Wednesday, January 9, 2013

As Indiana Nears 200th Birthday, Time to Update Book Chronicling the History of Indiana General Assembly

One of the most fascinating books I have read over the years is the "Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly, 1816-1978."    In the 1970s, the legislature commissioned the book which was written by Dr.  Justin E. Walsh, a university professor and then acting archivist for the State of Indiana.

1921 Indiana State Senate
The book takes the reader through the founding of our legislature to then present day 1978.  While the volume does provide the function of cataloging dates and names for posterity, it surprisingly does much more than that.  It details fascinating stories about the General Assembly and its members.  Stories that I recall include the two legislators who in the early days of the legislature walked to the session in Indianapolis.  They got lost and wandered the woods of frontier Indiana days before they were rescued by Indians.  Other stories were of fistfights on the floor, battles over time (yes we've been fighting over clocks for some 150 years) and over prohibition (Protestants - almost exclusively Republican - were for it and Catholics - almost exclusive Democrat - were against it.)

Stories of carousing and drunken legislators are also featured in the book.  Here is a sample.
Legislative revelry sometimes took an embarrassing turn, especially in the waning days of a session. For example, shortly before adjournment in 1897, bold-faced headlines in the Indianapolis Journal announced:
Drunken Law-Makers Making a Beastly
Exhibition of Themselves in a
Variety Hall
The Story told how twenty-five or so legislators engaged in a "shameful orgie" at a "disreputable variety hall" on East Washington Street, "getting noisily drunk" climbing on chairs, yelling and howling all sorts of obscene language in front of a half dozen streetwalkers.
The book also discusses a fascinating character from the more recent past, State Senator Nelson Grills, the only commander of a blimp to attack a German U-boat.   Needless to say, the blimp did not fair well in the encounter and was shot down.

Grills was equally colorful in the General Assembly.  From the book:
In his first term as senator, Grills proved that one man could indeed make a difference in the General Assembly. In the process of adding the word "grillibuster" to the lexicon of the General Assembly, Grills alienated almost every colleague on both sides of the aisle, the state leadership, and a governor of his own party over the reapportionment issue.
Grills began his fight for equal representation in 1959 by introducing a bill for numeration leading to reapportionment. But the rural-dominated reapportionment committee refused to meet, let alone approve the bill. In retaliation, on February 20, Grills invoked the long-ignored provision of the state Constitution that every bill be read aloud, word for word. Thus was born the "grillibuster," a nine-day period during which the Indiana Senate ground to a halt. On the first day a drone of voices - four clerks reading portions of each bill simultaneously - transformed the chamber into a modern Tower of Babel. Grills said he would demand a full airing of every bill until the apportionment committee released his measure. Committee chairman Willis K. Batchelet of Angola refused to budge, stating that if Grills succeeded he would "set a precedent that would light a fire and burn the Statehouse down." While Grills did not have arson in mind, he did intend an inflammatory battle of words to wear down his colleagues. On February 22, with as many as eighteen senators reading aloud their own bills, a steady attack was loosed on Grills from both ides of the aisle. Outside the Senate, Grills received support. "That Stubborn Mr. Grills" was praised in an editorial by the Indianapolis Times: "If the Indiana General Assembly won't [obey the Constitution] then who will?" On February 28 Grills bowed to pressure from his fellow Democrats and ended his "grillibuster." He vowed to continue his fight for the next two years, however, and predicted that the 1961 legislature would abide by the long-ignored reapportionment requirement.
I never quite understood the title of the book indicating it is a centennial (100) history of the Indiana General Assembly when the book actually covers 162 years.   Nonetheless, we are now just three years away from 200th year anniversary of the State of Indiana and its General Assembly.  It is the perfect time for the legislature to commission an update to this excellent tome as part of the celebration of the state's bicentennial.  Unfortunately Dr. Walsh passed away in 2011 so his legacy would have to be carried on by someone else.

Surprisingly the book is still available on as well as by other book sellers.  I believe I also saw it listed as being available in e-book form for a much more reasonable $9.99 than $59.99 for hardcover and $39.99 for softcover.  (Although I haven't seen it in that form, I wouldn't suggest a paperback version of the book which probably would have smaller print and wouldn't hold up well.)  There are also limited editions in various libraries around the state.  I would encourage anyone interested in Indiana history to read it.  I would particularly encourage state legislators to get a copy to read during the session. They would find this colorful history of the General Assembly to be a fascinating read.

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