Senator Sumner Goes to Washington

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Henry Adams, the fourth generation of his family to appear in this blog, brought the good news to Charles Sumner twice: Massachusetts chose him as its new senator. Sumner, with no previous experience in office and a stormy career as a spokesman and activist for prison reform and against war and slavery, had reason to doubt his abilities. Winning appeared relatively easy. Governing, if Sumner had any opportunity to at all, would prove harder. Washington and its politicians had displeased a much less radical Sumner on his one prior visit and he had come to public life only with some reluctance and the encouragement of John Quincy Adams.

Barely elected at all, after great struggle, and by a coalition damned by members of both national parties, Sumner lacked the wind at his back that a newly-elected man might hope for. Nor could he dream of putting his stamp on the nation while he remained a member of a tiny minority. His rhetoric, the one area where he might reasonably expect to excel, would now face opposition from skilled proslavery debaters. To employ it to any use, Sumner would have to master the Senate’s arcane rules and traditions or risk making a fool of himself.

Sumner’s embarrassments began as soon as he presented his credentials. By Senate tradition, the senior senator for one’s state presented a newcomer to the chamber. Sumner’s Massachusetts peer chose to oversleep rather than risk the wrath of Daniel Webster, leaving him to hunt down Lewis Cass and beg an introduction. Instead of the customary phrasing where a Senator begged leave to present a colleague, Cass informed the others only that

I have been requested to present the credentials of Charles Sumner, a Senator elect from the State of Massachusetts.

John Hale

Thomas Hart Benton, just defeated for re-election courtesy of David Rice Atchison, had a more sympathetic but just as disheartening welcome for Sumner. He told the new senator that all the great men had gone and taken the great issues of the day with them. Settling down into the desk previously occupied by Jefferson Davis, Sumner could look across a chamber with few allies. New Hampshire’s John Hale seemed like a shady character despite their shared party. He got on better with Salmon P. Chase. Sumner feared William Seward, who he otherwise liked, would always put Whiggery above antislavery. Hamilton Fish, Seward’s New York colleague, lamented Winthrop’s lost seat but went out of his way to make Sumner welcome.

Sumner found unlikely friends among the chamber’s Southern contingent. They knew many Yankees made antislavery speeches back home, but what went on back home didn’t necessarily translate to personal relationships in Washington. Soon Massachusetts antislavery extremist claimed Pierre Soulé as his best friend. He likewise befriended Andrew Pickens Butler, who sat next to him. Seeing in Sumner a man who knew his classics, Butler relied on him to check the quotations he planned to use in speeches. In these situations, and otherwise socially, Sumner declined to raise his antislavery opinions and instead talked or history and far-off happenings.

Soon Sumner settled, if not entirely comfortably, into the regular spin of Washington society. With everyone far from home, the political class formed their own small world with an unending cycle of dinners and other social occasions where they entertained each other in small groups for a large portion of the week. A single week of his first month saw Sumner hosted by Millard Fillmore, the French Minister, and Francis Blair. His party might earn him political isolation, and a few men rubbed Sumner wrong or took a dislike to him, but he didn’t suffer much from personal ostracism.

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.

 

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.

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.

 

Electing Charles Sumner, Part 1

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

 

With the elections of 1850, the Free Soil-Democrat coalition took control of Massachusetts. That coalition did not amount to a full fusion movement, but rather the local Democracy and Free Soil elements jointly agreeing on individual candidates while remaining independent. Massachusetts still returned a Whig plurality, but the Democrats and Free Soilers together outnumbered them. With victory in hand, the real horse trading began. The Free Soilers agreed to back the Democrat’s man for governor, George S. Boutwell, as well as the lieutenant governor and various officers in the legislature. The Democracy could also place their own man to finish the rump of Daniel Webster’s last Senate term. The Free Soilers claimed the state senate presidency and the full term for the United States Senate beginning on March 4, 1851. The leadership of both groups hashed out the settlement and presented it to their caucuses, who agreed. On January 7, the Free Soilers nominated Charles Sumner to go to Washington by a vote of 84-1. The Democrats concurred, with only six opposing.

The Whigs promptly erupted at the outrageous trading of offices, on the grounds of keeping politics pure and free from interested men and, incidentally, because they lost. Daniel Webster blamed the failure at the polls on his replacement in the Senate, Robert Winthrop. Winthrop refused to endorse the Fugitive Slave Act and that torpedoed Whiggery’s chances by making him look like a crazy abolitionist. He should have gone all-in on the entire Compromise of 1850. Godlike Dan, Secretary of State for Millard Fillmore, set to purging Sumner men from the civil service and aimed to lead his Boston Whigs into a new organization. Webster had wished for a party all to himself for probably as long as he had considered himself a Whig of any kind and the fraught times must have seemed ripe enough for another go. His supporters set about wooing the new governor, who had positioned himself as a pro-Compromise man in his inaugural.

Daniel Webster (Whig-MA)

Not every Massachusetts Whig, present or former, bought what Webster tried selling. Far more of them believed Black Dan’s course an excellent way to lose elections and remained open to some kind of alignment with ex-Whigs in the Free Soil movement. They had Charles Francis Adams in mind for the Senate. On the other side of the aisle, the Democracy cared more for breaking Whig dominance than advancing Sumner’s career. But since the senate seat meant less to them than action at the state level, and Sumner had worked well with Democrats before, most found him acceptable.

Caleb Cushing

A minority led by Caleb Cushing felt otherwise and kept strategic silence during the office trading, right up through Boutwell’s election. Then he led them out to make their own caucus against Sumner, the “Indomitables.” More than thirty strong, they had enough votes to swing the senate election against either Winthrop, Webster’s man again, or Sumner. Cushing hoped to defeat both and make himself a senator in the name of conservative Whiggery. Failing that, he turned to Edward Everett. Mainly, however, Cushing put pressure on the coalition Democracy with help from Lewis Cass and other party luminaries. That, Webster’s wooing, or both moved Boutwell to disclaim any interest in Sumner’s election, pawning the matter off on the legislature.

Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Nine

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, 2, 3 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 Text of the speech (page 140)

Fresh off the band outside giving up, Charles Sumner proceeded to congratulate his constituents on existing. Their movement proved that Slave Power had become the great issue of the day, which no politician could adjust away with cunning “intrigues”. “[T]he subject of subjects” would sleep no longer, but must take its place in the halls of Congress. The Slave Power filled

the very halls of the Capitol, while it overshadows and darkens other subjects. There it will continue, till driven into oblivion by the irresistible Genius of Freedom.

A threat and a promise in one: if antislavery did not triumph than the dark reign of slavery would continue forever. But if good antislavery men kept up and -hint, hint– sent Charles Sumner to the Senate, then a new era may dawn. But Sumner could only hope, given the dismal state of the nation in late 1850. He knew it looked bad:

The wave of reaction, after sweeping over Europe, has reached our shores. The barriers of Human Rights are broken down. Statesmen, writers, scholars, speakers, once their uncompromising professors, have become professors of compromise. All this must be changed. Reaction must be stayed. The country must be aroused. The cause must again be pressed, -with the fixed purpose never to moderate our efforts until crowned by success.

Daniel Webster

All those Daniel Webster types who changed their stripes in the name of compromise had only turned traitor. Massachusetts could not let them get away with it, but must repudiate their politics for a new form. That meant setting the nation on the right course, “the side of Freedom” against “[t]he policy of Slavery.” Until free soilers routed that “fruitful parent of national ills,” they could not rest or the land would sink ever deeper under the Slave Power’s weight. To keep up the fight, patriotic American men “of all parties and pursuits” must join together:

Welcome here the Conservative and the Reformer! for our cause stands on the truest Conservatism and the truest Reform. In seeking the reform of existing evils, we seek also the conservation of the principles handed down by our fathers. welcome especially the young! To you I appeal with confidence. Trust to your generous impulses, and to that reasoning of the heart, which is often truer, and it is less selfish, than the calculations of the head.

The Free Soilers needed to take all comers anyway, so they may as well roll out the welcome mat. The Massachusetts right, particularly the textile mill owners who had a direct, financial interest in slavery all their professional lives, would take rather longer to get on board than the flower of the Bay State’s youth or its antislavery left. It took the Kansas-Nebraska Act four years later to convince many. The flower of the Boston aristocracy thought little of Sumner personally even then, making him a less than convincing recruiter for the cause, but new parties must accept any support they can get. If a few crusty Cotton Whigs came to overlook Sumner’s fiery rhetoric, then he would take them along with the starry-eyed young idealists.

Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Five

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, 2, 3 4Text of the speech (page 140)

From reminding the men of Massachusetts of their “immediate antislavery duties”, Charles Sumner proceeded to attack the Compromise of 1850 in general. The Fugitive Slave Act deserved an execration all its own, but the Congress had also just committed “enormities of legislation” that condemned vast swaths of land to slavery, both in yielding to much of Texas’ literally Texas-sized territorial claims and in organizing Utah and New Mexico territories without a slavery prohibition. Furthermore, slavery remained legal in the District of Columbia, the interstate slave trade remained untouched, and “the Slave Power still dominant over the National Government.” He would have none of the finality that the shaky compromise coalition pronounced the balm for the nation’s wounds.

Nothing can be settled which is not right. [Sensation.] Nothing can be settled which is against Freedom. Nothing can be settled which is contrary to the Divine Law. God, Nature, and all the holy sentiments of the heart repudiate any such false seeming settlement.

Parties might come and go, as Sumner well knew whilst addressing a group that had defected from the national parties. Right and wrong, decreed in Heaven, did not. No man could compromise away divine edicts or release a god-fearing people from their duty to obey. No peace could come which did not comport with the “everlasting principles” that the free soilers knew. Promising brevity, about twenty pages in, Sumner laid out one of those principles:

Slavery is wrong. It is the source of unnumbered woes, -not the least of which is its influence on the Slaveholder himself, rendering him insensible to its outrage. It overflows with injustice and inhumanity. Language toils in vain to picture the wretchedness and wickedness which it sanctions and perpetuates. Reason revolts at the impious assumption that man can hold property in man. As it is our perpetual duty to oppose wrong, so we must oppose Slavery; nor can we ever relax in this opposition, so long as the giant evil continues anywhere within the sphere of our influence. Especially must we oppose it, whenever we are responsible for its existence, or in any way parties to it.

Sumner repeated the standard line that slavery damaged white virtue, which must sound as callous to us as it did important to them. Talking about slavery shouldn’t mean a speech all about white Americans suffering abstract, moral injury when black Americans suffer grievous bodily harm. But previous parts of this series have addressed Sumner’s view of slavery’s inhumanity to the slave and teased something at least tending toward racial egalitarianism. He went there first.

He also has a point. We accept or reject certain exercises of power out of habit as much as principle. Enslavers who declared that the color line immunized whites from their brutalities would soon put that principle aside in Kansas. They already did at home, ruthlessly policing dissenters into silence or driving them from slave states. They had gagged the House of Representatives for eight years. They even then demanded white men of the North join their slave catching operations. Once a person becomes used to wielding power uninhibited in one way in one context, the inhibitions against doing the same in another become that much weaker. The Slave Power did not seek to enslave whites, but it had demanded and often received assurances that all white men would act as its agents. The threat to white freedom should not dominate our understanding of slavery, but nor should we entirely neglect it as a product of paranoid, racist minds.

 

“Like the flaming sword of the cherubim at the gates of Paradise” Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Four

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, 2, 3 Text of the speech (page 140)

Charles Sumner preached resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act. The good men of Massachusetts could do no less, lest the spirits of their Puritan and Revolutionary fathers rise up against them. To submit to such an unjust law, such an offense against Heaven, Massachusetts manhood would unman themselves and sink to the level of African potentates who sold the slaves to white men to begin with. Heroic self-stealing fugitives, black men, would rightly look down upon white Massachusetts.

Not that Sumner expected his free soil audience to betray their principles. He expected many would “never shrink, at any cost, and not withstanding all the atrocious penalties of this Bill” from doing right. When called upon, the sons and grandsons of the Revolution would shelter and hide fugitive slaves in their own houses “and, if need be,” will protect his liberty by force.”

This all took Sumner right to the brink of suggesting armed resistance. Some in the crowd might have gone for that, but northern men did not win election to the United States Senate by preaching revolution in 1850. That honor belonged, sometimes and increasingly, to southerners. Sumner abjured any violent intentions, the language of force aside. I suspect he meant to imply that one could resist a private slave-catcher by force, but ought to find other methods for an officer of the national government. One could also read his remarks as a wink and nudge for anybody who did want to rough up a US Marshal, with the understanding that Sumner himself couldn’t go on the record for that.

All that said, Sumner had “another power” in mind:

stronger than any individual arm, which I invoke: I mean that irresistible Public Opinion, inspired by love of god and man, which, without violence or noise, gently as the operations of Nature, makes and unmakes laws. Let this Public Opinion be felt in its might, and the Fugitive Slave Bill will everywhere among us become a dead letter. No lawyer will aid it by counsel, no citizen will be its agent

Violence and noise came, as Sumner may have expected. Public opinion usually requires some degree of policing to manage a successful stand against formal power. It only takes a few unmoved by sentiment to take the cases of slave-catchers and serve on commissions. Massachusetts would have both. Thus the fate of fugitives in Massachusetts well and truly fell on them as the public to make Public Opinion:

like the flaming sword of the cherubim at the gates of Paradise, turning on every side, it shall prevent any SLAVE-HUNTER from ever setting food in this Commonwealth.

The flaming sword must have reminded Sumner that he came close to the line, because he walked it back again:

I would not touch his person. Not with whips and thongs would I scourge him from the land. The contempt, the indignation, the abhorrence of the community shall be our weapons of offence.

Sumner’s Massachusetts would deny the slave-catcher “roof, fire, or water”. The communities would not accept him, but “they shall vomit him forth.” All of that went double for any low life who would volunteer to aid in slave renditions. The Daniel Websters and Millard Fillmores had best not forget it.

Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Two

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, Text of the speech (page 140)

Charles Sumner stood before the Free Soil meeting at Faneuil Hall on November 6, 1850, and gave the crowd the kind of speech they wanted. Outraged by the Fugitive Slave Act, he told them that Millard Fillmore ought never have been born rather than sign the bill into law. He invoked the American Revolution, by way of John Adams, and Massachusetts’ Puritan heritage in the person of John Winthrop to defend resistance to fugitive renditions. The passions of the past had not faded from the Bay State yet, but instead the children of the city on a hill felt “unconquerable rage”. In the old days, they “held up to detestation” men who favored the Stamp Act.

Then Sumner went for audience participation. He asked the free soilers if they should give “the Slave-Hunter” a pass.

[“No! no!”] The Stamp Act could not be executed here. Can the Fugitive Slave Bill? [‘Never!”]

That put Sumner in an awkward spot, at least for the purposes of performance. He told the free soilers that he “sustain[ed] an important relation to this Bill.” When just starting out as a lawyer, Joseph Story named him a commissioner of the court. Though he did little work in that capacity, Sumner’s name remained on the rolls.

As such, I am one of those before whom the panting fugitive may be dragged for the decision of the question, whether he is a freeman or a slave. But while it becomes me to speak with caution, I shall not hesitate to speak with plainness. I cannot forget that I am a man, although I am a Commissioner.

Daniel Webster (Whig-MA)

This all made for great theater, but Massachusetts had late experience with politicians who had preached antislavery now and then but found themselves obligated to defend the institution in the course of their duties. No less a Bay Stater than Daniel Webster had come out in favor of the Compromise of 1850, preaching Union above all. Sumner would do none of that. Nor did he think anyone else should, though he did not presume to judge officials who did. A magistrate in such a position should, Sumner averred with no judgment at all, resign his office. They would answer to their consciences, not the man on the stage.

Our non-judgmental Sumner proceeded to stress how little he would judge his fellow magistrates:

Surely no person of humane feelings and with any true sense of justice, living in a land “where bells have knolled to church,” whatever may be the apology of public station, can fail to recoil from such a service. For myself let me say, that I can imagine no office, no salary, no consideration, which I would not gladly forego, rather than become in any way the agent in enslaving my brother-man.

Such a deed would haunt Sumner -not judging anyone, mind!- all his waking and dreaming hours, alone or in company of others. If he failed, then he wold have to live with facing his victim,

From distance rice-fields and sugar-plantations of the South, his cries beneath the vindictive lash, his moans at the thought of Liberty, once his, now, alas! ravished away, repeating the tale of his fearful doom, and sounding, forever sounding, in my ears, “Thou art the man!”

But no pressure, fellow officers of the court.

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.