I, the nation was looking for, as President Harding put it, a return to “normalcy.” D.C. Stephenson was a huckster who was particularly successful in selling the Klan’s essentially negative views of Christianity and American and Hoosier exceptionalism. This message was pretty easily used in an “us” versus “them” kind of way. And the Klan always likes to punch down against less privileged members of society. In 1920s Indiana, the group tended to promote a negative vision of Patriotism and Protestantism, “defending” them against Roman Catholics, the foreign born, Jews, blacks, and the old White Cap enemies: the immoral such as adulterers, gamblers, and drinkers. The Catholics, in particular, seemed to cause anxiety in the sorts of folks who joined the Klan in 1920s Indiana. The Klan’s vision had resonance. About 1/3 of white, male Hoosiers joined up. They successfully put Ed Jackson in the Governor’s office. But D.C. Stephenson whose rise from “a nobody from nowhere” to “the law in Indiana” was rapid had an equally rapid fall from grace. The media coverage of his trial for the murder of of Madge Oberholtzer shocked the state. And, when a pardon was not forthcoming from Governor Jackson, Stephenson decided that he was not going down alone and mostly took the rest of the Klan down with him by talking to the Indianapolis Times.
It was not long after the peak of the Klan that the Great Depression gave Hoosiers and everyone else real problems. The dire economic situation prompted the electorate to sweep Republicans out of office and elect Democrats in overwhelming numbers. For Indiana, this meant that Paul McNutt had almost unprecedented political power for a short period of time. He used it to reshape Indiana government. When he took office in 1933, McNutt hit the ground running. Historian James Madison says, “no governor since Oliver P. Morton held such power or so forcefully directed state government and his party.” McNutt believed that government could be a great instrument of human progress. First on the agenda was relief for the unemployed. The local organizations and government were not up to the task. McNutt extended and centralized the existing relief efforts and worked in conjunction with FDR’s federal government to provide more. This led to the Indiana Department of Public Welfare and the creation of a state old age pension. Another initiative of the McNutt administration was the Office of the Consumer Advocate — initially led by future Supreme Court Justice Sherman Minton. Home rule and state’s rights were infringed upon in favor of a powerful state government working hand-in-hand with the federal government.
McNutt also created the Indiana State Police. He was successful in implementing tax reform where prior governors had failed. McNutt advocated and the legislature passed a state gross sales tax — in effect a combination sales and income tax. He overhauled the state bureaucracy, making it more rational but also using the changes to enhance his patronage power. State employees were “encouraged” to show their support by joining the Hoosier Democratic Club — commonly known as the “Two Percent Club,” because that percent of their pay was assessed as the price of membership. Theoretically membership was voluntary, but it was generally assumed that a state job was not secure if one did not belong. Republicans vehemently denounced the Two Percent Club but somehow changed their mind about its merits when they returned to power in the 1940s.
Indiana, like the rest of the country, weathered the Depression and then was consumed by World War II. The state became a center of production with activity that transformed the state. Approximately 363,000 Hoosiers served in the war and 10,000 died in service. Indiana produced $3.2 billion worth of war supplies and constructed factories valued at about a billion dollars. Between 1940 and 1950, Indiana’s population increased by 500,000. Following the war, Indiana would take imperfect and often contentious steps toward desegregation. We saw a microcosm of this in the efforts in Marion County to desegregate schools and the history of Shortridge High School. Also following the wars, the nation really improved its highways. Improvements in transportation and highways intertwined us more closely with the rest of the nation and, for good or bad, I feel like this cost us some of our distinctive character. Milan had its miracle in 1954, but since then we’ve traded our one-class basketball tournament and joined the rest of the country in observing Daylight Saving Time.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, and Watergate made for stormy politics. The state implemented some fairly substantial constitutional changes in the early 1970s. This led to, among other things, a return to two term governors in 1972 after a long period of governors being limited to one term since the Constitution of 1851 was adopted. Taxes had been a particularly troublesome issue in the 60s. Governor Bowen, in the 70s implemented a shift away from property taxes toward sales taxes to address the problem. Governor Daniels would take a similar approach in the early 21st century when similar issues arose.
Since the 1970s, our political leadership has been fairly stable. After a major corruption scandal in the Indiana Senate in the late 70s, Bob Garton took control of the chamber and led it for a quarter century. Governors Bowen, Orr, Bayh, O’Bannon, and Daniels each won two terms. Mike Pence is the first elected governor, eligible for re-election, not to enjoy a second term since Samuel Bigger in 1843. But, he’s going to follow in the footsteps of Dan Quayle and be the Vice-President, so I suppose he won’t complain.
And now we’re at the bicentennial. Through a good chunk of this history, I’m proud to say there were Massons involved. My great, great grandfather, James P. Masson moved to Indianapolis sometime around 1850 or 1860. My great grandfather, M. Ross Masson was born shortly thereafter. His son (my grandfather) James E. Masson was born in 1905. My father, also named James, was born in 1939. They were all from Indianapolis. I was born in Richmond in 1971. And my kids, the 6th generation, were born in Lafayette.
It is my hope that, in our third century, Hoosiers can redirect their attention locally and regain the energy and ambition that drove the first generations to carve a great state out of the wilderness. To do so, I think we have to reconnect with our neighbors, devote our attention to local government and community events, and make our cities and towns places our children are eager and proud to call home. Greatness is not beyond reach. Golden Age Athens did work that still shapes the world today despite having a population of only about 300,000. England, a relatively small backwater island nation at the beginning of the 17th century went on to rule a large part of the world by the end of the 18th century, coming to regard the Romans as little men with small dreams.
We need to educate our children, improve our infrastructure, cultivate the science, literature, arts, and productive economic activity. We should not be passive observers, complaining about the present or dwelling on nostalgia for the past. We need to actively create our future. If we do so, perhaps our tricentennial will mark a new high water mark for the Hoosier State.