Saulsbury v. Saulsbury v. Saulsbury: That Time When Three Brothers Ran for the Same Senate Seat

The Saulsburys were a major Democratic political family in Delaware, and in 1859, Willard Saulsbury Sr. was elected to the Senate. He was a “Peace Democrat” during the Civil War and was a vehement critic of Lincoln. He opposed disloyalty arrests, suspension of habeas corpus, and defended Senator Jesse Bright of Indiana in his battle against expulsion for treason (Dickinson College). He also opposed the abolition of slavery, and Delaware, a slave state, would reelect him in 1865.


Willard Saulsbury Sr.

In 1871, Saulsbury sought a third term, but there was a major issue. He had a drinking problem and was a mean drunk, which resulted in numerous humiliating public outbursts. The most notorious of these was in 1863, when on the Senate floor, Saulsbury denounced Lincoln as a “weak and imbecile man”, a violation of Senate rules (U.S. Senate). Vice President Hannibal Hamlin ordered that he sit down, but he refused to do so. After Hamlin directed the sergeant at arms to “take the senator in charge”, Saulsbury responded by brandishing a pistol and threatening to shoot the man (U.S. Senate). A few days later, New Hampshire Senator Daniel Clark motioned to expel him for this behavior, but Saulsbury publicly apologized and the matter was dropped. The Democratic leadership, however, tired of this behavior and had discreetly approached his older brother, Delaware’s Governor Gove Saulsbury, who agreed to run. However, Willard’s other older brother, Eli, also wanted the seat.

During this time in Delaware’s history, the state was staunchly Democratic and there was an agreement between the Saulsbury family and the Bayard family that they would share control of Senate seats. Thus, from 1859 to 1885, with one brief interruption on the Bayard seat, both Senate seats were occupied by members of the Bayard and Saulsbury families. The legislature was divided in their loyalties: while thirteen members of the General Assembly continued to support Willard, fourteen supported Gove, and three supported Eli. After three ballots failing to give any of the brothers the sixteen votes needed to win the election, Willard still found himself behind Gove and realized he couldn’t prevail. Steaming from Gove’s betrayal, he told his supporters to vote for Eli, making the total sixteen. Eli M. Saulsbury would serve three terms with integrity before being defeated in 1889 by Republican Anthony Higgins, after which he retired from politics and died in 1893. Gove would retire from politics and continue his previous career as a physician until his death in 1881. As for Willard, his story has a happy ending. He would be appointed chancellor in 1873 by Governor and brother-in-law James Ponder on the condition that he pledge to drop the bottle (Munroe, 150). Apparently, he did so, as he served without incident until his death in 1892. His son, Willard Jr., would serve in the Senate from 1913 to 1919.


Munroe, J.A. (2006). History of Delaware. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses.

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The Battle of Three Brothers. U.S. Senate.

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“Willard Saulsbury (1820-1892)”. (2005). Dickinson College Archives.

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