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Chapter 3: Whittier the politician

As Whittier was a writer for the press before he attended a high school, so he was a politician before he was a reformer. The most surprising revelation made by Mr. Pickard's late biography of Whittier was of the manner in which he, like many promising young Americans, was early swept into political work of a really demoralising description from which only the antislavery movement withdrew him. So closely were the two phases allied, that at the very moment (1833) when he was writing and printing at his own expense an antislavery pamphlet on “Justice and expediency,” he was aiding to support a well-known public man, Caleb Cushing, for whom those two phases were apparently only dice to play with. Fortune offering for Whittier an advancement in a similar manner, he escaped the great peril by a hair's breadth. His biographer faces frankly this curious early phase in the poet's life, and volunteers the remark: “His few years in practical politics had fostered an ambition for power and patronage of which those can have no idea who only knew him after he had devoted himself to philanthropic labours.” This is shown irresistibly in a letter written when there seemed a chance of his being sent as a Representative to Congress. This was the situation in brief. Congressional elections had at that [41] time to be determined, in Massachusetts, by a majority over all other candidates, not as now by a mere plurality. In the district where he dwelt, Caleb Cushing was the candidate, and Whittier had himself supported him; but seventeen attempts at election had been successively made, without securing a majority, so that Cushing himself was probably willing that Whittier, a far more popular candidate, should be tried. The difficulty was that at the next trial, already appointed for November, Whittier would be under the required age, twenty-five. To meet this difficulty, the youth made the following proposal, it being understood that Mr. Thayer, who is mentioned, was a leading editor in the district, and had opposed Cushing, but was ready to support Whittier. Mr. Kittredge, also mentioned, was another rival candidate. The letter is dated East Parish, Wednesday morning, and was probably written in August, 1832.

Since conversing with you yesterday, a new objection to our project has occurred to me,--the Constitution requires that the Representative shall be twenty-five years of age. I shall not be twenty-five till the 17th of December. So that I would not be eligible at the next trial in November. This, you will see, gives a different aspect to the whole affair. Perhaps, however, if the contest is prolonged till after the next time, the project might be put in execution.

Suppose you advocate a holding on to Mr. C. in your ‘Newburyport letter’ ? Suppose, too, that you nominate in your paper Mr. Cushing without any one-sided convention? After the trial in November, you can then use the arguments in favour of our plan which you propose to do now; and if it suits Mr. C., he can then request his friends to give their votes for some other individual for the sake of promoting peace in the district. The Kittredge committee would in that case probably nominate a candidate,--if one could be [42] found,--but, I understand Mr. Thayer, not with the expectation of his being elected.

If I were nominated after the November trial, Mr. Thayer, situated as he and I relatively are, would support the nomination, and let the other candidate go, as he did John Merrill. Purdy, the ‘Telegraph,’ and the ‘ Essex Register’ would do the same.

The truth of the matter is, the thing would be peculiarly beneficial to me,--if not at home, it would be so abroad. It would give me an opportunity of seeing and knowing our public characters, and in case of Mr. Clay's election, might enable me to do something for myself or my friends. It would be worth more to me now, young as I am, than almost any office after I had reached the meridian of life.

In this matter, if I know my own heart, I am not entirely selfish. I never yet deserted a friend, and I never will. If my friends enable me to acquire influence, it shall be exerted for their benefit. And give me once an opportunity of exercising it, my first object shall be to evince my gratitude by exertions in behalf of those who had conferred such a favour upon me.

If you write to Newburyport to-day, you can say that we are willing and ready to do all we can at the next trial; say, too, that the Kittredge folks will scarcely find a candidate, and that there may be a chance for Cushing better than he has yet had; that at all events, it can do no harm; and that if after that trial Mr. C. sees fit to request his friends not to vote for him for the 22nd Congress, there will be as good a chance then of electing a Cushing man as there is now. Say, too, if you please, that I am ready to go on with the contest, and you had better recommend mildness in the process of electioneering.

Pickard's Whittier, 168, 169.

There are many lapses from a high standard which count for less at twenty-four than at thirty; and what strikes the reader is not so much that Whittier should wish to go to Congress at that early age, as that his [43] plans were based on the very methods, from which we have been trying of late years to get free — the appeal to mutual self-interest in securing posts of honour. The italics in the letter are Whittier's own; they are the points on which he wished to dwell. They would seem to imply a selfishness of nature which nothing else in his life indicates; and the only fact in his later life, with which they seem to bear the slightest connexion, is that which might otherwise have passed unobserved, namely, that he never seems to have identified himself — among the various reforms which enlisted him-with the Civil Service Reform.

Nothing, however, came of this. Cushing succeeded in being elected in 1834, and Whittier showed political skill on its best side in making Cushing the medium through which antislavery measures could be presented to Congress, when no other conspicuous member except John Quincy Adams would venture on this. Cushing was practically elected through Whittier three times in succession; but the latter gradually lost all faith in him, and when Cushing at last tried to suppress his own antislavery record, that he might get an office when the Whigs came into power in 1841, Whittier was too strong for him, reprinted the letter which under his own management had carried Cushing through his last election to Congress, and prefaced it with such skill as absolutely to defeat Cushing's ambition.

The result was that the National Senate, still largely under the influence of the slave power, three times rejected Cushing's nomination as Secretary of the Treasury, as it had previously rejected Edward Everett on the same ground, because he too had [44] coquetted with the rising Antislavery party. The skill of Whittier — just the kind of strategetical skill which is rare among reformers — thus made itself formidable. The same thing was felt ten years later in the management which put Charles Sumner in the United States Senate; and by a curious coincidence, Caleb Cushing, who was then a member of the Legislature, was again arrayed against Whittier, and again failed.

The important local ordeal of 1848 which resulted in the downfall of the old Whig party in Massachusetts, and the substitution of what was then called the “Coalition” of the Free Soil and Democratic parties, placing Charles Sumner in the United States Senate, practically for life — this interested Whittier profoundly. I remember well that though he never made a speech in that contest, I always heard his political instinct and foresight fully recognised by my elder brothers, who regarded the other leaders — C. F. Adams, R. H. Dana, J. G. Palfrey — as too academic or unpractical for success. I, taking some personal part in the contest, as a novice, and speaking at “Free Soil” meetings which Whittier attended, remember that he watched me very closely, criticising and, when he could, commending; indeed, usually overrating the little efforts of young speakers, as non-speakers are apt to do. Thus he wrote me after my very first effort, when I emerged with difficulty from the formidable ordeal of following the mighty Sumner: “Thy address here was liked well, notwithstanding thy misgivings. Courage. Go on and prosper. Yours truly, J. G. W.” And again later, in indorsement of an invitation to speak at East Salisbury (Oct. 27, 1848): “We [45] hope thou wilt aid us in this movement [it is to be noticed that he does not use the Quaker form, ‘thee will’ ] as we wish to make a good demonstration. I hear a fine report of thy labour in W. Amesbury and Haverhill. Good was done. J. G. Whittier.” Such kindly words from a man of forty to a callow youth of four and twenty suggest a gratitude for which time brings no forgetfulness; at least, when that man is Whittier.

On April 24, 1850, Charles Sumner was elected United States Senator from Massachusetts, on the twenty-sixth ballot, by a majority of one. Whittier, who had taken his accustomed quiet but eager share in all the preliminary negotiations, wrote thus to his friend, Mrs. Lippincott,--known as “Grace Greenwood” in literature,--giving his view of the matter.

I am slowly recovering from the severest illness I have known for years, the issue of which, at one time, was to me exceedingly doubtful. Indeed, I scarcely know now how to report myself, but I am better, and full of gratitude to God that I am permitted once more to go abroad and enjoy this beautiful springtime. The weather now is delightfully warm and bright, and the soft green of the meadows is climbing our hills. It is luxury to live. One feels at such times terribly rooted to this world: old Mother Earth seems sufficient for us. . . . After a long trial and much anxiety, our grand object in Massachusetts has been attained. We have sent Charles Sumner into the United States Senate,--a man physically and spiritually head and shoulders above the old hackneyed politicians of that body. The plan for this was worked out last summer at Phillips Beach, and I sounded Sumner upon it the evening we left you at that place. He really did not want the office, but we forced it upon him. I am proud of old Massachusetts, and thankful that I have had an humble share in securing her so true and worthy a [46] representative of her honour, her freedom, and intellect, as Charles Sumner. He is a noble and gifted man, earnest and truthful. I hope great things of him, and I do not fear for his integrity and fidelity, under any trial. That Sims case was particularly mean on the part of the Boston shopkeepers. I never felt so indignant as when I saw the courthouse in chains.

Pickard's Whittier, I. 355, 356.

This last reference was to the rendition of Thomas Sims, a fugitive slave, during the progress of whose case, at the Boston Court-house, the doors were protected by chains.

In July, 1854, Whittier was invited by Ralph Waldo Emerson and others, to attend a meeting of the friends of freedom in Boston, to form a new party organization, from men from both political folds; this being one of the meetings which led to the formation of the Republican party. His reply, addressed to Emerson ( “Amesbury, 3rd 7th month” ), was as follows:--

The circular signed by thyself and others, inviting me to meet you at Boston on the 7th inst., has just reached me. If I am able to visit Boston on that day, I shall be glad to comply with the invitation. Your movement I regard as every way timely and expedient. I am quite sure good will come of it, in some way. I have been for some time past engaged in efforts tending to the same object,--the consolidation of the antislavery sentiment of the North. For myself, I am more than willing to take the humblest place in a new organization made up from Whigs, anti-Nebraska Democrats, and Free-soilers. I care nothing for names; I have no prejudices against Whig or Democrat; show me a party cutting itself loose from slavery, repudiating its treacherous professed allies of the South, and making the protection of Man the paramount object, and I am ready to go with it, heart and soul. The great body of the people [47] of all parties here are ready to unite in the formation of a new party. The Whigs especially only wait for the movement of the men to whom they have been accustomed to look for direction. I may be mistaken, but I fully believe that Robert C. Winthrop holds in his hands the destiny of the North. By throwing himself on the side of this movement he could carry with him the Whig strength of New England. The Democrats here, with the exception of two or three office-holders and their dependents, defend the course of Banks, and applaud the manly speeches of Sumner.

Pickard's Whittier, I. 374.

I have gone a little in advance of the development of this part of Whittier's nature — that of the politician — to show how the gift which at first seemed to threaten him with moral danger became, in its gradual development, a real service to the cause of freedom. We must now return, however, to the birth of the antislavery movement itself, and the way in which it took control of Whittier, and pressed all his gifts, ideal and practical, into its service.

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