Senator Jesse Bright, as I mentioned, was a slave owner himself, and the other U.S. Senate seat, vacant from 1855-1857, was filled by Graham Fitch, a physician from Logansport. Bright and Fitch were supporters of the southern Democrats and the Buchanan administration. Bright engineered Fitch’s election to the Senate by the Indiana General Assembly through some heavy-handed and creative political maneuvering. The Republicans had a slight majority in the Senate while the Democrats had a majority in the House. Bright pushed for a joint session of the House and Senate. Having secured the joint session, when the Senate Republicans bolted in an effort to prevent election of a Democratic Senator, Bright pushed for a rules interpretation that said a quorum determination would be made based on the number of members of both chambers. He had enough extra Democrats in the House to overcome the lack of Republicans from the Senate. Based on that interpretation, the joint session elected Fitch — said by one contemporary to have no principles “He would be an abolitionist if it was profitable.”
In 1857, Bright thought things were going well for him. He had engineered his own re-election and the election of Fitch to the U.S. Senate. He had derailed an appointment by President James Buchanan of former governor James Wright to the cabinet — and instead managed to get Wright appointed as ambassador to Prussia. However, he had developed a reputation as untrustworthy, grasping for power, and a tool of the Slave Power of the South. Furthermore, in 1857, the Buchanan administration made a choice to support the Lecompton Constitution in Kansas — seen as fraudulent, pro-slavery, and contrary to the notion of popular sovereignty. Popular sovereignty was supported by northern Democrats, and Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas split with the President over the issue. Douglas fought hard and had the support of most of the Northern Democrats in the Senate. Bright was pro-slavery and had a personal dislike for Douglas (who he regarded as a rival for power). Bright was politically savvy and must have known that Lecompton and opposition to popular sovereignty wouldn’t be popular in Indiana. But, he was stubborn, apparently quite devoted to slavery, sympathetic to the South, and strongly disliked Douglas:
Bright, who rarely gave extended remarks on the floor of the Senate and who was especially loath to speak out on controversial issues, cast off his reticence to defend Buchanan. And in defending Buchanan, Bright now finally exposed the depths of his commitment to the white South. In his speech, he repudiated the principle of popular sovereignty and claimed that he had previously supported it only out of expediency. The Senator had “never entertained a doubt” about the power of Congress to legislate for the territories. Bright suggested that with all of the agitation over Lecompton, it was “better” not to refer such a question “to the vote of the people.”
Senator Fitch, Bright’s lackey, backed him up on this issue. The real action on whether to support admission of Kansas under the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution seems to have been in the House of Representatives where another Hoosier played a major role. After the House rejected the Senate’s version, Indiana Representative William English, who was an ally of Bright but whose district was strongly opposed to Lecompton, offered a compromise that involved sending the proposed state constitution back to Kansas where the choice would either be to accept the pro-slavery state constitution or remain a territory.
Throughout the 1850s, Bright had advanced Southern causes at the expense of the strength of the Indiana Democrats. The party had survived, but Lecompton had been a step too far. Hoosiers — especially Hoosier Democrats — did not care greatly about whether Kansas was slave or free, but really embraced the notion of popular sovereignty. And, given the massive voter fraud that brought forth the Kansas Lecompton Constitution, most Hoosier Democrats could not bring themselves to support it. They felt that it reflected a triumph of a minority slave interest over the majority of Kansans who opposed slavery. Bright’s heavy handed use of patronage in his efforts to maintain party discipline hurt more than it helped.
At the 1858 state Democratic convention, there was a platform dispute concerning Lecompton. Lew Wallace, leading the anti-Lecompton forces negotiated agreed language with Bright’s faction which involved the phrase “now and hereafter” that implied Kansas’ admission to the Union was not supported. However, when the platform was printed up by a publisher connected with Bright, the “now and” was left off, implying that the Lecompton Constitution for Kansas was acceptable. This appears to have been Bright’s work and deepened Democratic rifts. The anger prompted a second convention where anti-Bright Democrats endorsed Stephen Douglas and popular sovereignty. The Congressional elections were disastrous for Bright. Only three of Indiana’s eleven Congressional Districts went to his candidates. The Republicans picked up seven, and one was won by an “anti-Lecompton” Democrat. By 1860, Bright had lost control of the Indiana Democrats to an extent that he was unable to stop an endorsement of Stephen Douglas for President.
Returning to Gov. Willard for a moment – in addition to being the youngest Governor, Willard also had the dubious honor of being the first governor to die in office. Having suffered from tuberculosis for years, Willard would seek out different climates by way of treatment. In 1860, after experiencing hemorrhaging of the lungs following a speech at a state Democratic meeting, he went to St. Paul, Minnesota with the hope of regaining his health. After a month in Minnesota, Willard relapsed and died on October 4, 1860.