The Making of the Modern State Senate Pro Tem: Part 2, The “Black Day” of the General Assembly

INDIANAPOLIS – As covered in last week’s Part 1, under Indiana’s 1816 and 1851 Constitution – as well as State Senate rules dating back to the First General Assembly – the lieutenant governor as president of the Senate was the chamber’s true presiding officer. The lieutenant governor had the power to create committees, name members and assign legislation to committees, and to manage the operations of the Senate on a daily basis.

The pro tem position was an afterthought, serving in a ceremonial capacity only when the lieutenant governor was absent, rarely for more than a few days at a time, and only elected on the first day the lieutenant governor was gone. But, the move toward the modern understanding of the two roles can be pinpointed with remarkable accuracy: Feb. 24, 1887.
 
Before that day, one of the few times a pro tem was able to exercise any power was in 1869. A freshman Republican senator named Isaac P. Gray was elected pro tem during a five-day absence of the lieutenant governor, and in that short span used the limited parliamentary power he had to essentially trick Senate Democrats in to giving him a quorum and ratifying the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Legislative Democrats never forgave Gray for that move, not even when he renounced the Republican Party and was elected governor as a Democrat in 1884. When Gray started lining up support for a U.S. Senate bid ahead of the 1886 election, they were hell-bent on stopping him.

Prior to the ratification in 1913 of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, U.S. senators were appointed by state legislatures. Therefore, one of the first votes the Democrat-controlled Senate would cast in the 1887 session was to replace outgoing Republican Sen. Benjamin Harrison. In order to avoid having to vote against Gray, a governor of their own party, Democrats in the legislature convinced Lt. Gov. Mahlon D. Manson (elected in 1884 alongside Gray, and a former legislator himself) to resign. Once he did, they informed Gray they couldn’t appoint him U.S. senator because there was no sitting lieutenant governor to succeed him, which would trigger a constitutional crisis.
 
Gray, after consulting with Democrat Attorney General Francis T. Hord, ordered a special election to fill the lieutenant governor vacancy despite no clear constitutional or statutory authority to do so. This only added to the distrust of Gray by legislative Democrats, as did rumors that Gray was secretly helping Republican Robert S. Robertson win the governorship. While Gray’s actual involvement on behalf of Robertson is a matter of historical debate, he was quietly hoping for the Republican’s victory; with a Republican set to ascend to the governorship, he was banking on legislative Republicans supporting his bid for the U.S. Senate.
 
Gray got more than he bargained for when the dust settled on the November elections. Robertson won the special election for lieutenant governor, and the Republican Party erased a 35-65 deficit in the House to claim a new 56-44 majority. Along with the 18 Republican votes in the Senate, Gray wouldn’t just have Republican support, but potentially he would need only two Democrat votes to ascend to the U.S. Senate.
 
Furious and eager to stop Gray in his tracks, the Democrats filed legal proceedings to declare Robertson’s claim on the lieutenant governor’s office unconstitutional and prevent him from being seated. When the session began in January with litigation still pending, the Democrats elected Alonzo Green Smith as the president pro tem, which they claimed also made him the rightful lieutenant governor. 

This led to legal proceedings by Republicans in order to declare Green’s claim on the office unconstitutional and prevent him from being seated. Despite a circuit court ruling against Robertson’s claim, the Marion County Appellate Court ruled that neither Robertson nor Green could be seated as lieutenant governor until the Supreme Court issued a final ruling. Near the end of February, the Supreme Court finally settled the matter: The election was legitimate with Robertson the rightful office holder.
 
Monday, Feb. 24, 1887, was the first session day after the ruling. Robertson appeared in the Senate chamber for the first time, and attempted to take his place at the dais. Green, still serving as pro tem, refused to seat him, and Democrat senators formed a human blockade to keep Robertson from the dais. After fighting and shoving his way to the front of the chamber, he began to ascend the steps of the dais before a doorkeeper grabbed him by the throat and shoulder, picked him up, and threw him back down. As he got up and again tried to take his seat, he was tackled by a group of Democrat senators, then beaten as they dragged him out the door, which Green promptly ordered locked.
 
Aghast at what had just transpired, Senate Republicans physically confronted their counterparts and a giant brawl erupted. In short order, a Democrat senator pulled out a pistol and fired a shot into the ceiling. Unless the fighting stopped immediately, he said, he would begin shooting again, only this time at Republicans. While the tactic had its intended effect, the gunshot attracted the attention of some members of the House of Representatives who quickly ran across the hall to find out what was going on. There they encountered a bloodied and bruised Robertson, who explained what had happened when he tried to take office, and Republicans locked inside the Senate chamber shouted through locked doors filling them in on the rest.
 
Word quickly spread to the House chamber, which in turn led to a brawl erupting between the parties in that body. Before long, the entire Statehouse devolved into one large, riotous fight, that included not only elected officials and state employees, but also a mob of several hundred local Republicans who descended upon the capitol building after the news quickly spread around town. 

Four hours after the fight began, a group of Republicans – who by this point greatly outnumbered the Democrats, having detained many of their rivals – managed to end it by breaking down the doors of the Senate and dragging the Democrats to the front lawn. Gov. Gray had already called local police as reinforcements, which helped ensure that Republican threats to immediately and publicly execute the Senate Democrats were not carried out.
 
The next day, Robertson returned to the Senate, was denied entry by the doorkeeper, and promptly went back to his home in Washington County, never to return. The seat sat vacant for the next two years, and Green continued to preside over the Senate as pro tem. It turned out to be a short-lived stint; Senate Republicans refused to show up to provide a quorum, and House Republicans passed a resolution declaring the Senate an unconstitutional body, cutting off communication between the chambers and refusing to consider any legislation from the Senate. Effectively, the session was over.
 
The ramifications were more profound than just ugly headlines declaring it the “Black Day” of the General Assembly and an abrupt end to any legislating for two years. Gray not only lost his shot at a U.S. Senate seat, but his involvement also cost him the Democrat nomination for vice president in both 1888 and 1892 (races he would lose only after stories about his involvement in the 1869 and 1887 dramas were derisively told from the national convention podium), earning him the nickname “Sisyphus of the Wabash.” The episode set the stage for the modern power structure in the Indiana State Senate, though that day was still 80 years away. 
 
Next Week: Part 3, Taking Back the Senate.