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The Election Case of Henry B. Payne of Ohio (1886)

Henry Payne

Electoral misconduct: charges of bribery and corruption.

Request for investigation: April 27, 1886
Referred to committee: May 11, 1886
Committee report: July 15, 1886

Result: Retained Seat

In the 1880s, three strong-willed Ohio Republicans—Senator John Sherman, Governor Joseph B. Foraker, and party boss Marcus Alonzo Hanna—warily sparred with each other for state and national influence. The state's Democrats took advantage of the simmering rivalries to capture control of the state legislature in 1884. When deposed Republicans saw they had no chance to elect one of their own in the coming senatorial election, several threw their support to Democratic candidate Henry B. Payne, whose protectionist tariff policies meshed well with Republican fiscal goals.

Statement of the Case
On March 4, 1885, Henry B. Payne appeared and without challenge took his oath in the United States Senate. After the next Ohio election, majority control of the legislature swung back to the Republicans, who instigated an inquiry into charges that bribery and corruption were used in securing the Democratic nomination for Payne over the then-incumbent Democratic senator, George H. Pendleton. On April 27, 1886, one group of Ohio legislators submitted their committee's report to the U.S. Senate with a request for a full investigation into Henry Payne's 1884 election. The Senate referred the matter to the Committee on Privileges and Elections on May 11. Additional materials submitted by the legislature during the month of May were also referred to the committee.

Response of the Senate
On July 15, the committee returned three reports to the Senate. Two of these, although for different reasons, concluded that there was no basis for a Senate investigation. The majority report, signed by the four Democrats on the committee, noted that the original legislative committee report submitted in April simply transmitted to the Senate the testimony received, without including any specific charge. Then in May the legislature sent an additional resolution to the effect that, since "charges of bribery must be directly made" in order for the Senate to investigate, the legislature stated that the charges of corruption were true. The committee questioned the long delay between Payne's election and the submission of charges that had been common knowledge for more than two years. Since there was no question about either the Ohio legislature's authority to elect or the validity of Payne's credentials, the members feared that any credence the Senate gave to such "naked, unsupported charges" would only pave the way for future accusations and persecutions by any personal or political enemy of any senator. In the committee's view, "to deprive a sitting member of the Senate of his seat, the Senate must be satisfied by legal evidence that he was personally guilty of" or "had personal knowledge of" the bribery. After examining the testimony provided, the Senate committee found no evidence "personally inculpating" Henry B. Payne or justifying further investigation by the Senate.

The second report, signed by three committee Republicans, concurred with the first but observed that a senator could be deprived of his seat if evidence showed that the number of votes tainted by bribery was sufficient to have affected the outcome of the election, even if the member himself was not personally involved. The report added that, if bribery had occurred, it was up to the Ohio state government to seek indictments; yet, after interrogating fifty-five witnesses, the state had sought no further action against either Payne or other possible culprits. One author of this report, John A. Logan (Republican-IL), explained during floor debate that, in several previous cases where election bribery was charged, the Senate had refused to hold its own inquiry unless the legislature had already investigated the actions of its members, found evidence of wrongdoing, and prosecuted those responsible. As precedents, he cited the case of Humphrey Marshall in 1795, that of Lewis Bogy, and the more recent cases of John J. Ingalls, Elbridge Lapham, and Warner Miller. Logan concluded by blaming an irresponsible press for making reckless, slanderous charges against many prominent politicians.

The minority report, signed by two other Republicans, conceded that the investigation by the Ohio legislature failed to find any evidence that the briberies had changed the election results but argued that the Senate should conduct its own investigation. During debate, Ohio's Republican senator John Sherman and committee members George F. Hoar (Republican-MA) and William P. Frye (Republican-ME) stressed the Senate's responsibility to ensure that justice was not denied either to Payne or to the people of Ohio. In fact, Sherman expressed surprise that Payne himself had not asked for an investigation. On the question of jurisdiction, Sherman contended that only the Senate could determine whether sufficient votes had been affected by bribery to invalidate the election. Of particular interest among the charges was one that Oliver H. Payne, a tycoon of Standard Oil Company and son of the embattled senator, had observed that his father's election had cost him $100,000. When Hoar brought the minority arguments to the floor debate, he urged a full investigation, declaring, "I will not say that the adoption of this majority report will be a disgraceful fact; that would not be parliamentary or courteous or proper; but I do say . . . it will be the most unfortunate fact in the history of the Senate."

On July 23, 1886, the Senate disagreed with Hoar's assessment, voting 44 to 17 to drop any further investigation of Payne. Fifteen Republicans joined with 29 Democrats in opposing a Senate inquiry.

Henry Payne continued to serve in a Senate that was increasingly dominated by businessmen and the friends of corporate interests. He completed his term in 1891 and died four 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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