Indiana Territory -- Beginnings

The Slavery Question

In spite of the provision in the Ordinance of 1787 that there should be "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude" in the Northwest Territory, otherwise than for the punishment of crimes, there was from the first a pronounced attempt to make it legal in Indiana. The entering wedge for this attempt was the fact that Negro slavery had existed among the French. This continued to exist and its elimination was but laxly followed up. It is estimated that in 1800 there were one hundred seventy-five slaves in the territory, twenty-eight of which were at Vincennes. In some instances the "involuntary servitude" clause was avoided by the slaves agreeing by indentures or contracts to remain with their masters for a certain number of years.

With the incoming American population were many southerners that were favorable to slavery and Governor Harrison himself decidedly leaned that way. In December of 1802, pursuant to a proclamation issued by the Governor, an election was held in the various counties to choose delegates for a convention at Vincennes on the twentieth of that month, the purpose of which was to consider the slavery proviso in the ordinance. This was a movement of the slavery element, and the result of the convention was a memorial to Congress petitioning that the proviso be suspended. The argument made was, in part, that such suspension "would be highly advantageous to the territory"; that "the abstract question of liberty and slavery" was not involved, and that the slaves themselves would be benefited as those possessed in small numbers by farmers "were better fed and better clothed than when they were crowded together in quarters by hundreds" (Dillon). The committee to which this memorial was referred disapproved of the suspension and Congress took no action. That, however, by no means ended the matter and the attempts to saddle slavery upon the territory continued throughout the territorial period. Meanwhile the antislavery element was not indifferent or idle and the political history of those years is in no small degree one of party alignment on that question. Generally speaking, the Harrison party of Knox County which stood for slavery was opposed by Clark County and the Quaker elements of the Whitewater, with whom Jonathan Jennings became a conspicuous leader, and whom, in 1816, they made the first Governor of the State. By 1816 the anti-slavery element had so gained in strength as to elect a large majority of the delegates to the constitutional convention of that year, and by virtue of this the Indiana State Constitution fixed firmly the status of Indiana as one of the free commonwealths. This was the beginning of the end, but the tenacity of this nefarious cancer on the body politic is well illustrated by the fact that as late as 1840 a few slaves were reported in Indiana in open violation of the constitutional law (the sub-title to J. P. Dunn's "Indiana" is "A Redemption From Slavery," and the book is primarily an exhaustive study of this particular question, which the author holds to be an important formative factor in our history).