The mercury stood at twenty degrees when daylight woke Washington City on the morning of February 5, 1862. A fringe of snow still decorated the perimeters of buildings and byways, but for the first time in many days a brilliant sun climbed over the unfinished dome of the United States Capitol. Under rising temperatures and endless caravans of army wagons, the streets quickly softened from frozen ruts into rivers of mud, and ambitious boys stood by to maintain the foot crossings in the hope of copper tokens tossed by grateful pedestrians.
Inside the Capitol, the nation’s leaders needed no sunlight to warm them to their work. That morning, in the upper house, forty-seven U.S. Senators impatiently discussed a few momentous issues of taxation and expenditure before resuming debate on a resolution to expel one of their own members. The topic had dominated Senate business for most of the previous fortnight, and the senior senator from New Hampshire feared that it would consume the entire session, yet still his colleagues rose one by one to belabor points that they or others had already hammered home.
For nearly seventeen years had Jesse Bright occupied a desk on the Democratic side of the aisle. He had known and admired Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, and the previous winter Bright had obliged one of his legal clients with a letter of introduction to Davis in his capacity as President of the Confederate States of America. Thomas B. Lincoln wished to market an unspecified improvement in firearms, and Judge Bright gave him a letter similar to others he had supplied Lincoln in recommendation to U.S. military officials. The letter bore a date of March 1, 1861, six weeks before any hostilities had erupted between North and South, when manufacturers and entrepreneurs across the North were seeking an audience with either Davis or his secretary of war. Even the Republican-dominated Senate Judiciary Committee found nothing in the letter that could warrant expulsion, and recommended defeat of the resolution, but Bright’s enemies refused to let mere evidentiary deficiency stand in the way of partisan vengeance. They clung to their accusation of retroactive treason, corroborating it with the damning detail that Bright had actually addressed Davis as “President of the Confederation of States.” On January 10 the chamber had expelled both of Missouri’s senators for abandoning their seats to join their state legislature in its struggle against federal authority. There had been little question on that matter: each was removed by a unanimous vote that Bright himself supported. Bright hailed from Indiana, however, and his state remained loyal to the Union. So did Bright, except that he lacked enthusiasm for Abraham Lincoln’s war against the South, and there lay the rub.
Bright regarded compromise as the only possible means of restoring the Union, and he supposed that the attempt to conquer the Southern states by military force had only made permanent division more certain. Most Northerners in and out of office had responded to the attack on Fort Sumter with nonpartisan enthusiasm. A vocal minority of Democrats had warned that the war to restore the Union would turn into an abolition crusade, and others had despaired of ever winning the South back by the sword, but they had railed against a tidal wave of intolerant nationalistic fervor. That fervor had already allowed the government to squelch the most effective and rabid newspaper criticism by stopping distribution, seizing equipment, and arresting publishers. Unionist mobs had collaborated in that suppression of free speech during the summer of 1861, destroying the offices of antiwar journals and attacking the editors. Languishing in the bowels of a coastal fort through the winter, Francis Scott Key’s own grandson understood how dangerous it had become to utter an unpopular opinion in the Land of the Free.
Now, the party that dominated the United States Senate intended to formalize the concept that meaningful dissent amounted to treason. Resignations and military service had reduced attendance in the Senate chamber from sixty-eight to forty-seven, of whom thirty-four either acknowledged or demonstrated allegiance to the Republican Party, and that should have yielded the two-thirds majority necessary to expel any of the remaining Democrats. Undeterred, therefore, by the discouraging Judiciary Committee report, on January 20 Minnesota Republican Morton Wilkinson produced another letter in which Senator Bright had expressed his opposition to the government’s coercive policies. The next day the haughty Charles Sumner, of Massachusetts, remarked that Bright and his fellow Democrats had steadfastly opposed every measure thaat Sumner had supported in his ten years as a senator. For a moment he stopped there, as though that alone offered sufficient grounnnnnds to remove a fellow member, but then he concluded the day’s discussion by adding that Bright’s former associates were “now all of them engaged in open rebellion.” With those words Sumner smeared all dissenting Democrats with the taint of treason, and revealed the ulterior motive behind the resolution.
Through the rest of that week and into the next, Republicans parsed every clause of Bright’s letters, insinuating that he had deliberately colluded with men who were plotting to subdue Fort Sumter and denouncing his willingness to acknowledge Jefferson Davis as the president of a competing republic. Timothy Howe, a Republican freshman from Wisconsin, marked Bright as disloyal because “he is not prepared by his legislative action to maintain and uphold this Constitution” — in other words, because he could not be depended upon to vote with the Republican majority on war measures. Pennsylvanian David Wilmot seemed to condemn Bright for his friendship with Davis, the blackest of traitors, and he alleged that similarly diabolical associations had polluted “many gentlemen of the late Democratic party” — as though that organization no longer existed.
If the Democratic Party had not ceased to exist, it had certainly been emasculated. Andrew Johnson of Tennessee exemplified that shift, offering the Senate’s foremost example of those War Democrats who had aligned themselves with the Republicans in an overwhelming new pro- Union coalition. Johnson was the only senator who refused to resign when his state seceded, and he reflected the fierce sentiments of a region that knew no neutrality. Taking his cue from Sumner and Wilmot, Johnson enumerated the resignations and expulsions of various senators who had stood for peace, each of whom had since gone South. The implication emerged clearly in the Congressional Globe, which editors across the nation would quote: only a traitor would advocate peace.
Bright protested that he had heard so many different accusations since disposing of the original one that he hardly knew what to defend himself against. At one point he tried to explain the innocence of the Davis letter by remarking that he would do the same thing again, under identical circumstances. Quickly recognizing how easily his enemies could twist that statement, he asked the recorder for the Congressional Globe to delete it, but Republicans still jumped on it as evidence that he would correspond with the enemy president during active hostilities.
Few stood by him. Most of those who did shared his views, and might find themselves the next targets. The senators from the little slave state of Delaware, both Democrats, called for their fellow members to come to their senses.
“When a people are mad,” warned Willard Saulsbury, “their representatives are seldom wise.” He calculated that ...