April 10, 2010
Sometimes I think of this 4 year quest as a 230 year quest- a march across a timeline that began with the inauguration of George Washington and will end with either the second inauguration of Barack Obama or the first of 45. In that context, some of these biographies are absolute bargains. Thomas Jefferson got us from 1800 to 1808 in a mere 232 pages. The month of FDR will get us from the Great Depression to the cusp of the atomic age. To that end, it is hard to get excited about William Henry Harrison, who died so shortly into his term---the 30 days of April will yield us a mere 31 days of presidency. This book is to our project as a five-dollar bill is to a student loan.
Anyhow, one part of this book to which I did look forward was the Indiana part. I knew from my fifth grade Indiana history section that William Henry Harrison was the first governor of Indiana, and the first Hoosier elected president. At least I could learn a little about the origins of my state.
Turns out that the origins of my state are pretty embarrassing. When WHH took the reins, the Indiana Territory was in the midst of internal and external debate as to whether slavery would be allowed. Article VI of the Northwest Ordinance had seemingly resolved this issue. It stated that all slavery was banned north of the Ohio river. However, WHH chose to interpret the ordinance liberally, as to merely outlaw all new slavery. In fact, "his first major public initiative as governor was to bring more slaves to the area." Then, to be sure, he suspended Article VI for 10 years. All of this in the face of popular opposition. This policy of deliberate ambiguity began a long period of Indianan indecision on the slavery issue that was not fully resolved until the state opted to take the Union side in the Civil War.
By the time I got to the Indiana chapter, though, I knew what to expect. By that time, WHH had already spent 3 years as the devil perched atop President Jefferson's shoulder. Thomas Jefferson's contradiction as a freedom-promoting slavery propagator has been well-covered, not least in this blog. And it has always been something of a mystery to me how a President could enforce laws he so fervently believed to be unjust. Owens explains it like this: "While Jefferson's distaste for slavery in the abstract prevented him from encouraging its spread, a lack of moral courage prevented him from decisively discouraging it."
WHH had no such reservations, and actively encouraged slavery's spread in the Indiana Territory. Most troubling is that his motivation appears to have been at least partly personal. WHH, you see, had always been very self-conscious about his less-than-aristocratic upbringing. And he was constantly compensating by acquiring more land, more power. "He needed to openly display not only his worth but his power as well," Owens tells us, and "[f]or the society into which he was born, to be a man of note was to have control over others . . . being a master to slaves."
With this guy as our first governor, it is miraculous that Indiana eventually produced such national treasures as Kurt Vonnegut, James Dean, and the Butler Bulldogs. I will hold out more hope for the biography of Indiana's second President, Dan Quayle.