By Mary Giorgio
In the town of Corydon stands an unlikely monument–an elm tree trunk, enclosed in a stone monument. This elm trunk is all that remains of a tree that symbolized Indiana’s path to statehood.
In 1815, Indiana Territory’s House of Representatives voted in favor of requesting statehood from Congress. The Federal Government approved the measure under the Enabling Act of 1816. President James Madison signed the bill into law in April 1816. Indiana delegates were free to write their state constitution.
Delegates met in Corydon, which had been chosen as the capital of Indiana. Corydon was a sensible location for the capital at that time because it was located centrally to the state’s population at that time.
The Constitutional Convention began on June 10, 1816. It was led by Jonathan Jennings, who would later become the first governor of Indiana. June was extremely hot that year and the stuffy log cabin from which the delegates worked became unbearable. A new statehouse building was under construction, but it was not yet ready.
To escape the hot air, delegates decided to work outside, taking shelter under a mammoth elm tree reported to be over 130 feet tall and 50 feet wide. Even then the tree was around 150 years old. It was there, under that shady tree, that tradition holds delegates found a comfortable place to work. These politicians wrought Indiana’s constitutional history and identity beneath its branches.
The Constitutional Convention lasted 19 days. On the last day, June 29, 1816, the state constitution was adopted by a majority vote. It took effect immediately. Indiana’s first constitution included several progressive laws, like a ban on slavery, a half century before the Thirteenth Amendment. It also contained the first mandate for funding public schools in the country.
The elm tree was hailed as a symbol of statehood. In 1916, a centennial celebration included a reenactment of the drafting of the constitution under the old elm. Less than a decade later, the tree succumbed to Dutch Elm disease.
Local efforts ensued to preserve 15 feet of the tree’s trunk and build a stone monument around it. Corydon’s local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution oversaw the removal of the tree’s limbs and branches. These were subsequently chopped into pieces and sold as souvenirs.
Although dead, the tree continued to inspire generations of Hoosiers. In the late 1960s, Hoosier native and famed songwriter Hoagy Carmichael created a giant painting of the old Constitution Elm. He later donated the painting to Indiana University.
Through the years, many remedies have been tried to preserve the remaining trunk of the old Constitution Elm. Coal tar was even dumped over the elm at one point, but the tree continued to deteriorate.
In 2012, as the State of Indiana began preparations for the 2016 bicentennial, preservationists began looking for new ways to save the old tree trunk. The state invested $19,000 to mitigate the damage from insect infestations and dry rot.
Although today few people know the story of the Constitution Elm, it remains an interesting artifact of the state’s rich history. Preserving a tree trunk is no easy task, and no one knows how long the remnants of the Constitution Elm will continue to stand.
Regardless of the monument’s ultimate fate, the unique landmark has earned a permanent place in Corydon and Indiana lore, and in the hearts of Hoosiers everywhere.