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The Battle of Three Brothers

January 17, 1871

Photo of Senator Willard Saulsbury, Jr. of Delaware

There has never been a Senate election race quite like it. In January 1871, Delaware’s Democratic senator Willard Saulsbury notified his state’s legislature that he wished that body to reelect him to the office he had held for two terms. He expected no serious opposition from that small and solidly Democratic body in gaining the 16-vote majority necessary for election. Yet, to his frustration, two other candidates emerged. Not only were these contenders from his own party, they were also from his own family—his two elder brothers.

Saulsbury’s political difficulties stemmed from his abuse of alcohol. That problem had been evident in a dramatic scene played out in the Senate Chamber years earlier.

During an 1863 filibuster, Saulsbury angrily referred to President Abraham Lincoln as a “weak and imbecile man.” When Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, as presiding officer, ordered him to take his seat, Saulsbury refused. Hamlin then directed the sergeant at arms to "take the senator in charge." Responding, "Let him do so at his expense," Saulsbury drew a pistol and threatened to shoot the officer. Days later, a more sober Saulsbury—facing a resolution of expulsion—apologized and the Senate dropped the matter.

By 1871, Delaware Democrats had had enough of Saulsbury’s embarrassing outbursts. Party leaders quietly approached his brother, Gove Saulsbury, a physician who had just completed a term as governor. The ambitious Gove Saulsbury controlled 14 of the needed 16 votes. The other brother, Eli Saulsbury, a quiet and temperate man, counted three supporters, while 13 others remained loyal to Willard. If Gove could attract just two of either brother’s allies, he would have the election.

After three deadlocked ballots, Willard—angry at Gove’s betrayal—released his supporters to vote for brother Eli. With this switch, Eli Saulsbury won the election. He would remain in the Senate for the next 18 years.

From the 1850s to the 1880s, Delaware’s two Senate seats were occupied under an informal political arrangement known as the “Saulsbury-Bayard Compact.” With no significant Republican Party to offer a serious challenge, the Saulsbury family controlled one seat as its personal right, while the Bayard family took the other. This kind of blatant political manipulation in the state legislature added force to a growing campaign for a constitutional amendment requiring direct popular election of senators.

As the historically unique 1871 election demonstrated, however, for the time being Delaware politics remained just family politics.