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The Election Case of Samuel C. Pomeroy and Alexander Caldwell of Kansas (1873)

Electoral misconduct: bribery and corruption.

Chronology (Pomeroy)
Resolution submitted: Mar. 5, 1872
Referred to committee: April 8, 1872
Committee report: June 3, 1872
Referred to committee: Feb. 10, 1873
Committee report: Mar. 3, 1873

Result: Not expelled; Pomeroy's term ended.

Chronology (Caldwell)
Referred to committee: May 11, 1872
Committee report: Feb. 17, 1873
Resignation: Mar. 24, 1873

Result: Not expelled; Caldwell resigned.

In Kansas during the 1860s and 1870s, commercial and political interests remained closely entwined, as they had been in the territorial period. The free-wheeling style of Kansas politics affected the United States Senate, as rumors of bribes and corruption marred the senatorial elections of Samuel C. Pomeroy (R) in 1867 and Alexander Caldwell (R) in 1871. Pomeroy, who had been born and educated in Massachusetts, settled in Kansas in the 1850s. A powerful Radical Republican and a friend to railroad interests, he had represented the state in the U. S. Senate since its admission to the Union in 1861. Caldwell was a wealthy railroad entrepreneur and a political novice at the time of his election.

Statement of the Case
In 1872, Samuel Pomeroy became aware that within a few weeks the Kansas legislature planned to submit to the Senate its findings in an investigation of his 1867 election. On March 5, he moved that all such communications be forwarded to the Committee on Privileges and Elections. On April 8, the anticipated documents relating to his election in 1867 and Caldwell's in 1871 arrived and were sent to the committee. The charges were essentially the same against both Pomeroy and Caldwell. Witnesses accused each of using money to secure votes. Pomeroy's opponents maintained that he paid members of the state legislature to vote for him, while Caldwell's detractors declared that he both bought votes and paid other candidates to remove themselves from the contest. On May 11, 1872, the Senate authorized the committee to investigate the charges and to call the necessary witnesses.

Response of the Senate
On May 21 the committee convened to begin its hearings, but before they could start, Alexander Caldwell appeared and requested an early disposition of his case. Pleading insufficient time remaining in the congressional session to investigate both cases, the committee, however, chose to deal first with the charges against Pomeroy.

On June 3, the Committee on Privileges and Elections reported in favor of Samuel Pomeroy. It found no evidence to support the allegations and asked to be discharged from further inquiries into Pomeroy's election conduct. The session of Congress concluded on June 10 with no consideration of the Caldwell case.

The cloud of scandal still hung over Pomeroy, however. When he unsuccessfully sought reelection in January 1873, he faced renewed allegations of bribery and corruption from both houses of the Kansas legislature and was actually arrested for bribery. When Pomeroy returned to Washington in February 1873, having had his trial postponed, he publicly denied any wrongdoing. At his request, the Senate on February 10 established a special five-member committee to investigate the new charges against him.

The committee conducted a week of public hearings, calling a parade of witnesses from Kansas. The testimony received related a melodramatic tale of a midnight rendezvous in Pomeroy's private suite at a Topeka hotel, attended by the senator and state legislator Alexander M. York; a $2,000 down-payment for York's vote; a locked valise stuffed with a $5,000 post-vote installment; and an emotional anti-Pomeroy speech delivered by York as he displayed the cash to members of the state convention during the senatorial election. York testified that he had conspired with four colleagues to defeat Pomeroy by accepting a bribe from the senator and then exposing the action to the legislature just prior to the vote for U.S. senator. The plot had succeeded, for the legislators responded by changing their votes and electing another candidate.

Pomeroy did not deny giving the money to the legislator but claimed that York, a longtime political opponent, was going to deliver it to a mutual friend who was establishing a bank at Independence, Kansas. As the inquiry progressed, testimony from both the defendant and his accusers became shrouded in contradictions, evasions, and faulty memories; the only clear fact to emerge was that the 1873 Kansas elections had been conducted under unsavory circumstances. Newspapers across the country covered the story in all its lurid detail, fueling the public's perception that Congress was rife with corruption.

With all the witnesses tainted, the special committee remained uncertain about its verdict. When it issued its report on March 3 at the conclusion of the Forty-second Congress, the three Republican committee members, Frederick Frelinghuysen (NJ), William Buckingham (CT), and James L. Alcorn (MS), dismissed the entire transaction as a concerted and successful plot to defeat Pomeroy. Democrat George Vickers (MD) did not find Pomeroy to be "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." He argued that the charges against Pomeroy should not be sustained because the accuser's deceit cast doubt on the accuracy of his testimony. Only Allen Thurman (D-OH) submitted a brief minority report pronouncing Pomeroy guilty of making corrupt offers to secure votes. Thurman declined to elaborate, noting that the report was being issued on Pomeroy's final day in office. His defeat in the election saved him from discipline by his colleagues, and the Senate took no action on the committee's report.

No brighter picture of Kansas election procedures greeted the Senate when it turned its attention to the report of the Committee on Privileges and Elections in the case of Alexander Caldwell. The most damaging testimony came from Sidney Clarke, Caldwell's personal and professional foe. Prior to the election, Clarke had been informed by Caldwell's associates that the candidate was determined to have the seat and was prepared to pay $250,000 for it. The only other serious candidate, Thomas Carney, a former governor of Kansas, admitted to the committee that he had accepted $15,000 to leave the race and assist in Caldwell's election. Even Caldwell's friends and political cronies acknowledged that after the election the senator-elect told them the contest had cost him over $60,000.

Caldwell did not enhance his position when he adopted an arrogant attitude toward the committee. Caldwell insisted that the charges were made by disappointed and ambitious politicians who were maliciously seeking his downfall. He then imprudently asked under what authority the Senate presumed to investigate him, to which the committee responded by returning a report that condemned the fraudulent manner in which Caldwell captured his seat. On February 17, 1873, the committee submitted a well-documented report unanimously concluding that Caldwell had bribed legislators to vote for him. After debating whether Caldwell's crimes warranted expulsion or a declaration of a voided election, the committee opted for the latter. It declared that Caldwell had not been "duly and legally elected" to the Senate.

The many issues involved in the case--election procedures, party factionalism, expulsion--guaranteed a vigorous and lengthy floor debate when the special session of the new Senate convened on March 4. Ultimately, it was Oliver H.P.T. Morton (R-IN) who destroyed Caldwell's already shaky defense. Morton pointed out four flaws in Caldwell's excuses: he had called his bribe to an opponent a private arrangement of no concern to the Senate; he claimed that bribery of state legislators was not a criminal offense; he doubted the Senate's right to make the inquiry; and he denied that the Senate could expel a member for actions taken before he entered that body. Morton's summary indicated how poorly Caldwell understood the Senate; he had sealed his doom by challenging the right of the Senate to govern its own affairs. He had apparently misjudged the situation from the outset. As the committee report noted in explaining, though not condoning, his actions, "He was a novice in politics and evidently in the hands of men who encouraged him in the belief that Senatorial elections in Kansas were carried by the use of money."

The focus of the debates shifted to the two options available to the Senate--expulsion or invalidation. Allen Thurman explained his view of the dilemma: "I believe that this election is an invalid election; but, sir, my believing that does not preclude my voting to expel upon the same facts, because . . . the turpitude of the member is equal in either case, and the expulsion will be for good cause, and will be in the exercise of the legal discretion of the Senate." Alexander Caldwell belatedly appeared to understand the power of the United States Senate; on March 24, 1873, before a vote could be taken, he resigned his seat.

The two cases illustrate the type of corruption much of the country believed to be widespread in the Reconstruction Congress. The Pomeroy case in particular was so dramatic that it even found its way into fiction, when Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner included a thinly disguised version of the story in their novel The Gilded Age, published in December 1873.

Samuel Pomeroy's Kansas trial for bribery was postponed several times, until the prosecution finally dropped the case in 1875. Pomeroy remained in Washington for several years before returning to Massachusetts, where he died in 1891. Alexander Caldwell returned to his substantial business interests in Kansas. He became president of the First National Bank of Leavenworth in 1897 and died in 1917.


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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