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Senate Prisoner Goes Free

June 25, 1860

On June 25, 1860, the Senate freed a man whom it had previously sent to the District of Columbia jail. Nearly four months earlier, the 54 senators present in the Senate Chamber had witnessed an extraordinary event. Into that Chamber marched the Senate sergeant at arms, escorting a prisoner named Thaddeus Hyatt. Vice President John Breckinridge gave Hyatt three days to explain, in writing, why he failed to answer a summons to appear before a Senate investigating committee and to acknowledge that he was now ready to cooperate. The sergeant at arms then conducted Hyatt off to jail to compose his reply.

How did the hapless Thaddeus Hyatt get into such a predicament? The 44-year-old New York City resident had earlier made a fortune as an inventor and manufacturer. His personal outrage at passage of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act—the event that triggered creation of the Republican Party—propelled him into the anti-slavery movement. Hyatt soon became friendly with the militant abolitionist John Brown.

In May 1856, John Brown conducted a deadly raid in Kansas. He escaped capture and spent the next three years raising funds from wealthy abolitionists, including Hyatt, to establish a colony for runaway slaves. On October 16, 1859, Brown and 19 followers seized the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, to obtain weapons for the defense of his planned colony. The subsequent capture, trial, and execution of Brown made him a martyr to the abolitionists and stoked widespread fears of other impending plots.

The Senate of the 36th Congress convened in a climate of fear on December 5, 1859, three days after Brown’s execution. It immediately established a special committee to investigate the Harper’s Ferry raid. The committee subpoenaed Hyatt and others whose names had been found in Brown’s possession. Despite the Senate’s order, Hyatt—who played no direct role in the Harper’s Ferry attack—declined to prepare the written response. He argued that the Senate, as a legislative body, had no constitutional authority to conduct what was an inherently judicial proceeding. Although an eloquent minority of anti-slavery senators agreed with Hyatt, an irritated majority ordered him back to jail. (Another 67 years would pass before the Supreme Court explicitly established the presumption that congressional investigations, with authority to compel private citizens to testify, have a legislative purpose.)

While debate flared in the Senate over the legitimacy of holding Hyatt, the wealthy prisoner financed luxurious furnishings for his jailhouse quarters and dined on gourmet rations. He spent his incarceration organizing anti-slavery rallies, writing newspaper articles, and receiving dozens of sympathetic visitors. Finally, on June 25, 1860, the sine die adjournment of the Senate triggered Hyatt’s release. The New York Times expressed relief. “[T]he country,” it naively concluded 10 months before the fall of Fort Sumter, “has thus been delivered from the horrors of civil war.”