Before 1913, when the Seventeenth Amendment requiring the direct election of U.S. Senators went into effect, the state legislature elected them. In the pre-Seventeenth Amendment era, 150 years ago, one of the most tangled and acrimonious U.S. Senate elections took place.
The term of the incumbent Republican U.S. Senator, Preston King of Ogdensburg, St. Lawrence County, was set to expire on March 3, 1863. King sought reelection but powerful forces within the Republican Party led by the aging party boss Thurlow Weed and former U.S. Senator William H. Seward opposed King, as did the Democratic Party. King’s political fate would be decided by the newly elected 1863 legislature after it organized itself for business on January 6, 1863.
According to the law at that time, the procedure for electing a U.S. Senator might require two steps. The first step called for the state assembly and the state senate to vote separately for a candidate. If the same person were nominated by a majority vote in both houses, that person would become the next U.S. Senator. However, if each house nominated a different person, a second step would have to be taken. A joint convention of the members of both the state assembly and state senate would convene and it would elect a U.S. Senator by a majority vote.
The members of the 1863 state senate were in the second year of their two-year terms and the Republicans had a majority of twelve. The political makeup of the state assembly was quite different. Its members had been elected to their one-year terms in November 1862 and each party had won 64 seats. The Democrats hoped to deny the election of a Republican U.S. Senator by exploiting this tie.
According to the law, a joint convention to elect a U.S. Senator could not convene until a candidate had been nominated by a majority vote in each house. The assembly could not vote to nominate a U.S. Senator until that body was organized. In order to organize, the assembly had to elect a Speaker but that could not occur if there was a tie vote. No Speaker meant no organization of the assembly, which in turn meant no nomination of a U.S. Senator by the assembly, which meant no election of a U.S. Senator by a joint convention of the assembly and senate.
On the opening day of the legislature, the state senate quickly organized itself by electing Republican James A. Bell of Brownville, Jefferson County, President pro tempore. In the state senate’s subsequent voting for a U.S. Senator, the Republicans turned their backs on the U.S. Senate incumbent King and cast 23 votes for former two-term Governor Edwin D. Morgan of New York City. The Democrats cast seven votes for Congressman Erastus Corning of Albany.
All eyes now turned to the state assembly where efforts to elect a Speaker and organize were being thwarted because of the tie between the two parties. Ballot after ballot was taken and each time, no one was able to win a majority. Finally, after seventy-seven ballots, Timothy C. Callicot, a Brooklyn Democrat, proposed a deal with the Republicans to break the deadlock. He vowed that if the Republicans elected him Speaker, he would vote to help the Republicans elect a U.S. Senator. The GOP agreed to the deal but when Callicot’s fellow Democrats learned that he had betrayed them, they plotted to prevent any further voting by disrupting the proceedings in the assembly chamber.
With the assistance of hired thugs who mobbed the assembly floor and galleries, the Democrats started a riot. Pistols were brandished, violence was threatened, and Callicot was subjected to blistering abuse. The riot in the assembly chamber continued for six days until Democratic Governor Horatio Seymour’s threat to use force to quell the disturbance reestablished order.
With order restored, the voting for Speaker began again. On January 26, twenty days after the first ballot had been cast, the Republicans broke the tie for Speaker by voting for Callicot. He was elected on the 92nd ballot by a vote of 61 to 59. The assembly was finally organized and moved forward to select its candidate for U.S. Senator.
On the first ballot, Morgan won all 64 Republican votes. The Democrats gave 62 votes to Corning and one to Fernando Wood of New York City. True to his word, Callicot voted for the Union General John A. Dix. Taking Callicot’s cue, all the Republicans joined Callicot in voting for Dix on the second ballot and he became the assembly’s choice for the U.S. Senate by defeating Corning 65 to 63.
Now that a candidate had been nominated by each house, Morgan by the state senate and Dix by the state assembly, the law would now permit a joint convention of both houses to convene. On February 3, 1863, the joint convention elected Morgan to the U.S. Senate. He defeated Corning 86 to 70.
In its review of the “peculiar circumstances surrounding the election,” The New York Times said, “Governor Morgan’s election is, perhaps, not the least remarkable event of the times.”
Illustrations: Above, Preston King; and below, Edwin D. Morgan.