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The Election Case of Henry S. Lane v. Jesse D. Bright of Indiana, and William M. McCarty v. Graham N. Fitch of Indiana (1859)

Photo of Jesse Bright of Indiana

Conduct of election; whether a Senate vote in a contested election was final, or could be reversed.

Chronology #1 (Fitch and Bright)
Credentials presented: Feb. 9, 1857; Mar. 4, 1857
Referred to committee: Feb. 10, 1857; Dec. 17, 1857
Committee report: May 24, 1858
Senate vote: June 12, 1858

Result: Result: Fitch and Bright seated

Chronology #2 (Lane and McCarty)
Credentials presented: Jan. 24, 1859
Referred to committee: Jan. 24, 1859
Committee report: Feb. 3, 1859
Senate vote: Feb. 14, 1859

Result: Upheld first decision

As the Republican party gained strength in northern Indiana, its members in the state legislature engaged in increasingly acrimonious clashes with Democrats from the southern part of the state. The opening of the 1857 legislative session brought the hostilities to a rowdy climax when boisterous, reportedly armed Republicans milled about the halls and the floor of the senate, disrupting attempts by the Democratic lieutenant governor to call the roll. The disorderly behavior of the Republicans included the illegal installation of their own "chair" who "swore in" party colleagues whose election credentials might otherwise have been challenged.

The Indiana senate Republicans then employed tactics learned from state Democrats in earlier years and refused to go into joint session with the house for the election of United States senators. Through this device, the Republicans vainly hoped to stall the selection of senators until their party controlled a majority of both houses of the legislature. For their part, the Democrats simply ignored the state law that required a joint resolution for the legislature to hold an election and met to take a senatorial vote. Since both U.S. Senate seats were open to election--one for a full term held by incumbent Democrat Jesse D. Bright, and one that had been vacant since 1855--the rivalry was exceptionally keen.

Statement of the Case
This chaotic election returned the powerful and outspoken veteran Jesse Bright, who had served as Senate president pro tempore, to Washington for a full term. Graham N. Fitch, a physician and former member of the House of Representatives, won the second seat. Republicans, however, showed no inclination to let the matter fade, even after Bright presented Fitch's credentials on February 9, 1857, and the Senate seated Fitch. On the following day, at the request of Lyman Trumbull, and Illinois Democrat who joined the Republican party in 1857, and Thomas J. Rusk (Democrat-TX) the Senate referred Fitch's credentials and supporting papers to the Judiciary Committee. On March 4, 1857, the opening day of a brief special session on the Thirty-fifth Congress, Jesse Bright was seated for his new term. Then, when Congress convened in December of that year, the Senate referred the credentials of both Fitch and Bright to the Judiciary Committee.

Response of the Senate
On May 24, 1858, the Judiciary Committee issued a report that upheld the right of Fitch and Bright to their seats, but Republicans and Bright's Democratic opponents continued to charge that the composition of the committee, five Democrats and two Republicans, precluded a just decision. Supporters of Bright and Fitch countered that the Indiana Democrats had violated no rules, because, for a joint session to conduct a valid election, only a majority of the total membership needed to be present, rather than a quorum from each house. After a lengthy discussion, the Senate on June 12, 1858, voted down a motion, 23 to 30, to deny Fitch and Bright their seats and then by voice vote agreed that they held their seats legally.

By 1858, Indiana republicans had gained control of both houses of the state legislature. Dissatisfied with the Senate's acceptance of Bright and Fitch, the state assembly elected two new senators. On January 24, 1859, Republicans Henry S. Lane and William M. McCarty appeared and presented duly signed credentials designating them senators from Indiana.

Jesse Bright was an expansionist who supported the admission of Kansas under the proslavery Lecompton Constitution in 1858. In doing so, he gained the enmity of his former Democratic ally in the Senate, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, who strongly opposed admitting Kansas as a slave state. Thus, Douglas joined one of Bright's Republican adversaries, William H. Seward of New York, in moving quickly to legitimize the status of Lane and McCarty and pressing to grant the claimants seats on the floor. A decision on that resolution was postponed while the credentials went to the Judiciary Committee for review. Less than two weeks later, on February 3, 1859, the committee reported that the Indiana legislature was attempting to reverse a decision made by the Senate under its constitutional authority to judge the qualifications of its own members. It therefore determined that the elections of Lane and McCarty were invalid since no vacancies existed. A short minority statement by Jacob Collamer (Republican-VT) contended that the Senate's decision was not necessarily final and could be reversed. Unswayed by this argument, the Senate on February 14, 1859, voted 30 to 15 to uphold the opinion that the June 12, 1858, judgment was irreversible. The votes of southerners pleased by Fitch and Bright's stance on Lecompton, made the difference. 

The Indiana election represented the worst example of how local party battles could consume inordinate amounts of time in the national legislature. Despite the intense partisan unrest created by the formation of the new Republican party, the Senate jealously guarded its own constitutional prerogative to judge the qualifications of its members. Graham Fitch completed this term in 1861. Following service as an officer in the Civil War, he returned to the practice of medicine.  He died in 1892.

Jesse Bright had a political past replete with charges of misconduct and "bossism," and his career after the election challenge would include more of the same. In 1862, the Senate expelled Bright for supporting the Confederacy. He lived for a time in Kentucky, where he represented his district in the state legislature. Late in his life he moved east to pursue business interests and died in Baltimore in 1875.

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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