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Witnessing History: Hoosiers for President

June 14, 2019

Feature Photo: Repblican Presidential Candidate Wendell Willkie at English Theater in Indianapolis, 1940 (Indiana Historical Society)

I spend a lot of time preserving and digitizing historical photographs of Indiana events, but I also like to take advantage of witnessing history with my own eyes when the opportunity presents itself. A big opportunity came this week when Democratic presidential candidate and Hoosier Pete Buttigieg delivered an address on foreign policy and national security at Indiana University Auditorium, a mere one-hour drive from my home. And it was not only an opportunity for me to witness Hoosier history in the making, but also to share this experience with my son who will be a fifth grader studying U.S. history next year. It was the first time for both of us to hear a presidential candidate speak in person.

This visit to Bloomington to see Mayor Pete prompted me to look back at some of the presidential campaign materials at the Indiana Historical Society to see just how Hoosiers have been involved in U.S. presidential elections of the past. I was surprised to find out that Indiana has produced 12 major-party vice presidential candidates, including Vice Presidents Charles W. Fairbanks (1905 to 1909), Thomas R. Marshall (1913 to 1921) and Mike Pence (2017 to present) to name a few. Only the state of New York has had more vice presidential candidates with 14.

Indiana’s presidents and presidential nominees have numbered much less than that. We may only lay partial claim to ninth President William Henry Harrison who served as the first governor of the Indiana Territory in Vincennes from 1801 to 1812 and 16th President Abraham Lincoln who lived in Indiana from 1816 to 1830. Twenty-third President Benjamin Harrison is the president most closely associated with Indiana, making it his home from 1854 until his death in 1901. One of Benjamin Harrison’s most notable campaign attractions was a giant campaign ball made with a steel frame and slogan-covered canvas. The ball was modeled after his grandfather’s 1840 presidential campaign ball and was rolled nearly 5,000 miles to Harrison’s Indianapolis home during the 1888 election.

Benjamin Harrison’s Campaign Ball, 1888 (Indiana Historical Society)

The next time a Hoosier vied for the office of president was in 1900. Terre Haute native Eugene V. Debs was the Socialist Party candidate for president five times between 1900 and 1920. His last presidential run in 1920 was conducted from prison, where he received 913,693 votes, the most votes ever for a Socialist Party candidate.

Campaign Material with Debs Pictured in his Prison Uniform, 1920 (Indiana Historical Society)

Wendell Willkie was the next Hoosier up for office as the Republican nominee for the 1940 presidential election. Willkie, an Elwood native known as a “dark horse,” was a former Democrat who had never held public office before. On October 28, 1940, an estimated 70,000 people crowded Monument Circle in Indianapolis to hear Willkie speak. A week later, he lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt on his third-term run.

Crowd Gathered at Monument Circle to Hear Wendell Willkie, 1940 (Indiana Historical Society)

In the 1970s and 1980s, Hoosier legislators Vance Hartke (D), Birch Bayh (D) and Richard Lugar (R) followed with runs in presidential primaries but did not receive their party’s nomination. And now we have Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor from South Bend, who will be participating in the upcoming Democratic presidential debates.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg at IU Auditorium, 2019 (Indiana Historical Society)

It’s not every day that a presidential hopeful speaks in Central Indiana, and even more rare that that presidential hopeful is also from Indiana. In an age when live streams are available, it is tempting not to venture out and stand in line for hours to get a glimpse of a candidate in person, but people still do it. And if you talk to those people in the crowd, their stories can enrich the experience of the event. Standing in front of us in the ticket line for more than two hours was a man in his 60s who brought his mother, a woman in her 80s, to see Mayor Pete speak. She told me that she had taken her son to see presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy speak in Indianapolis when he was about the same age as my son. Now, that man in his 60s is a leader in his local political party chapter. No matter your party, it’s empowering to introduce your child to the political process at a young age. It shows them that they can educate themselves about complex issues, that they can have a voice with their vote, and that they can get involved if they so choose.

Robert F. Kennedy Speaks in Indianapolis, 1968 (Indiana Historical Society)

Kathy Mulder works in Digital Collections at IHS. She first became interested in history while tagging along with her grandmother who was a docent in historic Madison, Indiana.

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