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The Election Case of Elisha R. Potter of Rhode Island v. Asher Robbins of Rhode Island (1834)

Asher Robbins

Determination of which of two legislatures had the authority to elect.

Credentials presented: Dec. 2, 1833
Referred to committee: Dec. 9, 1833
Committee report: Mar. 4, 1834
Senate vote: May 27, 1834

Result: Robbins retained seat

The political atmosphere of Rhode Island, a state founded in the 1630s on the principle of tolerance, had evolved two hundred years later to a climate of conflict and distrust. After the American Revolution, Rhode Island had failed to adopt a state constitution and, instead, continued to use King Charles' Charter of 1663 with only occasional amendments. The awkward arrangement of applying a document from a seventeenth-century monarchy to an eighteenth-and nineteenth-century democracy guaranteed political troubles for Rhode Island.

The problems surfaced nationally with the election of Asher Robbins (Anti-Jacksonian) to a second term in the Senate. On January 28, 1833, Governor Lemuel H. Arnold issued Robbins' credentials for the Congress scheduled to convene December 2, 1833. Before the latter date, however, political shifts in Rhode Island brought a new legislature to power. In October 1833, that body declared Robbins' election void and elected Elisha R. Potter, a former U.S. representative and current member of the state legislature, as a replacement. A new governor, John Brown Francis, then issued Potters' credentials.

Statement of the Case
When Congress convened on December 2, 1833, the Senate administered the oath of office to Asher Robbins, although Elisha Potter was also present with credentials. Faced with two claimants, both holding papers of executive certification, the Senate on December 9 referred the contest to a select committee.

The committee needed to resolve three major questions: did Asher Robbins have the requisite constitutional qualifications to be a senator; did his commission comply with the laws of Rhode Island; and was his selection made by the legitimate state legislature or by a rump group of Rhode Island dissidents? The supporters of Potter claimed the issue hung upon the last question. They asserted that the powers of the state legislature and Governor Lemuel H. Arnold had expired in 1832, the assembly and the executive had continued to hold office illegally, and their selection of Robbins in 1833 represented an invalid election.

Response of the Senate
On March 4, 1834, George Poindexter (Anti-Jacksonian-MS) reported the committee's finding that Asher Robbins had been duly and constitutionally elected a senator from Rhode Island and was entitled to his seat. Both Robbins' qualifications and his executive credentials passed scrutiny. In the matter of whether Robbins' election had been conducted by the legitimate state legislature, the committee members referred to the Rhode Island charter of 1663, as amended by subsequent legislation. They argued that an amendment adopted in 1832 was specifically designed to carry out the intention of the charter that officials should continue in office beyond the ends of their terms until their successors were chosen. The committee concluded that the U.S. Senate did not have the right to cast doubt on the recognized domestic policy of the state.

Silas Wright (J-NY) filed a lengthy minority report in which he complained that the committee overlooked the history of Rhode Island elections. Wright charged that the charter, although antiquated and awkward, was nonetheless the fundamental law of Rhode Island. It clearly limited terms of office in the state to one year, and any attempt by the agencies of Rhode Island government to extend their authority was a direct violation. Based on that interpretation, Wright concluded that the 1832 amendment permitting the Rhode Island legislators and chief executive to continue in office until their successors were elected was contrary to the terms of office set in the charter. Thus, the legislators who had elected Asher Robbins in January 1833 retained their offices illegally, and the election was invalid. On the other hand, no on questioned the validity of the state legislature that elected Elisha Potter.

Consideration of the reports dragged through several postponements until May 27, 1834, when the Senate voted 27 to 16 to recognize Asher Robbins' claim to the seat.

This dispute marked the first time two senators with conflicting credentials, each set correct in form, appeared on the same day. By its action in seating Robbins, the Senate recognized the individual who presented the valid credentials bearing the earlier date. The credentials of a second claimant went to a select committee.

On June 23, 1834, by narrow vote of 20 to 19, the Senate agreed to pay Potter his travel expenses and a per diem allowance for the time he had spent in Washington. Potter returned to Rhode Island, where he continued to serve in the state legislature until his death in September 1835. Asher Robbins remained in the Senate until 1839. He became postmaster of Newport, Rhode Island, in 1841 and died in 1845.

Continued conflicts over the severe limitations upon suffrage and the unjust nature of apportionment finally prompted Rhode Island to draft and ratify a much-needed state constitution in the 1840s. 

Source: Adapted from Anne M. Butler and Wendy Wolff. United States Senate Election, Expulsion, and Censure Cases, 1793-1990. S. Doc. 103-33. Washington, GPO, 1995.

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