"The Burnt District"

Grace Julian Clarke


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 27, Issue 2, pp 119-124

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"The Burnt District"


The political area of Indiana, known for many years as the "Burnt District" haa been variously composed of from four to twenty counties in the eastern part of the state, Only two counties, Wayne and Fayette, have constantly formed a part of this congressional district, with Union, Henry and Rush counties included the greater portion of the time. Wayne county has always been regarded as the hub, or center, perhaps because it was one of the first counties settled. It contains Centreville, an important business, educational, social and political stronghold. On the removal of the seat of justice to Richmond, that city forged ahead as one of the large and influential communities of the state. The "Burnt District" has been, at different times, the third, the fourth, the fifth and the sixth. It has been the sixth congressional district for the past sixty years.

How the term "Burnt District" arose has been the subject of considerable curiosity. According to Jacob P. Dunn, residents of the region of whom he sought an explanation were as much in the dark as were other people. Mr. Dunn quotes a statement furnished to him by George W. Julian, who represented the district in Congress for twelve years, giving an explanation which is accepted by Dunn, though with a change of dates. Mr. Julian stated to Mr. Dunn that the district was first so called in 1841, the Whig majority of that year having been so great that the Democratic leaders applied to it the term frequently seen in the public prints describing a fire in Pittsburgh which destroyed a considerable section of the city. Mr. Dunn found no record of a fire in Pittsburgh in 1841, but did see accounts of a large fire there in 1845, and of one in New York City also, he was inclined to think that Mr. Julian was mistaken in the date and that the name "Burnt District" therefore harks back no farther than to 1845.

So it might seem that the question was settled for all time, but one cannot be positive in such matters: new evidence sometimes unexpectedly appears. Recently, when looking over an old scrap-book kept by George W. Julian my eye fell upon a page of manuscript, evidently prepared in the eighteen-eighties, to the effect that the author of the term "Burnt District" as applied to the region under consideration was Andrew Kennedy. In 1841, this interesting man was elected as a Democrat over two Whig competitors, Jonathan McCarty who had three times represented the district in Congress and Caleb B. Smith who was destined to represent it three times later on. "AS it was found impracticable to get either of them out of the way," says Mr. Julian, "the Democrats, on the eve of the election, secretly brought out Andrew Kennedy of Delaware county, which was then in the district, and as the Whig vote was nearly evenly divided, Kennedy was elected. About this time a great fire in Pittsburgh destroyed the best part of the city and the newspapers were filled with accounts of the ‘Burnt District.’ Kennedy applied the term to his district, in which he said Whiggery was as badly burnt out as Pitts-burg. This is the generally accepted origin of the phrase since so well known." According to this testimony, it was Whigs who suffered from the burning instead of Democrats, the time being 1841, when Kennedy was the victor.1

The date of that fire still puzzles and perplexes, but for myself I am willing to waive further investigation, consoled by the knowledge that at last we have found the real author of the appellation "Burnt District." I am especially pleased to know that it was that romantic character, the Connersville blacksmith, who came to Indiana from his birthplace in Dayton, Ohio, when a child, learned to read and write after he was grown, became an able and very eloquent lawyer, was three terms a member of the national Congress, and died at the age of thirty-seven in Indianapolis, whither he had come, the Legislature being in session, to open his campaign for the United States Senate to which in all probability he would have been elected. William Wesley Woollen relates an anecdote told by Stephen A. Douglass of Illinois in the course of a speech in the Senate of the United States. Senator Douglass said that one day when Kennedy rose to address the House a colleague asked him how he got there, to which he replied that he came from the strongest Whig district in the state of Indiana, a district that gave General William Henry Harrison

  • 1 The congressional election in Indiana was held on May 7 in 1841. The vote in the fifth district stood as follows: for Kennedy, 5, 664; for McCarty, 4,299: for Smith, 4,049: scattering, 19% Indiana Journal (semi-weekly), May 22, 1841. At this time the fifth district contained twenty counties, reaching to the northern boundary of the date.
a bigger majority in 1840 than had any other in the United States of America, that he beat three of the ablest Whigs in the district, and could have beaten three more if they had dared to run against him. On consulting the Congressional Globe, I find that these are Mr. Kennedy's words: "I came here with a majority of fourteen hundred votes over one of the strongest men in my State. Yes, more: I have not only succeeded by that majority over one, but over two, of the most popular men of the State. And I have no doubt I could have beaten half a dozen just as easy." Mr. Woolen also says that John Quincy Adams once congratulated Kennedy after one of is fiery outbursts calling him the "greatest natural orator in America."

Kennedy's election, in view of his ability and popularity, may have caused some uneasiness among his Whig constituents, for by the next reapportionment, Delaware County was taken out of the "Burnt District" and placed in one of three new districts created in 1842. Kennedy was undoubtedly popular and a skillful politician, however, since he was promptly elected from the district in which his county had been placed.

It is interesting to note that only two Democrats besides Kennedy have ever been elected from the "Burnt District," William S. Holman when the Republican party was still feeling the effects of the Greeley exodus of 1872, and Finley H. Gray in 1912, as a result of the strength of the Progressive party. Of the men who have represented the district in Congress, Wayne and Fayette counties have each supplied five, Randolph county two, and Delaware, Dearborn and Franklin one each.

Among those who have served the district in Congress, a few outstanding figures may properly be mentioned. Caleb B. Smith of Connersville, who succeeded Kennedy, was a native of Boston, Massachusetts, but came West when a child. He had been active in Indiana politics for a number of years prior to his first election to the national House, having served four terms in the state senate and as a Whig presidential elector in 1840. An able man and strong partisan, he was regarded as an excellent politician. Shortly before the expiration of his third and last term, he refused (though in his seat) to vote for the abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia, thus incurring the displeasure of antislavery men, and was shortly afterward appointed Commissioner of Mexican Claims by President Taylor, as a reward, it was said, for his silence at that time. He served for a short time as Secretary of the Interior under President Lincoln, resigning to accept an appointment as Judge of the United States District Court in Indiana.

Smith expected his brother-in-law, Samuel W. Parker, also of Connersville and a lawyer, to succeed him as representative from the "Burnt District," and this seemed the natural sequence. But the slavery question was steadily challenging more and more attention. George W. Julian of Centreville, who had been elected to the state Legislature in 1845 as a Whig but who had voted with the Democrats on two important matters and had since gone as a delegate to the Freq Soil National Convention of 1848 at Buffalo, came forward in 1849 as an avowed candidate for Smith's seat, though a Free Soiler. It was a lively campaign, perhaps the most exciting that the "Burnt District" ever knew. Parker boldly declared himself an enemy of slavery and made a strong fight, backed by Smith and other leading Whigs both inside and outside the district. But Julian was victorious, largely because the Democrats of the district placed no candidate in the field, most of them supporting the Free Soiler, partly in recognition of his independent stand in the Legislature four years before, but also because at this moment Democrats of the Old Northwest showed a strong tendency to take an antislavery stand2 Two years later, however, after another bitter campaign, Parker was elected over his more youthful competitor and was once reelected. He was a man of ability, a regular in politics, as most representatives were. On his retirement from Congress, he became president of the Whitewater Canal Company, the charter for which he had been influential in securing from the Legislature. By the way, Parker was indirectly responsible for the brevity of Andrew Kennedy's career as a blacksmith, according to Mr. Woollen. It seems that Mr. Parker took delight in horses, especially spirited horses, and it was while blacksmith Kennedy was trying to fit a shoe on one of Parker's most vicious animals that he received a kick that laid him low for a long time. Parker naturally felt a particular interest in the case, encouraged Kennedy to take

  • 2See William O. Lynch, "Antislavery Tendencies of the Democratic Party in the Old Northwest, in Mississippi valley Historical Review, XI, 319-331.
up reading and the art of penmanship, lent him books, and presently took him into his office as a student.

Of all the men who represented the "Burnt District" in Congress, no one had so stormy a career as Julian. This was largely due to his having embraoed the antislavery cause in the days of its greatest unpopularity. For years, he felt it his duty to keep the issue prominently before the people so as to build up and strengthen public opinion against slavery, and so gradually force the extinction of the institution by restricting it to the states where it already existed. When the war came on, he insisted that its cause was not state rights but the determination of slaveholders to retain and perpetuate their peculiar institution, and he was for prosecuting the war with every available weapon. The "Burnt District" contained many Quakers, who naturally abhorred slavery. But there were very many settlers from the southern states who were not Quakers, and he had these to educate and lead along. His task was not an easy one, and that he was able to retain his hold throughout the war and reconstruction periods is remarkable, especially in view of the hostility of Governor Morton and his powerful "cabal." Julian's strength lay in moral suasion rather than in political maneuvres. Among the schemes resorted to in order to compass his defeat was the familiar one of reapportionment. At one time, he found three reliably Republican counties subtracted from the "Burnt District" and four strongly Democratic counties added. Nothing daunted, he made a vigorous campaign and was successful. But two years later, in 1870, he was snowed under and retired from active political life.

Another outstanding representative from the "Burnt Distritc" was the Hon. Henry U. Johnson, son of Judge Nimrod H. Johnson and brother of Robert Underwood Johnson, who served four terms, his last ending in 1899. Belonging to an old Republican family and steeped in the traditions of the Civil War, he nevertheless did his own thinking, politically, and when he saw that the country was being led into a war with Spain over matters that he thought could be amicably adjusted, he boldly threw down the gauntlet and denounced his party's recreancy in a spirited speech in the national House. Of course, this meant the end of his political career. In his place, the "Burnt District" elected James E. Watson, a regular of the regulars, who has been faithful in season and out of season to his party's behests. Mr. Johnson, a lawyer still actively practicing his profession in Richmond, celebrated his eightieth birthday on October 28, 1930. By the way, he writes, while this paper is being prepared, that his impression has always been that the term "Burnt District" arose from the fact that certain persons, whether Whigs or Democrats he does not remember, at one time burned their hats in their exultation over the defeat of their opponents at the polls!

The "Burnt District" has numerous claims to distinction aside from those mentioned. One of the most famous Underground Railway stations in the entire country was located within its borders, at Newport, now Fountain City, Wayne county. In Centreville, one is shown the old building where Gen. A. E. Burnside, a man destined to an important command in the Civil War, had his tailor shop. I believe that Joaquin Miller, the poet, was born in the "Burnt District," as was James Whitcomb Riley, for Hancock county was much of the time included therein. This district has furnished two Governors of the State, Morton, the famous War Governor, and Isaac P. Gray. It has also produced two United States Senators, Oliver P. Morton and James E. Watson. It has stood high in the educational world, the old Whitewater Academy having been located in Centreville, while Earlham College is at Richmond. Time prevents the telling of other interesting features. I am informed that the term "Burnt District" is no longer in use, but since every one of the eight counties in the present sixth district, was a part of the old district at different times it seems a pity to lose a designation so unique, with its romantic suggestion of a more exhilarating if not a loftier period in the state's political history.

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.