Podcast – Attempts to Revise the Constitution

Attempts to Revise the Constitution

The Story of the Indiana Constitution

Attempts to Revise the Constitution

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From the Book:
The Story of the Indiana Constitution
Greetings, today’s episode relates early efforts to revise or replace Indiana’s Constitution

The 1816 Constitution included a clause that provided for an election to decide if the voters wanted to call a constitutional convention every twelfth year. The actual wording of the clause was:
Sect. 1. Every twelfth year, after this constitution shall have taken effect, 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 favor of calling a convention, or not, and if there should be a majority of all the votes given at such election, in favor of a convention, the Governor shall inform the next General Assembly thereof, whose duty it shall be to provide, by law, for the election of the members to the convention, the number thereof, and the time and place of their meeting; which law shall not be passed unless agreed to by a majority of all the members elected to both branches of the General assembly, and which convention, when met, shall have it in their power to revise, amend, or change the constitution. But, as the holding any part of the human Creation in slavery, or involuntary servitude, can only originate in usurpation and tyranny, no alteration of this constitution shall ever take place so as to introduce slavery or involuntary servitude in this State, otherwise than for the punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.

Two general schools of thought evolved over the meaning of this Article. One school held that it meant that an election must be held every 12 years or that it could happen sooner or more often. Another school held that it could only occur every twelve years. The former school won, thus a bill was introduced to the General Assembly in late 1822 to hold a constitutional convention to draft a new constitution or amend the current one.
The House of Representatives passed the measure on December 29, 1822 with the Senate following suit on January 1, 1822. Indiana Governor Ratliff Boon signed the measure on January 6, 1823.

A faction had arisen in Indiana that demanded constitutional reform. Their grievances against the 1816 document included seven main demands:
1. The constitution required only one session of the legislature. The reformists preferred two, or even three, sessions.
2. They desired that the governor be given power to call special sessions to deal with emergencies
3. They wanted the position of associate judge eliminated
4. They wanted circuit courts to have the power to remove local officials
5. They wanted only circuit courts to have the power to grant divorces. the legislature had that power at the time, which resulted in legistative delays and legislators studied the cases.
6. The governor had the power to appoint the Supreme Court members, with the “advice and consent,” of the Senate. The reformers wanted the Supreme Court judges subject to election by the people.
7. They wanted the Supreme Court to determine the times and location of their meeting instead of the times required by the Constitution.

The campaign took place from February to August. During this time the idea emerged that most of the reasons to call a convention were overblown and that the real reason some advocates wanted to call a convention was to strike the ban on slavery from the document. Since it was not known what sort of document would emerge from a constitutional convention, public sentiment gradually swung towards disapproving the proposal. The election took place on August 4, 1823. The final vote tally was 11,991 against calling a convention and 2601 for.

In the years between 1823 and 1828 the same issues that caused the first call for a constitutional convention in 1823 continued to surface, with the addition to a call to replace viva voce voting with paper ballots.

Up until paper ballots began appearing in the early Nineteenth Century, voters used a system called “viva voce,” or voice voting. In this system a voter arrived at the courthouse, where a judge administered an oath in which the prospective voter laid his hand on a Bible and testified that he was who he said he was and had not voted previously. After this ritual, the voter announced, out loud, who his choices for the various offices were, the choices duly noted by the clerk. This process took place in a carnival like atmosphere in which alcohol flowed freely and candidates for the offices campaigned actively. Turnout rates were high, at around 85%, perhaps encouraged by the party atmosphere. In many cities and towns election day included large, boozy parades, with political candidates sometimes renting a local tavern to provide alcohol to prospective voters.

The issue of providing a less expensive means of impeaching local officials as well as eliminating the position of associate justices remained high on the list. Since this was a convention to add amendments to the constitution, the issue of slavery became less of a concern because the constitution forbade the institution ever becoming legal in Indiana. The election for the approval of staging a constitutional convention was slated for August 4, 1828. The national election featuring Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams overshadowed this election, however and there appears to have been little interest in it. Newspapers at the time published the content of the legislature’s act in an attempt to increase awareness. On August 4, 1828 over 28,000 voters went to the polls. 18,633 people voted against the proposal, 10,092 for.

Many of the issues that had been problematic which the Constitutional Referendum of 1828 attempted to address continued to fester. The Assembly attempted to address these issue, unsuccessfully, for a few years, then apparently let the matter rest until the 12 year period the Constitution mandated had elapsed. When this period had passed the House passed a resolution calling for a constitutional convention on February 4, 1840. The Senate approved the measure on February 12, with the governor signing it on February 22. The measure was almost identical to the one submitted to the voters in 1828, however the legislature tried to rectify the public’s lack of knowledge about the election by including a directive that required the sheriffs of all counties to starting six weeks prior to the election. The notice was to include the facts that the people would not be given another opportunity for 12 years and that the convention would not happen unless a majority of voters approved it. The same level of voter indifference to the proposal was manifested in this one that had displayed itself in the 1828 election. The returns from 70 counties were 62,714 opposed, 12,666 in favor, with only Steuben County voting a majority in favor

The failure of the attempt to reform the Constitution did not end the debate over the issue. The issue continued to surface in the legislature over the next few years until 1846, when proponents of constitutional reform successfully persuaded the legislature to once again visit the issue. The House passed a measure calling for a constitutional convention on December 18, 1845, the Senate on January 17, 1846 and signed by the governor on January 19, 1846. Many of the same issues that had dominated the earlier debates returned, however other issues began to percolate. These were many, but included:
Prohibiting the Legislature from granting divorces
Setting the number of House Seats at 50 and the Senate at 25
Setting age requirements for the House at 25 years of age, Senators at 30
Prohibiting the State from incurring any debt except during war or invasion
Extending the voting suffrage to all Indiana resident white males 21 of age and over
Guarantee women the absolute control of their property
Changing the election day from August to October, except in presidential election years, when it would be held concurrent with Federal elections
This time the voters went to the polls on August 3, 1846 and approved the measure 32,468 to 27,123 with 59591 total votes cast. The election for governor was held at the same time. The vote total in the governor’s race was 126,969. The total votes cast in the referendum was less than half of those cast for governor.

Once more, the question arose whether it was even constitutional for the Legislature to call for a convention before the required 12 years since the previous one had passed. The legislature could not agree on whether it was legal for them to have done so as well as other issues. Thus, the measure died because the legislators could not agree on how to establish the process for constitutional reform.

Three times the voters voted against writing a new constitution. The Panic of 1837, during which the State of Indiana’s overextended debt almost bankrupted the state, and other factors changed people’s minds. The 1836 Mammoth Internal Improvements Act played a large part in creating the crises. In 1846 a close vote by the people had been in favor of calling a convention. Since the measure only passed by less than 4000 votes and there were voting irregularities, the assembly did not call for a convention. Indiana Governor James Whitcomb made continued demands to the legislature to call for a convention. The assembly passed legislation calling for a referendum. This referendum on August 6, 1849 passed by a 81,500 – 57,418 margin.

The Indiana Mammoth Internal Improvement Act of 1836 signed, by Governor Noah Noble on January 27, 1836, played a large role in the drafting of a new constitution for Indiana in 1851. The ambitious act, in concert with the Panic of 1837, bankrupted the state and brought a major political party to its knees.
The Internal Improvement Act was a too ambitious program of internal improvements that provided for the construction of canals and turnpikes. The ambitiousness of the program almost bankrupted the State of Indiana and caused the eventual demise and collapse of the Whig party, which favored the bill. The state assembly passed the bill that added ten million dollars to the state’s budget at a time when its income was only about $65,000 annually.

The Panic of 1837 was a complex event that created an economic depression that lasted from about 1837 until 1842. The multiple causes were questionable lending practices in the Western United States, restrictive lending policies enacted by Great Britain and falling agricultural prices. The period before 1837 had been a period of intense economic growth. During this time the prices of cotton and other commodities rose. Land prices also increased. The state’s sole revenue source was property taxes, which the state had anticipated a huge increase. When land purchasers bought land from the Federal Government it was exempt frome the tax for five years. The legislature anticipated that hundreds of acres of land would enter the tax base over the next few years as the exemptions began to expire. The Bank of England noticed a decline in cash on hand in 1836. They raised interest rates in an attempt to attract more cash. When the Bank of England raised its interest, it forced banks in the United States and other nations to raise their rates. This, along with other events, caused land and cotton prices to fall. The reduction of land prices meant that the state would raise much less revenue than it anticipated, setting off a crises. The chain of events this set off triggered a national depression that caused profits, prices, and wages to fall and increased the unemployment rates. It was not until 1843 that the economies of the major countries rebounded.

The Whig party had pushed for the law and consequently bore the brunt of the blame. During the following years, the Whig Party collapsed, leaving the Democratic Party in control for many years.

The failure of the 1846 attempt to reform the constitute did not end the debate. Debate continued among the various supporters of reforms both in and without the legislature. In addition, Indiana Governor James Whitcomb made continued demands to the legislature to call for a convention. The assembly passed legislation calling for a referendum, which the governor approved on January 15, 1849. This legislation basically mirrored that of 1846. The election took place on August 6, 1849. Voters approved of this effort by a 81,500 – 57,418 margin.

This story is part of my new book release, The Story of the Indiana Constitution, which is available on my web site http://www.mossyfeetbooks.com in both softbound and eBook copies. The web page has links to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and other book retailers. You can reach me at mossyfeetbooks@gmail.com
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