NEW ALBANY — Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about the people and events that have shaped the 200-year history of New Albany. Read all installments by clicking on the bicentennial link under the “seasonal content” header at newsandtribune.com
Sudden rises to political superstardom aren’t just a recent innovation. Just look at former Indiana Gov. Ashbel P. Willard. Within three years, the New York native went from being a New Albany councilman to the lieutenant governor of the entire state. Four years later, he was elected governor. Not too shabby for a 36-year-old former teacher who not too long before had needed to take a part-time job as a writer in the clerk’s office to make ends meet.
But New Albany’s golden boy faced a hard road once he made an appearance on the political stage. His ascension coincided with one of the most tumultuous periods in American history. And while he fought to maintain cohesion amid his own floundering party, armed insurrection and intrigue would soon dominate the final years of the governor’s short life.
Like many at the time, Willard wasn’t born a Hoosier. On Oct. 20, 1820, he instead came into this world as a New Yorker. Early in his life he studied law and then moved around the expanding country stopping in Michigan, Texas and Kentucky. While teaching in Louisville, the persuasive educator began to stump all around the region for presidential candidate James Polk. Both Polk and Willard eventually won in their own ways — Polk, the presidency, and Willard, a new home.
“This young man of 24 made such a deep impression during this brief visit that many of the town’s leading citizens asked him to make his home here. He apparently was impressed with the growing city for the next spring he came here to live and took up law as a partner of Randall Crawford,” said a 1956 article about the governor from a New Albany-Floyd County Library historical series.
Life soon took off for Willard. In 1847 he married Carline Cook, and they had three children. Known for his speaking ability and wit, he rose up the ranks in the small river town. As mentioned previously, he became a New Albany councilman in 1849 and then was elected to represent the city in the Indiana House of Representatives where he quickly became Speaker of the House. Two years later, he was nominated as the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor which he again won.
“Handsome, red-haired, blue-eyed, Willard was indisputably a charismatic figure and a man of tremendous charm and force,” said a biography on the Indiana Historical Bureau’s website. “His abilities as a campaigner were extraordinary, his oratorical powers pre-eminent. In 1854 the Western Democratic Review described him as ‘the best popular orator in the States.’”
With partisanship in government and the antislavery movement growing by the minute, Willard became immersed in the games of politics. As president of the Senate, he once refused to break a tie that would send the approval of a new U.S. senator to the full General Assembly because he knew his party didn’t have the votes. For several years, the state only sent one senator to Washington due to this difference of opinions.
Following his stint as lieutenant governor, Willard received the Democratic nomination for governor in 1856. He won the office against Know-Nothing party member and future governor Oliver Morton in a close race with only 6,000 votes having decided the victor. With slavery disputes and other partisan issues remaining at the forefront of national politics, the next four years wouldn’t be particularly easy for the young state leader.
Progressive probably isn’t the best term to define Willard. A pro-Southern slavery, states right Democrat, he readily spoke his opinion about the legality of the Dred Scott Decision and advocated for the Fugitive Slave Law.
During his term, the New Albany resident faced charges of corruption when it was found that several of his appointed commissioners had embezzled close to $100,000 in dodgy land deals. Likewise, an order for his Democratic colleagues in the General Assembly to vote on the selection of a new U.S. senator without Republicans being present also drew scrutiny. Due to these partisan issues, the first-ever special session in Indiana was called during his tenure so a budget could be formed.
Yet family connections led Willard to one of the defining moments of his career. In 1859, his brother-in-law John Cook accompanied John Brown during his infamous Harper Ferry’s raid. An ardent abolitionist, Cook had hoped that the armed act would incite slaves to fight for their freedom. He was greatly mistaken, and days after the failed insurrection Cook was captured in Pennsylvania fleeing to meet his wife and child.
It would have been easy for Willard to ignore his wife’s pleas to help her brother. In fact, from a political standpoint, it might have been the most logical decision. But for some reason, despite being pro-slavery, Willard traveled to Virginia in hopes of freeing Cook. The Indiana governor at the time went as far as to testify in his brother-in-law’s defense at trial. Southerners hated Willard after this, many having claimed he too was involved in Brown’s plot. Despite his political capital, Willard could do nothing for Cook. In December 1859, Cook was hung from the gallows for his role in the raid.
By this time, the Democratic Party in Indiana was coming undone. In a few short months, Lincoln would win the presidency and the dawn of both the Republican Party and the commencement of the Civil War would forever change Indiana.
Still, law prohibited the charismatic Willard to run again, which was probably not a bad thing. Tuberculosis ravaged the New Albany resident’s lungs. Nonetheless, he appeared at the 1860 Indiana Democratic Convention and gave such an impassioned plea for the continuation of his party’s ideas that, according to reports, his lungs began to hemorrhage.
On Oct. 4, 1860, Willard died from internal bleeding while speaking in Minnesota, becoming the first Indiana governor to die in office. A painting done by New Albany artist George Morrison of the governor still hangs in Indianapolis today.
“On Oct. 10, 1860, the day his body was returned home for burial in Fairview Cemetery, the entire city was plunged into gloom. The church bells tolled continuously from noon until five, all business was suspended and buildings were draped in mourning,” the NA-FC library Historical Series article said. “The funeral procession extended in a solid line from State to Silver Streets as New Albany paid final tribute to this man who rose to fame while living here.”