More Hot Water for Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner had a rough time of it from the summer of 1854. His party lost control of Massachusetts. The architect of the coalition that elected him defected to the Know-Nothings and then swept the state. He tried to get away from it all, and escape aligning himself with the nativists, with a vacation and managed to flip his carriage. But things did improve for him in the fall. The Know-Nothings lost the Virginia governor’s race, which gave hope that anti-immigrant, anti-catholic paranoia would not form the seed of a durable movement. The phenomenal showing in the Massachusetts legislature, where the Know-Nothings had almost unanimity, stumbled under the burden of amateur legislators and an investigation of the state’s Catholic religious institutions. By summer of 1855, Charles Adams thought that denouncing the nativists now would look like a desperate attempt to jump on the bandwagon.

Henry Wilson, who had gone over to the natvists for a shot at the Senate, promptly came back and set to forming a new coalition on strictly antislavery lines. The Know-Nothing governor would take support from anywhere and signed on. Wilson reached out to Robert Winthrop and his conservative Whigs. Throw in disorganized Know-Nothings, anti-Nebraska Democrats, and together they could all join the Republicans. All that might put Sumner in a bind. Governor Gardner obviously didn’t deserve his trust. Wilson promised Winthrop something substantial for joining. That could mean Sumner’s head. Then again, if the fusion plan failed then Sumner remained without party support back home.

Sumner’s enemies might have saved him. Winthrop’s Boston Whiggery sat out the planned convention out of distrust for the Senator and Wilson. That left Wilson with no one to support in the Senate except Sumner, who he endorsed for re-election when the time came. The convention kept nativism out of its platform and opted to support a new governor rather than the Know-Nothing incumbent. Gardner in turn quit his flirtation with the Republicans and ran as a pure Know-Nothing. The realignment shook out so that all the antislavery men lined up in the Republicans and the Know-Nothings boasted only old line Whigs. That left Sumner free to campaign for the Republicans and denounce the Know-Nothings without harming his own support.

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

The new alignment closely matched the old, Free Soilers back again with a few more Whigs in attendance. Bay State voters noticed and repeated their lack of enthusiasm. The Know-Nothings increased the pressure by asking for Sumner and Wilson’s resignations. If they didn’t oblige, then the legislature might instruct them out of office. That meant delivering binding instructions to the senators with which they couldn’t easily comply, essentially forcing their resignation. Failing that, they might even just elect two new senators and send them on. Gardner liked himself for the job.

Sumner tried to revive his prospects by close attention to constituent services and the usual quest to secure federal dollars for projects back home, to little avail. He struggled to find a publisher for a collection of his speeches, with printers informing him that the book had little potential unless they could say it included the Senator’s last oration. With nothing else working, he had to resume his attacks upon slavery.



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.

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.