Two Michigan Senators made mark on American history

Called the Lion of the Senate, the late U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy made his mark on American history and will long be remembered for his  legacy of  championing the causes of those less fortunate. While long forgotten, two 19th century Senators from Michigan made a huge impact on our nation’s history as well.

Some historians claim Senator Zachariah Chandler’s infamous “Blood Letter” sent to Governor Austin Blair and released nationally was the real start of the Civil War. Senator John Merritt Howard’s work is found in three major Amendments to the United States Constitution.

While we think politics is ugly today, the so-called radical Senator Chandler was assaulted by Indiana Senator Daniel Wolsey Voorhees while dining at the National Hotel in Washington D.C. after Voorhees overheard Chandler allegedly denounce Copperheads, especially those from the West.

Voorhees confronted Chandler and asked if he meant him.  When Chandler professed to not know who Voorhees was, Voorhees struck Chandler in the face.  A fight ensued with Chandler soon getting the upperhand. Voorhees’s assistant, Edward A. Hannegan, jumped in and broke a pitcher of milk over Chandler’s head. If that wasn’t enough, Hannegan picked up a chair and hit Chandler again. The injuries didn’t impair Senator Chandler. He went about his official business that day.

Historic Elmwood Cemetery Guidebook entry:

John Merritt Howard, one of the founders of the Republican Party, served the city and state as Detroit Attorney in 1834, state representative in 1838, and Michigan Attorney General from 1855 to 1861. A United State Senator from 1862 to 1871 representing Michigan, Howard believed the South was wrong and the Union needed to win the war and reunite the nation. He pressed for the conclusion of the war and was active in reconstruction. Howard played a major role in drafting the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The 13th Amendment officially abolished slavery, while the 14th and 15th Amendments granted citizenship to former slaves as well as free blacks and protected their rights as citizens of this country.

A biography distributed by Elmwood Cemetery states:

“Howard left permanent imprints of his work in the Laws of the United States. Few men, other than the founding fathers of our country, have had the opportunity to make their beliefs felt on important Amendments to the Federal Constitution.”

The 13th Amendment is inscribed upon his monument in Elmwood Cemetery.

Zachariah Chandler, another founder of the Republican Party, was a dry goods merchant whose shrewd investments made him one of the wealthiest men in the state. Chandler served a one-year term as Mayor of Detroit, four terms as U.S. Senator representing Michigan, and later became Secretary of the Interior under President Ulysses S. Grant. A lifelong opponent to human bondage, Chandler generously provided financial support to abolitionist activities as well as muscle. Initially a member of the Whig Party, Chandler and other well-built local men who shared the same political philosophy appeared on election days to discourage voter intimidation by the city’s ruffian element, “which was Democratic in its sympathies.”

As U.S. Senator, Chandler was labeled “radical” for his strident opposition to slavery and denunciation of the 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision that upheld the Fugitive Slave Law.  Chandler did not support compromise with the South and openly criticized President Lincoln for not taking stronger action immediately against the southern states that attempted to secede. Chandler sent a letter to Governor Austin Blair in which he accused the government of doing nothing. In the letter, he cited how Generals Washington and Jackson quickly quelled rebellions, yet now when six states have seceded, the government does nothing but attempt to talk. The letter, which circulated nationally, stated:

“without a little bloodletting this Union will not, in my estimate, be worth a rush.”

Chandler and a group of Senators witnessed the disastrous Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run. He quickly criticized General George McClellan for not aggressively pursuing victory on the battlefield. After the war, Chandler called Lincoln’s plan for Reconstruction “soft”. He was a driving force behind the campaign to impeach Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson, whom Chandler viewed as “an incompetent willing to sacrifice all the gains made during the war.”

Both Howard and Chandler are buried at Detroit’s Historic Elmwood Cemetery. For more interesting stories on Michigan’s Contribution to the Civil War, purchase a copy of my newly updated guidebook Glory, Valor & Sacrifice: Southeast Michigan’s Contribution to the Civil War today!

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