Jesse D. Bright
Biographical and Historical Sketches of Early Indiana, by William Wesley Woollen.
Indianapolis, Published by Hammond & Co., 1883.
Transcription by Ruth Hoggatt.
For twenty years prior to 1860, Jesse D. Bright was a leading man in Indiana. He was the autocrat of his party, and ruled in as absolutely as did Governor Morton the Republican party when in the zenith of his power. Indeed, in many respects these men were alike. Both loved power and knew the art of getting it; both loved a friend and hated an enemy, and both knew how to reward the one and punish the other.
Mr. Bright was born in Norwich, New York, December 18, 1812, and came to Indiana when a boy. His family located at Madison, and there young Bright grew up to man's estate. He had a good constitution, and was one of the healthiest and strongest men in the town. He was fond of athletic sports, and was always ready to test the strength and endurance of any who chose to challenge him. He would accommodate them with a friendly tussle or a regular knockdown--just as they pleased to have it. I do not mean by this that he was quarrelsome, for he was not; but I do mean that he had muscle and grit, and was not loth to let it be known. His physique was splendid. He weighed about two hundred pounds and had a well-proportioned body, save, probably, a little too much fullness in the abdomen. His face was cleanly shaven, and his clothes fitted him well and were of good quality. He had a good head and a good face, and he stood straight upon his feet and carried himself as one having authority. He was imperious in his manner, and brooked no opposition either from friend or foe. Indeed, he classed every man as foe who would not do his bidding, and made personal devotion to himself the test of Democracy. He had natural talents of a high order, but was deficient in education and cultivation. In his public speeches he was a frequent violator of grammar and of logic, but his manner was so earnest and his delivery so impressive, that what he said found a lodgment in the minds of his hearers. He was the Danton of Indiana Democracy, and was both loved and feared by his followers.
Mr. Bright was the best judge of men that I ever knew. Indeed he seemed to have an intuitive knowledge of men and their thoughts. He seldom or never gave his confidence to a man that abused it. He often withheld it from gentlemen of his own political household and bestowed it upon those of another faith. As an illustration of this fact the following incident is narrated. One evening in 1852 the editor of a Whig paper was in Mr. Bright's parlor on invitation, when the door-bell rang, and Mr. Bright said: "I must ask of you the favor to step into another room; that is John A. Hendricks at the door; I don't want him to meet you here; he wants my influence for Congress; I must humor him, but I can not trust him; he is uncertain anyhow, and if he is not nominated by the Democrats will leave us and go over to the opposition; if he sees you here he will suspect where you get some of your items about Joe Wright. Mr. Hendricks was not nominated by the Democrats, did go over to the opposition, and in 1856 was the candidate of the "People's" party for Congress in the Third District, and was defeated by the late Judge Hughes. He was killed at the battle of Pea Ridge during the rebellion, and his photograph may be seen in our State Library. He was a son of ex-Governor William Hendricks, and a cousin of Hon. Thomas A. Hendricks.
Mr. Bright was an earnest man, and whatever he undertook he did with all his might. There was nothing " 'alf and 'alf" about him. He struck out from the shoulder, right and left, and his blows were those of a giant. He never conciliated; he demanded absolute obedience; he permitted no divided allegiance, and the Democrat that looked with favor upon his rival, Governor Wright, committed an offense for which there was no atonement. In those days Governor Wright was a strong man with the people of Indiana. His character was entirely different from that of Mr. Bright. He had not the boldness nor the courage of the Senator, and in the battle for the leadership had to go to the wall. Bright hated him with a healthy hatred, and was disposed to make war on him "to the knife, and the knife to the hilt." However, through the interposition of friends a truce was established; but it lasted only a short time. The late James Blake and Judge S. E. Perkins once published a card in which they said that all matters of difference between these Democratic leaders having been submitted to them for settlement, were satisfactorily and honorably adjusted. How hollow the truce! The fires smouldered and soon broke out again. Both wanted to go to the United States Senate, but the matter was finally settled by the return of Bright and the appointment of Wright as Minister to Berlin.
Mr. Bright chose the law for a profession, and was early admitted to the bar. At that time the Madison bar was the ablest in the State. Marshall, and Sullivan, and Stevens, and the elder Bright, and several other distinguished men were members of it, so when the young lawyer opened his office, business was slow in coming. He never mastered the philosophy of law, and did not equal his brother Michael as a lawyer, but he spoke well, and, being popular with the people, succeeded in getting a fair amount of business.
The county of Jefferson was Whig, and Mr. Bright was a Democrat of the strictest sect, but notwithstanding this he was elected Probate Judge of the county, and held the office for years. Subsequently he was appointed United States Marshal for Indiana, and it was while in this office that he laid the foundation of his political career. his business took him all over the State, and he made friends wherever he went. His knowledge of mankind was such that he never, or very rarely, mistook his man, and the friends he made were bound to him with hooks of steel. Afterwards, when he needed these friends to help on his political fortunes, he knew where to find them, and they failed him not.
Away back in the forties, the Whigs of Jefferson county nominated Williamson Dunn for the State Senate. He was a pioneer of the State, and commanded a company of rangers in the war of 1812. He was a man of great physical and moral courage and unquestioned integrity. But he was a Presbyterian elder and held to the faith and teachings of Calvin with the greatest tenacity. He was ultra on the Sunday question, and was very active in trying to stop the Sunday mails. This caused dissatisfaction with his nomination, and the disaffected brought out Shadrach Wilber, also a Whig, as an independent candidate. The fight waxed warm between the supporters of Dunn and of Wilber, and much bad blood was aroused. When the blood was seething a new Richmond entered the field. He saw his chance and embraced it. he knew the passion between the friends of the other candidates was too intense to be allayed, so he entered the lists and won the fight. That Richmond was Jesse David Bright.
In the State Senate Mr. Bright took rank, at once, as the leader of the party. In fact, he was a born leader of men. he always stood at the fore-front of the line.
In 1843 Mr. Bright was nominated for Lieutenant-Governor on the ticket with James Whitcomb. He canvassed the State thoroughly, speaking in every county. He had not the grace nor the eloquence of his chief, but his speeches were equally or more effective. He had an earnestness of manner, and a certain rough and turgid eloquence that won the people's favor, and when the canvass closed he had established a reputation as a politician second to none in the State. He was elected, and came to Indianapolis the leader and beau ideal of the young Democracy.
No one in his party disputed his right to lead, and no one outside of it, except his great compeer, Joseph G. Marshall, dared cross swords with him in the city where he lived. His success in doing what he attempted was proverbial. He filled his office well, presiding with fairness and dignity, and so won the affections of the Senators and Representatives that they soon elected him to the Senate of the United States. At this time [when elected to the United States Senate], he was barely eligible to a seat on account of age, he being the youngest man that had ever taken a seat in the Senate.
In 1850 he was a candidate for re-election to the Senate. Robert Dale Owen, who was also a candidate, openly charged him with having attempted to secure his return by bribery. Being advised of this charge a few days before the election he applied to Postmaster-General Campbell and obtained a special order to be taken to the Ohio river in the United States mail coach. [At that time no railroad crossed the mountains.] At Wheeling he took a steamer for Cincinnati, and from that city telegraphed to Madison to have an engine and car ready to convey him to Indianapolis. When he stepped ashore in the city of his home he at once boarded the car, which awaited him, and was borne to the State capital as fast as steam could propel him. Great was the wonderment among the politicians at Indianapolis when they saw him upon the streets of that city. They thought he was at Washington, and expected the election to come off in his absence. He sought Mr. Owen, and soon satisfied that gentleman that he had been misinformed about the alleged bribery. Mr. Owen thereupon withdrew from the race, and Mr. Bright was re-elected without further contest.
In 1856, his second term having expired, he again sought a re-election, but the Republican members of the Legislature refused to go into an election. They had met the Democratic members in joint convention to canvass the votes for Governor and Lieutenant-Governor, and when that was done took their leave and refused to go into joint convention again.
The Democratic members adjourned to a fixed day, and when it arrived again met, but did nothing but organize and adjourn until another day. The intention had been to elect the Senators [two were chosen] at the second meeting, but Mr. Bright refused to accept an election unless satisfied it would be legal, of which he had his doubts. At his suggestion, the question was referred to Samuel E. Perkins, James Hughes and Joseph W. Chapman, all eminent lawyers and jurists, who subsequently reported to a caucus that an election held under the circumstances existing would be legal. The Democratic and American members of the two houses soon after this met in joint convention and elected Messrs. Bright and Fitch to the Senate. The next Legislature, being Republican, declared this election illegal, and chose Henry S. Lane and William M. McCarty as Senators, and these gentlemen went to Washington and claimed their seats. They were, however, refused admission to the Senate by a party vote, with the exception of Senators Douglas, Mason and Broderick, Democrats, who voted to admit them. This vote of Douglas made Mr. Bright his enemy for life, and in 1860 he opposed Mr. Douglas's election to the Presidency with all the influence and power he possessed.
In the Senate of the United States Mr. Bright did not rank high as a debater, but he was good at committee work, and won and maintained a respectable standing. He was popular with the Senators, and enjoyed their personal friendship. Between him and Henry Clay there was a warm attachment, and more than once was he the guest of that gentleman at Ashland. When Mr. Clay introduced his omnibus bill, and the Committee of Thirteen was raised, Mr. Bright had a place upon it. He stood by the author of this bill during the bitter fight over it, and when it went to pieces clung to the fragments. Such was his standing that on the death of Vice President King, in 1853, he was elected President pro tempore of the Senate. He filled this office until the inauguration of John C. Breckinridge, in 1857, and thus for four years stood within one step of the Presidency.
While President of the Senate he did not assign Sumner, Chase and Hale to places upon the committees, and when asked his reason for failing to do so, replied: "Because they are not members of any healthy political organization." He did not see the seeds of the great Republican party which were then sprouting and about to burst through the ground.
In 1857, when forming his cabinet, President Buchanan offered Mr. Bright the secretaryship of State, which office he declined.
At the time of Mr. Bright's entrance into political life, and for many years afterward, public sentiment in Indiana was strongly Southern. Northern Indiana as but sparsely settled, and the immigrants to the southern and central parts of the State were mostly from the South. Mr. Bright lived on the southern border, and in sentiment and feeling was a Southern man. He owned a farm in Kentucky, well stocked with negroes, and was thus identified with the South by interest as well as feeling. Once he had the temerity to bring one of his slaves to Madison, out somehow or other she got away, probably by the help of Chapman Harris or Elijah Anderson. A Senator from a free State, he was the owner of slaves and a representative of Indiana, his largest material interests were in Kentucky. During most of the time for many years he lived at Washington and in Kentucky in the midst of slavery. So it is no wonder he became politically permeated with the virus of that abominable institution. When the war came and slavery was about to be destroyed, he had no heart for the contest. All the Southern Senators, save those from the border States, excepting Andrew Johnson only, left Washington and went home to help on the rebellion. Mr. Bright did not believe that war would restore the Union as it was, and therefore he opposed the war. He wanted the Union to stand dominated and controlled by Southern men, and rather than have any other Union he was willing to see the country go to pieces. It is but just to say that he was not a secessionist per se, and would gladly have had the Union remain as it was. He knew that war meant the destruction of slavery, and, being a slaveholder, he opposed the war. Just before the commencement of hostilities, but when it was apparent that the conflict must come, he wrote a letter to Jefferson Davis, the provisional President of the Confederate States, introducing an old friend and former fellow-townsman, The letter was as follows:
"MY DEAR SIR--Allow me to introduce to your acquaintance my friend, Thomas Lincoln, of Texas. He visits your capital mainly to dispose of what he regards a great improvement to fire-arms. I recommend him to your favorable consideration as a gentleman of the first respectability, and reliable in every respect.
"Washington, D. C., March 1, 1861.
Very truly yours, Jesse D. Bright.
"To His Excellency Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederation of States."
Lincoln was arrested on his way to the Confederate capital with the letter of Mr. Bright upon his person. Proceedings were at once commenced against the writer, and after a short and angry contest, ended in his expulsion from a body in which he had sat for sixteen years and over which he had presided for a quarter of the time. He defended himself as best he could, and when the vote was taken, gathered up his books and papers, and left the Senate never to return. He came back to Indiana, and for some time quietly staid at his home. But when the Democracy, in 1862, elected a majority of the Legislature, he determined to be a candidate for his unexpired time in the Senate. When the Legislature met he came to Indianapolis and asked his party friends to vindicate him by sending him back to the body which had disowned him. But "the scepter had departed Judah," and the boon was refused him. Judge Turpie was elected to the place, and Mr. Bright left Indianapolis, swearing vengeance against those who had brought about his discomfiture. He laid the principal blame of his defeat at the door of Governor Hendricks, and ever afterwards was a personal and political enemy of that gentleman.
In 1860 Mr. Bright organized and led the Breckenridge party in Indiana. He stumped the State for the young Kentuckian and gave the movement all the force and vitality that it had in this State. He made a speech at Franklin, in which he was very bitter on Douglas and his friends. After he had concluded his address and was going to his hotel, he observed an old personal and political friend on the opposite side of the street. He crossed over, and taking the friend by the hand, said: "Why were you not out to hear me speak?" He was answered: "Mr. Bright, I am sorry to see you engaged in such work. I can give no countenance to your effort to break up the Democratic party." "I am endeavoring to place the Democratic party on a solid basis. A number of old Whigs and free-soilers are in the party, and they must not control it." He was reminded that the organization in Indiana had declared for Douglas, and that the mass of the Democratic voters were for him. "Yes," said he, "the State Convention did instruct for Douglas, but Hendricks and McDonald, Hammond and Dunham consented to these instructions without consulting me."
In June, 1868, he went to Indianapolis on a political mission, and stopped at the Bates House. One afternoon the author received a note from him, asking his presence at the hotel, and on going there met Mr. Bright, Hon. D. W. Voorhees, James B. Ryan and Robert S. Sproule. The conversation was upon political matters, and during it Mr. Bright asked Mr. Voorhees whom he favored for the Democratic nomination at New York. Mr. Voorhees answered, General Hancock, whereupon Mr. Bright asked Mr. Ryan the same question. Mr. Ryan replied that his choice was Mr. Hendricks, and the author, on being asked for his favorite, named the same gentleman. I then said: "Mr. Bright, we have named our choice, now name yours." Drawing his nether lip between his teeth, as if to give emphasis to what he said, he replied: "Not your man Hendricks. He is the Oily Gammon of the Democratic party. He paid his respects to me in 1863; I propose paying mine to him in 1868." Pausing for an instant, he continued: "Salmon P. Chase is the proper man for the Democracy to nominate at New York. He is a Democrat, now that slavery has gone, and there is no reason why Democrats should not support him. If he be nominated, he will be elected; any other man will be defeated." In order that the reader may see how Mr. Bright kept his word, I will recall the fact that his nephew, Richard J. Bright, sergeant-at-arms of the United States Senate, was a delegate to the New York convention, and that he steadily voted against the nomination of Mr. Hendricks. Had Indiana been solid for Governor Hendricks he would undoubtedly have been the nominee instead of Governor Seymour.
In the summer of 1865 Mr. Bright came to Indianapolis, direct from Washington. The President, Andrew Johnson, had broken with his party, and there was much controversy among Democrats as to the proper thing to do. A number of Mr. Bright's old friends gathered about him, and one of them asked him what course the Democracy ought to pursue. "Support Johnson," he answered; "he is right in his fight with Congress and Democrats should hold up his hands. God knows how I hate him, but I will stand by him in this fight. In 1842 I canvassed a part of the State with Dr. John W. Davis, of Sullivan county. One day while he was speaking a man kept interrupting him by asking him questions. At last Mr. Davis became tired of the interruptions, and, turning to the man, said: 'My friend, to save time and trouble, I will say that I am in favor of everything the Democratic party ever did do, or ever will do.' Now, gentlemen, continued Mr. Bright, "I will not ask you to indorse Andy Johnson as broadly as Dr. Davis did the Democratic party, but I will ask you to indorse him when he is in the right." In the same conversation Mr. Bright advised his party friends to do what they could to secure the election of Judge Hughes to the United States Senate, as the successor of Governor Lane. Judge Hughes was then a Republican Senator from the county of Monroe, and had been as ultra as the most ultra upon the question of war. "You can't elect a Democrat," said Mr. Bright, "and Mr. Hughes is far preferable to an old-time Republican. 'Tis true, he has strayed from the fold, but we Baptists believe in election and foreordination. Hughes is one of the elect; he may go astray, but he will not be lost." It will be remembered that shortly afterwards Judge Hughes returned to the Democratic party, and remained in it while he lived.
Mr. Bright left Indiana soon after the Legislature of 1863 refused to return him to the United States Senate, and took up his residence in Kentucky. Subsequently he served two terms in the Kentucky Legislature, and at one time was prominently named for United States Senator from that State. He once told the author that he could have gone to the Senate from Kentucky had he chosen to make the contest.
Mr. Bright was a good business man, as well as a good politician. He had large interests in the coal mines of West Virginia, out of which he made much money. In 1874 he removed to Baltimore, but he was broken down in health, and on the 20th day of May, 1875, he died in that city, of organic disease of the heart. He was buried there, and all that was mortal of Jesse D. Bright is mouldering to dust near the banks of the "Blue Patapsco."
Most of the men who were contemporaries of Mr. Bright are dead. At Madison, where he commenced his political life and where he lived so long, he had as devoted followers as any man that ever lived. The Old Guard was not more devoted to Napoleon than was the Democracy of Jefferson county to Jesse D. Bright. Of his captains, there are but three remaining--John Kirk, John Marsh and Rolla Doolittle. These men love the memory of their dead chieftain, and will tell you for the asking that Jesse D. Bright was a warm friend and a good hater--as true to his friends as the needle to the pole and as inexorable to his enemies as death itself.