Hoosier abolitionist unsung national icon


George Washington Julian did not think much of compromise. In the decades before the Civil War, he was Indiana’s most radical abolitionist.

Although he is little known by Hoosiers today, Julian made a lasting mark on the national scene.

“He was always the ready champion of the principle of fundamental democracy — ‘equal rights for all, special privileges for none,’ regardless of race, color, creed, or sex,” Indiana historian James Albert Woodburn wrote in 1915.

“Six feet tall, broad shouldered, with a bit of a stoop, Julian was impossible to miss, and a trial to his more moderate colleagues because there was little or no give in him,” according to another account.

Julian represented the far end of the abolitionist movement in Indiana. Like the rest of the country before the Civil War, Hoosiers were conflicted over slavery. Indiana was a free state with an active Underground Railroad, but most Hoosiers did not believe in mixing the races. Julian, a white man, championed black equality.

The state’s 1851 Constitution had declared, “No negro or mulatto shall come into or settle in the state,” language approved by voters by a 5-1 margin. Many prominent Hoosiers belonged to the Indiana Colonization Society, part of a national movement to relocate African-Americans to what is today Liberia.

Julian’s views were shaped by his Quaker upbringing in Wayne County, the most progressive part of the state on the eve of Civil War. A lawyer by training, Julian practiced in Greenfield and other small towns and served in the Indiana House of Representatives in 1845. He had been elected as a member of the Whig Party, forerunner of the Republicans.

In 1848, Julian helped found the Free Soil Party, a one-issue group dedicated to stopping the spread of slavery in the West. He was elected to Congress that year by a narrow margin after a bitter campaign focused on the future of slavery. Years later he remembered it with anguish: “The friends of a lifetime were suddenly turned to enemies, and their words were often dipped in venom.” He lost his bid for re-election.

In 1852, Free Soilers chose Julian as vice presidential running mate to presidential nominee John P. Hale of New Hampshire. The two received 155,210 popular votes but no electoral votes.

Two years later, passage of the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act in the Congress led to the

formation of the Republican Party. The law opened up western lands to new settlement and allowed for expansion of slavery with citizens’ consent.

The law infuriated Abraham Lincoln and George Julian, among others, and they became founding members of the GOP.

In 1860, voters chose Lincoln for president and sent Julian to Congress, where he served for a decade. There he worked with Radical Republicans Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania in crafting national policy for ending slavery.

Julian also advocated for women’s suffrage, but it was an idea before its time.

When his political career ended, Julian settled in Irvington, a cultural enclave on the east side of Indianapolis and original site of Butler University. He died in 1899.

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Directions: The historic Irvington neighborhood is five miles due east of downtown Indianapolis on East Washington Street. The George W. Julian School is at 5435 E. Washington St.


Note to readers: This is one in a series of essays leading up to the celebration of the Indiana Bicentennial in December 2016. The essays will focus on the top 100 events, ideas and historical figures of Indiana, beginning with the impact of the Ice Age and ending with the legacy of the Bicentennial itself. Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Send comments to [email protected].

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