Moderate Massachusetts

Edward Everett

Edward Everett (W-MA)

If the Massachusetts Free Soilers-cum-Republicans wanted to call the South’s bluff and throw out not just Kansas-Nebraska but also the Fugitive Slave Act, on which the South insisted the Union rested, they could very well do so on paper. Doing so once elected would take rather more effort. They would have to master not just the large advantage that the near-equal division of the Senate between North and South presented, but also Northern interests that did not share their enthusiasm for brinksmanship. That included many in their own party. The man they finally sent to the White House in 1860 stood before the unfinished dome of the Capitol and pledged himself to upholding the law…including the Fugitive Slave Act.

New England had long been the seat of northern Whiggery, and before that Federalism. Our own interests, especially in the context of the war at the end of the decade, naturally lead us to connect Whiggery and antislavery. The issue, after all, wrecked the Whigs but not the Democracy. The Whigs had a strong concentration of Puritan men with Puritan ideas from historically Puritan states. Massachusetts, the original home of the Puritans, voted against Andrew Jackson in 1836 and thereafter voted for the Whigs in every presidential election up through 1852. Vermont alone could match that record. But even in hyper-Whig, hyper-Puritan antislavery Massachusetts the Free Soilers pressed well ahead of the pack.

I must confess here that as a person of generally secular bent, I rarely find myself well-disposed toward Puritans. I sometimes suspect we’d do better as a nation if some Indian INS met them at the shore and turned them back. But they came and stayed and, if they no longer had quite the fanatical austerity that the first few generations brought to New England, they had also not surrendered all their fervor to a more moderate nation. They deserve credit for the good and the bad. Puritanism always had a strong communitarian strain. A Puritan man believed in moral stewardship. He served as his brother’s keeper, however widely he cast that net. Some cast it nationally and saw Southern brothers lost in the sins of slavery. This went beyond corrupting the slaveholders and degrading the slaves. The contagion of sin attached to those who made excuses for slavery, who accommodated it, who brought it where the law forbade it even if those men came from more Northern climes. Even those, like William Lloyd Garrison, who cast smaller nets and wrote Southerners off as hopelessly damned and so insisted that the righteous Union must cut away such moral cancers, could find defenders of the proslavery status quo and preachers of accommodating silence on slavery among their neighbors.

Bell and Everett on a Constitutional Union poster from 1860

Bell and Everett on a Constitutional Union poster from 1860

Those neighbors inherited the same Puritan traditions. They could listen to the Garrisons and Sumners in their midst go on about how they stood at variance with their ancestral faith. The Daniel Websters, Edward Everetts, and Robert Winthrops of the state could give the same sermon right back. If Puritans believed in creating a city on a hill, they also had to look aghast at what their fellow citizens proposed. The abolitionists would burn the city down. They would cast aside all respect for property. They would abandon the very respectability that made Puritans fit to create that shining city with their wild lawbreaking and talk of splitting the Union. These conservatives wanted consensus and quiet, with the strategically-placed silences that permitted both when deep division arose. Everett kept on preaching the same when he ran with John Bell on the Constitutional Union ticket in 1860.

Whiggery’s successes in Massachusetts also worked against them. With such successes, and a party at least amenable to antislavery thought, why would they desert a party that could and had given them such rewards? Even if they couldn’t win the White House, they had Massachusetts. Furthermore, close allies of Massachusetts’ cotton mills had ample motivation to stay in the good graces of their cotton-growing southern compatriots. Those Cotton Whigs had money on the line.

Thus when the Free Soilers met and resolved to overturn the apple cart in Massachusetts, few Whigs joined them. Likewise, few Democrats rushed to the banner. Their Worcester convention drew between 800 and 1,500 Free Soil diehards, four-fifths of them veterans of 1848, but even with a special convention train to carry them less than two hundred came from Boston. Most of the convention-goers came from central and western Massachusetts, away from most of the textile factories.

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