Ashbel Willard (1857-1860)
Ashbel Willard was a lawyer and a teacher who had made his way to New Albany. He seems to have been an accomplished speaker and active political campaigner (but something of a drunk) who rose rapidly in the state Democratic Party. In 1852, he was elected as Lieutenant Governor and was nominated by the Democrats as their candidate for Governor in 1856. His opponent in 1856, Oliver Morton was a leader in the People’s/nascent Republican Party and who had been an anti-Nebraska Democrat. A major focus in the election of 1856 were the events in Kansas, where partisans had taken up arms against one another to see whether pro-slave or anti-slave could gain the upper hand in the “popular sovereignty” battle to see whether Kansas would be slave or free when it organized. The dispatches from Kansas — such as those from former Congressman, James Lane — were followed closely in the papers. James Lane left the Congress in 1855 and went to Kansas where he led the Jayhawkers, a group of Free Soilers. (Lane would later become a U.S. Senator from Kansas and a general in the Civil War.)
During the election of 1856, Morton carried the Whitewater valley and the northern districts, but the People’s Party lost ground from the election of 1854 and, at the age of 36, Willard was elected as Governor. The political scene seems to have been tense but gridlocked with the extension of slavery continuing to dominate the public attention. The General Assembly failed to pass an appropriations bill and Willard called the Indiana General Assembly into its first special session. In the meantime, Willard went ahead and paid interest on the State’s debt despite no appropriation for the payment having been made. He reached what was likely a sensible but legally questionable conclusion that there had been a “perpetual appropriation” of the two cents per hundred dollar tax levy dedicated to public debt payments. Even more questionable, however (though probably still sensible) was his decision to go out and borrow money when it turned out there wasn’t enough in the Treasury to make the debt payments. He drew the line at making payments (despite there being money in the Treasury for the purpose) toward benevolent institutions without an appropriation — in this context, I believe the “benevolent institutions” were places like the Indiana School for the Deaf and the Institute for the Blind, and asylums. Those were forced to shut down until the General Assembly was called into special session and the matter sorted out. (Knowing how these things work out, I wouldn’t be too surprised if his decision to let the benevolent institutions close was calculated to put political pressure on the General Assembly to get its act together — with Willard fearing the wrath of bond holders more than the wrath of the beneficiaries of the benevolent institutions.)
Willard was a supporter of Southern slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act. However, he found himself directly involved on the abolitionist side of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. Brown had been an abolitionist fighter in “Bleeding Kansas,” among other things leading the defense of Osawatomie, Kansas when slavers were attacking. The problem with the Kansas-Nebraska idea that self-determination should govern whether a state was free or slave was that the methods of persuasion often got violent. In Osawatomie, the slavers murdered John Brown’s son among others and looted the town. Brown and his forces, for their part, engaged in guerrilla attacks on pro-slavery forces. In October of 1859, Brown took his show on the road and attacked the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry in hopes that the attack would provoke a slave rising that would bring down the slave system.
Brown was something of a messianic figure, and one of his followers was John Cook (described as reckless, impulsive, indiscreet, but genial, generous and brave) who, as luck would have it, was married to Gov. Willard’s sister. The raid on Harper’s Ferry was put down fairly quickly. “Cook escaped to the mountains of Franklin County, Pennsylvania, where he was hidden by the Underground Railroad. But, after a few days, on October 25, 1859, Cook came to the Hughes Furnace looking for food. Unfortunately, that place was managed by a southerner, Dan Logan, who supplemented his income by capturing runaway slaves and returning them to their Southern masters. Logan immediately recognized Cook who was “under medium size, skin as soft as a woman’s, and his deep blue eyes and wealth of blond hair made it easy to identify him.”” Despite Willard’s support of slavery, he also apparently felt strongly about family and, so, he enlisted Daniel Voorhees to assist Cook. Voorhees was the U.S. Attorney for Indiana and “one of the finest trial lawyers in the Midwest.” It seems that, when they got to Virginia, there wasn’t much of a defense to be had, and Voorhees got Cook to write a confession in hopes of at least saving him from the gallows. Despite implicating some prominent northern financiers and supporters of Brown’s effort, the Virginia Governor deemed the confession insufficient and backed out of the deal he had struck with Voorhees. Voorhees did what he could at the trial, making impassioned pleas on behalf of Cook as a guileless boy under the thumb of the despotic Brown. Voorhees was unsuccessful and Cook was convicted, regarded as a Judas figure by some of Brown’s supporters. Cook died at the gallows on December 16, 1859.
The raid on Harper’s Ferry did not generate the slave rebellion that John Brown hoped for, but it’s often regarded as the real beginning of the Civil War, the spark in the powder keg. It certainly raised tensions in the Democratic Party. Most of Indiana supported the northern Democrats and Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois. But, Indiana’s two U.S. Senators did not.