Editor’s note: John Brooks Henderson had some impressive victories in his life.
But on the few occasions when the Missouri U.S. Senator from Louisiana felt defeat, it usually was part of a much larger clash of ideals or came at the hands of powerful men who helped shape the Show-Me State and America.
Pike County author Brent Engel is writing a play about the Louisiana lawyer to be performed later this year, and is contributing monthly stories about him.
For the Courier-Post
Henderson’s first step into politics could have made the point that every vote counts.
It started on July 10, 1848, when the Virginia-born man who had been admitted to the Missouri bar just a year before formally launched his campaign for state representative.
The Democratic Banner had called for a candidate who was “no timid creature,” and the newspaper and the people of the district got one in the 22-year-old Henderson.
The powerful orator with flowing red hair was a “good debater” who was “talented, firm, unwavering” in his views, according to one supportive letter writer.
Henderson stumped in 12 communities. He defeated popular chief rival and future Pike County Sheriff William Penix by just 37 votes.
Henderson’s first term was marked by efforts to postpone a salary increase for the governor, recognize Missouri men who had fought in the Mexican War, clear the Des Moines River in far northeastern Missouri and by a successful request for a charter for the City of Louisiana.
But despite his Southern heritage, Henderson was already showing signs of what would later manifest itself in his co-authorship of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery.
On Jan. 5, 1849, Henderson introduced four resolutions in the Missouri General Assembly. One of them said that “the right to prohibit slavery in any territory belongs exclusively to the people thereof, and can only be exercised by them in forming their constitution for a state government or in their sovereign capacity as an independent state.”
In other words, Henderson at the time was a firm defender of states’ rights as outlined in the U.S. Constitution, which said that powers not granted to the federal government were left to the states.
The belief put him squarely in the camp of those who touted popular sovereignty – the idea that the government is sustained by the consent of the people – such as the diminutive but forceful Stephen Douglas of Illinois.
In 1850, Henderson decided to try for a much bigger political prize – Missouri U.S. Congressman in what was then the Second District.
He called the Democrat nomination “unexpected and unsought,” but promised to “sacrifice personal considerations” and “act with cheerfulness” in seeking the office.
Henderson’s opponent was another Virginia native, Gilchrist Porter, who belonged to the Whig Party at the time but would go on to support candidates on both sides of the political spectrum.
Despite a large Democrat majority in the district, Porter easily defeated Henderson by 1,400 votes, carrying all but four of the 16 counties.
The 1875 edition of the Standard Atlas of Pike County recorded that Porter in 1850 “won golden opinions from friends and opponents,” and attributed his victory to the fact that “his popularity was so great and his fitness for the position so universally recognized.”
After the election, Henderson went back to his law practice in Louisiana and became a land speculator. He served another term in the Missouri General Assembly from 1856 to 1858, and then decided to seek a Congressional seat again.
Across the Mississippi River in Illinois, a tall, self-taught Republican lawyer from Springfield was locked in a heated 1858 race for a U.S. Senate seat with Douglas, who had Henderson’s unflinching support.
Within a few years, however, Henderson and Abraham Lincoln would become close friends. And their work, both separate and together, would forever change the course of American history.
Back to politics
Douglas defeated Lincoln for the 1858 Senate seat and Henderson lost to Thomas Anderson of Palmyra in his bid for Congress.
But it was far from being the last time voters in Missouri and elsewhere would see the names of Lincoln, Douglas and Henderson on a ballot.
By 1860, questions about slavery dominated political discussion. Henderson was chosen to work on the Democrat Party platform for the upcoming national convention in Charleston, S.C.
Douglas was the front-runner for the Democrat presidential nomination, but the party was split. The debate centered on whether slavery should be extended by law to new territories or whether the people in those areas should decide for themselves.
Back home, Henderson was verbally attacked by people on both sides, but stuck by Douglas. However, over the previous two years he had revised his own beliefs and now argued that questions concerning slavery belonged in Congress and not in state politics. It was one of several modifications to come.
In May 1860, Henderson gave a speech in Bowling Green in defense of his position. After two hours, a resolution was adopted which approved of his stance and endorsed him for Congress.
The seven 1858 debates between Lincoln and Douglas have been immortalized.
The 1860 verbal clashes between Henderson and his opponent, Constitutional Unionist James S. Rollins, have not received as much attention, but were just as caustic. Slavery was a major issue.
Between June 29 and Aug. 2, Henderson and Rollins would lock horns at Middle Grove, Paris, Florida, Palmyra, Hannibal, Bowling Green, Louisiana, Paynesville, Flint Hill, Cottleville, St. Charles, New Melle, Marthasville, High Hill, Middletown, Williamsburg, Fulton, Bloomfield, Columbia, Sturgeon and Mexico.
Henderson took ill before a planned debate in New London on July 3, but sent to be read his opening remarks accusing Rollins of having a gift of the gab but little else.
The bitterest confrontation occurred on July 5 in Hannibal. The two men, both of whom owned slaves, went back and forth at each other over the issue.
Henderson harkened back to earlier days and reiterated his non-intervention theory that the states had the sole right to determine the slavery issue. Rollins again proclaimed his opposition to the federal government allowing an extension of slavery.
Henderson campaigned for Douglas even as his own quest continued, speaking at rallies in Springfield and Mexico.
In the election, Rollins squeaked by Henderson with 50.57 percent of the vote, but Lincoln defeated Douglas and two other candidates for the presidency.
On Jan. 17, 1862, Henderson was appointed to fill the Missouri U.S. Senate seat of Trusten Polk, who was expelled because of his support for the Confederacy.
Lincoln invited Henderson to the White House for the first time just a few weeks later, and their friendship, as well as their work together, continued until the president’s assassination in 1865.
Henderson freed his slaves and changed his views on the ownership of humans, eventually co-authoring the 13th Amendment to the Constitution outlawing the practice. He went on to play a role in passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, as well as fighting for women’s voting rights and against tax cheats. He died in 1913 in Washington, D.C., and is buried in New York City.
Rollins, who at the time of his debates with Henderson was already famous for helping to establish the University of Missouri, played a significant role in the passage of the 13th Amendment.
Rollins initially voted against the proposal. But two days after Missouri outlawed slavery in January 1865, Rollins took to the floor of Congress and gave a lengthy, persuasive speech in favor of the document drafted by former political rival Henderson. The maneuver helped sway enough votes for passage.
While Rollins admitted that he would keep slavery in place if it meant that the nation would be preserved, he also affirmed his belief in the words of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”
“I am no longer the owner of a slave, and I thank God for it,” Rollins later said. “If the giving up of my slaves without complaint shall be a contribution upon my part to promote the public good, to uphold the Constitution of the United States, to restore peace and preserve this Union, if I had owned a thousand slaves, they would most cheerfully have been given up.”
Rollins had been a Whig, but switched to the Democrats in 1864 and supported the failed presidential efforts of former Union Gen. George B. McClellan.
Rollins did not seek re-election himself that year, but returned to the Missouri House of Representatives in 1866. He was then elected to the state senate in 1868. Ten years later, he jumped to the Republican Party.
Rollins was bed-ridden for three months after a train derailment west of St. Louis in 1874. Although he recovered, lasting wounds eventually took their toll and Rollins died in Columbia on Jan. 9, 1888.
In 2007, his descendants created the James S. Rollins Slavery Atonement Endowment for Black Studies at the University of Missouri. It supports research that includes “slavery, race relations, civil rights or African-American culture.”
Porter, who practiced law in Bowling Green and Hannibal, was defeated for re-election to Congress in 1852, but returned to Washington for four years starting in 1854. When the Whig Party fell apart, he became a Democrat.
In 1861, Porter was appointed a circuit judge by Lincoln friend and Missouri Gov. Hamilton Gamble. He replaced Judge John T. Redd, a Confederate sympathizer who refused to take a loyalty oath to the Union.
Henderson, Rollins and Porter had been against Missouri seceding, but Rollins and Porter split from their former political rival by disapproving of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Rollins had said it was legally void, and Porter called it “most unfortunate,” adding that Lincoln in writing the document had been “manifestly coerced by bad men who are no friends of the Union or the Constitution.”
In a Feb. 11, 1863, letter to Henderson, Porter wrote that he preferred gradual emancipation of the slaves. Porter also told his former rival that he hoped black men would be kept from fighting for the Union, saying that integrated units would lead to “a collision between the State & Federal authorities” that left the laws of both “constantly endangered.”
Remarkably, though, Porter praised Henderson for his efforts in Washington, saying that the senator’s “recent course in Congress” met with his approval.
“You are aware that there has existed between you and myself a general coincidence of opinion as to the cause of the existing troubles &…to the proper mode of correcting them,” Porter wrote.
“I am now decidedly of opinion, whatever croakers & fault-finders may aver or surmise to the contrary, that the People of Missouri are heartily tired of this Rebellion (emphasis by the letter-writer); & resolved for the future, to bear true faith & allegiance to the Government of the United States; & to compel others to do so – as far as in them lies,” Porter continued.
The letter later was shown to Lincoln.
Porter served as a judge until 1880, and died in Hannibal on Nov. 1, 1894. He is buried in Riverside Cemetery.
John Brooks Henderson suffers first major political defeats
Editor’s note: John Brooks Henderson had some impressive victories in his life.