Politics in Indianapolis before the Civil War reflected the stresses of a growing city against a background of national issues and changing political parties. Disintegration of the Whig Party about 1854 created opportunities for minority factions before the Republicans emerged to become, along with the older democratic party, one of the two major parties in the state.

After Indianapolis secured its city charter in 1847, local political battles revolved around electing officials and providing adequate governmental services. The first charter provided for a mayor to serve a two-year term and a city council of seven members to serve one-year terms. Revisions to the charter in 1853, 1857, and 1859 doubled the councilmen from each ward, changed the terms of all officials first to two and ultimately to four years, and increased the taxing limit.

The Whigs successfully secured the charter and elected the first mayors. The demise of the Whigs in the mid-1850s allowed Democrats to carry most of the elections until 1858 when the Republicans elected their first mayor and a majority of the city council.

By 1850, Indianapolis was the state’s largest city; 10 years later, its population had more than doubled. The growth placed a great burden on basic services, which the young community could ill afford. Although the first city election approved a tax for a free school system, subsequent levies for street improvements, gas lights on the streets, a hospital, and full-time police and firemen were not always successful.

At times, reform issues such as Temperance touched Indianapolis. Local temperance advocates achieved a temporary victory in 1853 when the legislature gave each township the option to prohibit alcohol sales. After the Indiana Supreme Court declared this law unconstitutional, temperance supporters made it a political issue.

Former Whigs and members of the American or Know-Nothing Party campaigned as the People’s Party in 1854 on a prohibition plank, while Democrats, including many Germans, condemned the “intemperate” position of their opponents. The victory of the People’s Party brought a new law that prohibited the manufacture and distribution of alcohol except for medical purposes. German saloon keepers in Indianapolis opposed the law, and the newly created police force had to quell a series of beer riots in 1855. In the Beebe Temperance Case (1855), the state Supreme Court struck down the law, and the city disbanded its police force.

Less popular was the women’s rights movement. The state constitutional convention in 1850-1851 defeated Robert Dale Owen’s proposals to improve the legal standing of women. Although a women’s rights convention met in Indianapolis in October 1855 and Dr. Mary F. Thomas presented a women’s rights petition to the legislature in 1859, the major parties continued to ignore the issue.

The antislavery movement attracted the greatest interest. Indianapolis became increasingly caught up in the slavery question, especially as it related to the territories. While a number of Quakers and settlers from New England opposed slavery, many Hoosiers from the South did not object to it, and racism remained strong in Indiana. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 brought new concerns. While Hoosiers disliked its provisions, leading politicians supported it and the Compromise of 1850 as the best way to preserve the Union.

A notorious case in Indianapolis emphasized the dangers of the Fugitive Slave Law. A bogus claim from a Missourian led officials to arrest John Freeman of Indianapolis in 1853 as a fugitive enslaved man. Freeman was a free Black man who had come north in 1844 from Georgia and, through hard work, had become a businessman. His arrest aroused many citizens. A lawyer proved that the charges were groundless, but Freeman had to sell much of his property to pay legal fees (see Freeman Fugitive Slave Case). The incident led many to view slavery in a new, alarming light. Other national crises over slavery in the territories continued to roil politics in Indianapolis throughout the 1850s.

Indiana was a key state in the Presidential Election of 1860, and Indianapolis witnessed a number of political rallies. Republicans sent German immigrant Carl Schurz to woo Indiana’s large German vote. Democratic candidate Stephen Douglas appeared at the state fairgrounds. Democrats appealed to racism, while Republicans downplayed their radical image by emphasizing their economic program and willingness to accept slavery where it already existed. Conservative Know-Nothings and Whigs supported the Constitutional Union Party as the only way to preserve the Union. The result was a victory both statewide and locally for Abraham Lincoln and the Republican state ticket. Lincoln carried Marion County with 5,024 votes to 3,252 for Douglas.

Although Hoosiers had doubted that the southern states would secede if Lincoln were elected, they were uncertain about the future. At an Indianapolis rally in late November, Governor-elect Henry S. Lane and others called for calm. Incoming Lieutenant Governor Oliver P. Morton, however, declared the choice was between disunion and war, and he favored war. Debate continued until the firing on Fort Sumter released a wave of unionism that temporarily obscured political divisions in the city and the state.

Revised June 2021

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