Indiana’s own Richard Wigginton Thompson, former Secretary of the Navy, was an emblematic product of American corruption during the Gilded Age. In many ways, he was the living embodiment of failing upward; despite being clearly incapable of serving as Naval Secretary, he continued to rise through the ranks of the political establishment. In effect, his story is but one, small part of a larger story about how government is not always staffed by the “best and brightest,” but rather its exact opposite.
A short article from the June 24, 1842 issue of the Brookville, Indiana American noted that Van Buren’s horse carriage, traveling on the National Road, took a tumble (and so did the former commander-in-chief). As the American described:
Martin Van Buren, it is known, always opposed appropriations to the National Road. On his journey west last week he was compelled to travel that road, when it was in its worst situation; and when 10 miles west of Indianapolis the stage upset, and very much injured the Dutchman’s shoulder. We are disposed to believe he will hereafter acknowledge the necessity, if not the justice, of appropriations to that road.
Over the years, Van Buren’s fall evolved into a local legend for the Plainfield community, so much so that a memorial plaque was placed on a boulder near a tree. As with many local stories, the tree has taken on a level of significance. A story by NPR elaborated on the tree’s importance:
The report is of the carriage coming down that hill and gaining speed and gaining speed and then hitting the tree roots here and tipping over. . . .
At the base of the tree was a large mud hole where pigs wallowed. There were two routes to get around it, but the carriage driver deliberately took the rough route knowing the elm’s roots would overturn the carriage and send Van Buren flying into the mud. The plan was executed perfectly. The carriage tipped over, and Van Buren went into the muck, soiling his starched white clothes and filling his boots with thick mud.
That night a mysterious chap partially sawed the underside of the doubletree crossbar of the stage that Van Buren and his party were to travel west in so that it would snap on the first hard pull… When Mr. Van Buren left on Friday morning for Indianapolis, before the stage had gone two miles it was swamped in a mud hole and he had to take it on foot.
Despite the apocryphal nature of the story’s details, the tree’s legendary status nonetheless encouraged the community to install a marker nearby.
Born in Ohio in 1852, he settled in Indianapolis with his wife in 1874. It was in Indiana that he used his considerable wealth from practicing law and his political acumen to lead the Republican party to victories in numerous elections. In the 1896 election, he served as a key campaign adviser for William McKinley’s presidential run, helping lead it to victory. His success as party leader also ensured a Republican-majority in the Indiana General Assembly, which in turn elected him to the US Senate (State legislatures chose U.S. Senators before the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913), a position he held until he was sworn in as vice president on March 3, 1905. Due to personal and ideological differences, Fairbanks found himself isolated in Roosevelt’s administration.
While a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 1908, his prospects ended when the party chose Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor, then Secretary of War William Howard Taft. In 1909, he retired to Indiana and again pursued his law practice, only throwing his hat in the ring one last time in the aforementioned 1916 election.
Known for his stoic and intense persona, Fairbanks’s political peers dubbed him the “Indiana Icicle.” An article in Collier’s magazine echoed this description, describing Fairbanks as “calm, cool, deliberate, [an] educated statesman, wise in counsel, efficient in action.”
His love of his native state was noteworthy. When he left the office of Vice-President his first thought was of doing something that would be of permanent value to Indiana, and at the same time would be an example for the nation. His active and greatly beneficial efforts for forestry development was the result.
He was a real man of high and noble Ideals. His statecraft made him a country-wide figure In public affairs, and his distinguished presence, hie fine courtesy and his safe counsel will be missed by his friends, his party and his country.
This week’s notable Hoosier obit focuses on one of Indiana political history’s most important, and slightly controversial, public figures. Schuyler Colfax, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and vice president under Ulysses S. Grant’s first term, was a major player within the Republican Party during the late nineteenth century. However, his political career ended in controversy when news broke that he was a minor player in the Credit Mobilier scandal that also threatened Grant’s tenure in the White House. News of Colfax’s death on January 13, 1885 was somewhat inconspicuous.
Schuyler Colfax was born on March 23, 1823 in New York City. He and his family moved westward in 1836, settling in St. Joseph County, Indiana. As the Indianapolis Sentinel reported in his obituary, the “earlier years of his life were spent as a clerk in a county store, but when eighteen years of age he was appointed Deputy County Auditor, at South Bend, by his stepfather, who was Auditor.” This was the start of his life-long involvement in politics.
In 1850-51, Colfax served as one of the delegates to the Indiana Constitutional Convention, where he staunchly “opposed by voice and vote the clause prohibiting free colored persons from coming into the State.” Defeated as a Whig party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1851, he eventually won election to the House as a member of the newly-formed Republican party in 1854. He served in this body for the next 14 years. After the election of 1860, President-elect Abraham Lincoln gave Colfax some consideration for a cabinet post, before he settled on Indianan Caleb B. Smith. In 1863, during the height of the Civil War, House members elected Colfax as Speaker of the House. During his time leading the House, he helped secure congressional passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ending slavery, on January 31, 1865. The states ratified the amendment on December 18, 1865.
In 1868, while still serving as Speaker, the Republican Party nominated him to be General Ulysses S. Grant’s running mate. They won the election on November 3, 1868. Colfax would serve only one term in Grant’s administration. In 1872, Colfax announced that he was retiring from politics. The Republican Party nominated Henry Wilson to replace Colfax on the 1872 reelection ticket. However, there was a practical reason for Colfax’s retirement and the party replacing him as vice president nominee.
During 1868, Colfax became involved in a railroad shell corporation called Credit Mobilier of America, investing his own money into the scheme and receiving a $1,200 dividend check from Oakes Ames, a Congressman who roped some of his colleagues into it. After the New York Sunbroke the story, Colfax was later implicated in the scheme and nearly impeached. The impeachment proceedings stalled because Wilson replaced Colfax on the ticket. (Consequently, Wilson also became implicated in the scandal, but died of a stroke in 1875.) After nearly 20 years of success in public life, Colfax left Washington in 1873 a defeated, slightly tarnished man.
He spent the remaining years of his life rebuilding his reputation as a public speaker, traveling around the country sharing his memories of President Lincoln during the Civil War. On January 13, 1885, Colfax arrived in an extremely cold Mankato, Minnesota on another lecture tour. As the Greencastle Times reported, Colfax “walked from the Milwaukee [Railroad] depot, the distance of half a mile, and it is presumed the exertion superinduced an attack of heart of disease. He fell forward from the seat in the waiting room and died without uttering a word.”
The Indiana press’s reaction to Colfax’s death balanced its respect for the fallen leader but also acknowledged his Credit Mobilier foibles. The Greencastle Timesdescribed the scandal as the “wrongs and embitterments that wore put upon him through the hatred and malice of his enemies,” but that his reputation was left “unscathed in the estimation of his home constituency and all those who knew him best.” The Indianapolis News wrote that, “Of his connection with the “Credit Mobilier” nothing need be said now, for the country knows it all. It is alluded to here because, in nearly thirty years of public life in his state or in congress, this is the only imputation on his integrity.”
On the other end of responses, the Terre Haute Expressdid not even mention the affair. Finally, on the day of his death, the Indianapolis News published a column that fully defended Colfax against accusations of impropriety. “The case against him, wrote the News, “as having received $1,200 in an ‘S. C. [presumably for Schuyler Colfax] or bearer’ check from Oakes Ames was a strong one circumstantially but lacked direct conclusive proof, and against it Mr. Colfax put a private life without stain and a long and honorable public career to that time unsullied.” The Odd Fellows, of which Colfax was a member, attended to Colfax’s remains, and escorted the body back to Indiana via train within a few days. He was buried on January 17, 1885 at City Cemetery, South Bend.
Despite Colfax’s involvement in one of the nineteenth century’s most explosive political scandals, his career in the House of Representatives, especially his help in passing the thirteenth amendment, deserves some level of recognition. Like many leaders of the Gilded Age, Colfax involved himself in an unsavory business arrangement that ruined his chances for higher political office. Nevertheless, he tried to rehabilitate his reputation and enjoyed a few years of success on the lecture circuit. While most Americans may not think of Schuyler Colfax when discussing the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, he was one of Indiana’s statesmen that left an indelible, and slightly infamous, mark on political life during the times.
Did you know that three Hoosiers appeared on national tickets for president or vice president in 1916? The Democrats ran Thomas R. Marshallof Columbia City for re-election in 1916 alongside President Woodrow Wilson. The Republican Party tabbed President Theodore Roosevelt‘s former vice president Charles W. Fairbanks of Indianapolis as the running mate of GOP presidential nominee Charles Evans Hughes. You may ask, who was the third Hoosier running for president or vice president in 1916? If you guessed Terre Haute-native Eugene V. Debs, you would be wrong. After being the Socialist Party presidential nominee four times from 1900-1912, Debs sat out the 1916 campaign before running again (from prison) in 1920.
The third Hoosier and national party candidate in 1916 was a man who is not well-known today, but was a former governor of Indiana, and an influential leader in the prohibition movement. As a third-party challenger, J. Frank Hanly ran as the Prohibition Party presidential nominee during the 1916 election. Founded in 1869, the Prohibition Party campaigned for laws to limit or ban the sale and manufacture of intoxicating liquors. The party nominated candidates for office, but only found real success with local elections. For Hanly, his candidacy in 1916 served as the culmination of decades of advocacy for making Indiana, and the nation, dry as a desert.
According to a 1904 profile in the Indianapolis News, James Frank Hanly was born on April 4, 1863 in Champaign County, Illinois. His early life exemplified the rough-hewn stereotype that politicians of the era both yearned to have and exploit when useful. As the News wrote, “The world had nothing to offer the cabin boy but poverty. His parents lived on a rented place and sometimes the Hanly’s wondered where the sustenance of coming days was to come from.” Hanly, described as a bookish child, reveled in debate during his schoolhouse days and had “victory perched on his banner very often.” With his mother blinded early in his life and the family thrown into even more intense poverty, Hanly was sent to live with friends of the family in Williamsport, Warren County, Indiana.
He held odd-jobs throughout his early years in Indiana, most notably ditch digging and teaching, before gaining an opportunity from a local judge named Joseph Rabb. Rabb provided Hanly with the tools to take the bar exam. After passing the exam, Hanly began work at Rabb’s office. Nearly two years later in 1890, he founded a law office with partner Ele Stansbury. Equipped with skills of law and oratory, Hanly was a natural fit for the role of public service. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1894 and served one term; his reelection was dashed due to redistricting. After some considerations for a seat in the U.S. Senate, Hanly decided to run for governor of Indiana in 1904 and won, defeating Democrat John W. Kern by 84,000 votes, according to the Plymouth Tribune.
Hanly served as Indiana’s Governor from 1905-1909 and his tenure was marked by a controversial fight over Hanly’s central political issue: the sale of alcohol. He committed his tenure to enacting a stronger form of public policy in regards to the liquor traffic. In an op-ed for the Jasper Weekly Courier, Hanly wrote:
Personally, I have seen so much of the evils of the liquor traffic in the last four years, so much of its economic waste, so much of the physical ruin, so much of its mental blight, so much of its tears and heartache, that I have come to regard the business as one that must be held and controlled by strong and effective laws.
Hanly was undeterred. He reaffirmed his position against alcohol in a rousing speech at the 1908 Republican National Convention reprinted in the Indianapolis News. Concerning the liquor traffic, Hanly declared:
I hate it as Abraham Lincoln hated slavery. And as he sometimes saw in prophetic vision the end of slavery and the coming of the time when the sun should shine and the rain should fall upon no slave in all the republic, so I sometimes seem to see the end of this unholy traffic; the coming of the time when, if it does not wholly cease to be, it shall find no safe habitation anywhere beneath Old Glory’s stainless stars.
To Hanly, the sale of alcohol equaled slavery in its immorality, and akin to his political hero, viewed his indictment of alcohol as righteous as Lincoln’s position on slavery (at least on the surface).
All of his activism proved valuable by the election of 1916. Originally, Hanly received the Progressive Party’s nomination for governor, after he ran unopposed in the March primary. Despite support from the party and the voters, Hanly felt ambivalent about his nomination. As the Indianapolis News reported, Hanly “spent nothing and made no promises when a candidate before the primary for the Progressive nomination as Governor.” The Progressive Party, in some respects, was a poor fit. Even though Hanly alienated himself from mainstream Republican politics due to his strict prohibitionist views, his dedication to fiscal conservatism and limited government did not align with the Progressives. While Hanly internally debated accepting the Progressives’ gubernatorial nomination, another political party began recruiting him for an even higher office.
In June 1916, Hanly abandoned the Progressive Party, and declined the nomination for governor. Later that summer, he received the Prohibition Party nomination for President of the United States. The Indianapolis News and the Indianapolis Star reported that Hanly would gladly accept this charge only after the party decided to abandon a plank in their party platform supporting “initiative, referendum, and recall” elections, which Hanly saw as anathema to his limited government views. The party acquiesced to Hanly’s demands, which later drew criticism from an editorial in the Indianapolis Star and later reprinted in theJasper Weekly Courier. On the day of his nomination, Hanly reiterated his resolve to the cause of Prohibition and argued that “legislative enactments, administrative action, judicial decision and constitutional amendment—all shall be used for its [alcohol’s] dethronement.” In eight short years, Hanly went from Republican, to reluctant Progressive, to ardent Prohibitionist.
His disassociation with the Republican Party led to a fairly embarrassing episode reported in the August 15 issue of the Indianapolis News. The paper wrote that, “state officials are wondering how a picture of J. Frank Hanly got on the wall in [Ed] Donnell’s office [at the state printing board’s office]. Mr. Hanly, former Governor of Indiana, is now the nominee for President on the Prohibition national ticket.” A little over a week later, on August 28, the portrait disappeared. When asked how it left, Donnell “referred questioners to [J. Roy] Strickland, who disclaimed all knowledge of any theft, other than to declare that he understood the picture had been confiscated by the Democratic state committee.” The installation and later removal of the painting remains a mystery, but this story exemplified one conclusion that many political observers were making about the Prohibition Party candidate: the major parties were done with him too.
Hanly’s presidential campaign began later that August with an announcement from Hanly and his Vice-Presidential running mate, Dr. Ira Landrith, that they would conduct a “two-months’ tour of the country, will stop at approximately 600 towns.” The slogan for their campaign was “A Million Votes for Prohibition.” As part of the Prohibition Party’s push for a million votes, Hanly heavily criticized the major party candidates, Republican Charles Evans Hughes and incumbent Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. On the issue of prohibition, Hanly said that “President Wilson has not changed his mind on the liquor question, not in the last six years, at least, but we know that during these six years he has changed his mind on every other question which has come before him.” Of Hughes, Hanly remarked that the Republican nominee “stands for nothing.” By supposed contrast, Hanly and Landrith stood for women’s suffrage, an eight-hour work day, environmental protections, and military preparedness in line with the Monroe Doctrine alongside its desire to end the liquor trade.
By November 1916, the Prohibition Party appeared confident in their chances for some electoral success. The Indianapolis Newscovered their claims of success at a rally in Auburn, Indiana. “Ira Landrith, the vice-presidential candidate,” the News reported, “declared there now are 167 electoral votes in “dry” states; that next year there will be 200, and in 1930 there will be 300.” Their optimism was misplaced, for the election returns told a different story. Hanly and Landrith only captured 221,302 votes, or only 1.19 percent of the popular vote. They neither secured the one million votes they campaigned on, nor picked up a single electoral vote. Wilson won the election with 277 electoral votes and 49.25 percent of the popular vote. The Indianapolis News highlighted that the level of the vote for the Prohibition Party had dropped in Marion County alone by nearly 500 votes, from 1241 to 744, and throughout the State of Indiana, Hanly only garnered 16,680.
Hanly’s lifelong efforts advocating for prohibition came to an end with his untimely death on August 1, 1920, at the age of 57. He had been “fatally injured in an automobile accident near Dennison [Ohio],” reported the Indianapolis News. His funeral was held at Meridian Street Methodist Episcopal Church and he was buried in Williamsport, Indiana. In a eulogy by Indianapolis Phalanx publisher Edward Clark, Hanly was hailed as a “a national leader in the greatest moral and political reform of the century.” Clark concluded, “[Hanly] has ended life’s combat and laid down the weapons he wielded so heroically and so valiantly.”
Historian Jan Shipps argued that the choices Hanly made during his political career may have been pure opportunism, the mark of a true believer, or somewhere in the middle. The last argument seems to be the most accurate, because Hanly appeared to be a bit of both, at least in the press. He was an astute, masterful politician who used the workings of power to achieve his own prerogatives. At the same time, he was a deeply religious man whose moral judgement animated him to act as a crusader against alcohol. As Edward Clark’s eulogy intimated, Hanly knew that “to announce himself as a party prohibitionist meant unpopularity, scorn, ridicule, abuse, and political oblivion—but he hesitated not.” While he never saw the effects of Prohibition, both good and bad, in his state or in the country, Hanly’s contributions to the movement should not be neglected in our understanding of the era.
This election year, there has been a lot of talk of third-party candidates, like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. However, this election cycle is hardly the first to celebrate third-party candidates for President. American presidential history is rich with third-party candidates, such as Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign against Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush or Ralph Nader’s Green Party candidacy in 2000. From the Hoosier state there was Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party candidate who received nearly a million votes in the 1912 election. Yet, it is arguable that the most successful third-party run for the presidency was by someone who had already been president.
Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president, mounted an unprecedented third-term campaign for the office on the Progressive Party ticket in 1912. Known colloquially as the “Bull Moose Party,” Roosevelt’s campaign for the office was heavily chronicled by progressive newspapers here in Indiana, particularly the Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram. From August 5-7, 1912, the Progressive Party met in Chicago to both nominate Roosevelt for the presidency and establish a new political party, one founded on what Roosevelt called the “Square Deal.” As historian Lewis L. Gould explained, Roosevelt believed that “the federal government must do more to supervise large corporations, improve the lot of women and children who worked long hours for low wages in industry, and conserve natural resources.”
Roosevelt’s decision to run stemmed from his disappointment at the cautiousness and conservatism of his former cabinet member and hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft. Taft came into office in 1909 arguing for Roosevelt’s ideals, but had since moved towards to the limited government and pro-business attitudes of Republican Party insiders, or so Roosevelt believed. It was this disappointment which motivated Roosevelt to usurp the Republican nomination from Taft and reassert his influence on the party. When the Republicans rejected him in favor of Taft in June of 1912, Roosevelt vowed to begin a new party. Thus, the Progressive Party was born.
The convention began on August 5, and the Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram wrote about the party’s platform, which, among other proposals, demanded “that the light publicity be thrown upon scales of wages and other labor matters” as well as “old-age pensions.” Rudolph G. Leeds, long-time owner and editor of the Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, enthusiastically supported Roosevelt and was elected “national committeeman . . . by the Indiana progressive delegation.” Roosevelt himself arrived to Chicago on that day and reportedly received “the greatest reception any man ever received in Windy City.” When asked to speak, the former president spoke of the “birth of a new party” and that “the day of the boss, of crooked politicians behind the boss and people who are owned by the boss and crooked politicians has passed forever.”
The next day, August 6, Roosevelt announced his contention for the party’s presidential nomination. His running mate was Hiram W. Johnson, senator from California and one of the Progressive Party’s founders. In his speech, known as the “Confession of Faith,” Roosevelt reiterated his position from his remarks the day before. “Our fight,” Roosevelt declared, “is a fundamental fight against both of the old corrupt party machines, for both are under the dominion of the plunder league of the professional politicians who are controlled and sustained by the great beneficiaries of privilege and reaction.” In terms of policy, Roosevelt argued for more workplace and wage protections for labor, further regulations of trusts and large corporations, assistance to farmers, and wilderness conservation.
To Roosevelt, his nomination was bigger than just one election. It was a “crusade” against the forces of graft and corruption and in favor of the people. “Now, friends, this is my confession of faith,” clamored Roosevelt among the packed crowd in Chicago:
Now to you men, who, in your turn, have come together to spend and be spent in the endless crusade against wrong, to you who face the future resolute and confident, to you who strive in a spirit of brotherhood for the betterment of our nation, to you who gird yourselves for this great new fight in the never-ending warfare for the good of humankind, I say in closing…We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.
Roosevelt’s “crusade” was taken to heart by the Palladium and Sun-Telegram, who wrote glowing editorials about Roosevelt and the Progressive Party. “The Progressive party,” declared one editorial, “is the moving, leading, inspiring force in the nation today. It is advancing as no other movement ever advanced in American politics.”
On August 7, the party formally nominated Roosevelt and Johnson. In his nominating speech, William A. Prendergast, comptroller of the City of New York, remarked that “He [Roosevelt] has fought the most vicious forces in American life and has conquered them . . . To such a leader the hearts of millions of American people are turning in this national crisis.” It was with this nomination that Roosevelt was given the chance to fulfill the remainder of his life’s work, to finally give the American people a “square deal.”
However, Roosevelt’s dedication to a “square deal” under the Progressive Party banner left a key demographic from being at the table: African Americans. As historian Eric J. Yellin observed, Roosevelt staked his political future on alienating the African American voters in the south, who he thought he had already lost to Taft. Due to this misnomer, Roosevelt sought to create a “shadow Republican Party in the south made up of lily-white organizations.” This resulted in the rejection of southern African American delegates from the Progressive Party convention.
Locally, the Indianapolis Recorder, a black owned and published newspaper, wrote scathing editorials in response to Roosevelt’s actions. As an August 10, 1912 editorial declared, “To the Colored men who can find it possible, after denouncing President Theodore Roosevelt as a despot, demagogue, lyncher and betrayer of the confiding Colored race, to now support him even when he leaves his own party and help him to be the founder of a new party, we say that the white world is looking on with a contemptuous smile.” Another column on August 24 noted that, “the position of Mr. Roosevelt, disfranchising the Negroes of the South in his party is a virtual indorsement [sic] of the unconstitutional disfranchising laws of the South, and we believe that he has forfeited all right of respect or support from Afro-Americans.” A minister of the AME Church and long-time Roosevelt supporter, Dr. Reverdy C. Ransom, even left the Progressive Party and publicly criticized Roosevelt’s “Negro policy and…urge[d] the Republican party to improve the situation which the Colonel has created.”
The Progressive Party decided against the colored delegates of the South, but are in favor of the colored people of the North. Theodore Roosevelt, as we understand, is in favor of a “Lily White” Government in the South, but in favor of the colored man’s recognition in the North. The trouble with his idea is that it is in the South that the colored people are complaining about the denial of political rights.
This observation highlighted Roosevelt’s central electoral gamble. By alienating southern African Americans, Roosevelt could have lost a key Republican voting bloc sympathetic to his run, all in an effort to court populist white southerners, who largely voted Democrat. In the general election in November, his calculation went exactly opposite.
In the 1912 general election on November 5, Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic nominee, won the election in a landslide, with 435 electoral votes and 41.8% of the popular vote. (Wilson’s running mate was Indiana Governor Thomas Marshall; they won the state with 43.1 percent.) Now, you may wonder: how was this a landslide? It came down to split of the Republican voting base. Roosevelt won 27.4 percent of the popular vote and 88 electoral votes while Taft won 23.2 percent of the popular vote and eight electoral votes. However, Roosevelt did end up winning a plurality of the African American voting base, but did not win the southern populist whites he had courted during the election. Wilson garnered their vote, and in turn, won the election with a clear victory.
Amid the toppling wreckage of the republican party [sic], with its historic pile crumbled into unrecognizable fragments there strides the Modern Apostle of Discontent the Arch-Egoist Theodore Roosevelt. He gazes around him on the debris with a grin and with triumphant staccato simply says—DEE-LIGHTED! ! !
This sentiment underlined what many Republican voters felt about Roosevelt’s decision to run under the Progressive banner: it had only split the party in his vain attempt to take back the reins of power.
Roosevelt’s political gamble against southern African-Americans cost him both the chance at the election and diminished his reputation as a champion of progressive ideals. Nevertheless, as Gould as argued, his third-party candidacy helped realign the political forces of the country, solidifying the Republican Party towards a more business-centric conservatism while the Democratic Party moved towards a progressivism that culminated in Theodore’s cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his “New Deal.” So, beyond just the electoral success, Roosevelt’s complicated third-party challenge influenced the political landscape for decades.