Slavery in Indiana 1807

The terms of the representatives to the first General Assembly expired on June 30, 1807; and in anticipation of this a law had been passed at the last session providing for an election on the first Monday in February of that year. At this election there was an increased show of strength by the anti-slavery people in the eastern counties, and by the anti-Harrison faction in the Illinois country, but not enough to affect materially the representation. The greatest change was in Dearborn, but, by assuring every one that he was heartily in favor of whatever they wanted, Jesse B. Thomas was again elected there. Shadrach Bond and William Biggs were returned from St. Clair, and George Fisher from Randolph, as before. Davis Floyd of Clark had his hands full with his trial for complicity with Burr, and James Beggs was elected in his place. The delegates from Knox county were General W. Johnston and Luke Decker, but this was not a political change, for their party affiliations were the same as those of their predecessors, Benjamin Parke and John Johnson. The councilors, of course, held over.

Of the three new members we have already met Decker as a member of the Vincennes convetion of 1802. General Washington Johnston was a native of Culpepper County, Virginia. He came to Vincennes in 1793, and was the first attorney at the bar of that county of whom there is any record. He was very active in the work of the Masonic order; usually delivered the customary oration on the day of St. John the Evangelist, the patron saint of the Vincennes lodge; and was one of the organizers of the grand lodge of Indiana in 1817-1818. He held many offices, in some of which we shall find him hereafter. James Beggs might have made more claim to greatness than any other member of this legislature. He was one of three brothers who came west in the latter part of the last century, settled for a short time in Kentucky, and then came north of the Ohio because it was free soil, or at least more nearly so than Kentucky. They were all Virginians of Irish descent, the sons of Thomas Beggs, a commissary in the Revolutionary army. Being fairly well-to-do, each bought a five hundred acre tract in Clark's Grant and settled down to farming. James was a graduate of William and Mary's; the other two had good common school educations. They were religious pioneers. John, the oldest was a Baptist - later a follower of Alexander Campbell, and the others were stanch Methodists. They had enough Virginia in them to be very fond of reading and not at all covetous of hard work. John was for some years a judge of the Clark County courts. Charles was a captain of militia, and served with credit at Tippecanoe. James was several times in the legislature. Beyond this they were not known in public life, but in the Falls country they were men of distinction, men of great strength, of great heart, of great brain. Their qualities made them factors of great importance in local politics, and during the territorial period they were the head and front of the anti-slavery party in Clark.

The Assembly convened for its first session on August 17, 1807, at Vincennes. Benjamin Parke was announced as a candidate for reelection as soon as the session was called, and no organized opposition was made to him. Several articles appeared criticising his failure to secure the legislation that the people desired, but none of any importance except some that emanated from Elijah Backus, Receiver of the Land Office at Kaskaskia, who had acted as agent of the Illinois people at the preceding Congress. He accused Parke of preventing him from being heard before the committee, and of hindering action on the proposed division; but Parke denied this squarely, and in turn charged that Backus had been purely ornamental as an emissary to Washington, not even being of service in securing the favorable committee report; all of which he supported by his affidavit. This vindication, together with assurances which Parke gave of his intention to work for slavery and division, gave him his election in the week following, by a vote of eight out of the eleven members present; the three anti-slavery men scattered.

The pro-slavery party continued in harmony during this session, as in the preceding one. They adopted a memorial to Congress asking the suspension of the sixth article, but it added nothing to what had already been put before Congress except a formal resolution of consent to the suspension. It was adopted both in the House and in the Council by two-thirds majorities, but President Chambers of the Council refused to sign it. Finally he was persuaded to leave the chair, and Gwathmey, whom he had appoointed President pro tem., signed the memorial. This legislature also adopted the revision of the laws of the Territory which had been made by John Johnson and John Rice Jones, in pursuance of an act of the last session. The revision in in fact very little more than a compliation of the laws; but in it the extensive titles of the originals are dropped, and no guides are substituted to show the source from which any enactment was taken. In consequence of this, and because the revision soon entirely displaced the separate collections of acts, many laws were subsequently referred to as passed in 1807, though in fact they had been in effect for years. The indenture law and the act concerning servants were among these, there being no change made in the provisions already in force as to slaves or servants. The legislature was prorogued on August 26, having taken no other action that is of present interest.

The anti-slavery people were now thoroughly roused to the danger of the situation, and determined to make a vigorous resistance in Congress. In Clark County a mass meeting was called for October 10, at Springville, then county seat, to take action on the legislative resolution. There was a large attendance and a general harmony of sentiment. John Beggs was elected chairman and Davis Floyd secretary. On motion, Abraham Little, John Owens, Charles Beggs, Robert Robertson, and James Beggs were appointed a committee to draw a memorial against the legislature's resolutions. It is probable that James Beggs prepared the memorial. He was best fitted of the committee-men to do so, and its occasional verging on Scripture style, together with its statement that "a great number of citizens, in various parts of the United States, are preparing, and many have actually emigrated to this Territory, to get free from a Government which does tolerate slavery," indicate him the author. This memorial is peculiarly memorable because it promulgated a theory which was new to Indiana and to the nation - the doctrine of "Squatter Sovereignty." It antedates by forty years the letter of General Cass in which this doctrine is commonly suposed to have been first enunciated. After reviewing briefly the history of the slavery controversy in Indiana, the memorial proceeds: "And although it is contended by some, that, at this day, there is a great majority in favor of slavery, whilst the opposite opinion is held by others, the fact is certainly doubtful. But when we take into consideration the vast emigration into this Territory, and of citizens, too, decidedly opposed to the measure, we feel satisfied that, at all events, Congress will suspend any legislative act on this subject until we shall, by the constitution, be admitted into the Union, and have a right to adopt such a constitution, in this respect, as may comport with the wishes of a majority of the citizens.... The toleration of slavery is either right or wrong; and if Congress should think, with us, that it is wrong, that it is inconsistent with the principles upon which our future constitution is to be formed, your memorialists wil rest satisfied that, at least, this subject will not be by them taken up until the constiutional number of the citizens of this Territory shall assume that right." Beyond this the petitioners asked nothing.

Indiana, A Redemption From Slavery, by J. P. Dunn, Jr, pages 355-359.
Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1888