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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,113

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This is the grave of Thomas Hendricks.

Born in 1819 in Muskingum County, Ohio, Hendricks grew up in Indiana. His uncle based there was William Hendricks, one of the state’s leading politicians and soon to head to the Senate. So this was no poor family, but one that was upwardly mobile. His own father ran a general store out there and then got involved in politics himself, winning himself a piece of Andrew Jackson‘s patronage politics as a surveyor. The home was a center for Democratic politics in Indiana and so young Thomas grew up around all of this. He went to local schools, then to Hanover College, which still exists. He graduated in 1841. Then came the obvious choice for someone interested in politics–he became a lawyer. He started his own practice in the town of Shelbyville, Indiana in 1843. Probably too many lawyers already in Springfield.

Hendricks remained a strong Democrat his whole career. It’s worth noting that this was far from inevitable. Lots of northern Democrats joined the Republican Party after 1854 due to the Democrats’ increased radicalism on slavery. In fact, they usually made the most intensely anti-slavery Republicans. This was definitely not Hendricks, who did not give a whit about slaves. He remained a highly partisan Democrat. He won his first race for the Indiana legislature in 1848. He was a delegate to the state constitutional convention in 1850 and then was elected to Congress that year. It didn’t take long for people to rise in politics in the West during these years. Heck, I guess it doesn’t today if you are crazy enough for the modern Republican Party. In any case, as a Congressman, he got some minor committee chairs, first as chairman of the Committee on Mileage, which in fact was a committee on properly reimbursing members of Congress for travel expenses.

However, Hendricks’ time in Congress didn’t last long. As a Democrat and supporter of Stephen Douglas‘ idea of popular sovereignty to blow up the Missouri Compromise and potentially expand slavery into northern territories, Hendricks voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He was promptly and rightfully evicted from office that fall by an outraged electorate.

But Hendricks wasn’t out of a job long. As a faithful Democrat and doughface servant of the slave power, Franklin Pierce took care of him by naming commission of the General Land Office, which was quite a plum position. This was the agency that settled land claims and there was a huge backlog here, especially because so many of these were contested. He did see a lot of these through, but he was totally unqualified for the job. Evidently, he was the first commissioner to have no experience in the matter and a lot of his decisions ended up in the courts because of mistakes he made. But this was the spoils system, so it’s not as if leading Democrats really cared, even as they probably found this irritating. He quit in 1859, not because he was bad at the job, even if he was, but because he wasn’t extreme enough on slavery for James Buchanan, who wanted to turn the Land Office into a pure patronage agency, which Hendricks resisted because he had learned you needed people who knew what they were doing. Hendricks also was uncomfortable with a lot of the extremism coming out of the South and he also supported what would become the Homestead Act, even though that was a Republican idea. In the end, he was a man of the Midwest, not the South.

Hendricks returned to Indiana and desperately wanted to be governor. He was the Democratic nominee in both 1860 and 1868, but lost both times. Instead, he went to the Senate in 1863. Hendricks was a Union Democrat. This means he hated Abraham Lincoln, had no interest in ending slavery, and didn’t think the federal government should do what it needed to do in order to win the war, but he didn’t actually support the South. What this meant in the real world is that he thought the draft was a massive violation of Constitution from a tyrannical president and he thought the issuing of greenbacks a horrifying economic decision that was worse than slavery. Hendricks loathed Reconstruction. He accepted the idea of the Thirteenth Amendment; slavery was gone, so be it. But the idea of rights for Blacks? No way. He was a pure 100% stone cold racist who thought Black Americans were savages who were completely unprepared to play a role in an American democracy that he and other Democrats had conceptualized as an aggressively white male system from its beginning. Here’s probably his most famous speech in the Senate:

I am speaking of a race whose history for two thousand years has shown that it cannot elevate itself. I am speaking of a race which in its own country is now enshrouded by the darkness of heathenism, the darkest heathenism that covers land on earth. While the white man for two thousand years past has been going upward and onward, the negro race wherever found dependent upon himself has been going downward or standing still. . . . What has this race ever produced? What invention has it ever produced of advantage to the world? . . . This race has not been carried down into barbarism by slavery. The influence of slavery upon this race- I will not say it is the influence of slavery- but the influence of the contact of this race with the white race has been to give it all the elevation it possesses, and independent and outside of that influence it has not become elevated anywhere in its whole history. Can you tell me of any useful invention by the race, one single invention of greater importance to the world than the club with which the warrior beats to death his neighbor? Not one.

So, uh, yeah. But again, this was just standard Democratic Party rhetoric in the late 1860s. Of course Hendricks also opposed Andrew Johnson’s impeachment. So Republicans gained back the Indiana legislature in 1868 as part of the general disgust over what the Democratic Party was doing and Hendricks was kicked out of office. But he wouldn’t remain gone for long. He finally became governor in 1872, just barely squeezing past with 50.1 percent of the vote. In fact, he was nearly the presidential candidate before the Liberal Republicans agreed to merge with Democrats if Horace Greeley was the candidate. As governor, he mostly fought with Republicans and laid the groundwork to build a new statehouse. Not enough to bother with here.

But Hendricks really was a Democratic superstar. He was the VP in 1876 under Samuel Tilden in the infamous disputed election. He was VP because Democrats’ strategy toward victory was to win the entire South, plus New York and Indiana. So they nominated a New Yorker and Hoosier. They wanted him in 1880 again, but he had what was probably a stroke earlier that year so he declined. He couldn’t walk by 1882, but in this non-televised era when he was now a senior figure out of office, he didn’t have to be completely honest about his health. Indiana was such a critical swing state that it became the home of vice-presidents and that finally did include Hendricks, when he became Grover Cleveland‘s VP candidate in 1884. This time he agreed, though his health was really not good, which Cleveland did not know. He didn’t bother attending the convention or anything.

About all Hendricks did as vice-president was giving a speech in favor of Irish independence, which led many reporters to ask the administration if this was the position of the American government. Eight months into his term, Hendricks finally died on a trip home to Indiana. He was 66 years old.

Thomas Hendricks is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis, Indiana.

If you would like this series to visit other vice-presidents, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Adlai Stevenson, Cleveland’s VP in his second term, is in Bloomington, Illinois and Garret Hobart, McKinley’s first VP, is in Paterson, New Jersey. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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