Party History

The Beginnings of the IDP: The Guidance of Jonathan Jennings

December 11, 1816 would have been an ordinary day in pioneer America if it were not for the efforts of Democrats, known then as Democratic-Republicans, across the United States. Instead, it went into the history books as the birth date of Indiana and the formal beginning of what would one day become the Indiana Democratic Party (IDP).

Johnathon JenninggsIn the early days of the Hoosier state, political parties were of little importance to the Indiana politicians that often worked late into the night and on most holidays to ensure the prosperity of the young state. A solid majority of these men were Democratic-Republicans from across the state that were dedicated to keeping Indiana slave free and economically healthy.

Of all these men, however, few are as responsible for the early successes of Indiana as Jonathan Jennings, the state's first governor.

Before Indiana became the nineteenth state, it was an oversized territory represented in Congress by Jennings. With time, the region was divided into the states that now make up the Midwest. The process toward Indiana's membership in the Union continued on April 11, 1816 when the U.S. Congress passed a statehood Enabling Act that Jennings had presented. Next, a convention was created to arrange the potential state's government and pen its constitution.

Jennings was the obvious choice as president of the convention that sought to compose the democratic standards that the territorial legislature had embodied for over a decade. Eventually, the document was completed and Indiana became the nineteenth state.

The first step as a state was to elect a legislative body and an executive governor. Once again, Jonathan Jennings was a clear choice as he easily defeated territorial governor Thomas Posey.

In the following six years of Jennings' term as governor, he worked tirelessly to develop a sound legal system, create a stable state bank, and establish a school system that extended to secondary education. He served as a brilliant leader and as the foundation of what would one day become the Indiana Democratic Party.

Early Political Battles: Whigs v. Democrats

As sides began to be officially been drawn in the General Assembly - Democrats and Whigs began to banter back and forth about nearly every issue. During this time, the Whigs held a strong majority in each extension of the legislative body, but Democrats fought with passion and wisdom to guarantee that the minority was represented, especially in the turbulent process of selecting the Representatives and Senators that embodied the visions of Hoosiers in Washington D.C. These frequently chaotic debates were so driven by the passion of Democrats, that fifty legislators from the Whig Party transferred to the Democratic Party by 1852.

It was in these early days that the Democratic emblem in Indiana was conceived by a series of political banter. Joseph Chapman, a well respected and extremely passionate Democrat that represented Hancock County in the state legislature, became vocally critical of a large number of his colleagues declaring themselves for William Henry Harrison in 1840.

His dissatisfaction was echoed in Indianapolis and the Democratic postmaster wrote a letter encouraging Chapman to "crow" in opposition. In an odd series of events, a Whig stole the letter and published it statewide with additional commentary comparing Chapman to a rooster crowing with exultation.

Rather than allowing the elementary level insult to embarrass the experienced congressman, he and Democrats across the state embraced the comments as compliments to their fiery passion portrayed in the State House. Soon after, newspapers began headlining about Democrats "crowing" their way to successes across the Indiana political spectrum and in due time, the rooster became the symbol of Indiana Democrats.

Post Civil War Democrats: Leadership of Thomas Hendricks

The first officially recorded meeting of the IDP came in 1848 when the Indianapolis newspapers reported the meeting of the Indiana State Central Committee of the Democratic Party. There is no chairman named of the seven men whom convened in the capital during what would become an illustrious two decades for Democrats in Indiana.

Thomas HendricksBeginning in 1843, five straight Democrats, beginning with James Whitcomb, held the executive power of Indiana until 1861.

Although the Democrats did not control the governor's office during the U.S. Civil War from 1861 to 1865, they held a strong majority in each legislative body and guided Indiana through the perils of war and the misguided smear tactics of Republican Governor Oliver Morton.

Thomas Hendricks, the nephew of Indiana's third governor William Hendricks, became the first Democrat governor to be elected in a northern state after the Civil War.

With the experience of already serving in the U.S. House and Senate, Hendricks was prepared to deal with the postwar slump of September 1873 that sent the economy into a tailspin and unemployment rates higher than ever before.

He avoided the corruption typically associated with Hoosier politicians at the time and reached across the aisle to maintain fiscal responsibility until the statewide economy rebounded.

His bipartisan leadership during the crisis made Hendricks not only popular to Hoosier constituents, but to Democrats nationwide. Eventually he was elected vice president to Grover Cleveland in 1884 and skillfully represented Hoosiers with a zealous commitment to economic conservatism and strict obedience to the Constitution.

The New Century: The Growth of the IDP

At the end of the nineteenth century, the voter demographics that Indiana is accustomed to today began to take their shape. Indianapolis continued to grow into a major urban city and was frequently represented by Democrats in the General Assembly. From 1895 to 1901, Thomas Taggart served as the mayor of Indianapolis before being elected as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, the principal organization governing the Democratic Party. As only the eleventh chairman, Taggart was the first from Indiana. Taggart never forgot his roots and was very influential in getting Thomas Riley Marshall elected as Woodrow Wilson's vice president in 1913.

Marshall had been elected governor in 1909 because of his fundamentally centrist position on most issues. In his single term, he pushed child labor law and anti-corruption legislation through the General Assembly.

Period of Conscience: Racial Tensions and the Great Depression

Although the Civil War had long finished, racial tensions were high across the state and slowly crept into the Indiana General Assembly. During the 74th Assembly, Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson, a Republican representative, claimed "I am the law in Indiana." In 1925, however, he was sentenced to lifetime imprisonment and began revealing the workings of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana. He told stories of corruption, bribery, threats and hateful violence performed by his former colleagues in the General Assembly. Naturally, African-American and Caucasian Hoosiers, alike, were outraged by the deception and began to change the way they voted at the ballot box. Twelve years before the black vote nationally switched to the Democratic Party, African-Americans across Indiana started voting for Democrats in response to the Republican Party's connection with the Ku Klux Klan.

A decade after Thomas Riley Marshall concluded his term, the Great Depression struck America and once again Indiana's local agriculture economy floundered. After almost two years of impoverished conditions nationwide, Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal were elected to the presidency. In the same election, Paul McNutt was elected governor of Indiana. Both executives stretched their power further than ever before to help spur the economy.

Minton and McKinney: Guiding Forces for the Party

Like many of the Democrats that have represented Indiana in the national spotlight, Sherman Minton began his political career in the legislative body. He successfully piggybacked the successes of Governor McNutt and President Roosevelt to his seat in the U.S. Senate in 1834 after practicing law in New Albany for most of his life.

During his time in Washington, Minton became a personal friend of Roosevelt's and shared his New Deal strategy to help return America to economic comfort. After his only term as a senator, Minton was appointed by Roosevelt to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

World War II shifted Indiana's job force from agriculture and commercial manufacturing to war production. Typically, women rushed to factories across the state to assemble tanks and other military products as men went off to each of the military branches. The extensive devotion shown by citizens across Indiana gave the state a quality war production record that President Harry S. Truman truly appreciated when he told Hoosiers in 1948, "You were efficient, you were helpful, you made one of the great contributions toward winning the war."

One of the men hurrying to defend his country in World War II was Marion County's Frank McKinney. Upon returning from the war, he became involved in politics and served as a delegate for Indiana at the 1948 national convention. Impressed by his war record and leadership abilities, delegates elected McKinney to be the chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1951. He became the second chairman of the DNC from Indiana and kept the Hoosier state involved in the national political spectrum.

Bayh, O’Bannon and Kernan: True Prosperity for Hoosiers

Evan Bayh began serving his fellow Hoosiers first as Secretary of State in 1986, and then as Governor in 1988 - the first of two terms, where he established Indiana as one of the strongest, most financially secure economies in the nation. Bayh began his tenure in the United States Senate in 1998, and easily won re-election in 2004 receiving 62% of the vote.

Following Bayh as Governor was Frank O’Bannon, Bayh’s Lieutenant Governor. During the Bayh and O’Bannon years, Indiana amassed a record $2 billion surplus, and the Governor’s office was able to cut taxes by $1.5 billion, hire 500 more police officers in the state and win increased funding for schools and extend health insurance for poor families.

As Governor, O’Bannon’s record was firmly established as an educational leader for the state. He helped lead development of Indiana's first community college system, pushed for early-childhood learning opportunities, development of alternative high schools, and charter schools. His work as chair of the state's landmark Education Roundtable ensured that Indiana was one of only five states whose schools immediately qualified as meeting all standards set by the federal No Child Left Behind act upon enactment.

O'Bannon suffered a massive stroke on September 8, 2003, while he was attending a trade conference in Chicago, and later died on September 13, 2003. He was succeeded in office by his Lieutenant Governor Joe Kernan of South Bend. Kernan had also served as mayor of South Bend in 1987, 1991, and 1995.

Red State No More: Indiana Turns Democratic Blue for President Obama in 2008

Before the 2008 Presidential election, the Hoosier state had gone Republican "Red" in 16 of the last 17 races, with Lyndon Johnson in 1964 the sole exception. All of that changed in the 2008 election. Under the promise of “Hope and Change,” Hoosiers responded awarding their 11 electoral votes to President Obama.

Based on the leadership and integrity of the early legislators such as Jonathan Jennings and William Hendricks, the state would not offer the amenities and charisma that it does today. Today, the Party continues to flourish, under the guidance of current Chairman Daniel J. Parker and the influence of Party leaders like Senator Evan Bayh, the passion of those early Democrats has never ceased and continues today at all levels.

To download a PDF version of the history of the Indiana Democratic Party, please click here: Indiana Democratic Party History