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SUMMER / FALL 2019      © 2021 812 Magazine

Forgotten firebrand


Indiana's first governor was a fearless populist who shaped our state's constitution.


His road to victory was a literal one. In an age where campaigning was virtually nonexistent, Jonathan Jennings knew exactly what he was doing as he walked onto David Reese’s Dearborn County farm that fall day in 1809. At the age of 25, he was a little-known anti-slavery candidate to Congress from the Indiana Territory.

The day before, his opponent, Thomas Randolph, had visited the same farm. Randolph was 38, of Virginian descent and friends with the Territory’s governor, William Henry Harrison. Randolph had rode in on horseback while the men were working. He’d waited until the men finished and then proceeded to share his political aspirations.

Jennings, a government clerk from Vincennes with no family pedigree, had a different approach. “Send a boy up with my horse, and I’ll help,” he told the men. He helped them finish the day’s work, told them why Indiana should become a non-slave state and even played sports with them. Shrewdly, Jennings always let the other men win.

“Wherever Jennings goes, he draws all men to him,” an opponent would later complain.

That fall, the underdog populist won the election to Congress with 428 votes to Randolph’s 402. Jennings’ political career had begun.

Jennings would go on to shape the new state’s Constitution in 1816 and serve as Indiana’s first governor. Sometimes called our “first professional politician,” he would topple the aristocratic powers that controlled the territory and lead the movement to keep Indiana a non-slavery state.

Yet just 25 years after his surprise victory in Dearborn County, Jennings would lie only a few miles away in an unmarked grave.

A populist champion

Southern Indiana in 1816 was a region in transition. Native Americans who had clashed with white settlers for years had been killed, driven out or confined to reservations. The War of 1812 had ended, and bustling river towns like Madison, Jeffersonville and Evansville welcomed thousands of new settlers sweeping in from the East and South.

Some, like Abraham Lincoln and his father Thomas, settled near the river. Others moved deeper into the hills of Southern Indiana, carving small farms out of the dense virgin forest. Massive herds of deer and flocks of wild turkeys fed these hearty pioneers until their farms began producing vegetables for the table and corn to be shipped down the Ohio. The work was hard, but no one starved.

With these settlers, especially those from the South, came a patriarchal family structure, a fierce allegiance to tradition and a zeal for personal liberty that James Madison, author of Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana, says “drifted toward libertarianism.”

The territory had been governed since 1801 by William Henry Harrison at his elegant Grouseland estate in Vincennes. Harrison and his appointed successor, Thomas Posey, defended slavery and cautioned against rushing into statehood, fearing bigger government and higher taxes.

But the rugged individualists flooding into the southeastern region of the territory, found a champion in Jennings, an ambitious law clerk who broke with Vincennes to seek out those who shared his populist views – and who might support his rise to political power.

The journey west

Jennings was born in New Jersey in 1784 and grew up with five brothers and two sisters in a large, close-knit family. His mother was the well-educated daughter of a minister, and his father was a physician, who, in the same year Jennings was born, became a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church.

When Jennings was 6, his family moved to western Pennsylvania where he was homeschooled on their farm. Later, he studied Latin, Greek, mathematics and, eventually, law. In 1806, he traveled to Steubenville, Ohio, where his brother Obadiah had established a law office.

Lured by stories of opportunity in the west, Jennings made his way to Vincennes, the capital of the territory, where he became a law clerk for Nathaniel Ewing. He was just 22 and missed his family. He often wrote letters, especially to his sister, Anna, and his brother-in-law David G. Mitchell.

“Believe me, that I desire your happiness as well, and equally with my own. You are dear to me Sir, not only because you possess a generous and independent mind, but likewise you are dear to her who has always been the tender object of my heart,” he wrote.

Randy Mills, author of Jonathan Jennings: Indiana’s First Governor, says the separation was hard for Jennings. “He was abandoned on the frontier, and he was close with his brothers and sisters.” That sense of loneliness is a human condition that transcends time, Mills says.

Vincennes had become a hub to French settlers and was dominated by Harrison and his supporters, many of whom were pro-slavery. “The place is full of rascals,” wrote Jennings to his brother-in-law, Mitchell.

One man in particular irritated him. Henry Hurst, the clerk of the General Court of the Indiana Territory, questioned Jennings’ honesty. Rather than let the insult slide, Jennings challenged him to a duel. It’s uncertain if the duel ever took place, but Jennings later wrote Mitchell that he might have to kill Hurst to get the man to leave him alone.

Jennings disliked Vincennes, where he faced the first of many financial setbacks, and saw new opportunity for his political career in Jeffersonville, a river town he thought might become the new state’s capital.

Shaping a state

After Jennings’ upset victory in 1809, he served in Congress for six years as territorial Indiana moved towards statehood. Some, including Harrison, expressed concern that statehood would mean bigger government and higher taxes. But whether the new state would allow or ban slavery was the incendiary issue of the time.

Jennings’ anti-slavery stance was at least partly pragmatic. Madison says the territory at the time was agrarian, and most settlers earned their living through farming. “One of the reasons Jennings and the others were opposed to slavery was because they didn’t want African Americans in Indiana,” he says. “They did not want to have to compete with slave labor.”

While the debate continued, Jennings’ life changed in another way. On August 8, 1811, he married Ann Hay of Charlestown. She became his loyal companion and rode on horseback with him to Washington for his second term in Congress. She often traveled alongside him as he campaigned.

As personable as Jennings, Ann visited the homes of the sick when malaria was spreading in the region. When Jennings’ brother Ebenezer died, Ann, who never had children of her own, took in their 10-year-old son Jacob. He grew up to study law and work alongside his uncle.

But Jennings’ contentment at home still gave way to bouts of discouragement in politics. He sometimes drank too much. “I shall be happy soon to enjoy the balance of my time in a retirement where neither poverty or riches, good or bad fame shall be able to disturb, improperly, my retreat,” he wrote his brother-in-law. “To be happy in this world is far beyond my expectations, so much so that I scarcely wish it. To be contented is my greatest ambition.”

Congress approved Indiana’s petition for statehood, led by Jennings, in 1815. A constitutional convention was scheduled to begin in May 1816 in Corydon, which had become the territory’s new capital. The town was made up of dirt roads and few buildings. The statehouse was a simple, square, 40 feet tall building built between 1814 and 1816. It was constructed out of limestone from nearby quarries and logs cut from virgin forests.

Each county elected delegates, and Jennings presided over the convention.

Forty-three men prepared the new state’s constitution that summer. Due to the sweltering heat, they often convened beneath a giant elm tree, which became known as the Constitutional Elm. Visitors today can still see the trunk, which is preserved as a landmark.

The Constitution of 1816 began with a preamble and bill of rights, which included the concept of “all men are born equally free and independent.” The issue of slavery was decided once and for all. The delegates agreed that “no alteration of this constitution shall ever take place so as to include slavery or involuntary servitude.” Yet still, white male citizens over the age of 21 were the only ones permitted to vote.

The constitution also included education reform. Jennings promoted the idea of a state university where tuition would be free, Madison says. “Those notions of democracy came from Jennings and the people around him.”

Within weeks, a search for the state’s first governor commenced, and two men went head-to-head. Running against Jennings was the former territorial governor Thomas Posey, Harrison’s hand-picked candidate.

Posey might have given Jennings a run for his money, but he was ill and unable to campaign. So Jennings was elected Indiana’s first governor at the age of 32 with a 5,211 to 3,934 vote.

Politics of statehood

At the Legislative Assembly on November 7, 1816, Jennings delivered his first message to the new state. His main concerns included proper schooling and for protection and freedom for persons of color. “They were of the people. They were for the people, for ordinary people,” Madison says. “And they weren’t enthusiastic about wealthy know-it-alls.”

A month later, on December 11, 1816, Indiana became America’s 19th state.

As governor, Jennings continued his push for public schools and justice for all citizens. He helped develop a plan for improvements to roads and waterways. But governing a state proved to be less rewarding than creating one.

“Once they wrote that 1816 Constitution, the basic framework was laid down,” Madison says. “I don’t think what he does after he becomes governor is as significant as what he does before.”

That sentiment is reflected in a letter to his brother-in-law. “I hold an office, considered honorable, but I know it to be capable of yielding but little satisfaction,” he wrote.

After successfully completing two terms, Jennings left his office. “Fellow Citizens, The period will soon arrive, when by the provisions of the Constitution, it will devolve on you to elect, by your suffrages, an individual, other than myself, to act as Governor of the state,” Jennings addressed to his constituents in 1822.

“I don’t think he was before his time,” says Madison, “I think he was a representative of his time.”

Although, he left office as governor, Jennings went on to serve in Congress another eight years.

A lifelong battle lost

After the death of his wife Ann in 1826, Jennings’ long-time drinking problem became notably worse.

Biographer Mills has a special empathy for Jennings’ addiction. Mills’ own son died of alcoholism years ago. “I see Jennings go through the same stages I saw my son go through,” he said. Alcoholism wasn’t a disease back then, Mills said. It was a character flaw.

“The reason Jennings has been forgotten,” Mills says, “is because people had started trashing him.” As his drinking continued and his debt grew bigger, his friends drifted away.

Jennings lost his seat in Congress in 1830 and returned to Charlestown. One day, so the story goes, two men passed by an inebriated Jennings as he leaned up against a tree. After overhearing one of them say he was the former governor, Jennings replied, “Yes, a pretty governor. He can’t even govern himself.”

Jennings died on his farm just outside Charlestown on July 26, 1834, at the age of 50. All of his savings were spent repaying his debts. He left behind a legacy for the state of Indiana but was buried in an unmarked grave.

A legacy for the state

It took nearly 60 years for Jennings to earn his name back. In 1892, after citizens campaigned for a proper burial for Jennings, the State Legislature approved $500 to move his body to Charlestown Cemetery and erect a modest monument on his behalf. The stone still stands today.

Now, two schools bear the name of the man who championed public education: Jonathan Jennings Elementary in Charlestown and Jonathan Jennings School 109 in Indianapolis. 

Nineteenth-century biographer Nowland acknowledged that we might not always remember Jennings' kindness or gentlemanly qualities. "But his integrity, the honest discharge of every official duty entrusted to him, should not be forgotten.”


Editor’s note: Documentary sources for this story include: Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana, by James Madison; Jonathan Jennings: Indiana’s First Governor, by Randy Mills; “Jonathan Jennings,” Indiana Magazine of History, 1932; Sketches of Prominent Citizens of 1876, by John H. B. Rowland; transcripts of Jennings’ letters and newspaper archives.