The Breathless Henry Adams: Electing Charles Sumner, Part 5

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

We left Charles Sumner at the end of a long campaign for the United States Senate. His coalition fractured, his fortunes declined, and long periods passed with few votes held. But on April 23, 1851, the Massachusetts Whigs split and the anti-Daniel Webster faction cast their lot with Sumner. That put him over the top and celebrations began at once. Supporters came to Charles Francis Adams’ home, where Sumner then dined, to congratulate their man. After so long, Massachusetts had chosen Sumner as its next senator.

Or had it? News soon came that the legislature had not adjourned after the vote as expected. Charles Adams sent his son Henry, thirteen and a few months, out to learn what had happened. Henry did as told and found out that when the members of the Massachusetts House cast their ballots, someone had lightly written in another man’s name on one also bearing Sumner’s. The anti-Sumner Whigs insisted on counting that one for the other man, which left Sumner still short of a majority. Hearing the news, the Adamses vented their displeasure. Sumner maintained a cool detachment which impressed his host.

Henry Wilson (Free Soil-MA)

Without a majority, the House had to vote again. Two more ballots ensued on the twenty-third. Further irregularity ensued, with one of the votes having more ballots cast than representatives. Someone had taken to outright cheating, with both sides accusing the other. At least half the House went home displeased that night. They reconvened on the twenty-fourth for another round and came up with two extra votes again. Further recrimination gave way in the end to a Whig proposal that the legislators cast their votes in sealed envelopes, so no one could slip in an extra. That did the trick, delivering Sumner the 193 votes he needed and not a single extra. Because of the secret ballot, we don’t know who delivered that last vote to put him over the top.

Charles Francis Adams

Henry Adams watched it all and ran home. He found Sumner at the family table and burst out with the news, which he still recalled decades later as one of the proudest moments of his life. The mainline Whigs went home in a poor mood while Free Soilers and Democrats started a fresh celebration. The coalition’s newspaper, the Commonwealth, soon had thousands of people gathered outside its offices. Revelers set off rockets and Henry Wilson, who had masterminded the coalition, gave a speech. Hecklers called for Daniel Webster, at which point Wilson declared that his party owed their success to Webster’s Seventh of March speech for the Compromise of 1850. Webster’s admirers could call Wilson many things in all fairness, but not wrong. Sumner’s less rowdy foes got together and drafted an indictment of the coalition that elected him as an illegal conspiracy.

Sumner, ill at ease with the press of admirers, beat a quiet retreat to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s house. There he escaped the crowd, but not fears over what he had gotten himself into. Sumner had never held public office before, yet now he would go into the national spotlight as the representative of his great cause, with all the responsibility that entailed. The man of three backbones now felt unsure of the load.

 

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The Whigs Break: Electing Charles Sumner, Part 4

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3

In early February, 1851, things did not look good for Charles Sumner’s Senate bid. Caleb Cushing’s Democratic Indomitables refused to vote for their coalition’s candidate. The Whigs remained immobile for Robert Winthrop. Together those facts left the Free Soil party without a majority in the Massachusetts House. The others could not agree on a candidate, but appeared to have a growing consensus on Anybody But Sumner as the Free Soil nominee began to lose votes.

Looking at his whip count, which Sumner followed closely, he offered to give it up on February 22. Sumner’s offer, like his professed and strictly correct disinterest, had to lack sincerity. He knew as well as the other members of his party that the only candidate aside him that the Free Soilers may united on, Stephen Phillips, would command far fewer Democratic votes. Absent some kind of guarantee that the Democrats or the Whigs would back another person, the party had Sumner or no one. The stalemate wore on into April.

Accusations of corruption flew both ways. Free Soilers pointed to the Whigs’ fund to support their men through anti-Sumner votes in the extended legislative session. Whigs answered back that the coalition bought pro-Sumner votes with the promise of two million from Massachusetts coffers for a railroad. It appears that neither side had it quite right. Whigs did pay for trains to get their members to Boston and support them in the city, as well as gin up anticoalition town meetings, but they did so in such an open manner and with small enough sums that Sumner’s biographer thinks they fell short of genuine bribery. The Whigs and Indomitables who made the railroad charge both agreed in private that it had no basis in fact.

All in all, the Whigs argued from the basis that the coalition had no common interests but the Senate seat. The Free Soilers and Democrats did not feel obligated to agree. The Massachusetts Democracy wanted major reforms to the state’s government which would, incidentally, reduce the strength of Whiggery. Sumner’s election meant far less to them than state politics, which they demonstrated with their indifference to him in subsequent ballots. Free Soilers often, despite Sumner, Adams, and others hailing from Conscience Whiggery, had Democratic antecedents or inclinations. Concerned with the national question and not all that fussed about state affairs going in a Democratic direction, they could concede state offices without great difficulty. Furthermore, Massachusetts Whigs and Democrats alike shared a loathing of slavery. Coalitions have endured for less.

Caleb Cushing

As April wore on, the main body of the coalition began to look ahead to the close of the legislature. They only had a few weeks left and so far had nothing to show for it. No major bills, none of the Democrats reforms, and no Senator had come from their votes. The voters would remember that unkindly in November. During a three week hiatus between votes, the Free Soilers took to the stump in town meetings and passed pro-Sumner resolutions. From New York, Thurlow Weed bent ears about how his Whigs had secured an antislavery senator with Democratic votes. At the same time, Daniel Webster decided Robert Winthrop should give way to a more thoroughgoing Compromise of 1850 man who would support the Fugitive Slave Act. Given all that, the Indomitables may not crack but Whiggery could. On April 23, the twenty-first ballot gave Sumner 195 votes. He had his majority.

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.

A Letter from Charles Francis Adams, Part 2

Charles Francis Adams

 

 

Charles Francis Adams, like Charles Sumner, joined the Free Soil party at its formation. He and Sumner became friends during their mutual estrangement from the Whig Party. That friendship came just when Sumner alienated many of his previous social circle and won ostracism from much of Boston high society for his increasingly outspoken antislavery politics. Now Sumner stood poised for election to the Senate, but dissenters in the Free Soil-Democracy coalition put forward Adams’ name in his place. They reasoned that in a few years their party might achieve unaided dominance of Massachusetts politics and damned the coalition for its corrupting potential. Better to either let the Senate seat remain vacant until their triumphant solo victory or align with the Whigs and elect a solid antislavery man. Sumner’s infamous devotion to the issue made him solid enough for most, but he had readily quit the Whigs where Adams maintained connections within his old party. As such, Adams made the ideal candidate for men already set on a Whig antislavery coalition for much the same reasons that made Sumner ideal for a Democratic one.

Adams agreed, declaring that John Palfrey’s proposal completely won him over. The dictates of conscience and duty aligned for it sufficiently to draw him out of his brief political retirement. Indeed, as he wrote to the Boston Atlas,

the questions of casuistry presented to the Free Soil party are in my mind so wholly clear as to admit no difference of opinion in the determination of them among honest men.

Every decent Free Soil man should threat about the Democracy using and abusing their movement. They should all fear that the Democrats they agreed to prefer for statewide office might turn on them and serve the nation’s more proslavery party. That said,

I have as much confidence in the purity of purpose of the party which which I act, as I ever had; and though I may not agree with the majority in the use of means to attain an end, yet I fully belive [sic] the end we mean to reach is one and the same-the preponderance of the principles of Freedom in the National policy.

Robert Winthrop (Whig-MA)

To this point, Adams has sounded entirely in Palfrey’s vein. He spends most of the length of his letter endorsing his fellow’s program and motives. One could read it as Adams accepting the presumptive nomination. He then acknowledged the appeal of an antislavery Senator of Sumner’s stripe, calling his friend “one of our ablest and most honest and most inflexible advocates.” Adams felt a “temptation” to overlook all Palfrey’s worries. So he did:

Most especially should I be reconciled to every thing short of a dissolution of the party into old line democracy, if it could ring the political knell of one, whose loose private and wavering public career has done more, in my humble judgment, to shake the principles and unsettle the highest policy of puritan New England, than that of any man known to its history.

In short, Adams would like to take a place in the Senate and use his power their to defeat slavery. He worried about the Democrats turning on his party. But he trusted Sumner’s convictions and he believed the risks of coalition worth the gain of deposing such a pliable tool of the slave power as Robert Winthrop.

A Letter from Charles Francis Adams, Part 1

Charles Francis Adams

Readers of The Liberator for January 17, 1851 could turn immediately from John Palfrey’s argument against maintaining the Free Soil-Democratic coalition in Massachusetts to a letter from another prominent Free Soiler, Charles Francis Adams. Palfrey endorsed Stephen Phillips for governor on his proposed ticket, but left the nomination for senator open to an unspecified party man. Most of Palfrey’s and The Liberator’s readers could probably guess he had Adams in mind. According to Charles Sumner’s biographer, David Donald, Adams thought he had a fair chance at becoming a Senator with Free Soil and Whig votes as well. If any missed the implication, then William Lloyd Garrison printed a letter from Adams immediately following Palfrey’s circular.

Adams opened by playing innocent. Nineteenth century politicians should not look hungry for office, but rather approach it when summoned out of a sense of duty. The son and grandson of presidents protested that no one should even care about “the private opinions of a retired individual”. But since the editors of the Boston Atlas, from which Garrison copied the piece, put his name out there Adams felt he ought to set the record straight. Playing disinterested statesman to the hilt, he declared

In all the trials to which individuals in any way connected with the Free Soil movement have been subjected during the years that I have had any share in them, it has been a rule laid down by me for the regulation of my own conduct, never voluntarily to place myself in them, excepting when called upon by my sense of public duty.

Adams didn’t want to take part in politics, except when he did. It had cost him “friends with whom I had for several years cordially acted” when he opposed Robert Winthrop’s bid for Congress back in 1846. Given Winthrop now stood much as he had then, as a conservative Whig, raising that memory had particular resonance even apart from placing Adams in the founding struggles of Massachusetts Free Soil. He then progressed through his opposition to Zachary Taylor for the presidency in 1848, when the Conscience Whigs broke with the state and national party. Seeing Taylor

unattended with a single pledge to sustain the policy of freedom […] I consented to be driven from the associations, from which, I had consulted my own feelings and the natural resentment which rough treatment occasions, I should have parted some time before. And just so has it been of late.

John Palfrey

In other words, Adams didn’t leave Whiggery. Whiggery left Adams, and that in a particularly unkind way. His old affections kept him with the party for too long, he saw with the benefit of hindsight. Now duty moved Adams again:

My sterling and respected friend, John G. Palfrey, took a different view of his duty, and presented his reasoning to me in a manner in which I could not, neither did I seek to avoid an opinion. It commanded my assent, and I bowed to the ascendancy of moral truth, recognizing in this as in preceding cases, the force that principle of conscience in judging political questions, for which it has been the pleasure of those opposed to us to make us a bye-word and a reproach.

Adams didn’t want any part of political advancement. But his good friend Palfrey had such a strong argument that it dragged the retiree, who hadn’t held an office since his Massachusetts State Senate term ended in 1845, back into politics. A skeptical observer might note that Charles Adams also found duty dragged him into serving as Martin Van Buren’s running mate on the Free Soil ticket in 1848. Adams had certainly left public office, but his retirement from politics looks to have lasted about a year.

 

Electing Charles Sumner, Part 2

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

The Free Soil-Democratic coalition beat the Whigs and carried the day in the Massachusetts elections of late 1850, but the Whigs still had a plurality. That made the coalition especially vulnerable to defectors twice over considering that their alignment did not amount to a full fusion, but only agreement on specific candidates for the state legislature and agreement to decide jointly on nominations thereafter. Conservatives Whigs based around Boston associated with Daniel Webster favored Robert Winthrop’s election and wooed the coalition’s governor toward their camp, persuading him not to endorse Charles Sumner for the Senate. A rump group of conservative Democrats led by Caleb Cushing bolted the coalition to stop Sumner’s election, aiming ultimately to make themselves spoilers and kingmakers.

That accounts for the Democrats in the coalition and the Whigs outside it, but one would imagine that free soilers demonstrated greater unity behind Sumner. As one of their own, he must command some loyalty beyond that of established politicians. In public, they largely kept together. In private, the free soil party too had its factions. Many former Democrats could look on Sumner as something like a kindred spirit, but still prefer Marcus Morton, the antislavery ex-governor of the state. They complained that ex-Whig fixers worked to keep them from positions of power and took Sumner’s nomination as proof. He may have leanings toward the Democracy, but the Democrats had in Morton an actual party man from way back to favor.

On the other side of the divide within the party, Conscience Whigs who had battled the Democracy for a generation did not sit easily in coalition with it. They had kept the faith for ages and now Sumner, a relatively young man, would advance ahead of them to a prize that would count for little. One antislavery vote would only “be crushed under an overwhelming proslavery majority,” as David Donald quotes the editor of a new paper the party aimed to start at the first of the year in his two-volume biography of Sumner, from which I derive most of this struggle. It would do them better to keep themselves pure, concede the Senate seat, and come back with a stronger majority some other day.

Charles Francis Adams

That argument cost the Commonwealth, its incoming editor his job. The party set John G. Palfrey aside in favor of more dependable types, but not without cost to the Free Soilers. Charles Francis Adams, the son and grandson of presidents, thought with the support of the regular Whigs and Palfrey-style dissenters, he might himself become a senator. Nor could many doubt the antislavery credentials of an Adams after John Quincy’s eight year crusade against the gag rule or dream of his son as an upstart. The confidential letter Palfrey wrote to the legislature against the coalition and Adams’ letter abandoning his own quiet quest for the senate in favor of Sumner appeared side by side in the January 17, 1851 edition of The Liberator. They will bear closer examination, starting tomorrow.