|A Year of Indiana History - 2016|
Charged with being a traitor, Bright's Senate colleagues voted to expel him after the capture of arm's dealer Thomas Lincoln revealed a letter in which Bright acknowledged Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederacy.
Jesse Bright (December 18, 1812 - May 20, 1875)
Born in Norwich, New York, Brights parents moved to Madison, Indiana in 1812 when he was eight years old. After studying law, he gained admittance to the bar in 1831 and opened a practice in law. His forceful personality led him to a rapid rise in politics, Jefferson County Probate Judge in 1834 to the Democratic Lieutenant Governor in 1842. The state assembly elected him Senator in 1844. As Senate pro tempore he was the acting Vice President of the United States after Vice President William R. King died in office. Bright was a strident defender of slavery. He owned a farm in Kentucky and had twenty slaves working on it. He considered abolitionists his enemies and took pains to punish his opponents that disagreed with him. When war broke out, he became one of only ten Democrats left in the Senate against twenty-nine Republicans when most of the Democratic members absented themselves due to the secession of their states. His troubles in the Senate multiplied when Federal troops captured a Texas arms dealer trying to cross into Confederate Territory.
Senator Bright had written the letter, dated March 1, 1861, as an introduction of Lincoln, a former client, to Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy. The letter stated, as follows:
"His Excellency Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederation of States":
My dear Sir:
Allow me to introduce to your acquaintance my friend, Thomas B. Lincoln of Texas. He visits your capital mainly to dispose of what he regards a great improvement in firearms. I recommend him to your favorable consideration as a gentleman of the first respectability, and reliable in every respect.
The letter was damning on several points. He wrote it during the time that Davis was gathering military supplies for the attack on Fort Sumter and in the address, he acknowledged Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederacy. Many of his colleagues considered Davis as the ultimate traitor. His political enemies, and there were many, used it as a tool to unseat him and further weaken the Democratic Party in the Senate.
On December 16, 1861, Minnesota Senator introduced a resolution calling for Bright's expulsion. Debate that consumed several months followed. On January 13, 1862, the Judiciary Committee that had been investigating the affair reported that the charges were not sufficient for expulsion. After the report, one committee member, Connecticut Republican Lafayette Foster changed his mind and recommended expulsion. Senate debate began on January 20 and lasted until February 5, when the Senate voted 32 to 14 to expel him. Shortly afterward, the Union Army confiscated land he owned in Jeffersonville, Indiana to use to build Jeffersonville General Hospital, a hospital to treat wounded Union soldiers.
A Year of Indiana History - 2016
© Paul Wonning