John G. Palfrey’s Case Against Coalition, Part 1

John Palfrey

The election of 1850 left the Free Soil-Democrat coalition in control of the Massachusetts legislature. That gave them the power to name its senator and the respective caucuses decided to nominate Charles Sumner. That should make for smooth sailing, but the coalition had not negotiated a full fusion and remained full of men with prior party affiliations that made them uneasy in coalition with prior enemies. Furthermore, as experienced political hands they had a full range of personal grudges and ambitions. A Free Soiler named John Palfrey, a historian and Unitarian minister in addition to his political career, objected to Sumner and the coalition in a confidential circular letter to the incoming Free Soil members of Massachusetts’ General Court. His confidential letter appears in The Liberator for January 17, 1851.

Palfrey opens by explaining that he didn’t really mean to sneak around behind anyone’s back. They should read him as a fellow traveler with concerns, not trying to influence anybody or puff himself up. Then he got to it, arguing that nothing in the coalition agreement with the Democrats required Free Soilers to continue working in concert with them now that the election had come and gone. The parties had every right under that arrangement to set their own courses, however their consciences may dictate.

I know of no existing compact or understanding, to restrain the free action of either. The Post, the chief organ of the Democracy, disavows everything of the kind; and I understand that the language of most of the principal country papers of that party is the same.

In other words, even the Democrats didn’t think they had some kind of open-ended deal coalition deal. Therefore, Free Soil men should not feel “any obligation of good faith” to support Boutwell for the Governor’s post. They had in Stephen Phillips a Conscience Whig of eminent qualifications, “thoroughly sympathizing with them in the momentous objects of their party organization” who would do far better as a governor. Boutwell, as a Democrat, would feel pressure to align with his national party and turn proslavery on the coalition.

On the other hand,

The Whigs have in past times talked as well for freedom as ourselves. Some of them talk so still. We have said that the difference between us and them was, that they did not act up to their professions, because, by voting for pro-slavery men for high office, they directed their political actions against liberty. If the same way we cease to act up to our professions, will not the difference between them and us appear to the people to be done away? and shall we not lose the people’s confidence? and shall we not deserve to lose it?

A politician of any stripe could make a similar argument. Both modern parties have adherents, myself included, who complain about members in name only. Whigs like Palfrey had quit Whiggery when the party nominated Zachary Taylor for the presidency. To support Boutwell risked doing themselves just what they had damned the national party for.

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