The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

“Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, Free Men”: Charles Sumner and the Massachusetts Free Soil Party

It was the summer of 1850, and the Massachusetts Free Soil Party needed a standard-bearer. The party was just two years old and struggled to make headway against the two-party juggernaut of Democrats and Whigs. Free Soilers had seated only a handful of their candidates in Congress so far, but with the upcoming U.S. Senate election, they saw a chance to cement their influence on public policy.

Founded in 1848 by disillusioned anti-slavery Democrats and Whigs, the party’s primary issue was opposition to slavery in new territories acquired by the United States. Thus its slogan: “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, Free Men.” To be a Free Soiler was not necessarily to be an abolitionist; the party platform didn’t call for an end to slavery, merely opposed its extension into new American land.

The Free Soilers’ sense of urgency was warranted. On 2 February 1848, with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War, the U.S. had annexed a massive amount of land, including Texas, California, and most of the American Southwest. The debate was raging: Would slavery be the law of the land in this new territory?

Daniel Webster

Then, on 7 March 1850, “the great Massachusetts Statesman” Daniel Webster gave a fateful speech. In his Seventh of March Speech, as it came to be known, Senator Webster argued in favor of the Compromise of 1850, including the abhorrent Fugitive Slave Law, as necessary to preserve the Union. Anti-slavery partisans in Massachusetts, where opposition to the compromise was strongest, were shocked and angry. Even more so when Webster was appointed Secretary of State by President Millard Fillmore in July.

To make matters worse, the nominee chosen by the Massachusetts Whig Party, Samuel A. Eliot, came out in support of Webster’s speech. The Whigs were the dominant party in the state, but Free Soilers could not, in good conscience, back Eliot’s candidacy. Tired of concessions to “the great Slave Power,” they met on 8 August to choose their own nominee.

Charles Sumner

 

They settled on Boston lawyer Charles Sumner, a staunch “anti-extensionist” and former “Conscience” (anti-slavery) Whig. The 39-year-old Sumner was an impressive orator notorious for delivering a controversial anti-war speech at Boston’s official Independence Day celebration five years earlier. He’d also recently argued against racial segregation in public schools in the landmark case of Roberts v. Boston, alongside African-American lawyer Robert Morris. And although he’d run for a Congressional seat once before and lost, Sumner was a logical choice, and Free Soilers were hopeful.

 

On 9 August 1850, Chairman William Bates and Secretary James W. Stone of the Massachusetts Free Soil Party wrote a letter to Sumner offering him the nomination. The letter, recently acquired by the MHS, reads in part:

You know well however the condition of our cause here. It is in its infancy. It requires all the energy of its advocates, all the perseverance of its friends and the vigilance of its defenders, in the absence of a daily press to counterbalance and expose the efforts of those who, we fear, might betray the citadel of freedom. There has never been a time when the clear manifestation of the principles we represent and maintain was more important than at present.

Sumner initially demurred. Then Congress passed the Compromise of 1850, and Sumner accepted the nomination.

He was a divisive candidate, to say the least. It took four months of repeated and contentious voting in Congress for Sumner to win the absolute majority necessary to take the seat, which he finally did in April 1851. It was the start of a long and illustrious career. Sumner would go on to serve in the Senate for almost 23 years, as a Free Soiler and then a Republican, until his death in 1874. Probably most famous as the victim of an assault by fellow Congressman Preston Brooks in 1856, Sumner is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential U.S. legislators during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.

 

Sources:

Blue, Frederick J. Charles Sumner and the Conscience of the North. Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 1994.

Blue, Frederick J. The Free Soilers: Third Party Politics, 1848-54. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1973.

Taylor, Anne-Marie. Young Charles Sumner and the Legacy of the American Enlightenment, 1811-1851. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 25 January, 2017, 12:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

It's a pretty busy week ahead for programs at the Society. Here is what's on tap:

- Monday, 23 January, 12:00PM : Come on in at lunchtime for a Brown Bag talk. "'Faraway Women' and the Atlantic Monthly" discusses Ellery Sedgwick, editor of the Atlantic Monthly from 1908-1938, and the "Faraway Women" who were viewed as a defining feature of his career: women who published in the Atlantic accounts of unusual life experiences in Europe, Asia, the American South, and, most especially, the American West. The talk is presented by Cathryn Halverson of the University of Groningen. This talk is free and open to the public. 

- Tuesday, 24 January, 5:15PM : This week's seminar is from the Modern American Society and Culture series and is a panel discussion. "Urban History on the Digital Frontier" features Vivek Bald of MIT, Jack A. Dougherty of Trinity College, and Marilynn S. Johnson of Boston College. Bald is working on a transmedia project that includes a digital oral history website; Dougherty and his students are writing an open-access book which features interactive maps and oral history videos; Johnson's Global Boston is a public history website combining student research, oral history, and a curated selection of digitized primary sources, images and maps documenting the local immigrant experience. The discussion is moderated by Douglas O'Reagan of MIT. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.

- Thursday, 26 January, 6:00PM : Please join us for a special author talk which will feature a discussion between Stephen Kinzer of the Boston Globe, and Emmy Award-winning host of Here and Now, Robin Young. The discussion focuses on Kinzer's latest book, The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire. In asking how the United States should act in the world, Kinzer reveals a piece of forgotten history and transports us to the dawn of the 20th century, when the United States first found itself with the chance to dominate faraway lands. This talk is open to the public, registration required with a fee of $20 (No charge for MHS Fellows or Members). There is a pre-talk reception at 5:30PM and the program begins at 6:00PM. 

- Saturday, 28 January, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the MHS is a 90-minute docent-led walk through the public rooms of the Society's home on Boylston Street. The tour is free and open to the public with no reservations needed for individuals or small groups. Larger parties (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley in advance at 617-646-0508 or abentley@masshist.org. While you're here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition: Turning Points in American History.

- Saturday, 28 January, 1:00PM : The next installment of our Begin at the Beginning series looks at Medical and Surgical Care in Puritan New England. From bloodletting to powders made from roasted toads, medical care in early New England was of uncertain value to the patient. In this discussion of primary documents led by Sid Levitsky of Harvard Medical School, we’ll explore the foundations of 17th century English medicine and surgery and the practice of medicine in New England. Please RSVP. This event is done in cooperation with the Partnership of Historic Bostons. 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 22 January, 2017, 12:00 AM

Gertrude Codman Carter’s Diary, January 1917

In late December, I introduced readers to Lady Gertrude Codman Carter, whose diary we will be exploring month-by-month through 2017. While a fairly regular diarist, Gertrude Carter’s journal skips from the end of December 1916 to February 8, 1917 without clear explanation. Thus, our January installment of this series will be slightly atypical as I introduce you to Carter’s diary through the look, feel, and format of the volume itself.

 

Unlike last year’s diary, which contained line-a-day entries with little or no elaboration, the Carter diary is a wealth of variation. While physically designed in a pre-printed format much like the line-a-day-diaries of Margaret Russell, Carter’s diary is a large format of 11.5 x 7 inches, three days per page. As you can see, Codman uses the design of the pages as only a loose guide; to begin with, she has repurposed a pre-printed volume meant for 1915 for her record of two years later. This thrift, perhaps caused by wartime shortages, requires her to correct the numerical date for each entry as well as the year printed next to the month on each page.

 

 

The page above, with which the diary opens, is preceded by the rough edge of several torn pages. Were the pages removed because they were unused, or was their information within them the diarist or descendent did not wish to be seen by future eyes? Impossible to tell from the volume itself.

It is also clear from Carter’s entries that, in some cases at least, the details were added in retrospect. “Another engagement,” she writes under February 10, a Saturday, “(doesn’t say what - so I imagine it was a life…)” … any suggestions for what that final word may be? To what other record is she referring, the record in which she failed to record her engagements? Another mystery.

 

An artist, Carter’s record incorporates the visual. The photo affixed to the February page above is pasted on the date without remark, appearing to be an image of a construction site of some kind -- perhaps work being done on Ilaro, the residence Carter was designing for her family. On other pages, we will encounter fanciful sketches and brilliant paintings, such as this tiny island sketched in an otherwise dense page of writing and the “Study of Captain Silver’’s Parrot,” both found in the volume for 1916.

 

In February, we will delve into the stories shared in the diary itself, including a long narrative recording about a what Carter deems a “real case of telepathy,” and the long, deathly shadow of the ongoing war.

Do you have specific questions about Codman’s life or diaries? Leave a comment below! Throughout the year, I will be exploring Codman’s biography and context, and will be happy to take requests.

If you are interested in viewing the diary yourself, in our library, or have other questions about the collection please visit the library or contact a member of the library staff for further assistance.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 20 January, 2017, 12:00 AM

Teacher and Student Fellowships at MHS

Are you an educator looking for a relaxing and rewarding summer professional development opportunity? Consider applying for a Swensrud Teacher Fellowship! Perhaps you don’t have much time to devote to research this summer, but you have a student (or a few) who would love to do some original research. We have a fellowship for them, too!

New England School by Charles Frederick Bosworth (c.1852). Massachusetts Historical Society

Each year the MHS offers at least three fellowships to K-12 educators. Applications are welcome from any candidate (living anywhere in the United States) who is interested in developing an engaging series of lessons using documents and artifacts from the Society’s collections. Each fellow receives a $4,000 stipend in exchange for approximately 4 weeks of research and writing. Our 2016 teacher fellows investigated topics including the coming of the American Revolution in Boston, Bostonians’ experiences in World War I, and the Transcendentalist movement and the creation of Brook Farm. Other fellows explored the role of women in the abolitionist movement and how Boston’s abolitionist movement influenced ideas about Black identity and racial equality. Throughout 2017, we will be adding these (and more) curriculum units to our website, so visit our education pages frequently. (http://www.masshist.org/2012/education/lessonplans)

Our Winthrop Student Fellowship encourages budding historians to engage with primary sources to write a paper, create a website, or design an exhibit … whatever piques the student’s interest. Prior to applying, a student should consult with his or her teacher to agree upon an appropriate topic and product. This year’s Winthrop Fellows were a group of students from Stoneham (Mass.) High School. They created an exhibition for National History Day on the Boston Post Road, and described their research experiences in a recent blog post. (http://www.masshist.org/blog/index.php?series=46) Both the teacher and the student(s) receive a stipend upon completion of the fellowship, as well as an opportunity to attend a behind-the-scenes tour of MHS.

Applications for teacher and students fellowships must be postmarked no later than February 16, 2017. Learn more about application requirements, suggested topics, and other guidelines on our website (http://www.masshist.org/education/fellowships), or contact education staff members for more information (education@masshist.org). 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 18 January, 2017, 3:57 PM

This Week @ MHS

The Society is CLOSED on Monday, 16 January, in observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Here are the events on the schedule this week:

- Wednesday, 18 January, 12:00PM : "The Fight for Women's Equality in the Anti-Slavery Movement, 1833-1840" is a Brown Bag talk with Louis Knight, author of Jane Addams: Spirit in Action. The talk examines ow some early feminist abolitionists sought to integrate women into the American Antislavery Society beginning in 1833 and finally succeeding in 1840, illustrating how these women were inspired by a groundbreaking feminist vision for a genderblind democracy. This talk is free and open to the public. 

- Wednesday, 18 January, 6:00PM : Loom, a new book of poetry by Kevin Gallagher, explores the difficult relations between the northern textile mills and the cotton produced by the southern slave economy. This author talk is open to the public and registration is required with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Members or Fellows). There is a pre-talk reception at 5:30 with light refreshments, and the program begins at 6:00PM. 

- Thursday, 19 January, 5:30PM : "Publishing Lives: How It's Done, and Who Does It" is part of the New England Biography Seminar series. Deanne Urmy, Senior Executive Editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Jill Kneerim of the Kneerim & Williams literary agency, both of whom are actively engaged in publishing biography, will be joined by Laura Claridge, author of the just-published The Lady with the Borzoi: Blanche Knopf, Literary Tastemaker Extraordinaire. Their conversation will widen out from biography itself to the workings of the literary marketplace, then and now. The discussion is moderated by Megan Marshall. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.

- Saturday, 21 January, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society Tour is a 90-minute docent-led walk through our public rooms. The tour is free, open to the public, with no need for reservations. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or abentley@masshist.org.

While you're here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition: Turning Points in American History.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 15 January, 2017, 12:00 AM

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