Note: This message is displayed if (1) your browser is not standards-compliant or (2) you have you disabled CSS. Read our Policies for more information.
1851 Indiana Constitution
by David G. Vanderstel
The constitution of 1816 served Indiana well during the earliest years of statehood. However, over the ensuing three decades, Indiana experienced numerous changes which necessitated a revision of the document. The population grew from approximately 64,000 in 1816 to 988,000 by 18501; the economy moved beyond pioneer subsistence to a more diverse, specialized system which depended upon mercantile, manufacturing, and agricultural production2; and the society in general became much more complex. Consequently, Hoosiers recognized that they needed to rewrite their constitution in order to address the problems and issues that had emerged during these early years and to prepare the state for the years to come.
Since the original state constitution was the product of a concern for popular democratic government, it provided the means by which the citizens of Indiana could amend or alter their governing document in later years. Article 8 stated that "every twelfth year, . . . at the general election held for Governor there shall be a poll opened, in which the qualified Electors of the State shall express, by vote, whether they are in favour of calling a convention, or not." 3
Between the years 1820 and 1847, Hoosiers attempted fifteen times to call a convention for the purpose of revising their constitution; they were successful five times in bringing the matter to a referendum vote. It was not until 1848, however, that Governor James Whitcomb, members of the General Assembly, and Indiana voters in general united in a call for a constitutional convention.4
It was a fairly long and detailed process from Governor Whitcomb's call in December, 1848 for a convention to the actual convening of the delegates in October, 1850. Once the Indiana General Assembly and the governor approved the legislation in January, 1849 to call a convention, they presented the issue to the voters of Indiana during the statewide elections of August, 1849.
Of the 138,918 votes cast in the election, 81,500 favored a convention; 57,418 were opposed to the measure. Consequently, the General Assembly was bound to provide for the election of delegates to the planned constitutional convention. This legislation, passed by the Assembly in January, 1850 and subsequently approved by Governor Joseph Wright, called for the election of convention delegates on the first Monday in August, 1850.5
Indiana voters selected 150 delegates to the constitutional convention of 1850-1851; 95 were Democrats and 55 were Whigs. Of these representatives, 42 percent were farmers, 25 percent were lawyers, and 12 percent were physicians. Only thirteen of the 150 delegates were native-born Hoosiers, while one half were Southern-born. Seventy-nine of the men had had previous experience as lawmakers.6
These delegates assembled in the Hall of the House of Representatives in Indianapolis on 7 October 1850. They deliberated for 127 days before completing their work and adjourning on 10 February 1851.7
The constitution that emanated from those four months of deliberations was not a radical revision of the original document nor did it significantly alter the existing form of state government. Rather, the proposed draft addressed numerous concerns and problems that had emerged during the formative years of the state:
The Indiana electorate was able to consider the entire constitution except for the special provision relating to the exclusion of blacks from the state, which appeared as a special proposition on the ballot. In the election of 4 August 1851, Hoosier voters overwhelmingly approved the new constitution, 113,230 to 27,638.
At the same time, voters approved the exclusion of blacks from the state by a vote of 113,828 to 21,873, thereby indicating the strong antiblack sentiment that pervaded the state and the nation at midcentury.17 On 3 September 1851 Governor Wright issued a proclamation declaring the new state constitution to be in effect as of 1 November 1851.18
Historian Logan Esarey concluded that the 1851 constitution "suffers in comparison with the one it displaced."19 Yet, it was a new and improved document, revised and updated to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing society. It was dedicated to the preservation of popular democratic government - at least for adult white males - and the overall rights of citizens, as exemplified by an expanded bill of rights in Article 1. While Hoosier citizens and legislators continuously sought over the years to amend the constitution of 1851 (per the provisions contained in Article 16) and to adapt it to the specific needs of each respective age, the basic constitutional document has remained intact. It is the cornerstone of Indiana's government and society, serving as a symbol of political continuity, tradition, and popular democratic government in the modern age.
1 James H. Madison, The Indiana Way: A State History (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press and Indiana Historical Society, 1986), Appendix A, 325-26.
2 Madison, 74-97.
3 Charles Kettleborough,
4 Kettleborough, 1:xxxiii-lxxii.
5 Kettleborough, 1:lxxii-lxxxiii.
6 Madison, 139; Justin E. Walsh, The Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly, 1816-1978 (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1987), 178.
7 Kettleborough, 1:lxxxix.
8 Article 4, section 29. See also Kettleborough, 1:314, 322.
9 Article 10, section 4. See also Kettleborough, 1:352.
10 Donald F. Carmony, "Historical Background of the Restrictions Against State Debt in the Indiana Constitution of 1851," Indiana Magazine of History, 47 (June 1951):129-42; Madison, 82-86; Walsh, 31-40.
11 Article 8. See also Kettleborough, 1:346-49.
12 Richard G. Boone, A History of Education in Indiana (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1892; reprint ed., Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1941), 10-42, 87-217; Madison, 108-15, 179-80; Charles W. Moore, Caleb Mills and the Indiana School System (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1905).
13 Article 6, section 1, and Article 7, sections 3 and 9. See also Kettleborough, 1:334, 339, 342.
14 Article 2. See also Kettleborough, 1:304-9.
15 Kettleborough, 1:360.
16 Emma Lou Thornbrough, The Negro in Indiana: A Study of a Minority (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1957; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, reprint, 1993), 55-91; Walsh, 146-56; Madison, 107-8, 169-70.
17 Kettleborough, 2:617-18.
18 Kettleborough, 1:xcii.
19 Logan Esarey, A History of Indiana from Its Exploration to 1850 (Fort Wayne, 1924), 519.