Lyman Trumbull was born on October 12, 1813, in Colchester, Connecticut. He was the seventh of eleven children of Benjamin and Elizabeth (Mather) Trumbull. Benjamin Trumbull was a farmer who also served as a representative in the Connecticut legislature and as a probate judge. Elizabeth Trumbull was a descendant of the renowned New England Mather family.
Teacher and Lawyer
As a youth, Trumbull worked on the family farm and was educated at home in the classics. Family finances prevented him from attending Yale College, as his father and grandfather had. Instead, he graduated from Bacon Academy in Colchester, after which he taught school at nearby Portland, Connecticut and in New Jersey. In 1833, Trumbull moved to Georgia, where he accepted a teaching and headmaster position at an academy in Greenville until 1836. During his time away from the classroom, Trumbull studied law in the office of Hiram Warner, judge of the superior court of Georgia. Trumbull joined the bar in 1836.
In 1837, Trumbull moved to Belleville, Illinois, and joined the law practice of John Reynolds, a former governor of Illinois. Three years later he opened his own law office and his younger brother George later joined him.
While living in Belleville, Trumbull became active in the Democratic Party. In 1840, Illinois voters elected him to the Illinois House of Representatives, where he served until 1841. On February 27 of that year, Trumbull replaced Stephen A. Douglas as Secretary of State of Illinois. Trumbull returned to private practice in 1843 when he left office because of a change in administrations.
Trumbull’s personal life also changed in 1843, when he married Julia Maria Jayne, a friend of Mary Todd Lincoln, in Springfield, Illinois. Their marriage, which lasted until Julia’s death in 1868, produced six children. In 1877, Trumbull married Mary Jane Ingraham, the daughter of his first cousin. That marriage produced two children, neither of whom survived to adulthood.
In 1848, state officials appointed Trumbull as a justice on the Supreme Court of Illinois, where he served until 1853. In 1854, Illinois voters elected Trumbull to serve in the United States House of Representatives. Before he took his seat, however, the state legislature selected him to represent Illinois in the United States Senate. Trumbull served in the Senate for nearly two decades from March 4, 1855 to March 3, 1873. During his senatorial career, Trumbull sat as chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee and as a member of the Committee on the Conduct of the War.
Trumbull went to Washington, DC, as a Democrat, but by 1857, his opposition to the territorial expansion of slavery prompted him to switch his allegiance to the emerging Republican Party. Although Trumbull and Abraham Lincoln were occasionally adversaries in Illinois, Trumbull supported Lincoln’s failed senatorial bid in 1858 and his successful presidential campaign in 1860.
Trumbull’s support for Lincoln began to wane after the American Civil War began. Trumbull gradually drifted toward the Radical Republicans in the Senate, who questioned the president’s ability to put down the rebellion. Of particular concern was the president’s reluctance to address the issues of fugitive and captured slaves.
In late July 1861, following the Union loss at the First Battle of Bull Run, Trumbull spearheaded a congressional movement to deprive the Confederacy of the use of slave labor to support the Southern cause. On August 6, over opposition from Democrats and border state politicos, Congress approved the Confiscation Act of 1861. The legislation designated captured or escaped bondsmen who Rebels had used to bolster the rebellion as contraband of war and property of the United States. Despite reservations about the constitutionality of the law and concerns about upsetting residents of border states, President Lincoln signed the bill on the same day.
In December 1861, Trumbull began exploring options to strengthen the First Confiscation Act. His efforts contributed to the enactment of an article of war on March 13, 1862, that prohibited all officers or persons in the military or naval service of the United States from returning fugitive slaves to their owners under threat of being “dismissed from the service.”
Later in 1862, Trumbull contributed to the crafting of a second confiscation act that expanded the scope of the first act. On June 28, the Senate approved the Confiscation Act of 1862, which prescribed harsher punishments for Southern insurrectionists. Senators revised the bill in July after President Lincoln threatened a veto because of concerns about its constitutionality. The full Congress enacted the revised legislation on July 16, and the president approved the bill on the same day.
Although Trumbull was critical of Lincoln’s leadership, he supported the president’s reelection in 1864. By that time, the two men’s views on abolition were converging. Each believed that amending the constitution was the surest method for ending slavery in the United States. Fearing that the states might not ratify a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, the radical members of the Republican Party believed that an act of Congress was sufficient. Over their objections, on February 11, 1864, Trumbull guided a bill through the Judiciary Committee that eventually became the Thirteenth Amendment.
Trumbull introduced the proposal on the Senate floor on March 28. After fewer than two weeks of debate, on April 8, the Senate approved the bill thirty-eight to six, a margin of eight votes more than the constitutionally required two-thirds majority. After one failed attempt to pass the measure on June 15, the House endorsed the proposed amendment on January 31, 1865. The ratification process began nearly immediately. The proposal reached the constitutionally required three-fourths majority on December 6, 1865, when Georgia became the twenty-seventh state to ratify the amendment. Secretary of State William Seward verified the ratification results on December 18, and the proposal officially became the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Civil Rights Act of 1866
Southern states responded to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment by enacting “Black Codes” aimed at oppressing newly emancipated slaves. Left to the caprice of state governments, Southerners denied blacks the conventional civil liberties enjoyed by whites. On January 5, 1866, Trumbull introduced a Senate bill affirming the citizenship of former slaves. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 stated that:
That all persons born in the United States and not subject to any foreign power, excluding Indians not taxed, are hereby declared to be citizens of the United States; and such citizens, of every race and color, and without regard to any previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude, . . . shall have the same right in every state and territory in the United States, to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, and give evidence, to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property, and to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property, as is enjoyed by white citizens.
The Senate approved the bill on February 2, and the House followed suit on March 13, 1866. Two weeks later, on March 27, President Andrew Johnson vetoed the legislation. Johnson’s veto message mirrored objections of several of the bill’s legislative opponents. They argued that Congress did not have the authority to enact the proposal because the Constitution vested the power to protect or extend the civil rights of individuals with the states, not the federal government. Constitutional objections aside, Congress overrode Johnson’s veto and enacted the bill on April 9, 1866.
President Andrew Johnson’s Impeachment Trial
Johnson’s veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was just one of several confrontations with Congress that led the House to impeach the president on February 24, 1868, for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” At the conclusion of Johnson’s trial in the Senate, Trumbull was one of seven Republicans who broke party ranks and voted to acquit the president. Despite his differences with Johnson, Trumbull questioned the legitimacy of the charges. In addition, he had concerns about the demagoguery of Senate President Benjamin Wade, who would have replaced Johnson upon conviction.
Abandoned by Republicans
Trumbull’s break with his party was costly. When his Senate term expired in 1873, the Illinois legislature replaced him with former Governor Richard J. Oglesby. At the conclusion of his term, Trumbull returned to Illinois and practiced law in Chicago. Trumbull’s rejection by mainstream Republicans marked the beginning of a period of political readjustment that lasted nearly the rest of his life.
Upon leaving the Senate, Trumbull quickly joined the short-lived Liberal-Republican Party, which opposed the reelection of President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872 and favored the end of Reconstruction.
Return to the Democratic Party
By 1876, Trumbull had rejoined the Democratic Party. He served as a legal counsel for Democratic presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden, during the dispute following the controversial Hayes-Tilden election. In 1880, Trumbull made an unsuccessful bid as a Democratic candidate to become governor of Illinois.
By 1894, Trumbull had taken up the cause of common Americans against the abuses of monopolies and joined the Populist movement. One year later, he teamed with Clarence Darrow to represent Eugene V. Debs before the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to overturn Debs’ conviction for violating a court injunction during the 1894 Pullman Strike.
In 1896, during exploratory surgery, doctors discovered that Trumbull was afflicted with inoperable cancer. He died of the disease on June 25, 1896, at the age of eighty-two years, in Chicago. Trumbull was buried at Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago.