At the onset of the Civil War, Peace Democrats, who advocated neutrality in the clash between the states, looked to Kentucky Senator John C. Breckinridge as their titular head. By the summer of 1861, however, Breckinridge had fled Washington to accept a position with the Confederacy. Left behind in the Senate was his Kentucky colleague and good friend, Lazarus Powell. A Democrat and a former governor of the state, Powell continued to insist that Peace Democrats were not merely Confederates in disguise, despite the actions of many who deserted to the South. As the war escalated and emotions heightened, Powell's position became increasingly awkward, especially among Unionists in Kentucky.
Statement of the Case
On February 20, 1862, Morton Wilkinson (R-MN) submitted a passionately worded resolution calling for Powell's expulsion. The resolution turned out to have been written by Powell's Kentucky colleague, Garrett Davis, who had been elected as a Unionist to fill Breckinridge's vacant seat. The lengthy list of charges concluded with the contention that "Under the false and delusive cry of neutrality and peace, . . . he has doubtless assisted to seduce hundreds and hundreds from loyalty and duty into rebellion and treason. He has not supported the Constitution of the United States, but he has sounded the charge to his recruits, and they have made the overt attack upon it." The Senate referred the matter to the Committee on the Judiciary.
Response of the Senate
On March 12, 1862, the committee, chaired by Republican Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, recommended that the resolution not pass. Although the committee disapproved of Powell's former activities aimed at keeping Kentucky neutral, it found no clear evidence that Powell favored the rebellion.
Garrett Davis took immediate exception to the recommendation. Announcing that he acted at the insistence of the Kentucky legislature, Davis bitterly assailed Powell for attending pro-Confederate political rallies in June and September of 1861. Davis, although gracious to Powell personally, told the senators that their colleague traveled to Henderson, Kentucky, where Powell presided over a states' rights convention that adopted resolutions encouraging Kentucky to resist troops from either army. A Republican senator charged: "This was long after the Battle of Bull Run. . . . It was when the Federal troops were marching upon Kentucky for the purpose of rescuing the State. . . .We had the solemn, stern, bloody fact of the existence of civil war; and even then we find a Senator counseling his people to resist the Government in crushing out that rebellion."
Republican Lyman Trumbull, however, eloquently defended the Democrat Powell. He reminded the Senate that, unlike Breckinridge and other secessionists who joined the Confederacy, Powell "came to the Government of the United States to discharge his duties here." "He does not agree with me in sentiment," Trumbull continued, "his opinions are not my opinions; I do not agree with the views that he has so often announced here; but he is entitled to his own opinions; and no man is to be expelled from this body because he disagrees with others in opinion."
Powell himself, however, stated his case most effectively. Although he had not intended to speak after the committee recommended in his favor, he decided that Davis' virulent assault required a response. Addressing the Senate on March 14, Powell admitted attending the Kentucky rallies, which were sponsored by long-time friends and political acquaintances. Regarding the Confederacy, he observed, "Breckinridge went there; I did not." He insisted that he had attempted to use his position in the Senate to resolve national difficulties through conciliation and compromise, rather than coercion. While acknowledging that his efforts had been doomed to failure, Powell defied the senators to find any speech in which he did not call for a constitutional Union. "If it comes to that, that a senator cannot speak and vote as he thinks proper and right without expulsion," he concluded, "then the majority are masters and the minority are slaves, and a seat in the American Senate would no longer be desired by an honest man or a patriot." Convinced of his innocence, the Senate on March 14 voted down the resolution, 11 yeas to 28 nays, and permitted Powell to retain his seat.
Amid the confusing currents of sectional and party factionalism that swirled about his case, Powell probably benefited most from the Senate's growing wariness about defining loyalty and treason. Even clearly drawn partisan lines could alter quickly. By 1864, for example, both Garrett Davis and the Kentucky legislature had shifted their political sympathies to the South. Powell remained in the Senate until 1865, when he returned to his law practice in Kentucky, reconciled with both Davis and the state assembly. He died in 1867.
Source: U.S. Senate Historical Office, United States Senate Election, Expulsion and Censure Cases: 1793-1990 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1995), pp. 112-114.