Sen. Powell of Henderson KY
(Week of March 23, 2012) - On this date in 1862, Kentucky Sen. Lazarus W. Powell of Henderson was fighting for his political life.
Shortly after the General Assembly forsook neutrality for outright support of the Union war effort in September, 1861, lawmakers declared that Powell and Sen. John C. Breckinridge of Lexington, both Democrats, didn’t “represent the will of the people of Kentucky,” E. Merton Coulter wrote in The Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky.
Breckinridge resigned his seat and became a Confederate general. As a result, the Senate formally expelled him on December 2, 1861, Coulter added.
Powell refused to resign, thus “disregarding what he considered to be the officious advice and unconstitutional action of the legislature,” Coulter wrote.
The General Assembly elected Powell to the senate in 1858. An attorney, he was elected governor in 1851, barely beating his law partner, Whig Archibald Dixon.
Powell, whose term began in 1859, was staunchly pro-slavery. He enthusiastically supported Breckinridge when he ran for president in 1860 on the pro-slavery Southern Democratic ticket.
But Powell did not believe the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln, who opposed the expansion of slavery into the federal territories, was sufficient grounds for secession. At the same time, he denounced the use of federal force to bring the seceded states back into the Union.
After the war began in April, 1861, Powell embraced Kentucky neutrality, which became the state’s official policy in May, 1861.
In the fall, he refused to follow the state’s junior senator into Rebel ranks. But the Republicans considered him a virtual Confederate. So when Senate Republicans moved to oust Breckinridge in absentia, many of them demanded that his friend Powell be removed, too.
Garrett Davis, a strong Unionist who replaced Breckinridge, joined the Republican-led campaign to expel Powell, mounting a “savage onslaught against his colleague,” according to Coulter.
The author quoted a judiciary committee report that “From the beginning of this great rebellion to the present time Senator Powell has neither done nor said anything in Congress or out of Congress to strengthen or sustain the United States in this mighty struggle for life.”
Powell, Coulter wrote, “was charged with having been present at a meeting, where he advocated neutrality and approved [Gov. Beriah] Magoffin’s refusal to furnish Lincoln with troops [in April, 1861]." Davis “more viciously than wisely, set upon him and held him up as a traitor and a scoundrel for having stood by what Kentucky had officially adopted and for what the people had abundantly showed they wanted.”
In March, 1862, the Senate voted 28-11 to sustain Powell, Coulter added. The Kentuckian served out the remainder of his term, mostly in opposition to the war policies of Lincoln and the Republicans. Afterwards, he returned to Henderson, resumed his law practice and died in 1867 at age 54.
A Biographical sketch of the Hon. Lazarus W. Powell published by the General Assembly praised the governor-senator for “a geniality…in social life that was not only the delight of his friends, but which had often the effect to make his bitterest political foes forget for the time that he was not of themselves.”
-- Berry Craig is a professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and is the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers and Hidden History of Western Kentucky. The books are being sold to raise money for scholarships at WKCTC. They are available by contacting Craig by phone at (270) 534-3270 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.