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The Election Case of George Goldthwaite of Alabama (1872)

Reconstruction: challenge to legislature's authority to elect.

Credentials presented: Feb. 6, 1871
Referred to committee: Mar. 13, 1871
Committee report: Mar. 20, 1871
Senate vote: Jan. 9, 1872

Result: Seated

The rancor and mistrust that divided Congress during the Reconstruction period gathered force as the years passed, and many senators greeted with suspicion and hostility those arriving with credentials from former Confederate states.

Boston-born George Goldthwaite moved to Alabama as a young man and built a career there as a lawyer. During the Civil War, he served as the state's adjutant-general. In 1870 the legislature elected him as a Democrat to the United States Senate.

Statement of the Case
George Goldthwaite's credentials were presented on February 6, 1871, for the term to begin March 4. Before he could be seated, however, members of the Alabama legislature submitted a protest charging that the legislators voting for Goldthwaite included some who had been fraudulently elected, one who had no certificate of election, and several who were still under political disabilities. On March 13, 1871, the Senate sent the credentials, with the petition of protest, to the newly established Committee on Privileges and Elections, which also received contests from Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina that same day.

Response of the Senate
Convinced that the circumstances surrounding the contested election in Alabama were identical to the case of Georgia's Foster Blodgett, and acutely conscious of the workload of cases it faced, the committee on March 20 reported jointly on the two cases. Explaining that there was not sufficient time remaining in the brief congressional session that would end on April 20 to conduct a proper investigation into the charges, the committee recommended that both Goldthwaite and Blodgett be permitted to take their seats while the investigation continued, since they presented proper credentials and were not under any disability for prewar and wartime activities.

This proposal prompted a lengthy and convoluted debate, as senators spoke about both the Goldthwaite and the Blodgett elections. Committee member Allen Thurman (Democrat-OH), who wanted the cases considered separately, argued for seating Goldthwaite. He complained that the state legislators appeared to have extended their challenge beyond the election of George Goldthwaite to contest the election of every member of the Alabama legislature. The questions they raised regarding procedural legalities, election conduct, and qualifying certificates threatened to embrace the entire voting population of Alabama and delay a decision in the case for the next six years. Thurman stressed the longstanding precedent that "where a member of this body is elected by a Legislature competent to elect him" and presents proper credentials, the Senate would accept this as prima facie evidence of his right to a seat, seating the claimant so that the state would not be deprived of representation. The investigation could then be pursued afterwards. Thurman believed that the Democrat, Goldthwaite, was clearly elected by the appropriate body and thus should be allowed to take his seat. At the same time, he argued that Georgia's Blodgett, a Republican, had not been elected by a legislature with the power to elect for that term and thus should not be admitted.

Republican senators, however, expressed concern about the political conditions in Alabama portrayed in the legislators' protest. John Sherman (Republican-OH) cited the allegation that "by organized force and violence, extending over large regions of the State of Alabama, the local authority was subverted, and that no elections were held in certain counties." On April 11 the Senate tabled the matter until the next session.

When Congress reconvened in December 1871, the arrival of a properly elected senator from Georgia paved the way for the Senate to refuse to seat Foster Blodgett. With that case eliminated, the Senate was able to move ahead on the credentials of George Goldthwaite. On January 9, 1872, the Senate agreed to accept Goldthwaite's credentials while the committee continued its investigation, and he took his seat on January 15, 1872. The committee made no subsequent report on the matter, and the Senate took no further action.

The attempt to consolidate challenged elections from different states proved a failure in the cases of George Goldthwaite and Foster Blodgett. With the Senate already confused and divided, combining the cases only complicated the floor debates. Not until it disposed of the Blodgett credentials by seating a different claimant, could the Senate resolve the Alabama case. George Goldthwaite served in the Senate until 1877 and died two years later.

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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