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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 367

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This is the grave of Jesse Bright.

Born in Norwich, New York in 1812, Bright’s family moved to Indiana in 1820. Bright was, well, bright, and was admitted to the bar in 1831. He became a leading young Democrat and rose pretty rapidly in Indiana politics, winning election to the Indiana senate in 1840 and then as the state’s lieutenant governor in 1842. He then went to the U.S. Senate in 1845, only 32 years old. He would remain there for 17 years until his ignoble ejection. During his time as senator, he was a rapid doughface, the popular term of the day for a northern man with southern principles. A rabid defender of the Slave Power, Bright became a great enemy to abolitionists and northerners increasingly disgusted by the South. Words such as “aggressive” and “bellicose” are often used to describe Bright’s behavior, including on the Senate floor. He was by no means a great senator, but he was good at collecting power and friends. His knowledge of Senate procedure was significant and he became president pro tempore on a couple of occasions. During the Pierce administration, he was the first in line to the presidency after the vice-president died very early in his term. At that time, there was no mechanism to replace a VP. James Buchanan offered him the position of Secretary of State in 1857, but he declined.

Other than his support for slaveholders, Bright was known for having absolutely no principles at all except for a love of power. He long opposed the extension of the Missouri Compromise to the Pacific, putting him well to the right of other doughfaces such as Buchanan. When a town in his home county cast 42 votes to oppose slavery, he yelled, “God damn you!–I wish you and they were in Hell. If I had the power, I’d send you there!” Nice guy. His intense support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act was also motivated by his desire to drive any opponent of slavery out of the Democratic Party. He did a good job with that and, by and large, the most intense opponents of slavery in the Republican Party tended to be alienated Democrats and not ex-Whigs.

When the Civil War started, Bright acknowledged Jefferson Davis as the legitimate president of a legitimate country. Moreover, he got caught facilitating arms sales to the Confederacy when, during first Manassas, an arms dealer got captured trying to contact treasonous troops and was found carrying a letter of introduction for him from Bright to Davis. Whoops. Bright thus became the only senator from a northern state to be evicted from the institution for treason in defense of slavery. His property was appropriated by the government and actually became one of the largest hospitals in the North during the war.

Bright moved to Kentucky after his expulsion from the Senate and the loss of his property. He became involved in state politics there too, serving two terms in the Kentucky House between 1867 and 1871. He then became the president of a coal company. He moved to Baltimore for that business and died there in 1875.

Jesse Bright is buried in Green Mount Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM readers. As always, I am extremely grateful. If you would like this series to profile other doughfaces, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Lewis Cass is in Detroit and Augustus Dodge is in Burlington, Iowa. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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