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March 26, 2014

ANDREA NEAL: The triumph, tragedy of Gov. Jonathan Jennings

Jennings' life cut short by his alcoholism

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of essays leading up to the celebration of the Indiana Bicentennial in December 2016.

In the rough-and-tumble world of frontier politics, Jonathan Jennings experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

Indiana’s first governor, Jennings was credited with pushing Indiana from territory to statehood, defeating an old guard loyal to William Henry Harrison and insisting the 16th state would not have slavery.

By the time of his death at the young age of 50, Jennings had suffered political defeat, debt and health problems caused by years of alcohol abuse. He was buried in an unmarked grave and forgotten by history until the 1893 Legislature arranged for a tombstone.

“He was so instrumental in Indiana’s statehood,” says Bill Brockman, former manager of the Corydon Capitol State Historic Site. Most memorable, says Brockman, was his rivalry with Harrison, the Indiana territorial governor and military hero who oversaw much of Indiana’s progression toward statehood. The two had different views of what Indiana should become.

“Harrison was generally pro-slavery and anti-statehood while Jennings was just the opposite,” Brockman explains. “Jennings’ faction won out and changed the course of Indiana’s future.”

Ironically, Harrison’s popularity as a military hero put him in position to become president of the United States in 1841 (albeit for 31 days) while Jennings’ alcoholism cost him his career. By 1831, “the once premier Hoosier politician ... found himself without a public office,” wrote his biographer Randy Mills.

Historians consider Jennings Indiana’s first professional politician. Although he owned a farm, his income came from government service from the time he moved to Indiana from Pennsylvania in 1806 to his last unsuccessful run for Congress.

While living in Vincennes, Jennings found work as a clerk in a federal land office, and planned career moves. He soon realized options were limited in the Harrison-dominated capital so he moved to Jeffersonville where more citizens shared his political views.

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