Slavery in Indiana

The status of slaves in Northern states before the Civil War is a matter that is not clear to me. On one hand, I am told that some states made slavery illegal, but on the other slavery was protected under the Constitution, and the laws of states could not supersede the laws of the United States. It is quite clear from contemporary accounts that slaves could be taken anywhere in the United States without change in their status, and that slavechasers operated throughout the country, not just in the South. There appear to have been body slaves at West Point, and the last prosecution for slave-running in New York City was in 1859. The Underground Railroad had to get fugitives to Ontario, not just across the Ohio. I once lived in a house in Newburgh, Indiana that had been a station on the Underground Railroad, and became familiar with the operation. Justice Taney said that slaves had "no rights that the United States need respect," and could not sue in Federal courts. As a beginning in clarifying the situation, I examined the Indiana State Constitutions of 9 June 1816 and 1 November 1851. The 1816 constitution was the original State constitution, and the second was the constitution of 1851. Indiana is currently governed under the constitution of 1851, as amended.

Article VIII of the 1816 constitution states the principle that "There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, within this State, other than for the punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted. No indenture of any Negro or Mulatto made and executed out of the bounds of the State, shall be valid within the State." This paragraph was also contained as Section 37, Article 1 in the Bill of Rights of the 1851 constitution.

This article clearly frees any slave setting foot in Indiana, but it is evident that this did not occur. It seems mostly a statement of principle, not a legal mandate that actually had anything to do with legislation or enforcement. Such paragraphs were no doubt in other state constitutions as well, but could have had no more effect there. There were slaveholding residents of Vincennes at the time of statehood, who seem to have moved to Missouri where the atmosphere was friendlier.

The 1851 constitution is much more explicit. While still retaining this general statement, Article 13 was much more effective. It provided that "No Negro or Mulatto shall come into or settle in this State, after the adoption of this constitution." If you did bring in or hire such a person, the fine was $500, which was to be applied to a fund for colonization (return of blacks to Africa). The General Assembly was enjoined to pass legislation to enforce these measures. Note that there is no mention of slavery whatever, just race, which indicates that the Section 37 provisions had been rendered ineffective. This statement would allow any slaves already in the state to continue to be held and used, however. It may come as a surprise to some, as to me, that the very entry of blacks to Indiana was forbidden.

Of course, all these references to slavery or Negroes were removed from the state constitution by amendment, and there is no trace of them now. This is as far as the investigation has gone at the moment. It is much more difficult to search the legislative record.

The Indiana constitutions can be found at Indiana State Library .

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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 2 May 2004
Last revised26 February 2008