Among the forty-four senators who remained after the southern states seceded at the start of the Civil War, Jesse Bright of Indiana was the Senate's most senior Democrat. A senator since 1845, Bright was noted for his grasp of Senate rules and precedents and for his frank manner. He was willing to take firm positions on sensitive issues, regardless of the long-term consequences of his stands. Bright's colleagues regarded him as capable of unswerving friendship to those who shared his proslavery views and as "an enemy who knew how to inflict punishment" to those who did not. His principal Senate antagonists were abolitionists Charles Sumner (R-MA) and Morton Wilkinson (R-MN). In recognition of his seniority, Bright had served as the Senate's president pro tempore in 1854, 1856, and 1860. During his tenure in that position, Bright saw to it that Sumner received no committee assignments.
In mid-1861, the Democrats were a helpless minority in the Republican-controlled Senate. Shortly after the inglorious rout of Union troops at the first Battle of Bull Run, Thomas Lincoln, a Texas arms merchant, was captured by federal forces as he attempted to cross into Confederate territory. Lincoln's captors found among his possessions the following letter, dated March 1, 1861, from Jesse Bright to "His Excellency Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederation of States":
My dear Sir:
Allow me to introduce to your acquaintance my friend, Thomas B. Lincoln of Texas. He visits your capital mainly to dispose of what he regards a great improvement in fire-arms. I recommend him to your favorable consideration as a gentleman of the first respectability, and reliable in every respect.
In the following months before the Senate convened for the second session of the Thirty-seventh Congress, Washington was rife with speculation as to Bright's likely fate at the hands of his Republican Senate colleagues. Over the years, he had denounced those who equated abolitionism with loyalty to the Union. He believed that the rupture in the Union would be only temporary and that military force would have little effect in healing the break. Clearly, Bright was vulnerable in a Senate whose majority feared the influence of southern sympathizers in the national government.
Statement of the Case
On December 16, 1861, shortly after the Senate opened its new session, Morton Wilkinson introduced a resolution to expel Bright on the basis that the letter to Jefferson Davis was evidence of disloyalty. The Senate promptly referred the resolution to the Judiciary Committee, which then consisted of five Republican and two Democratic members.
In his own defense, Bright argued that, although he had written the letter, he did not specifically remember doing so because he frequently wrote such commendations on behalf of his friends and constituents. Early in his career, Bright had served as Thomas Lincoln's attorney and, in 1861, he felt it was only natural to introduce his friend to his former Senate colleague, Jefferson Davis. Bright contended that, in addressing his letter to "His Excellency, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederation of States," he had simply followed the conventions of the day, using a polite form of address customary between two gentlemen and using the title Davis claimed at the time. At the heart of Bright's defense was the question of the state of relations between the Union and Confederacy on March 1, 1861, the date of the letter. He argued that no fighting had yet occurred and the break was then considered by no means irrevocable.
This was the weakest point in Bright's case. His opponents pictured Jefferson Davis as the archtraitor who, in March 1861, was busily assembling arms for his April attack on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter. For Bright to introduce an arms merchant to Davis was, in their view, clearly an act of treason. They also focused on the wording of his letter, underscoring its subservient tone with references to "His Excellency" and "your capital." Where Bright's defenders asserted that he was guilty only of bad timing and indiscretion, his opponents charged that he had violated his oath to defend the Constitution against foreign and domestic enemies.
Response of the Senate
The Judiciary Committee reported to the Senate on January 13, 1862, that it found the charges were not sufficient to justify expulsion. One committee member, Lafayette Foster (R-CT), subsequently changed his mind and supported expulsion. He explained that in voting against expelling Bright for a letter written on March 1, 1861, he had followed the precedent set by the Senate when it failed on March 14 to expel Jefferson Davis and other senators from the seceding states and decided simply to declare their seats vacant, although he himself thought they should have been expelled.
Debate in the Senate began on January 20 and continued intermittently until February 5, 1862. The most dramatic and damaging speech was made by Charles Sumner, who demanded that the Senate purge itself of traitors. The decisive vote occurred on February 5, with members of both houses filling the chamber and the gallery overflowing with onlookers. During the proceedings, which lasted for five hours, Bright summarized his case. "From the hour this war actually commenced," he asserted, "I have had in view . . . one single object—the reunion of these States." Noting with resignation that the Republican caucus had undoubtedly already made the final decision, he declared that he was speaking only to set forth his case for posterity. Upon completing his address, Bright gathered his belongings from his desk and walked out of the chamber. Moments later, the Senate, by a vote of 32 to 14, expelled him. He thereby became the fourth nonsouthern senator, after Breckinridge, Johnson, and Polk, to be expelled during the war.
Bright returned to Indiana and sought reelection to the balance of his Senate term, but the state legislature, although under Democratic control, refused to return him to Washington. Bright then moved to Kentucky and was elected to that state's legislature. In 1874 he moved to Baltimore, where he died in 1875.
Source: U.S. Senate Historical Office, United States Senate Election, Expulsion and Censure Cases: 1793-1990 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1995), pp. 106-108.