Historical Family Feud

With brothers like these, who needs enemies?

No one likes to witness another family’s feud. But in 1871, all of Delaware saw a spectacle remembered in Dover as the Battle of Three Brothers. U.S. Sen. Willard Saulsbury (1820-1892) was up for re-election in the legislature, and his brothers both wanted his job. One issue was simply that Gove Saulsbury (1815-1881) and Eli Saulsbury (1817-1893) wanted a political office, and thought Willard had had the ball long enough. Another issue was Willard’s behavior in Washington. It was nothing about politics. Willard’s race-baiting, whites-first ideas were popular. But he drank—a lot—and that was embarrassing. In a state with a proud history of nepotism, no non-Saulsbury was even considered. “The name of Delaware could appropriately be changed to ‘Saulsbury,’” jibed the Houston Daily Union. “That Sen. Saulsbury and his family carried the little commonwealth in their pockets has been called a slander, but the recent election of a U.S. senator by the legislature rather justifies it.”

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The brothers were sons of Kent County Sheriff William Saulsbury and grew up on a large estate in Mispillion Hundred. By the time they all grabbed for the senate seat, their parents and two other brothers were deceased. But for one sister, the three were restrained only by each other. Gove was a physician. He’d attended Delaware College at Newark, then Penn medical school where he wrote a thesis on rheumatism. After graduating in 1842, Gove opened an office in Dover, but he was also interested in politics. He was a delegate to the 1856 Democratic convention and, in 1862, elected to the Delaware Senate, where he attacked Republican Gov. William Cannon for supplying troops to the Union cause. Many agreed. Delaware never seceded from the Union, but certainly leaned South in its politics.

So, Gove Saulsbury became a Democratic leader and, in 1865, was elected speaker of the Senate. When Cannon died in office, he became governor. “During his public service, he opposed successively each of the amendments to the federal Constitution growing out of the Civil War,” wrote historian Francis Drake in 1879. Gov. Saulsbury condemned the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments—which abolished slavery, established equal protection of law and equal access to the ballot—as “the most flagrant usurpation of power.” He left office in January 1871, two months before his brother was due to be re-elected to the U.S. Senate. Willard Saulsbury attended Delaware and Dickinson colleges, then studied law. Admitted to the bar in 1845, he opened an office in Dover and immediately went into politics.

Saulsbury was appointed attorney general in 1850 and served five years, developing a statewide reputation. With Gove, he was a delegate to the 1856 Democratic convention. Two years later, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. As a Democrat during the Civil War years, Willard was no friend of the administration. He was particularly outraged by the suspension of habeas corpus, dismissing Lincoln on the floor of the Senate as “a weak and imbecile man.” In 1861, speaking against a proposal to end slavery by compensating slave owners, Willard Saulsbury got to the bottom line: “God, nature, everything has made a distinction between the white man and negro,” he said. “We mean that the United States of America from the northern lakes to the southern Gulf, from the Atlantic on the one side to the Pacific on the other, shall be the white man’s home; and not only the white man’s home, but the white man shall govern, and the n***** never shall be his equal.”

In Delaware, such opinions were vote-getters. Unfortunately, Willard made many of his speeches drunk. In 1866, the Sacramento Daily Union reported that he had “appeared on the floor … in such an offensive condition of drunkenness that he had to be removed.” Often, he was also armed. That in itself was not unusual, but after Saulsbury drew his revolver on the sergeant-at-arms trying to remove him, there were calls for his expulsion. According to the San Francisco Bulletin, Willard’s “extra convivial habits” and “sprees” convinced his family—Gove, in particular—that he needed to go. Eli Saulsbury was the quiet brother. He had served in the state legislature, and had attended the 1864 Democratic convention with Willard. But the rest of the time, he had been content to practice law and farm.

Some sources claim that Eli was persuaded to enter the race by Willard, who saw it as a way to split his opponents’ votes, and thereby keep his seat. Other sources insist Eli genuinely wanted the job. Winning the seat required a majority of 30 votes. On the first and second ballots, Gove had 14 votes; Willard, 13; Eli, three. On the third ballot, two of Eli’s supporters bolted, creating a 15-14-1 split. That was enough for Willard, who saw his seat slipping away, but he would be damned if he let it go to Gove. He signaled supporters to switch to Eli, who was elected with 16 votes. In office, Sen. Eli Saulsbury favored restoring voting rights to ex-Confederates, opposed legislation prohibiting ethnic violence against African-Americans, opposed black voting rights and an eight-hour-day law and found a way to water down an anti-polygamy bill. So, despite that unpleasantness among brothers, Delaware got more of the same.

Images courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society

Willard (left) and Eli Saulsbury

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