Indomitables, Editorials, and Whig Money: Electing Charles Sumner, Part 3

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2

Factional struggles within the Free Soil party over the acceptability of coalition with the Democrats and threats without from both the Democracy and Whigs of Massachusetts put Charles Sumner’s election to the Senate in considerable jeopardy. With withdrawal of his chief rival for the spot among Free Soil men, Charles Francis Adams, did not quiet the discontent with the coalition. Most who objected to it preferred to join up with the regular Whigs, their original party, regardless and they might have the votes with their plurality to replace the Democrats.

Through all the politicking, Sumner himself maintained a statesman’s distance. He claimed that others put his name forward without his leave, endorsing instead Adams or Stephen Phillips. Both of those worthies had the distinction of serving in public office before, where Sumner’s life to date involved a middling law practice, a frustrated academic career, and political activism that had cost him the latter and damaged the former by making him a virtual pariah in Boston society. Adams rejecting the spot didn’t change much, at least for public consumption. Sumner refused to openly lobby for the seat, even when Democrats and Free Soilers asked him directly. He told everyone that he would not as much as cross the room to get the job.

The Massachusetts House met on January 14, 1851 and voted for their senator. Sumner fell five votes shy courtesy of Democratic defections. Four more ballots over two days did not shake them loose. The coalition’s architect, Henry Wilson fumed. Sumner put on a chipper face and went about his life. The state Senate turned out in Sumner’s favor, which gave him genuine cause to smile. He still needed the House, but now he had something in his favor. The House promptly let him down on five subsequent ballots, with the Whigs sticking to Winthrop. The Free Soilers remained unanimous for Sumner, but the Democracy proved Palfrey’s fears reasonable again courtesy of Caleb Cushing’s Indomitables. Rather than choosing their own candidate, they scattered their votes and hoped to play kingmaker to a Never Sumner candidate.

Amos Adams Lawrence

The Free Soil party lobbied George Boutwell for an endorsement, which he did not give, and published glowing editorials about Sumner’s qualifications and character. Massachusetts Whiggery, established a fund to support their members during the legislative session tied up with the election. Amos Lawrence, later namesake of Lawrence, Kansas, contributed heavily and claimed that the money went to humanitarian consideration rather than to buy loyalty. The long session would personally cost the legislators, so they deserved some kind of compensation for the damage done to their personal finances. Of course by helping them stay in session longer, Lawrence and the others blunted any financial incentive to defect and settle. Funny how that worked out.

Voting paused after January 24, resuming almost two weeks later on February 2. Sumner fell two votes short. A week of more ballots followed and Sumner lost ground, coming up nine votes short. With his stock falling, someone else would soon come forward and a dark horse senator would go to Washington in his stead. Sumner kept up the pose of aloofness, which even coalition foe John Palfrey considered admirably correct, while following the matter with intense interest.

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