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Matthew N. Vosmeier
Jesse David Bright was a United States Senator from Indiana from 1845 to 1862 and the domineering leader of Indiana’s Democratic Party for most of that time. A state-rights Democrat and a slaveholder with a Kentucky farm, Bright opposed the Civil War, arguing that coercion should not be used to effect reunion. In March 1861, Bright wrote a letter of introduction to Jefferson Davis for a friend who wanted “to dispose of what he regards a great improvement in fire-arms.” The letter prompted an accusation of disloyalty that led to Bright’s expulsion from the United States Senate on February 5, 1862.
Jesse D. Bright was born December 18, 1812, in Norwich, Chenango County, New York, to David G. Bright and Rachel (Graham) Bright. The family moved west, settling in Madison, Indiana, in 1820. Jesse Bright married Mary E. Turpin of Kentucky. He became a lawyer and politician.
Bright enjoyed rapid progress in his political career. He became Jefferson County’s probate judge in 1834, was appointed United States marshal in 1840, and was elected to the State Senate in 1841. Bright attained prominence despite being, in the words of William Wesley Woollen, “a Democrat of the strictest sect” in a county that favored Whigs. In 1843, he was elected lieutenant governor, serving with Governor James Whitcomb and presiding in the State Senate. In 1845, after considerable partisan maneuvering, the Indiana General Assembly elected him to the U.S. Senate. In 1854, Bright became president pro tem of the Senate.
Contemporaries and historians since have commented on Bright’s strong personality and his ability to dominate Indiana Democratic Party affairs. Oliver H. Smith wrote that he was “emphatically a self-made man,” with “great energy of character, with good common sense, and an iron will.” Woollen referred to Bright as “the autocrat of his party,” who “loved power and knew the art of getting it,” who “loved a friend and hated an enemy,” and who “knew how to reward the one and punish the other.” He observed that Bright “carried himself as one having authority. He was imperious in his manner, and brooked no opposition either from friend or foe. Indeed, he classed every man as foe who would not do his bidding, and made personal devotion to himself the test of Democracy.” According to historian Charles B. Murphy, by 1845, Bright “seems to have made himself the master of the Democratic party in Indiana, and to have been an absolute boss.” However, by the late 1850s, Bright’s management of the state party and his support for President James Buchanan over rival Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Illinois, increased his unpopularity and enabled his opposition to gain control of the state party.
Controversy surrounding Bright’s 1857 reelection threatened his seat in the U.S. Senate. Republican state senators hoped to prevent his reelection by leaving the joint session of the General Assembly. The remaining legislators reelected Bright, arguing that a quorum from each house was unnecessary. The following year, Republicans gained control of both houses, elected two Republican senators, and, asserting that the previous election had been invalid, requested that the U.S. Senate seat the Republicans. The Senate rejected the request and retained Bright.
Historian Emma Lou Thornbrough describes Bright as a “strict constructionist, who never failed to denounce any sign of usurpation of states’ rights by the Federal government or any tendency toward strengthening that government.” He was also a slaveholder, owning twenty-one slaves on his farm in Gallatin County, Kentucky, at the time of the 1860 enumeration. As a U.S. senator, he had been a member of the Committee of Thirteen advocating the Compromise of 1850. Later, he had supported President James Buchanan and the Lecompton Constitution for Kansas favored by advocates of slavery, and had worked for the presidential campaign of John C. Breckinridge, the choice of Southern Democrats. During the Secession Crisis, Bright supported the Crittenden Compromise, which proposed concessions to the South to preserve slavery, and in a July 1861 speech, he characterized himself as one who was “not willing to vote either men or money to invade States that have formally declared themselves out of the Union, until every effort to secure peace and an honorable adjustment has been exhausted.”
The discovery of Bright’s March 1861 letter to the president of the seceding Southern states provoked calls for his expulsion from the United States Senate:
Washington, March 1, 1861
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 fire-arms. I recommend him to your favorable consideration as a gentleman of the first respectability, and reliable in every respect.
Very truly, yours, JESSE D. BRIGHT
To His Excellency JEFFERSON DAVIS,
President of the Confederation of States.
On December 16, 1861, Minnesota Senator Morton S. Wilkinson introduced a resolution calling for Bright’s expulsion, declaring that the letter was “evidence of disloyalty” and was “calculated to give aid and comfort to the public enemy.” The Judiciary Committee took up the issue, and, in January 1862, determined that the facts were “not sufficient to warrant his expulsion from the Senate; and they therefore recommend that the resolution do not pass.” Senators debated whether the letter was evidence of disloyalty or simply a letter of introduction without disloyal intent written before war had begun. Bright spoke in his own defense, explaining that this was one of many letters of introduction and one he did not recall writing and that his address to Davis was not recognition of Davis’s presidency. He also explained that he did not believe that war was imminent at the time. He expressed his wish for the reunion of the states but disapproved of coercion to bring it about. On February 5, 1862, the United States Senate voted to expel Bright, 32 to 14.
Bright briefly hoped that he would be returned to the U.S. Senate the next year, but he did not have sufficient support. He moved to Carrollton, Kentucky, and served from 1866 to 1871 as a Kentucky state representative for Trimble and Carroll Counties. In 1874, he moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where he died May 20, 1875.
Butler, Anne M. and Wendy Wolff. United States Senate Election, Expulsion, and Censure Cases, 1793-1990. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1995.
Congressional Globe. Washington: Congressional Globe Office.
Murphy, Charles B. The Political Career of Jesse D. Bright. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1931.
Smith, O. H., Early Indiana Trials and Sketches. Cincinnati: Moore, Wilstach, Keys & Co., Printers, 1858.
Thornbrough, Emma Lou. Indiana in the Civil War Era, 1850-1880. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau and Indiana Historical Society, 1965.
Van Der Weele, Wayne J. “Jesse David Bright: Master Politician from the Old Northwest.” Ph.D. diss., Indiana University, 1958.
Woollen, William Wesley. Biographical and Historical Sketches of Early Indiana. Indianapolis: Hammond & Co., 1883.