Title Reviewed:
A Biographical Directory of the Indiana General Assembly. Volume 1, 1816-1899

Author Reviewed:
Rebecca A. Shepherd; Charles W. Calhoun; Elizabeth Shanahan-Shoemaker; Alan F. January

Richard Jensen


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 77, Issue 2, pp 181-183

Article Type:
Book Review

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A Biographical Directory of the Indiana General Assembly. Volume 1, 1816–1899. Compliled and edited by Rebecca A. Shepherd, Charles W. Calhoun, Elizabeth Shanahan-Shoemaker, and Alan F. January. (Indianapolis: The Select Committee on the Centennial History of The Indiana General Assembly in cooperation with the Indiana Historical Bureau, 1980. Pp. xxxi, 610. Key to Sources. $31.50.)

Who made the laws of Indiana? The 6,500 men and women who sat in the first one hundred General Assemblies (1816 through 1978) have until now been anonymous—collectively far less well known than the governors or congressmen. In 1976 the Indiana legislature decided to review and evaluate in historical perspective its efforts and effects as an institution. The purpose was not so much to create a memorial, although that goal could not have been overlooked, as to strengthen and stimulate interest in the people's branch of government.

Senator Robert D. Garton, of Columbus, the guiding force behind the project, argued correctly that the history of an institution "is also the story of individuals—their actions and inactions, causes and concerns, debates and defeats, values and visions" (p. v). The case for a biographical compendium has never been better put. Very generously funded, guided by boards of leading legislators and scholars, with access to superb research collections, the project promised to be an outstanding historical enterprise. Furthermore, it had a good head start, since ninety years ago William English had collected a large body of information on most nineteenth-century legislators. The historical profession, with many highly trained, underemployed young scholars available, had decades ago perfected the art of compiling succinct interpretive biographies. Wisconsin had already published a model biographical dictionary.

What went wrong? Why has such a grand project produced such an unsatisfactory first volume? (One or two additional volumes of biography and narrative history are planned.) There may have been administrative fiascoes and a crisis of leadership. Certainly there has been a failure to realize, or even remotely come close to, Senator Garton's goals.

Two approaches, the inside and the outside, were possible. Garton clearly preferred the former, in which the contribution of each legislator would be assessed, or at least chronicled. Leaders would be identified, advocates of various proposals would be credited with their work, showhorses and workhorses would strut and heave. Unfortunately, there is absolutely none of this here. Presiding officers are identified, but not other leaders or committee chairmen. Not a single quotation or reference to issues, proposals, hearings, debates, votes, successes, or failures is provided. The reader learns nothing about what the members ever did or thought while in office.

The compilers (fifteen paid staff members are listed) opted instead for an "outside" approach—that is, to describe what sort of person was elected to the legislature. Unfortunately, the compilers' understanding of interesting characteristics is incredibly narrow. For 3,500 men, readers are given name; dates of service; district represented; relatives who also served; dates of birth, residence, and death; ethnicity; religion; education; party; military service; occupation; marriage details; other offices held; and civic activities. Cryptic bibliographical references complete the entry. Did no one display his wit or learning or understanding of the needs of his constituency? Did no one harangue crowds, articulate issues, conjure up new projects, become tarnished with scandal or defend the rights of the people? The historians who have sifted through countless sources doubtless know more of this than anyone, but they do not tell. The outstanding statesmen of Indiana receive the same treatment as the most obscure hacks—less, in fact, since far more effort was needed to trace down the nonentities. Readers learn little about Indiana politics and government.

The "biographies" read like coded entries for a quantitative collective biography. In fact, computer analysis has been attempted, but it is not reported here. Thorough statistical profiles of twentieth-century Hoosier legislators, and of various nineteenth-century political elites, have been in print for years. They prove quite conclusively that "outside" approaches tell almost nothing about legislative behavior. It may be that the compilers either knew nothing about politics or were so insecure that they slapped together the least "controversial" information in the hope that somehow history would benefit. "Much of the labor behind the present volume was devoted to gauging the reliability of sources and the accuracy of information in order to eliminate as many errors as possible" (p. xxxi). Alas, the one error that was not eliminated was disregard for the sponsors' intention.

Newberry Library and University of Illinois, Chicago Richard Jensen

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.