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Jonathan Jennings (1784 – July 26, 1834) was a two-term governor and a nine-term congressman from Indianamarker. Born in Readington, New Jerseymarker, he studied law with his brother before immigrating to Indiana in 1806 where he took part in land speculation. He soon became involved in a personal dispute with the Governor William Henry Harrison that led him to enter politics, and he was elected as the Indiana Territory's delegate to Congress. By 1812 he was the recognized leader of the anti-slavery, anti-governor, and pro-statehood faction of the state government. He and his political allies triumphed in their goals after taking control of the territorial assembly and dominated the affairs of the territory after resignation of Governor Harrison. Harrison’s politically weak successor, Thomas Posey, was unable to prevent the move to statehood, led by Jennings, which was approved in 1816. At the Indiana Constitutional Convention, Jennings was elected President and appointed all of the committee chairmen at the gathering, giving him great influence in the drafting of the first state constitution. Most notably, he was behind the push to have a ban on slavery consitutionalized and pushed for a number of measures that would limit the authority of state governors and give most power to the Indiana General Assembly.

After Indiana was granted statehood, Jennings was elected over Posey to serve as the first Governor of Indiana. As governor he appointed the first Indiana Supreme Court and played an important role in establishing the foundation of the state government. He pushed for the construction of roads and schools, and negotiated the Treaty of St. Mary's to open up central Indiana to American settlement. His enemies attacked his participation in the treaty negotiations as unconstitutional and an attempt to bring impeachment proceedings against him was defeated in a vote of 15–13 after a month-long investigation and the resignation of the lieutenant governor. During his second term in the governorship, Jennings began to run into financial problems after the Panic of 1819 and 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. The difficulties led him to seek to leave the governorship early so he could attend to the problems.

Jennings and congressman William Hendricks arranged to trade positions. Hendricks resigned to campaign for the governorship and Jennings won the special election to fill his vacant seat where his Congressional salary eased his debt problems. Jennings served another five terms in Congress, in which time he attempted to win a seat in the United State Senate, but was defeated in the General Assembly by twenty votes. Jennings had been a heavy drinker of whiskey since his early life, and became an alcoholic after he had returned to Congress. His addiction worsened after the death of his first wife and his development of rheumatism; Congressional records show he did very little in his last term in office. The problem was brought up in his reelection campaign in 1830, leading to his defeat and retirement. 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 Charlestownmarker farm. To prevent him from becoming homeless, his friend Senator John Tipton, purchased his farm to allow him a place to live the remainder of his life. Other friends provided him money to pay maintenance on his loans. Jennings died with a large amount of debt and all that remained of his estate was sold by his creditors leaving no funds to purchase a headstone for his gravesite, 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 and what they believed to be his immorality. 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

Family and background

Jonathan Jennings was born the son of Jacob and Mary Kennedy Jennings in Readington, New Jerseymarker during 1784, the fifth of seven children. His father was a doctor and abolitionist Presbyterian minister. His mother had also received medical training and assisted her husband in his practice. Around the year 1790, Jennings father became a frontier missionary and his family moved to Dunlap Creek in Fayette County, Pennsylvaniamarker, where Jennings remained until his adulthood. After his mother’s death in 1792, he was raised by his older sister and brother, Sarah and Ebenezer. Jennings attended the nearby grammar school in Canonsburg, Pennsylvaniamarker, and received a basic education. His classmates there included William Hendricks and William W. Wick.

Jennings left Pennsylvania to live with his brother Obadiah in Cincinnati, Ohiomarker in 1804 and apprentice in his law firm. He helped in a number of cases before the Ohio Supreme Courtmarker and was admitted to the bar the following year. In 1806 he moved to Jeffersonvillemarker in the Indiana Territory to open his own law practice. Jennings had difficulty earning an income as a lawyer, finding there were too few clients in the young territory to keep him busy. In July he was invited to take a job by John Badollet, a friend who managed the Federal Land Office in Vincennesmarker. Along with Badollet, he engaged in land speculation and began to earn a substantial income and obtained significant land holdings.

Confrontation with Harrison

Jennings growing prominence helped him to secure an appointment to serve on the board of the Vincennes Universitymarker in 1807 where he first began to have interactions with the territorial governor William Henry Harrison. A dispute arose over Harrison’s proposal to ban the French resident of Vincennes from the university’s commons in which Jennings’ vote proved to be the deciding one in defeating the measure. Harrison was outraged and promptly resigned from the board and made disparaging public comments about Jennings’ character. Jennings was at that time an election candidate against an enemy of Harrison, Davis Floyd, for the clerkship of the territorial legislature. Jennings dropped out of the race and guaranteeing the victory to anti-slavery Floyd who became an important political ally to Jennings. Harrison was angered by the election, and returned to the university board where he was easily reelected as its president. He immediately ordered the creation of a commission to investigate the moral character of Jennings. Jennings in turn resigned from the board; he felt he was mistreated by Harrison, creating a considerable amount of personal animosity that prevailed several years.

Jennings began writing articles for the Western Sun, the newspaper of Vincennes. The city was the center of the pro-slavery establishment in the territory, and Jennings had been raised to be bitterly opposed to slavery since. The issue was attracting widespread attention in the territory because of Harrison's recent attempts to legalize the institution. Many of Jennings' articles attacked Harrison's administration and its pro-slavery sentiments. By March 1809, Jennings came to believe that his political future in the Harrison dominated western part of the territory was bleak; he left Vincennes and moved to Charlestownmarker.

In 1808 Congressman Benjamin Parke resigned from office and Harrison ordered a special election to fill the vacancy. Jennings entered the race against Harrison’s candidate Thomas Randolph. He campaigned across the territory, riding from settlement to settlement to give speeches against slavery, and found his greatest support among the growing Quaker community in the eastern part of the territory. He spoke against what he believed to be the aristocratic tendencies of the territorial government, which was almost entirely appointed by the governor, and their attempts to legalize slavery and deny rights to the new immigrants to the territory. On November 27, 1809, Jennings was elected as a delegate to the 11th Congress, winning a close election by plurality, 429–405, with a third candidate taking eighty-one votes. 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 certifying the counting of their votes, and that the precinct's votes should be discarded. Once discarded, the revised vote totals would make Randolph the winner. A House committee took up the case and issued a resolution in Randolph's favor, and recommended a new election be held. He immediately left for the Indiana territory to launch a new campaign for the seat, but the motion was defeated in the full house and Jennings was permitted to take his seat.


Battle with Harrison

During his partial term in office, Jennings focused on learning the legislative process and attacking, whenever possible, Governor Harrison. As a territorial delegate, he was permitted to debate, serve on committees, and introduce legislation, but was not permitted to vote. During his time in Washington, Jennings had a small portrait of himself made which he had sent to Ann Gilmore Hay, the daughter of Jeffersonville merchant that he had began courting. After his first session in Congress ended, Jennings returned to the Indiana Territory where he married eighteen-year-old Ann. Her father had just died leaving her with no family. The couple returned to Washington where she remained briefly before leaving to live with Jennings’ sister, Ann, for the remainder of the session.

In 1810 Randolph opposed Jennings in his reelection again, and this time Harrison went out to personally stump on Randolph’s behalf. Jennings again focused on the slavery issue and tied Randolph to Harrison’s continued attempt to legalize the institution. He also attempted to expand his political base by stumping among the French residents of the territory. The election was the first in the territory where the legislature was also to be popularly elected. The pro-slavery faction had suffered a significant set back because the Illinois Territory had been separated from Indiana Territory just before the election, cutting off Harrison from a large number of his supporters. Jennings and the anti-slavery candidates triumphed in the election and launched a campaign of repudiation of Harrison and his pro-slavery policies. Randolph was angry with his second loss and began haranguing Jennings’ supporters and challenged one to a duel. Randolph was stabbed three times in the fight, leading him to end his political career.

In his first full term in Congress, Jennings increased his attacks on Harrison, accusing him of using his office for personal gain, of taking part in questionable land speculation deals, and needlessly of raising tensions with the Native American tribes on the frontier. When Harrison was up for reappointment as governor in 1810, Jennings sent a scathing letter to President James Madison recommending against his reappointment. Harrison, however, also had a number of powerful allies in Washington who argued on his behalf and aided him in securing reappointment. In 1811, hostilities broke out on the frontier between the Americans and the native tribes culminating in the Battle of Tippecanoe in November. Jennings successfully advocated the passage of a bill to grant all veterans of the battle double pay, and to give the widows and orphans of those killed a pension for five years. Privately he wrote to his friends in the territory that he believed Harrison was at fault for agitating the situation and accused him of causing the needless loss of life.

As calls for war with Great Britainmarker increased, Jennings was not among the war hawks, but ultimately voted in favor of a declaration beginning the War of 1812. Harrison was made a general in the army and dispatched to defend the frontier and invade Canadamarker, causing him to resign as governor. Jennings saw the resignation as a victory and he and his allied moved quickly to take advantage of the situation. The elderly acting-governor, John Gibson, did not question the territorial legislature and allowed them to have their way in most matters, allowing them to move the capital away from pro-Harrison Vincennes and embarking on a course for statehood. By the time Harrison’s successor, Thomas Posey, was appointed and arrived in the territory the legislature had became entrenched in power.

Push for statehood

Jennings ran for reelection to Congress again in 1812 against another pro-slavery candidate, Waller Taylor. The election campaign was the most divisive in Jennings’ career; Taylor derided Jennings as a "pitiful coward" and not doing enough to protect the territory. He even went so far as to challenge Jennings to a duel, but Jennings refused. Jennings ran on the slavery issue again, fielding his new motto: "No slavery in Indiana,” and tying Taylor to the pro-slavery movement. He easily won reelection thanks to his growing base of support which had expanded to include the growing community of Harmonistsmarker.

During his third term in Congress, Jennings began advocating that statehood be granted to Indiana, but held off formally introducing legislation until the end of the War of 1812. He developed jaundice in 1813 and was too ill to attend Congress for a few weeks. He had been a heavy drinker of alcohol since his youth, which brought on the disease. He soon recovered and continued his push for statehood, and ran on that issued in his 1814 reelection campaign. He won again, and introduced a statehood bill to Congress. In 1815 the House of Representatives began debate on the measure, and in early 1816 the bill passed. The Enabling Act granted Indiana the right to form a government and write a constitution. Governor Posey was concerned that the territory was too under populated to provide sufficient tax revenue to fund a state government. In a letter to President Madison, he recommended the President veto the bill and hold off on statehood for another three years, which would allow him to finish his term as governor. Despite the plea, Madison signed the bill.

Dennis Pennington, a leading member of the territorial legislature, was able to help many anti-slavery delegates win election to the territory's constitutional convention. At the convention in 1816, held in the new capital of Corydonmarker, Jennings' partisans were able to elect him as president of the assembly, which permitted him to appoint all the committee chairmen of the convention. This allowed Jennings and his allies to have their way in the writing of the constitution. Much of the constitution was directly copied from that of other states, but a few items were new and unique to Indiana. Among them was the wording of the ban on slavery, which prevented slavery to be legalized, even by constitutional amendment. The governor was also given limited powers, largely as a show of repudiation of the territorial governors. Most power was given to the Indiana General Assembly. At the end of the convention Jennings announced his candidacy for governor.


Internal improvements

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 in newspaper articles and in pamphlets. He served as governor and lived in Corydon for the duration of his term. Upon his election, he strongly condemned slavery in his inauguration speech. As governor, he refined his stance on slavery. He encouraged the General Assembly to enact laws to 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 acknowledge his position was a moderation of his earlier position to hinder the work of slave catchers, but he claimed it was needed in order to "maintain harmony among the states".

In 1818, Jennings began advocating 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 would enhance the commercial appeal and economic viability of the state. The General Assembly approved a number of measures and $100,000 for creating roads and allowed for the improvement of some of the more important routes, but was considerably short of the amount Jennings wanted. The largest project authorized was the Indiana Canal Company, who the state granted over $1.5 million. Jennings also pushed for the quick creation of a state funded school system as called for in the constitution, but the General Assembly believed priority should be given to creating the government infrastructure. The state was experiencing budget shortages because the low tax revenues predicted by Posey, and Jennings had to pursue other means to finance the projects, mainly by issuing government bonds to the state bank and the sale of public land. The spending and borrowing 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; Indiana’s population of sixty-five thousand in 1816 surpassed one million by 1850.

When Jennings took office, there was only one bank in the state. To remedy the problem, the state granted a charter to establish the Farmer and Mechanics Bank in Madisonmarker and expanded the existing Bank of Vincennes and funded the opening of new branches in Corydon and Brookvillemarker. Both banks became involved in land speculation, and there were numerous reports of corruption at the Bank of Vincennes. The collapse of land value brought on by the Panic of 1819 put the banks in financial distressed; they were both insolvent by 1824. The shortage of accessibility to capital led the state to halt its improvement programs and the Indiana Canal Company folded because of lack of funding. Most of Jennings second term was spent grappling with the financial difficulties and attempting to put the state on a firm footing. Tax revenues and land sales remained low and state revenue was not sufficient to pay cover the bonds used to finance the defunct canal company. The General Assembly was forced to significantly depreciate their value, harming the state credit and making it difficult for to secure new loans.

Treaty of St. Mary's

Map showing treaties negotiated by Jennings.

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. 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 American settlement.

The state constitution forbade a person to hold a position in both the state and federal government simultaneously, and Jennings political enemies seized on the opportunity to attempt to force him out of office. In the Indiana House of Representatives the opposition launched impeachment proceedings against him before he had returned from the negotiations. Upon learning of the situation, Jennings was “mortified” that his actions were in question and he proceeded to burn all the documents granting him authority from the federal government. Lieutenant Governor Christopher Harrison immediately took up the governorship in Jennings' absence and declared that his actions were equal to 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 both Jennings and Harrison before them to be interrogated for their actions. Jennings declined to appear stating the Assembly had no such authority over him, and Harrison declined to appear unless the Assembly would address him as “acting-governor”. With neither of the two men willing to meet with the legislature, the Assembly demanded copies of the documents that Jennings received from the federal government to prove he was not acting as their agent, 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 proceeded to summon everyone in the surrounding area who had any knowledge of the events at St Mary's, but found that none were certain of Jennings' exact role in the commission. After a short period of debate, the House passed a resolution 15 to 13 that Jennings would be recognized as the "rightful governor." Christopher Harrison was outraged by the decision and resigned. He considered his honor tarnished and ran against Jennings in his reelection bid of 1820. Jennings took advantage of Harrison’s single issue by changing the topic of the election to the state’s financial situation. He offered to accept no salary from the state if elected to a second term. He won the election with 11,256 votes to Harrison’s 2,008.

Financial problems

Drawing of the home of Jonathan Jennings while he lived in Corydon, the first official governor's residence.

The Panic of 1819 had also had a negative impact on Jennings’s financial affairs. He attempted to secure a $1000 loan from the Harmonists in a letter to political ally George Rapp, but he was turned down. He was finally able to procure money through loans from a number of different friends by granting mortgages on most of his land. The price of land decreased significantly, however, and he was forced to sell several tracts at a loss to cover his position before he could secure the loans. To complicate matters, Jennings was too busy with the state government to adequately manage his farm, which was not turning a profit, and having no income from his position in the government, his financial situation was quickly becoming dire.

Jennings had been spending large amounts of money to maintain his Corydon home, and frequently held large dinners with state officials and community leaders. In his most high-profile dinner, he hosted President James Monroe and General Andrew Jackson who were making a tour of the frontier states in 1819. The governorship only continued to grow as a financial burden to Jennings.

To remedy his problem, he decided he needed to return to Congress where his salary could cover his reduced expenses and allow him to return to prosperity. He made an arrangement with the wealthier congressman William Hendricks in which he would support Hendricks bid for the governorship in the upcoming election if Hendricks would resign from Congress and support Jennings in the special election for the seat. During the final year of his second three-year term as governor, Jennings ran unopposed for Congress and in 1822 he was easily elected as a Democratic-Republican to the 17th Congress, overcoming charges that he been drunken during the negotiations of the Treaty of St. Mary’s. After winning the election, he resigned his position as governor and was succeeded by Lieutenant Governor Ratliff Boon; Hendricks ran unopposed and was subsequently elected to succeed Boon.

Later years

Return to Congress

Jennings continued to advocate for internal infrastructure improvement in Congress and used the issue as a platform for the remainder of his time there. He won reelection four times and became a Jacksonian Republican in the 18th Congress. He switched his allegiance becoming an Adams Republican in the 19th and 20th Congresses. He then aligned with the Anti-Jacksonians in the 21st Congress. During his terms, he introduced legislation to build more forts in the northwest, to grant federal funding for improvement projects in Indiana and Ohio, and led the debate in support of granting federal funds to build the nations longest canal, Wabash and Erie Canal, through Indiana. After the contested election of President Andrew Jackson in 1824 the House of Representatives decided the election, and Jennings voted with the majority giving Jackson the presidency. During his time in Congress he served twice as Grand Master of the Indiana Grand Lodge of Freemasons. In 1824, William Henry Harrison returned to Indiana to stump for the Adams Presidential candidate and Jennings and Harrison found themselves on the same side. The two men toured the state together, endorsing the John Quincy Adams. They also gave speeches where they indicated their past political feud was over. In 1825 Jennings was a candidate for the United States Senator. On the first ballot he came in second, and on the second ballot he came in third, losing the vote in the General Assembly to William Hendricks.

Jennings’ wife died in 1826 after a protected illness; the couple had no children. Jennings was deeply saddened by her loss and began to drink liquor even more heavily. In a letter to his sister he also noted that he was afflicted with severe rheumatism. While drinking in 1828, an accident occurred in which plaster from the ceiling of his Washington boarding room fell upon head, severely injuring him and preventing him from attending Congress for nearly a month. Later that year he remarried to Clarissa Barbee, but his drinking condition only worsened and he was frequently inebriated. In his final term in office, the House journals show that he introduced no legislation, was frequently not present to vote on matters, and only once delivered a speech. His friends took note of his situation, and a group led by Senator John Tipton decided to attempt to block his 1830 reelection bid. Tipton enlisted the help of war hero John Carr to oppose Jennings in the election while also arranging for other popular Anti-Jackson men to enter the race and divide Jennings' supporters. Tipton hoped that the need to work would force Jennings to give up his heavy drinking. Carr defeated Jennings, who left office on March 3, 1831.


Jennings retired with his wife to his home in Charlestown. His alcoholism continued to worsen to the point where he was unable to tend his farm. Without an income his creditors began moving to seize his estate. In 1832, Tipton purchased the mortgage on Jennings’s farm and enlisted the help of local financier James Lanier to buy up the debt on Jennings’s other holdings; in total Jennings owed the two men several thousand dollars in addition to hundreds of dollars in loan to various other individuals. Tipton allowed Jennings to remain on the farm without paying his debt, but Lanier began selling some of Jennings property holdings to recover some of his money.

Despite his destitution, Jennings made no attempt to repair his fortunes. Tipton attempted to help Jennings reenter public service in hope that it would stir him to recover, and secured him an appointment to negotiate a treaty with native tribes in northern Indiana. Jennings attended the negotiations of the Treaty of Tippecanoe to purchase all the tribal held lands in northern Indiana, but the delegation was able to secure the purchase of only lands in northwestern Indiana. Afterwards, Jennings again returned to his farm where his health steadily declined. He spent considerable time a local tavern and often was unable to reach his home after leaving and was discovered on multiple occasions to be sleeping in ditches and neighborhood barns. Jennings died of a heart attack most likely brought on by another bout with jaundice on July 26, 1834 near Charlestown. He was interred after a brief ceremony and was buried in an unmarked grave on his farm; he lacked the funds to purchase a headstone.


Following his death, Tipton sold Jennings’ farm and gave the proceeds as a gift to Jennings’ widow. Lanier took possession of his land holdings, and a great many small creditors from whom Jennings had solicited personal loans were left unpaid, leaving him sorely dislike among his community at the time of his death. On three separate occasions, petitions were brought before the Indiana General Assembly to purchase a grave stone for Jennings, but each attempt failed. A fourth petition was circulated in 1887 that finally received attention. The state granted the petition and a headstone was purchased by the state in 1888. A group of school children who attended Jennings’ funeral ceremony were the only witnesses of Jennings’ burial that were still living. After the site was independently verified three times, Jennings’ body was exhumed and moved the Charlestown cemetery where he was reburied with a headstone. Jonathan Jennings Elementary School in Charlestownmarker and Jennings Countymarker 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 who fought back the scourge of 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 focused on his alcoholism and his destitution in later life as a moral story. 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.

Electoral history

Territorial delegate





Gubernatorial elections


Indiana’s 2nd Congressional district






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