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

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–it was the Lt. Governor as President of the Senate who served as the chamber’s true presiding officer. The Lt. Governor had the power to create committees, name members and assign legislation to those committees, and manage the operations of the Senate on a day-to-day basis. The Pro Tem position was an afterthought, serving in a ceremonial capacity only on days when the Lt. Governor was absent, rarely for more than a few days at a time, and only being elected on the first day the Lt. Governor was gone. But if you want to determine when we started to move towards the modern understanding of the roles, the timing can be pinpointed with remarkable accuracy: February 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 Lt. Governor, and in that short span of time 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 eventually 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 of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1913, U.S. Senators weren’t elected by the people, but by state legislatures. That meant that one of the first votes the Democrat-controlled Senate would cast in the 1887 session was to replace outgoing Republican Senator Benjamin Harrison. In order to avoid having to vote against Gray–a Governor of their own party–Democrats in the legislature convinced Lt. Governor Mahlon D. Manson (elected in 1884 alongside Gray, and a former legislator himself) to resign his spot. Once he did, they told Gray they couldn’t make him U.S. Senator because there was no sitting Lt. 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 Lt. 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 the rumors that Gray was secretly helping Republican Robert S. Robertson win the job. While Gray’s actual involvement on behalf of the Republican is a matter of historical debate, he was quietly hoping for a Republican 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 did end up winning the special election for Lt. Governor, and the Republican Party ended up erasing a 35-65 deficit in the House to claim a 56-44 majority. Along with the 18 Republican votes in the Senate, Gray wouldn’t just have Republican support, but he would potentially only need two Democrat votes to win the U.S. Senate election.

Furious and eager to stop Gray in his tracks, the Democrats filed legal proceedings to declare Robertson’s claim on the 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 Lt. Governor. This led to legal proceedings by Republicans in order to declare Smith’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 or Green could be seated as Lt. 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, and Robertson was the rightful office holder.

Monday, February 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 attempted to form a human blockade to keep Robertson from the dais. After fighting and shoving his way towards the front of the chamber, he began to ascend the steps of the dais before a doorkeeper grabbed him by the throat and the shoulder, picked him up, and threw him back down. As he got up and tried to take his seat again, 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, 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, but this time at Republicans. While the tactic had its intended effect to stop the fighting in the upper chamber, the gunshot attracted the attention of some members of the House 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 his place, and Republicans locked inside the chamber shouted through the doors to fill them in on the rest.

Word quickly spread to the House chamber, which just as quickly led to a brawl erupting between the parties in that body. Before long, the entire State House devolved into one large, riotous fight, that didn’t just include 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, and had 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. Governor Gray had already called local police in as reinforcements, which helped ensure that the Republican threats to immediately and publicly execute the Senate Democrats weren’t carried out.

The next day, Robertson showed up at the Senate again, was denied entry by the doorkeeper, and promptly went back to his home in Ft. Wayne, 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 and give 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 much farther reaching than just the ugly headlines declaring it the “Black Day” of the General Assembly, and it meant more than just the 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. But it also helped 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

Selected Bibliography

  • Walsh, Jusin E. “The Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly, 1816-1978”, published by the Select Committee on the Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly, 1987 (pages 203-207)
  • Images of several newspapers articles covering the “Black Day” riot, as well as additional info, can be found through the Indiana State Library’s Hoosier State Chronicles website

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