William Lloyd Garrison’s Purity

William Lloyd Garrison

We left William Lloyd Garrison moving the goalposts. Charles Sumner betrayed the antislavery cause by not submitting promptly a petition for the release of Messrs. Drayton and Sayers, smugglers of fugitive slaves. Sumner spent that time working quietly for their pardon, but Garrison didn’t know and didn’t care. When pressed by the National Era, another antislavery paper, on the issue, Garrison shrugged off the whole Drayton and Sayres affair. Helping free people imprisoned for freeing slaves doesn’t appear to have excited Boston’s purest abolitionist nearly so much as getting a nice antislavery speech out of his new Senator.

The next week, Garrison took up the question again and said as much directly. He first insisted that the two prisoners didn’t have the ability, from inside a jail, to make meaningful judgments on their own case. But even if they did:

we repeat, this is comparatively a trifling matter. We complain, and must continue to complain, that Mr. Sumner has allowed six months and a half to pass away at Washington, without opening his lips for the millions in bonds, whom he was sent there to represent. It is useless to blink this out of sight, or try to apologize for it. The omiossion amounts to a positive dereliction of duty. In Faneuil Hall Mr. Sumner could declare, long ago-‘We demand first and foremost‘ [Garrison’s emphasis] the INSTANT REPEAL of the Fugitive Slave Bill,- a Bill which he branded as ‘most cruel, unchristian, devilish, detestable, heaven-defying; setting at naught the best principles of the Constitution and the very laws of God.’

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Anyone could look askance at Sumner’s silence in light of his previous rhetoric. The new senator had spoken himself into a corner during the campaign. But Garrison’s remarkable indifference to the plight of two men held for aiding fugitive slaves, the very thing that the Fugitive Slave Law prohibited, remains striking. He deserves points for not focusing entirely on the plight of white men when speaking against slavery, but his opposition to the law, his sympathy for slaves, and his indifference to people who have taken real action to help the slaves by smuggling them to freedom do not sit easily together. Garrison made no bones about it either, describing the present state of affairs that Sumner found so tolerable as

men, women and children are hunted daily, and ruthlessly shot down or dragged back to bondage.

Yet men who struck against that order and helped the enslaved rescue themselves from such horrors get a shrug. Even at the most sympathetic reading, Garrison seems more intent on vindicating himself about the fundamental corruption and uselessness of politics rather than securing material aid to fugitive slaves or their helpers. A speech would do more, to Garrison. Twenty years into his career as an outspoken abolitionist, he still believed that the right words from the right man at the right time would forge a great wave of manumission.

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.


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.

John G. Palfrey’s Case Against Coalition, Part 1

John Palfrey

The election of 1850 left the Free Soil-Democrat coalition in control of the Massachusetts legislature. That gave them the power to name its senator and the respective caucuses decided to nominate Charles Sumner. That should make for smooth sailing, but the coalition had not negotiated a full fusion and remained full of men with prior party affiliations that made them uneasy in coalition with prior enemies. Furthermore, as experienced political hands they had a full range of personal grudges and ambitions. A Free Soiler named John Palfrey, a historian and Unitarian minister in addition to his political career, objected to Sumner and the coalition in a confidential circular letter to the incoming Free Soil members of Massachusetts’ General Court. His confidential letter appears in The Liberator for January 17, 1851.

Palfrey opens by explaining that he didn’t really mean to sneak around behind anyone’s back. They should read him as a fellow traveler with concerns, not trying to influence anybody or puff himself up. Then he got to it, arguing that nothing in the coalition agreement with the Democrats required Free Soilers to continue working in concert with them now that the election had come and gone. The parties had every right under that arrangement to set their own courses, however their consciences may dictate.

I know of no existing compact or understanding, to restrain the free action of either. The Post, the chief organ of the Democracy, disavows everything of the kind; and I understand that the language of most of the principal country papers of that party is the same.

In other words, even the Democrats didn’t think they had some kind of open-ended deal coalition deal. Therefore, Free Soil men should not feel “any obligation of good faith” to support Boutwell for the Governor’s post. They had in Stephen Phillips a Conscience Whig of eminent qualifications, “thoroughly sympathizing with them in the momentous objects of their party organization” who would do far better as a governor. Boutwell, as a Democrat, would feel pressure to align with his national party and turn proslavery on the coalition.

On the other hand,

The Whigs have in past times talked as well for freedom as ourselves. Some of them talk so still. We have said that the difference between us and them was, that they did not act up to their professions, because, by voting for pro-slavery men for high office, they directed their political actions against liberty. If the same way we cease to act up to our professions, will not the difference between them and us appear to the people to be done away? and shall we not lose the people’s confidence? and shall we not deserve to lose it?

A politician of any stripe could make a similar argument. Both modern parties have adherents, myself included, who complain about members in name only. Whigs like Palfrey had quit Whiggery when the party nominated Zachary Taylor for the presidency. To support Boutwell risked doing themselves just what they had damned the national party for.