Saturday, May 9, 2015

Politics as we might remember it

I can't recall who said, "All politics is local," since so many people have taken credit for having said it.

The fascinating part of looking into the history of Fairfield and how it related to the Whitewater valley and to Indiana is many of the state's more notable politicians are from the Brookville area.

Several of them were governors, and being governor has always been a big deal. In the 1800s, being the governor meant making decisions that were far-reaching and often permanent. The legacy of Indiana's governors is literally endless history.

The original settlers in the Whitewater valley were quite likely to dabble in the politics of the day, primarily because they came to Indiana for that reason in the first place. They were landowners, and landowners made the rules.

Elections were held among free white males, over the age of 21. The poor tenants who qualified were entitled to vote but since they were typically tenants, illiterate and beholden to the landowners, they voted as they were told. People knew who voted for whom. They ... just ... did.

Early Fairfielders who cast a large shadow in the political arena were Robert Hanna and Robert Templeton, though Templeton's impact is a bit less, he being more inclined to pursue philosophical matters.

Hanna appears to have been an opportunist, and since he had come from a family of politically connected people in South Carolina, his interest in civic affairs is understandable. His father, Robin, was a personal associate of one of the great politicians of all time ... Thomas Jefferson, the man on the 2-dollar bill. And the nickel. And on a hill in South Dakota.

Hanna had a steamship named after him.

In looking back at the names of the original settlers in the valley, some appear to be less inclined to pursue public life. I found a few references to George Leviston, but the Logans, Swans, Johnstons and Abernathys seemed more dispensed with building homesteads than manufacturing an agenda for running it. Logan evidently had a keen interest in developing a spiritual community, so that would "politics" of a sort.

The original founders of Fairfield -- Abernathy, Johnston, Wilson and Osborn -- did so for a couple of reasons, and one can assume they had basic political motives in mind. The town itself was seen as necessary because of the growth of population. An additional trading post was practical, the four men surmised, and stuck a post in the ground where their lands met.

Presto, instant town.

The long-lived narrative about how the four were conspiring to have the county seat moved from Brookville has made for great story fodder. One can assume that they perhaps boasted of such an aim when they all gathered at the annual Grange meeting in Brookville. The fact was: Brookville was not going to lose its courthouse, since it had geography and influential people on its side, and a federal land office.

But politics did play in Corydon when the state was being founded. We know of Johnathan McCarty's efforts to create Fayette County, which lured a courthouse and a legal system in that direction. That was by no means unimportant. But Connersville was well established by the time that happened in 1819. As an incidental note, the county seat of Union County was originally planned for Brownsville. Politics begets its own realities, since the county seat is in Liberty.

Fairfield itself would be affected by the actions of various governors, some of whom were powerful political people in Brookville.

The first Brookville governor was James Brown Ray (1825-1831). Ray was a Jacksonian Democrat but not a very good one, according to the Indiana Magazine of History. In fact, Ray's antics during his governorship were hardly that of a grizzled politician when it came to leading an organization in support of the Jackson ticket in the 1828 governor's race.

In those years, the governor was elected every three years. Ray had served one term and was widely expected to seek another. But he had little taste for partisan politics and made little effort to coordinate the Jackson party's aims. He didn't even fully attack the presidency of John Q. Adams.

"Mere chance had made it possible for him to be governor. He had never been forced to risk a stand on an issue and he did not care to do so now. Moreover he could not see that the personality of political personages was being merged into party spirit. This induced him to stand alone and play a game of duplicity in bidding for the votes of both factions. In doing so he lost the support of partisans on both sides."

Ray was elected again. He served as Indiana began to spread north and west. It appears had had little or no control over it.

Evidently, Ray was somewhat of a jerk and suffered as a result of it when he left the Statehouse. He had promised to codify Indiana law and essentially tried to do that without asking for much advice. In effect, he pissed off the lawyers. Bad idea.

Squabbling between Ray and his successor, Noah Noble, had its origins in a spat Ray had with Noah's brother James, who was in the U.S. Senate. (Noah was living in Marion at the time. James and he are from Brookville, however.)

Ray also served during the years when the ill-fated canal system was begun. He had proposed it in 1822 while in the state Senate. However, by the end of that decade, he began to see that the project was facing trouble -- from the railroads that were just starting up.

Nobody much paid attention to Ray. The canal lobby was too strong. Congress even went along with it. What impact Ray had on any of that is clear ... Indiana would pay the price for the long drainage ditch it was to become.

Canaling became profitable throughout the 1830s and was generally lucrative at times into the 1840s.

Noble (1831-37) can be described as having political leanings that were essentially conservative-neutral. In other words, gridlock. He was responsible for the construction of the Michigan Road, which helped settle the state after the so-called New Purchase of native lands in north-central Indiana. Construction of that road was muddled, confused and controversial. Ray served as something of an impediment. Again, it seems he was a jerk.

The history essay describes Noble:

"He began his political career as county sheriff at Brookville; he served as representative in the state assembly; he was appointed to the government land office at Brookville and Indianapolis by President Adams, from which office he was removed by President Jackson in 1829. In 1830 he was appointed contract commissioner on the Michigan Road in which capacity he was serving when elected governor on the Whig ticket in 1831. Like Ray, he was an internal improvements enthusiast. His record of efficiency as commissioner undoubtedly aided in his election as governor."

Noble, for what it's worth, had succeeded Robert Hanna as county sheriff.

As an aside, the history of the creation of the Michigan Road is complex. If it weren't for fraud, political ineptitude and special interest whining, the project was a great success. You could actually travel the entire length of Indiana. Or, that was the plan. By 1834, most funding for the road was appropriated elsewhere. By 1837, most travelers found the road to be something resembling "impassible."

Effectively, the project inevitably became somewhat of a farce. County governments were forced to finish the work when the state went broke.

Wallace, another Brookviller and father of Gen. Lew Wallace, came next (1837-40). He was a Whig, or a conservative. Wallace had served as lieutenant governor under Noble. He has been explored in another blog item. (Those are in the listings at the right.)

Wallace was governor just after what became known as the "Panic of 1837" that crippled Indiana's economy. His attempts to rectify the problem were considered failures and the ongoing internal improvements program suffered, putting many out of work. He lasted one term before somehow being elected to Congress as a Whig.

Sam Bigger, who succeeded Wallace, endured the inevitable bankruptcy that had come partially from poorly managed funding of public works projects, mainly the canal debacle.

Wallace was also governor when the Pottawatomie tribe was expelled from Indiana during the infamous "trail of death" march.

Most of the very early governors were not born in Indiana and many were influenced by their studies and upbringing in the South, namely Virginia. To some, the issue of slavery was less a problem than a nuisance. I found no evidence that any of Brookville's governors took a strong stand on that issue.

Others who were closely associated with Fairfield in those early years were William Eads, a Brookville merchant who had once bought land in the town with his younger brother Thomas, evidently on speculation that the original town founders were right about the courthouse. Eads was part of the original state constitutional convention, as were Robert Hanna and Johnathan McCarty.

McCarty's father Benjamin was also a respected judge in Franklin County. He is buried in the New Fairfield cemeteries at Sims-Brier.

Brookville's other governor was Abram Hammond, who served for three months in 1860 after Ashbel Willard died in office.  He was a Democrat who had a fairly successful law practice in Indianapolis. He advocated no policies during his "placeholder" term.




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