Indiana at 200 (19): Framers Met Under an Elm
by Andrea Neal
James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and colleagues spent almost four months debating, writing and editing the document that would become the U.S. Constitution. It took James Brownlee, Benjamin Parke and associates only 18 days to write Indiana’s.
The framing of our first constitution represented the final step in a lengthy and sometimes controversial process that advanced Indiana from frontier territory to full-fledged state. Territorial leaders had hoped Indiana would be admitted to the Union earlier, following a process laid out in the Northwest Ordinance, but financial difficulties and the War of 1812 intervened. By 1816, Indiana was back at bat.
Congress passed an enabling act on April 19, 1816, providing for a May election of delegates to a state constitutional convention. The representatives were to meet the next month in the territorial capital of Corydon. They gathered on June 10, 1816.
“As a group, they were men of high quality,” according to an account by the Indiana Historical Bureau.
Patrick Henry Shields was one of them. Educated at Hampton-Sydney College and William and Mary’s law school in Virginia, Shields moved to Indiana around 1804 and served as a judge. He was a private under William Henry Harrison at the Battle of Tippecanoe.
John Boone of Harrison County was Daniel Boone’s brother. Jeremiah Cox of Wayne County was a blacksmith. William Eads of Franklin County was a banker and postmaster.
Two future governors were selected to lead the convention: Jonathan Jennings as president and William Hendricks as secretary.
Historian John Dillon said the delegates were “clear-minded, unpretending men of common sense, whose patriotism was unquestionable and whose morals were fair.”
Their first task, as required by the enabling act, was to determine whether to proceed immediately toward statehood. On June 11, after considerable discussion, the delegates voted 34-8 for Ezra Ferris’ resolution declaring it “expedient, at this time, to proceed to form a Constitution and State Government.”
Unlike the Philadelphia delegates, who parsed every clause of the U.S. Constitution, the Corydon convention worked quickly. Most of Indiana’s constitution was copied from the constitutions of Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
The convention cost taxpayers $3,076, with $200 spent on printing and stitching the Constitution and journals, $41.50 on books and stationery and $27.50 for tables and benches.
When they weren’t sitting on benches, the delegates could be found under an elm tree. Construction of the state capitol building was not quite finished, and the log cabin that served as territorial headquarters was miserably hot, so the delegates took their discussions outdoors.
The tree, with leafy branches spanning 130 feet, was dubbed the Constitution Elm and became a symbol of Indiana’s founding.
In 1925, despite efforts to save it, the tree died from Dutch elm disease. The branches were cut into souvenirs. The trunk was coated in black creosote and preserved inside a sandstone monument. Jo Ann Schoen, a lifelong Corydon resident and descendant of Patrick Shields, owns two items made from the tree, one of them a paperweight.
“When I have guests in town, we always have to go by the elm,” Schoen says, “You can’t drive anywhere in Harrison County without seeing history.”
Directions to Constitution Elm: From North Capitol Avenue in Corydon, go east two blocks on High Street; the elm is on your right.