Jonathan Jennings, 1st Gov. of Indiana

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Jonathan Jennings

Birthdate: (50)
Birthplace: Readington, New Jersey, United States
Death: July 26, 1834 (50)
Charlestown, Indiana, United States
Place of Burial: Charlestown Cemetery Charlestown Clark County Indiana
Immediate Family:

Son of The Rev. Dr. Jacob Jennings, M.D. and Mary Jennings
Husband of Ann Gilmore Jennings and Clarissa Jennings
Brother of Samuel Kennedy Jennings; Jacob Jennings; Ebenezer Jennings; Rev. Dr. Obadiah Jennings, DD; David Jennings and 2 others

Occupation: Politician
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Jonathan Jennings, 1st Gov. of Indiana

Jonathan Jennings (1784 – July 26, 1834) was the first Governor of Indiana and a nine-term congressman from Indiana. Born in Readington, New Jersey, he studied law with his brother before immigrating to Indiana in 1806 where he took part in land speculation. He became involved in a personal dispute with the Governor William Henry Harrison that led him to enter politics and set the tone for his early political career. He was elected as the Indiana Territory's delegate to Congress by dividing the pro-Harrison supporters and running as an anti-Harrison candidate. By 1812 he was the leader of the anti-slavery, anti-governor, and pro-statehood faction of the territorial government. He and his political allies triumphed in their goals and took control of the territorial assembly and dominated the affairs of the government after the resignation of Governor Harrison. At the Indiana Constitutional Convention, Jennings was elected President. He was behind the effort to have a ban on slavery constitutionalized and was for the creation of a weak executive branch in favor of a strong legislative branch.

After Indiana was granted statehood, Jennings was elected to serve as the first Governor of Indiana. He pressed for the construction of roads and schools, and negotiated the Treaty of St. Mary's to open up central Indiana to American settlement. His opponents attacked his participation in the treaty negotiations as unconstitutional and brought impeachment proceedings against him; the impeachment measure was narrowly defeated by a vote of 15–13 following a month-long investigation and the resignation of the lieutenant governor. During his second term and following the Panic of 1819, Jennings began to encounter financial problems because to his commitment to accept no salary; the situation was exacerbated by his inability to keep up with his business interests and run the state government simultaneously.

Jennings resigned during his second term as governor upon winning election to the United States House of Representatives. Jennings served another five terms in Congress, promoting federal spending on internal improvements. Jennings had been a heavy drinker of whiskey since his early life. His addiction worsened after the death of his first wife and his development of rheumatism. The problem led to his defeat in his reelection campaign in 1830. His condition was such that he was unable to work his farm; his finances collapsed and his creditors sought to take his land holdings and Charlestown farm. To protect him, his friend Senator John Tipton, purchased his farm and permitted him to continue living there. After his death, his estate was sold by his creditors leaving no funds to purchase a headstone for his grave, which remained unmarked for fifty-seven years.

Historians have had varied interpretations of Jennings’ life and impact on the development of Indiana. Early state historians, like Jacob Piatt Dunn and William Woollen, gave Jennings high praise and credited him with the defeat of the pro-slavery forces in Indiana and with laying the foundation of the state. More critical historians during the prohibition era, like Logan Eseray, described Jennings as a crafty and self-promoting politician and focused on his alcoholism. Modern historians, like Keith Mills, place Jennings’ importance between the two extremes, saying that the “state owes him a debt which could never be calculated.”

Early life

Jonathan Jennings was born the son of an abolitionist Presbyterian minister in Readington, New Jersey during 1784. Around the year 1790, his family moved to Dunlap Creek in Fayette County, Pennsylvania where Jennings remained until his adulthood. Jennings attended the nearby grammar school in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, and received a basic education.

Jennings left Pennsylvania for the frontier and first arrived in Indiana Territory in 1806. He initially lived in Jeffersonville where he studied law and began a practice. That same year, he was married to Ann Gilmore Hay and the couple never had children. Jennings had difficulty earning an enough money as a lawyer, and finding there were too few clients in the young territory, he decided to seek an additional source of income. In 1807 he moved to Vincennes where he was admitted to the bar. In the same year he became clerk to the receiver of public money, and in 1809 he became assistant to the clerk of the House of Representatives of the territorial government. During 1808 he began writing articles for the Western Sun, the newspaper of Vincennes. Vincennes was the center of the pro-slavery establishment in the territory, and Jennings was bitterly opposed to slavery. The issue was attracting widespread attention in the territory because of Governor William Henry Harrison's recent attempts to legalize the institution. Many of Jennings' articles attacked Harrison's administration and its pro-slavery sentiments. In 1809, Jennings left Vincennes and moved to Charlestown, which remained his home for the remainder of his life.


Battle against slavery

"No slavery in Indiana" was Jennings' motto, and he labored for that goal. In 1809 he defeated William Henry Harrison's chosen candidate, Thomas Randolph, to become the Indiana Territory's representative to Congress. He campaigned across the territory, riding from settlement to settlement to give speeches against slavery, and found his greatest support among the Quakers in the eastern part of the territory. On November 27, 1809, Jennings was elected as a delegate to the 11th Congress, winning a close election, 429–405. In the United States Congress he served three consecutive terms, leaving office on December 11, 1816. When Jennings first arrived in Congress, Randolph was also there and contested the results of the election in the House of Representatives. Randolph claimed that one of the precincts did not follow the proper procedures for counting votes, and that the precinct's votes should be discarded. The result of discarding those votes would have made Randolph the winner of the election. A House committee took up the case and issued a resolution in Randolph's favor, but the motion was voted down in the full house and Jennings was permitted to take his seat. During his bid for reelection, he ran against another pro-slavery candidate, Waller Taylor. Jennings' two election campaigns were divisive; Randolph would become a strong opponent of Jennings. Taylor derided Jennings as a "pitiful coward" and even went so far as to challenge Jennings to a duel in the reelection campaign, but Jennings refused.

In Congress, Jennings was a outspoken opponent to slavery in all of the former Northwest Territory and a tough critic of William Henry Harrison. In 1812, Jennings used his position in Congress, to lead the movement to speed the process for Indiana to attain statehood against the wishes of incoming Territory Governor Thomas Posey. Posey, another pro-slavery governor, was appointed by the President of the United States, and would lose his position if statehood was granted. In 1811 Jennings introduced legislation to grant Indiana statehood, but the War of 1812 caused Congress to postpone debate on the measure until the conclusion of the war. In 1815 the House began debate on the measure, and again, in early 1816, Jennings submitted a bill to Congress which would authorize the territory to organize for statehood; this time the bill passed. The Enabling Act granted Indiana the right to form a government and write a constitution.

Indiana's statehood

Dennis Pennington, a leading man in the territorial legislature, was able to help get many abolitionists elected as delegates to the territory's constitutional convention. At the convention in 1816, held in Corydon, Jennings' partisans were able to elect him as president of the assembly. This allowed Jennings and his allies to have their way in the writing of the constitution. Their primary goal was to create a constitutional ban on slavery, and effectively kill any possibility that it could ever become a legal institution in the new state. It was by to the actions of Jennings and Pennington that the ban was able to be put in place.


Abolitionist victory

In the election for Indiana's first governor, there was little active campaigning. Jennings beat Thomas Posey 5,211–3,934, by touting on his anti-slavery credentials. Jennings served as Governor and lived in Corydon for the duration of his term. Upon his election, he strongly condemned slavery. He went further and asked the legislature to enact laws that would help slaves escape through Indiana, but he came to moderate his position and asked for a new law that would prevent the "unlawful attempts to seize and carry into bondage persons of color legally entitled to their freedom: and at the same time, as far as practical, to prevent those who rightfully owe service to the citizen of any other State of Territory, from seeking, within the limits of this State (Indiana), a refuge from the possession of their lawful masters." He claimed that such laws would help secure the freedom of many. His moderated position was against his personal feelings, but he claimed it was needed in order to "maintain harmony among the states".

In 1818, Jennings began a large scale plan for internal improvements in the state. Most of the projects where directed toward the constructions of roads, canals, and other projects that were thought to enhance the commercial appeal and economic viability of the state. Among the projects authorized was the Indiana Canal Company, who the state granted over $1.5 million. The state was experiencing budget shortages because of low tax revenue, and Jennings had to pursue other means to finance the projects, mainly by issuing bonds from the state bank and the sale of public land. The overspending led to problems in the short term budget, but despite early set backs, the infrastructure improvements initiated by Jennings had the desired effects in the decades after his governorship.

Treaty of St. Mary's

In late 1818, Jennings served as a United States Commissioner to negotiate a treaty with the Native Americans in the northern and central parts of Indiana. In doing so, he acted as an agent of the U.S. President. The treaty he negotiated, known as the Treaty of St. Mary's, allowed the state to purchase millions of acres of land and opened up most of central Indiana to white settlement.

Jennings almost lost his governorship due of his role in the negotiation and signing of the treaty. The state constitution forbade a person to hold a position in both the state and federal government simultaneously, but Jennings had acted as a commissioner of the federal government to negotiate the treaty with the native Americans. In the Indiana House of Representatives the pro-slavery opposition party began impeachment proceedings against Jennings before he had returned from the negotiations. Jennings was "mortified" that his actions were questioned and he proceeded to burn all the documents granting him authority from the federal government. The Lieutenant Governor, Christopher Harrison, immediately took up the position as governor in the absence and declared that Jennings' actions where the equivalent of a resignation. When Jennings returned from the negotiations, there was still contention in the General Assembly as to who to recognize as the legitimate governor. The legislature called Jennings before them to be interrogated for his actions, but he declined to appear. The legislature then demanded copies of the documents that he received from the federal government to which he replied in a short letter which stated:

"If I were in possession of any public documents calculated to advance the public interest it would give me pleasure to furnish them and I shall at all times be prepared to afford you any information which the constitution or laws of the State may require... If the difficulty real or supposed has grown out of the circumstances of my having been connected with the negotiation at St Mary's I feel it my duty to state to the committee that I acted from an entire conviction of its propriety and an anxious desire on my part to promote the welfare and accomplish the wishes of the whole people of the State in assisting to add a large and fertile tract of country to that which we already possess"

The legislature then summoned everyone in the surrounding area who had any knowledge of the events at St Mary's, but found that no one was certain of Jennings' exact role in the commission. After a short period of wrangling in the General Assembly, they passed a resolution 15 to 13 that Jennings was the "rightful governor" and they would continue to recognize him in that position.. Christopher Harrison was outraged by the decision and resigned. Harrison considered his honor tarnished and ran against Jennings in his reelection bid of 1820 but was soundly beaten, 2,008 votes to Jennings' 11,256.

Later years

Return to Congress

During the final year of his second three-year term term as governor, Jennings ran again for Congress and in 1822 he was elected as a Democratic-Republican to the 17th Congress. After winning the election, he resigned his position as governor and was succeeded by Lieutenant Governor Ratliff Boon. Jennings was a Jacksonian Republican in the 18th Congress, and switch his allegiance becoming an Adams Republican in the 19th and 20th Congresses. He then became an Anti-Jacksonian in the 21st Congress. Jennings was defeated in the election of 1830 by war hero John Carr. Jennings had served from December 2, 1822, to March 3, 1831. According to historian William Woollen, the loss of his position may have been linked to alcoholism that had worsened while he lived in Washington. Woollen also wrote that many of Jennings' friends thought that the stress of Washington caused him to drink more liberally. Jennings, however, continued to enjoy alcohol until his death. During his time in Congress he also twice served as Grand Master of the Indiana Grand Lodge of Freemasons.


After being defeated in the 1830 congressional election, Jennings retired to his home in Charlestown where he tended his farm and engaged in agricultural pursuits. In 1832 he briefly re-entered public life as a commissioner to negotiate the Treaty of Tippecanoe with Native Americans, purchasing land in north-western Indiana. The treaty was successfully completed and another large tract of land was procured for the state.

Jennings died of a heart attack July 26, 1834 near Charlestown and was buried in the Charlestown Cemetery. The exact location of his burial is uncertain because he was buried without a headstone. In 1887 a petition was printed and circulated to have the state purchase a monument for his grave.

At the next session of the Indiana Legislature a vigorous effort will be made to have the Assembly pas an act appropriating a sufficient amount of money to erect a suitable monument over the grave of Jonathan Jennings, the first Governor of the State. The body now lies interred in an abandoned little graveyard at Charlestown without stone or slab to indicate the location. The mound has long since disappeared, and it is hardly probable that there is any one now living who can point out the exact spot where the bones of the first executive of one of the chief States in the Union now lie.

The state granted the petition and a headstone was purchased by the state in 1888. Jonathan Jennings Elementary School in Charlestown and Jennings County are both named in his honor.

Historians have varied interpretations of Jennings’ life and his impact on the development of Indiana. The state’s early historians, like William Woollen and Jacob Piatt Dunn, wrote of Jennings in an almost mythical manner and focused on the strong positive leadership he provided Indiana in its formative years. Dunn referred to Jennings as the “young Hercules”, and praised his crusade against Harrison and slavery. During the prohibition era in the early twentieth century, historians like Logan Eseray and Arthur Blythe wrote more critical works of Jennings, describing him as a “crafty and self promoting politician,” and dismissed his importance and impact on Indiana, saying the legislature and its leading men set the tone of the era. They tended focused on his alcoholism and destitution in later life and the basis of their opinions. Modern historians like Howard Peckham and Keith Miller say that the truth of Jennings’ legacy lies somewhere between the two extremes. Miller, quoting Woollen, says that the state “owes him a debt which can never be calculated” for his role in preventing the spread of slavery and in changing the future of the state by pulling it out of the sphere of the southern slave states and making Indiana a truly northern free state.

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Jonathan Jennings, 1st Gov. of Indiana's Timeline

Readington, New Jersey, United States
July 26, 1834
Age 50
Charlestown, Indiana, United States
Charlestown Cemetery Charlestown Clark County Indiana