John G. Palfrey’s Case Against Coalition, Part 2

John Palfrey


John Palfrey wrote a circular letter to the Free Soil members of the incoming Massachusetts legislature urging them to abandon plans to coalition with the Bay State’s Democrats. Together they may have won at the polls, but to continue joined with the party of southern radicalism risked seeing their coalition partners fall into line with the national party. For that matter, Whigs like Palfrey had quit their old party for supporting a slaveholder. They could hardly reject Zachary Taylor as a slaveholder and then accept George Boutwell, who willingly shared a party with John C. Calhoun and James K. Polk. Staying pure might even help them in the upcoming elections, but if they must coalition then their old Whig friends would prove far more reliable partners.

Giving up the coalition risked things that the Free Soilers considered justly won, though. The Democrats didn’t care as much about the open Senate seat and agreed to accept whoever the free soil men nominated…or so they said. Governor Boutwell would take his seat first and minds might change after the Party of Jackson got what they wanted. To prove the point, he need only look at another schemer against Charles Sumner’s election:

It seems to be understood that a prominent member of the party, Mr. Cushing, would actively oppose the scheme; and it would undoubtedly be opposed, with the utmost vigor, with influences brought to bear on individuals, both through the present patronage of the government, dispensed by Mr. Webster, and through the expected patronage of the government of Mr. Cass. Is it very unlikely that one-half of the arrangement would remain unexecuted?

Caught between Caleb Cushing and Lewis Cass, both Democrats, and Daniel Webster’s wing of Whiggery, the free soilers might not get the seat at all. If the Massachusetts legislature couldn’t muster a majority for a candidate, the Bay State would go without a senator until they did. That may sound far-fetched, but difficulties of that sort ultimately convinced the state legislatures to ratify the Seventeenth Amendment, stripping them of their senator-appointing power. If some coalition could muster that majority, the seat might go to some compromiser of Webster’s stripe or a pliant Democrat. Either outcome would serve the cause of slavery.

Looking at that possibility, Palfrey thought the Free Soil party had no chance to get both a governor and a senator they could live with by going along with the coalition plan. Instead, they should strike for both offices:

I would vote for Mr. Phillips for Governor, and some Free Soiler for Senator. I think there si a fair prospect that you would eventually choose Mr. Phillips without any bargain, and with the help of the votes from other parties-such is the high estimation in which he is held. And that would be a great triumph.

Worse case, Palfrey expected the senate seat to remain open rather than go to an enemy of freedom. That would only endure until the next General Court session, by which point he hoped for a solid majority:

Old parties seem designed to be much loosened during the coming year; and we should go before the people with clean hands, occupying blameless and lofty ground, and with a claim to their confidence founded on having shown by our steadfastness that we really value our principles, and meant all that we had said.

Just to make it clear to everyone that Palfrey’s “some Free Soiler” did not look back at him in the mirror, he disclaimed any aspiration to the Senate for himself. He came before them as a disinterested public man, ready to support anybody of sound principles. Those principles did not include cooperating with the Democracy, which ruled Charles Sumner and his three backbones right out.

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