Hoosiers owe former Congressman Jennings debt of gratitude

Alexander Hamilton is big these days. Who could have guessed that a banker from the American Revolution would be the subject of a hit Broadway show? A rap musical, no less?

The show is sold out for months and scalpers are getting thousands for some of the seats. With a supporting cast which includes George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison, the production puts the nation’s founding fathers front and center.

How about Indiana’s founding fathers? The state’s bicentennial is a good time to throw the spotlight on some of the people who helped launch the Hoosier State. Early leaders included William Henry Harrison, Jonathan Jennings, Thomas Posey, John Gibson, James Noble and Benjamin Parke.

Some of their names are not as familiar as those in the Broadway show, but they are recognizable nonetheless. There are counties named for all of them and many of their contemporaries.

One player, in particular, had a starring role. That would be Jonathan Jennings.

He was born in New Jersey, but in his early 20s he traveled down the Ohio River to Jeffersonville where he practiced law. Soon after, he moved to Vincennes, the capital of the Indiana Territory. There he was elected clerk of the board of trustees at Vincennes University.

Congress opened the door to territorial representation in 1809, and Jennings campaigned hard for the spot. His platform was anti-slavery. His electioneering took him into the forests of Indiana to talk to Hoosiers who were busy felling trees, building houses and barns, clearing land and planting crops. Jennings often worked alongside them as he asked for their votes.

His hard work paid off. He won four terms in Congress, where he fought against slavery, keeping it out of the territory. He also introduced a statehood enabling act, which would lay the foundation for Indiana’s entry into the Union.

One of the requirements for statehood was a state constitution.

If James Madison can be called the father of the United States Constitution, Jonathan Jennings is the father of Indiana’s. He was president of the constitutional convention in 1816. He and 42 other men spent three weeks carefully drafting the document.

What they produced reflected the democratic ideas that Jennings had espoused. Slavery was forbidden in the new state, and there was a provision to provide free public education.

When it came time to elect a governor of the newly-created 19th state, Jennings seemed the obvious choice. He won the election with a large majority.

Only 32 years old, the new governor hit the ground running. He established a court system, began building an educational program, created a state banking system, organized a state library, and started developing a plan for much-needed internal improvements.

He also advocated moving the state capital from Corydon to a more central location. He helped select the site in the middle of the state which would become Indianapolis. During his term he appointed the first members of the Indiana Supreme Court. Among them was John Johnson, for whom Johnson County is named.

Governors served three-year terms in those early years, and after nearly two terms Jennings was returned to Washington to serve in the House of Representatives. There he was successful in appropriating funds for the National Road and the Wabash and Erie Canal, both vital to the development of the new state.

After eight years in Congress, Jennings returned home to Charlestown where he died in 1834. His grave was unmarked for many years, but in 1893 the state paid for a suitable tombstone. Jonathan Jennings deserved that from the people of Indiana, who owe him, maybe not a Broadway show, but at least a debt of gratitude.