“The most active spirit in the dissenting group”: Universalism, Democracy, and Antislavery in the Hartford of John Milton Niles, 1816-1856. Journal of Unitarian Universalist History, pg. 100-126 (Summer 2015), Robert Reutenauer
The Reverend Daniel Foster was forthright in his encouragement of the freethinking members of the Poquonock Congregational Church in their apparent attraction to Universalism. His liberality soon went too far, however, for the Windsor, Connecticut church elders; in 1783, they asked him to leave its “troubled” pulpit. It was distressing to these Yankees that the Calvinist orthodoxy of human depravity, limited atonement, and the futility of individual action was giving way to the optimism of moral free agency and the simple creed of salvation for all under the care of an eternally benevolent deity.
Soon after the election of Thomas Jefferson to the presidency in 1801, the Poquonock Universalists, by then a majority among the faithful, gained control of the church society, the building, and its funds. Windsor, home of the Poquonock congregation, was one of only a handful of towns in Connecticut to send Jeffersonians to the legislature during the democratic “Revolution of 1800.” Only fifteen or so of these “Jacobins,” in the language of the dominant Federalist Party, held office in the General Assembly in 1799. By 1803, about forty of the two hundred members in the lower house were Jeffersonian Republicans. The near simultaneous emergence of these two developments – liberal religion and “democracy” – was no accident; and in the early life of John Milton Niles, they would together collide with the Connecticut Standing Order.
As a young boy growing up in Windsor, on a farm just south of the fractious Poquonock church, John Milton Niles was an early witness to the on-coming democratic assault on the status of Federalist political, religious, and economic elites. Of five children born to Moses and Naomi Niles, John was the second son, born in August 1787. After Moses died, Niles took responsibility for the farm and his younger siblings, while also attending the local common school and worshipping with the Universalists. By his late teens, he was teaching at the school, work he left in his mid-twenties to study law in the office of a local Democratic- Republican.
After the War of 1812, Niles ventured beyond rural Windsor into the often-hostile Congregationalist and Federalist stronghold of Connecticut. About this time Episcopalians were finally ready to end their erstwhile junior-partner status in the Standing Order. They had become frustrated with the General Assembly’s continued unwillingness to charter an Episcopal college. A scandal in which funds from the Episcopal-chartered Phoenix Bank were reportedly diverted to Yale College was the last straw. Episcopalians joined Methodists, Baptists, and freethinking dissenters like Niles to inaugurate the American Toleration and Reform Party in 1816. Extension of the suffrage to all free white males, religious toleration, judicial reform, separation of powers, disestablishment of the tax-supported Congregationalist Church, and a written constitution to replace the still-operative royal charter of 1662 were the policy goals of this movement.
In support of the cause, Niles issued a reprint of the first American edition of The Independent Whig, a series of anticlerical essays known as Cato’s Letters, authored in 1716 by the British “commonwealth men,” John Trenchard and Richard Gordon. The first American edition appeared in 1724 and was extremely popular and influential among the early revolutionary generation. In his lengthy preface, Niles reminded his readers that the original publication of these essays in London had “brought on the most violent opposition and attacks from the bigots and the legal hierarchy.” To publish them again, here and now, was worth the risk, he contended. Only by “free enquiry” and the “circulation of ideas” can civil liberties exist.
He targeted the clergy, “who in despotic governments …will always be found in league with the oppressor,” calling them the main obstacle to free thought in Connecticut. He accused them of approaching their ministry as “a trade and religion itself as merchandise.” The Congregationalist monopoly on this “trade” in Connecticut was enforced by the state government. He complained of the clergy’s “peevishness of temper, and the extreme impatience with which they hear contradiction. A furious and implacable spirit of persecution,” awaits those who cross them.
The church-state establishment was, according to Niles, the primary impediment to the progressive improvement of society. Both institutions, civil and religious, were corrupt, “leading to superstition and intolerance in the one and oppression in the other.” The remedy, Niles concluded, was “democracy”— popular self-government, within a new constitutional framework. Sustaining this critique would be central to the life and work of John Niles for the next forty years.
A Democratic Newspaper Editor
In December 1816, Niles moved to Hartford and set up a newspaper printing press. The first edition of the Hartford Times came out on January 1, 1817. The Times introduced itself as a paper “whose principles are those of republicanism… and the encouragement of toleration and of the equality of civil and religious privileges.”
Between January and April of 1817, Niles used the Times to outline a case for the toleration program and against the “steady-habits” tradition in Connecticut politics and culture. The Times editorial column radiated scorn for “those men who have abused the good sense, and unsuspecting confidence of our citizens,” predicting that the “days of their glory are past and the days of their shame are at hand.” Niles took aim at the infamous “Stand Up” Act of 1801, a law requiring voters at town meetings to nominate candidates by openly standing up rather than by secret ballot. The law was “intended to give an undue influence to the rich and powerful; to overcome the poor man and make him silent, and yield his vote in subservience to their will.” Niles considered this “an important link in the chain which has been fabricated by our rulers to fetter the poor and build up a moneyed aristocracy in the state.”
On April 15, 1817, the Times proclaimed “Toleration Triumphant.” Oliver Wolcott, Jr. had become governor by a slim margin and the reformers had gained a large majority in the Assembly. While the “backbone of the Federal party was broken” in the election, wrote Niles, “the political change which has taken place… is at present merely personal, being only a change of men.” Niles was clear that the Times would keep up its fervent advocacy for democratic change: “The people have no prejudices or attachments to men…only to the cause; and in this they have been zealous, uniform, and ardent and will so continue.”
The next year, towns sent delegates to a convention, chaired by Governor Wolcott, to draft a constitution, which was completed and submitted for rati cation in three weeks. All observers expected a close vote on October 5, 1818. On the main issues of right of conscience and Congregational disestablishment, Niles judged the result “more liberal and satisfactory than we expected.” He urged an unequivocal “yes” vote. As anticipated, the vote was close, with 13,918 in favor and 12,364 opposed. Among the towns, the vote was 66 in favor to 55 opposed. Niles’s editorial efforts during the election of 1817, and at the constitutional convention of 1818, earned him wide support from his contemporaries. The politician and memoirist S. G. Goodrich described him as, “more than any other single person, the instrument of overturning the Federal party.”
“Let me get a clip at him,” was the reaction of Hartford’s normally reserved old Federalist mayor General Nathaniel Terry when Niles spoke at a town meeting in 1825. Niles personified the new combative irreverence of the common people demanding a place in the public sphere. “No two men could be in greater contrast than these,” commented a contemporary observer:
The one elegant in his manners, affable, polite, generous to a fault, autocratic, the representative of a Federalism which was nearly dead; the other plain, undemonstrative, awkward, without the polish which comes from intercourse with…polite society, a sturdy defender of the democracy now beginning to be felt in the state.
Another observer agreed that Niles’s flaming head of red hair and “ his small, awkward, insignificant personal appearance” contributed to the “many years [he was] treated and regarded with contempt… by the Federalists.” Niles indulged in salty speech, and lacked proper deference and an air of gentility, all of which reinforced his status as a political and social outsider among Hartford’s elite. What the elites feared, however, was that behind the non-traditional persona of a public man was “strong common sense” and “close reasoning powers, which operated with the precision of cogwheels.” The “shouldering aside” of gentleman politicians like Mayor Terry by ambitious newcomers like Niles made “democratic politics a profession requiring special skills,” such as the ability to “mediate between popular mood and other forces in the political environment.”
The dual impetus that gave rise to Universalism at the Poquonock church and to Jeffersonian democracy in Connecticut fused with uncommon clarity in Hartford for John Niles in the 1820s. “To claim a special interest in eternity seems to me selfish and a want of proper sympathy with our species,” he wrote, explaining why he rejected the mysteries of Calvinism. “I feel satisfied to have a common lot and a common destiny.” His opposition to the “aristocracy of the spirit”–symbolized best by the Calvinist belief in everlasting life for an “elect” and predetermined few–informed his Universalist faith. His opposition to the political aristocracy took form in his dedication to the Democratic Party and a new social vision for the young republic.
Niles is acknowledged as the “main sparkplug” of both the First Independent Universalist Church of Hartford and of the Democratic Party in Connecticut. In the first half of the 1820s, when Universalist efforts to gain a respectable place within the Second Congregational Church leadership bore little fruit and brought much derision, he led sixty families out of the safety of the orthodox church to form their own congregation.
The official history of the Second Congregational Church, written in 1892, is animated by a blow-by-blow account of the Universalists’ “scheme to get control of the funds” and of the church. In May 1822, a committee of church members wrote to the deacons requesting that clergy who believe in the “universality of atonement and of final restitution for all men” be allowed to preach from the pulpit every other Sunday. The deacons gave a firm denial to the request, noting that the Universalists on the committee were men “not particularly characterized by piety.” The attempt to negotiate failed, so the determined dissenters “set about to carry the point by strategy.” When the scheduled preacher one Sunday injured himself in a fall from his horse, the Universalists came early and commandeered the pulpit. Mayhem and “much noise and confusion” filled the air as a Universalist tried to preach. “Squire Niles,” now sitting as a county judge, held up his statute book and shouted his intent to “read the riot act” if the group did not settle down to hear the guest preacher. The “good old deacons” responded by conceding the evening to the intruders and left accompanied by three-quarters of the congregation. By the next Sunday, the orthodox were back in charge – “people came out in force and these elements were scattered. Thus ended the attempt of the infidels to obtain possession of good old South Church.” Undefeated, sixty families then left the Congregational Church and began raising money by subscription and by pew rental. When $10,000 was collected, they erected a Universalist church building across from the State House.
Universalism had long been the most thoroughly despised of the dissenting sects, and the disestablishment of the Congregational Church in 1818 did little to counter this prejudice. A Hartford common school student remembered how some teachers liked to change Proverbs 19:29 slightly in their lessons: “Judgments are prepared for scorners and stripes for the backs of Universalists.” When First Independent became Hartford’s sixth church and prepared to take its place among the rotating chaplaincy to the General Assembly–a policy in effect since disestablishment – the Episcopalian and Baptist churches agreed as a matter of course. The three Congregational churches boycotted the ceremony rather than alternate with Universalists.
The Hartford Times was the first New England paper to stand behind Andrew Jackson in the 1828 presidential election. Thanks to his partisan support for the winning candidate, Niles was offered an appointment as the Hartford postmaster in 1829. The State House, situated at 60 Main Street, stood directly across the street from the Times building, and facing them both, on Central Row, was the First Independent Universalist Church. As one of the “Trustees of the Basement” who helped nance the church by renting out parts of the building, and as the new postmaster, Niles arranged for the new Hartford post office to be located in the basement of the Universalist Church! One modern historian of the current West Hartford Universalist Church connects the beginnings of the church with the rise of Jackson, referring to First Independent as the “established church of the Democratic Party.”
The reactionary tendencies of the Old Guard Congregationalists further solidified the attraction of Universalists to the Democrats. In 1828, the Connecticut Supreme Court of Errors held that Universalists could not give testimony in courts of law. The court held that since Universalists “did not believe in a future state of rewards and punishments,” they were “not accountable to God,” and without fear of God, a sworn oath to tell the truth was meaningless. Connecticut legislators in the advance guard of Jacksonian democracy worked for a statutory resolution in 1829 and 1830 to nullify the oath-taking restriction. Niles’s editorial associate and protégé Gideon Welles served in the Assembly in 1830 and helped to secure the best possible compromise. Under the legislation, “non-believers” would still be barred from giving testimony, but dissenting believers, like Universalists, could be sworn to tell the truth. In 1833, the Democrats became the majority in the legislature and struck all religious tests from the statutes governing civil affairs.
Niles’s religious liberalism, democratic politics, post office responsibilities, and partisan work as newspaper editor came together in the antebellum controversy over mail delivery on Sundays. Violation of the Sabbath had long been a concern of the publicly pious; in May 1828, evangelical activists led by Reverend Lyman Beecher turned their attention to Sunday postal operations. The Times called the campaign to end the Sunday mail an “alarming sectarian usurpation.” The Sabbath deserved all “proper respect,” according to Niles, but “we are not disposed to see our clergy, under the cloak of more than ordinary sanctity, attempt to subvert our liberties.” The location of the Hartford post office in the basement of Niles’s church allowed the freethinking postmaster to enjoy what he described to Welles as his “steady habit” of handling mail and worshipping in the same afternoon. Ironically it was Niles himself, as President Van Buren’s Postmaster General, who saw to the end of Sunday mail service in 1840. The irony was not lost on him when he noted that “to relieve the financial embarrassments of the department, I discontinued the Sunday mail to the great satisfaction of the religious part of the community.”
Newspaper readership, voter turnout, religious revival, and political conflict continued to rise in the 1830s, as banking and currency issues took center stage in Jackson’s presidency and gave shape to Democratic Party politics in Connecticut and elsewhere. Concern over traditional centralized power, the corruptibility of those in positions of power, and the tendency of “aristocracy” to control and gain advantages through government action lay at the heart of faithfulness to the Jacksonian party. The Times paid close attention to the efforts of “vigilant assessors” who tried to “keep track of stockholders” of the Bank of the United States (B.U.S.) residing locally who “try not to pay taxes.” Niles charged that “grandees in Hartford, men who hoarded up wealth and never devoted a cent to the public,” were the beneficiaries of this largesse. These men were recognizable by the way they walked—“their purses are heavier than their neighbors.” These “intelligent, respectable merchants and business men,” he continued, are members of a political party that was “brought into action by two of the strongest passions known to the human heart— the love of money and the love of power.” For them the “Monster Bank has not only been the chief temple to the paper divinity, but a sort of financial college, where the manufacture of rag money and absurd financial dogmas has been carried on with equal success.”
Niles Becomes a U.S. Senator
The death of Connecticut’s Whig Senator, Nathan Smith, in December 1835 brought Niles to Washington. Democratic Governor Henry W. Edwards appointed him and he served the remaining four years of Smith’s term. With Niles in Washington and his former editorial colleague Welles in Hartford, the two friends began an extensive correspondence, often writing daily while the Senate was in session.
Niles took his seat in the Senate for the 24th Congress, Jackson’s last session, in January 1836. Vetoes of Whig legislation, the demise of the B.U.S., and the defeat of Clay in the 1832 presidential election had put the “Democracy” on top. The election of Democrat Martin Van Buren to the presidency over a divided opposition completed the sweep in 1836. Encouraged by Van Buren, Niles became a premier debater in the Senate. He spoke on all the issues of the day: tariff policy, distribution of land revenues, banks, currency, territorial organization, postal rates, and slavery. His earliest Senate speeches framed his strident opposition to southern measures that were designed to exclude antislavery petitions from congressional debate, interfere with antislavery mail by labeling it “incendiary,” and extend the domain of slavery by annexing the Republic of Texas.
Living in Washington and taking a leading role in the United States Senate was not easy for Niles. He was a humble man and uncertain of himself in this context. He wrote to his Hartford friend and colleague Welles during his first Senate session that his goal was to be able to make speeches “from the head in the style [Thomas Hart] Benton does his.” In fact, Niles worked long hours each evening researching and composing his often brilliantly reasoned and factual arguments. Many of his speeches were distributed nationally in the Jackson network of newspapers.
What the Washington crowd wanted from Niles, though, beyond his reasoning ability, was his salty wit and colorful attacks on the opposition. Niles’s place in the annals of the antebellum U. S. Senate is secure due to the many hours of debate in which he engaged with the “Great Triumvirate”: Henry Clay of Kentucky, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. “I have acquired a fearful popularity,” he confided to Welles, “and none can be more astonished at it than myself.” He shared his concern that a reputation as an aggressive debater in the Senate, while “gratifying does bring a response which is unpleasant.” Expectations for his performance as an orator were so high, he wrote, “sometimes I almost tremble.” “Our friends all seemed to be expecting an important speech from me, and something very severe on the opposition.” He added, “The ladies of our friends are expecting to attend to hear me.”
He wrote to his wife Sarah Niles, who remained in Hartford, of the Capital social scene. He claimed to enjoy rubbing elbows with Clay, seeing Dolly Madison at soirées, and savoring the Dutch hospitality of the Van Burens. One contemporary account tells of an incident in which Niles was at the home of Jackson’s Secretary of State, John Forsyth. Leaving the table after dinner with Benton and following him toward the door, Niles watched as the “the old courtier paid his addresses to the ladies, bowing gracefully to each.” Niles was inclined to head out to the street, “but soon diverged toward the reside, when near the ladies he was suddenly seized with panic, and pulling out a red bandana handkerchief from his pocket gave a loud blast upon his nose, shot out the door, and safely effected his retreat.”
Few states, if any, could claim as extensive a record of legislative achievement during the Jackson years as Connecticut. Connecticut Democrats kept solid control of state government for the three state elections between victory over the Bank of the United States in 1834 and the financial panic of 1837. In addition to sending Niles to the Senate and carrying the state for Van Buren in 1836, the Democrats enacted nearly all of the Jacksonian agenda. They eased restrictions on recreational activity and liquor sales, ended clergy tax exemptions, made comptroller an elected office, simplified ballots, established congressional districts, limited small bank notes, removed the freehold requirement for jurors, returned administration of school funds to towns, set up a mechanics lien, abolished imprisonment for debt, and established a general incorporation act. Despite all of this success, Niles would eventually be disappointed in the outcome. “Life had met their policy demands and still de ed their expectations of a moral restoration,” wrote Marvin Meyers whose insight into the “Jacksonian persuasion” exposed the political paradox of the era. “No accounting will put away the flagrant contrast between Jacksonian policy aims and their social consequences. [They] won preferment in the teeth of failure…and used power as a platform to denounce evils which seemed to multiply with blows.”
Connecticut Democrats, for example, passed the first-in-the- nation General Incorporation Act in 1837. A key to the “equal rights” agenda of Jacksonian theorists like New York radical William Leggett, “general incorporation” aimed at ending the exclusivity and politics of legislative grants for chartered privileges. “It remains to be known how it will work,” Niles commented to Welles. He wondered why the Whigs in the legislature did not oppose it and feared this was not a good sign. “It became so popular with the Whigs,” he sighed, “it should not stand up very well with Democrats.” Indeed, Democratic bank policy had destroyed the “monster bank” but created many smaller banks and many more corrupt Democrats in its wake. Would not ease of incorporation do the same thing for corporations, he wondered.
One theory has it that the “economy” was becoming less of a “political” creation, subject far less to government interventions whether of a democratic or absolutist kind. Rather, Charles Sellers argues, “The intricacies of the law” and the role of a judiciary committed to commercial development provided the “institutional transformation that was most important” and “least visible” to contemporaries experiencing the rapidly growing market economy. Alan Taylor’s study of community change in early Cooperstown, New York illuminates this transformation by looking at the nature and reach of popular governance, whereby the nation’s economic elites increasingly stepped back from “electioneering and governance” as they accepted the role of editors like Niles and lawyers like Van Buren. “As common white men became the essential audience for aspiring officeholders, the power of those offices diminished.” Niles seems to have sensed the paradoxical nature of these political developments with a realization that pervaded his outlook and caused a creeping unease.
Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America points to a further kind of uncertainty deriving from democracy, that is, the eroding of traditional social bonds. Democracy had the power to “make every man forget his ancestors” as well as his contemporaries and descendants, and turn him back “forever upon himself alone.” Niles may have been typical of those Americans who, Tocqueville worried, had acquired the “habit of always considering themselves as standing alone.” Sellers also speaks to this point in noting that the “market revolution” had brought new problems of career change and fears of failure and uncertainty. The legislature’s confirmation, the increase in psychic misery, melancholy, and outright insanity–while contributing to the economic, political, and religious dynamism of the period – became evident “costs of self-making.”
These theories may be relevant to the period in Niles’s life when personal, political, and spiritual crises combined to effect in him a nervous breakdown and depression. It started early in 1838, when Niles’s brother informed him that the paper mill they jointly owned had burned to the ground. Despite his casual philosophical response to the news – “such is the evanescent character of what the world calls property, it is ours only as long as we can hold it” – the loss was considerable. Moreover, economic depression and electoral setback went hand in hand for most Democrats in the years 1838-42, which hit true believers like Niles the hardest. His faith in public opinion and the expanded electorate was shaken. The final passage of the Independent Treasury Act, in time for Van Buren’s signature on the Fourth of July, 1840 should have been the high point of Niles’s Washington career. This “second declaration of independence,” separating the government from banks, was spoiled for Niles when he found that he was the only member of the cabinet who attended the evening reworks in Alexandria. His faith in fellow Democratic leaders was put to a severe test.
When his Senate term ended in March 1839, Van Buren appointed Niles his Postmaster General, the third position in the cabinet after State and Treasury. As Postmaster General, Niles had three temporary clerkships to ll and he had ten times that number of applicants. He wrote to Sarah in the summer of 1840, “You have very little idea of the distress which exists here and the number of persons who are wholly out of work and their families without any means of subsistence.” Calls on him from the wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters of job seekers troubled him the most. He could not help them. By early November, it had all become obvious: “Our stay here will probably be short, as I think the election will go against us.” He remained in Washington until March 1841, when Whig William Henry Harrison became president and a new postmaster took over. Niles was anxious to leave. “There is too much treachery and corruption in Washington for anyone to remain here long.”
In the spring of 1842, with the economic depression finally receding, Connecticut Democrats won the Governorship and the General Assembly for the first time in five years. The majority Democratic legislators voted in May 1842 to send Niles back to the U.S. Senate; he was to join the 29th Congress in March 1843. The promising nature of these events was abruptly interrupted with the death of Sarah Niles, reportedly from a “bilious fever,” in November 1842. After burying his wife, Niles gave way at last to a complete nervous collapse, a condition that prevented him from returning to Washington for the start of Congress in the spring. By summer, he was in a continuous state of irrationality and was suffering hallucinations. With assistance from his brother, Richard, and his friend, Gideon Welles, Niles began treatment in July 1843 at the state asylum in Utica, New York under the care of Dr. Amariah Brigham.
Dr. Brigham was a disciple of Dr. Eli Todd, who pioneered the practice of “moral medicine,” treating patients with “respect and dignity” rather than locking them in leg shackles and other confinements. Brigham was indeed an innovator in bringing social psychology and European neuroanatomy to his clinical approach. His criticism of the influence of religion in creating mental derangement had made him a controversial figure in 1830s Hartford. The evangelists with their “absurd measures” and the Calvinists with their “gloom and doom,” he believed, contributed in equal measure to the “excited state of mind” that prevailed in antebellum America. Brigham had led Charles Dickens on a tour of the Hartford Retreat for the Insane in 1842, and the two men discussed how an “epidemic of madness” was gripping the United States at twice the rate of Europe. Soon after Dickens’s visit, Brigham moved to Utica to take on directorship of a new asylum there. Himself an “upstart Jacksonian” from rural Massachusetts, the freethinking Unitarian psychiatrist was the perfect person to care for Niles.
Brigham transmitted his first report on his new patient’s condition to Welles after two weeks of observation. Niles’s loss of faith in his two guideposts, universal salvation and democratic politics, was obvious to Brigham: “His mind is overwhelmed with the idea that he is condemned of God, cast off, to be eternally damned.” He was having dreams, Brigham continued, which “he considers as communications from heaven.” His dreams included such political terrors as having his name “struck from the list of Senators and Mr. Benton is to make the motion.” In an even bleaker dream, he reported seeing “Mr. Van Buren is president, and his arch-rival Isaac Toucey is to have a seat in his cabinet.” With much sympathy, Dr. Brigham advised Welles that Niles’s recovery was doubtful. “I should not be surprised even if this case is terminated fatally.” More hopefully, in the same letter, Brigham promised Welles that as “a very valuable public man,” Niles could remain with him at the asylum “not as a patient but as a friend.”
In November, Niles wrote his first letter to Welles. In words that would become a constant refrain, Niles contradicted the recent positive reports sent by Brigham. “The information you have received that I was improving in my health is incorrect … I am becoming worse.” The doctor appended a note to this, insisting that Niles showed “continued improvement in eating, sleeping, riding, and sociability.” The doctor and patient remained at odds on this point, yet in December, Brigham reported being convinced that “nothing in Niles’s present condition is likely to prevent recovery.” He was pleased to say that the senator spent hours with other staff and patients sharing anecdotes of his encounters with the great men of the Senate—especially Clay, Calhoun, and Webster. “He will be able to go to Washington and resume his seat in the spring.” The doctor warned Welles, however, that his friend still had the “settled conviction that he has fallen under the peculiar displeasure of God.” Brigham noted that this belief, while strange for a Universalist like Niles, was quite common, frequently even encouraged among devout people. “He is as interesting a man as I ever saw,” concluded the psychiatrist.
Niles was insistent that the Senate was not in his future. He repeatedly wrote Welles demanding that he carry his letter of resignation to the Governor. “For disbelieving in a future hell, God has made a hell for me on earth,” he stated. While this gloomy outlook permeated his correspondence, he also shared astute political observations, some of which Welles had printed in the Times without Niles’s knowledge. After one lengthy letter to Welles concerning the 1844 presidential contest, Niles appended a disclaimer: “Don’t let this letter have any influence in preventing you from sending on my resignation if you have not already done it.” On another occasion he blamed his doctor: “It is to gratify Dr. Brigham that I have touched on these political topics.”
Brigham began counseling Niles in earnest in February that he must return to the Senate, and by the end of March, the patient agreed to travel with his brother to Washington to take back his Senate seat. Brigham recounted to Welles a discussion he had had with Niles about the advice of Scottish philosopher Sir James Mackintosh to the English politician, Robert Hall, while he was recovering from a similar “mental malady.” “The remedy is prescribed by the plainest maxims of duty; you must act: inactive contemplation is a dangerous condition for minds of profound moral sensibility.”
Political Action Possible to End Slavery
Senator Niles arrived in Washington, after his “protracted and distressing illness,” with the Congressional session well underway in the spring of 1844. Of immediate concern was the annexation of Texas and presidential politics. He soon noticed that “Manifest Destiny” took on more aggressive, anxious, and often racial meanings, and he was bothered by what he termed the “levity and recklessness” associated with this movement. Conflict with Mexico in the disputed border- lands of Texas became a full- edged foreign war by the spring of 1846. The public mind had become “phrensied with a lust for territory and false notions of national greatness.
First, we take Texas by so-called peaceable annexation,” then Oregon by assertion of alleged “clear and unquestionable title,” and “ finally acquisition of Mexico by conquest.” Concerned that there would be no stopping this trend, he argued, “To indulge a desire for territorial aggrandizement, and especially by conquest, is to imitate the vulgar condition of kings, and is unworthy of a free and enlightened people.” With the U.S. Army in control of Mexico City by early 1848, Niles declared our war with Mexico to be a “military occupation.” “Is Mexico to become our India?” he asked his fellow Senators.
Arguments over the extension of slavery into the western territories became more intense with the end of the Mexican War, which brought a vast cession of western land into the boundaries of the United States. The Liberty Party, consisting of exiles from the non-political abolition societies, was no longer alone. Principled renegades from the political parties, Jacksonian Democrats in the lead, joined with them, and soon created a more powerful organization—the Free Soil Party. The important role of Jacksonian Democrats in the emergence of this party was described in 1945 by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who observed that the “radical democrats in the straight Jacksonian tradition” took charge of the ght against the slave power. At their summer 1848 convention in Buffalo, the Free Soil Party nominated Van Buren for president and launched a powerful new antislavery coalition. While it was a new movement for the nation, it simultaneously represented the culmination of decades of antislavery politics for a significant group of the most radical Jacksonians. Considering the length of his public career and the uncompromising clarity of his thought, Niles stands out as a particularly vivid embodiment of this “democratic” or Jacksonian antislavery sentiment. He passionately condemned the trans-Atlantic slave trade and in Times editorials as early as the 1810s, called for international cooperation to suppress it. Unlike his hero Jefferson, he urged restriction of slavery during the Missouri crisis in 1820 and hailed as great progress the 1833 British emancipation of 700,000 slaves in her colonies. “An institution whose hostility to freedom and whose corruptions are no longer a matter of speculation, stands proven before the face of the world,” he wrote of British abolition in 1834.
In his antislavery arguments, Niles spoke as he had against the “money power” in the 1830s and the “slave power” in the 1840s, drawing in both cases on language from his early editorials against the established church in Connecticut. The ideals of individual liberty and popular, as opposed to aristocratic, control of government, which had informed his opposition to an established church and to banks, now informed his opposition to slavery. Eric Foner cites Niles’s Senate oration of July 26, 1848 as a pristine articulation of the antislavery argument around which the Free Soil Party was then organizing and the Republican Party would come together in 1856. This speech lasted all night long. Toward dawn, he summarized his arguments against the extension of slavery to the territories into ten points.
First, he said, slavery has been a “great injury to the people of the South,” and extending it into the West will “retard settlement, impede growth, and depress enterprise.” Second, he continued, slavery is “against the will of the people now in the territories,” and moreover, it is a “violation of the will of a large majority… of the people of the United States.” Fourth, slavery “on the Paci c will revive the slave trade,” and fifth, by excluding free labor, it “elevates half the population above all stimulus to labor and sinks the other half below it.” Beyond these practical and economic concerns, he asserted that slavery “is morally wrong. We cannot be responsible for extending it where it does not exist. This would make Congress instrumental in perpetuating what may be regarded as a crime.” Further, in regard to politics, he pointed out that slave states have “undue political influence” due to the three- fifths clause for the House and equal representation in the Senate. “Why should this monstrous inequality be extended to new states?” His final three points were: that slavery makes possible “the worst form of aristocracy,” being “more decidedly hostile to social equality than any other form of aristocracy”; that slavery “interposes a barrier to all progress” hostile to the spirit of the age”; and that “slavery in California and New Mexico will find its way further south,” bringing on more conflict with Mexico. Niles’s speech, according to Foner, “blended personal and sectional interest with morality so perfectly that it became the most potent political force in the nation.”
Until this time, abolitionists felt themselves to be above politics. After all, there was no proper political vehicle to fight their cause. Both the Whigs and “regular” Democrats of the North had avoided the slavery question in order to preserve national party unity. Niles, on the other hand, practically and consistently demanded that the parties take a stand. By 1848, South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun accused proponents of the Wilmot Proviso (which proposed to prohibit slavery in the territories gained from Mexico) of being the aggressors in the debate over extending slavery. Niles responded by pointing to the cessions of Louisiana, Florida, and Texas— all of which became slave territory. “The indulgence of our liberality has been somewhat abused,” he declared. With a passion that proved the worth of Calhoun’s accusation and at the same time turned it back against proponents of slavery, he proclaimed that the people of the North, “not abolitionists, merely,” have been “waked up.” “There is no political party arrayed against slavery as a local institution in the states where it exists. But, there is a moral and religious party arrayed against slavery everywhere!” Unlike political parties that “accomplish specific objects by political means” through the “machinery of legislation and elections,” the moral and religious party “assails slavery by reasoning, preaching, literature, and by all kinds of religious and moral weapons.”
Niles had come to understand the limits of effecting social change in a democratic society. His frustration is reflected in a speech he made in the Senate in the summer of 1848:
It may seem strange but it is nevertheless true that domestic slavery becomes a greater and more incurable evil in a free, popular government, than in a despotic system. This is easily explained. In a popular system, there is no power which can be interposed, as in a monarchy, between the slaves and owners. Slave owners will not voluntarily surrender up their interests of property in, and control over, their slaves. It follows that domestic slavery is worse in a free republic and it is this which renders slavery in the United States a “peculiar institution.” Such an institution so difficult to be improved or abolished should not be extended.
With the advent of the Free Soil Party, the time had come to bring about a coalition of the religious and moral reformers— the abolitionists —and those who opposed on practical and economic grounds the expansion of slavery into the West to form a political party that could work in democratic fashion toward ending slavery altogether.
Back in Connecticut: Free Soil Organizing
It would be a challenge to combine the energy of reform-minded Connecticut abolitionists with the political organizers of the Free Soil campaign. Early in 1849 Niles was back in his home state, having left the Senate at the end of his term in March, and was working full-time to build such an organization. He soon met a promising young man from Suffield named Calvin W. Philleo, Jr., whose father, the Rev. Calvin Philleo, Sr., had married Prudence Crandall when his son was eleven years old. Crandall’s eastern Connecticut school for “young ladies and misses of color” had been forced to close, first by mob violence and then by state statute. Tried and jailed three times for violating a “Black Act” that specifically targeted her school, Crandall kept close counsel with the abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison and the Unitarian abolitionist leader, Samuel J. May, who had been minister in Brooklyn, Connecticut at the time of the campaign against Prudence Crandall’s school.
Two new friends in the cause were William and Charles Burleigh, brothers who were considered the leading abolitionist organizers in the state. William, a printer-editor, had been a teacher at Crandall’s school during the short time it remained open in the early 1830s. Following the ruin of the school, he became a paid agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS) in Connecticut. Charles, a Plainfield farmer, writer, and preacher, described as having a mystical, Christ-like appearance and aspiring to the “ultra” strain of Garrisonian immediatism, was a close associate of Garrison and provided much copy for the Liberator.
William Burleigh, the younger of the two brothers, carried the antislavery message for the AAS beyond the pulpits of eastern Connecticut, preferring to make his stump abolitionist speeches before groups of mechanics and laborers. In 1837, he outlined for a group of workingmen an early form of the free labor ideology that would begin to sweep the North ten years later: “The laboring classes, too, begin to feel that they have a mighty interest in this thing, inasmuch as slavery is bringing contempt upon honest labor.” In 1838, he turned to antislavery newspaper publishing as editor of the Connecticut Anti-Slavery Society’s first paper, the Charter Oak, in Hartford. The first issue, in March 1838, signaled the paper’s commitment to “Free Principles, Free Men, Free Speech, Free Press.”As an antislavery editor William Burleigh charted a difficult course— never quite satisfying the Garrisonians, like his brother, who thought he was too political, or the strictly pious who considered him too radical.
In 1840 when the abolitionist movement split over political involvement, the younger Burleigh went with the group that formed the Liberty Party. The Charter Oak went with him and became the unofficial organ of that party in Connecticut. Burleigh strenuously opposed the schemes for “colonization” or settling freed slaves in Africa, that many religious and political leaders envisioned as the solution to ending slavery. The “greatest obstacle to the antislavery cause in the state are the organized churches,” he wrote in reference to the colonization position taken by Hartford’s First Congregational Church. In an editorial called “Colonization Fictions,” Burleigh denounced removal to Africa as “partial, proscriptive, hypocritical, and cruel. Under the pretense of kindness to the free colored man, it seeks to banish him from his native land, that the grasp of the slaveholder upon his prey may be more secure.” In later years, like Niles, Burleigh condemned the Mexican War as a vehicle of the extremist slave power for the expansion of slavery.
Niles could not help but take notice of this editorial rebrand. In April 1847, he invited Burleigh to move his printing press and editorial office to the basement of Hartford’s Universalist Church. The childless “Father Niles,” as his Universalist brethren now called him, remained one of the “Trustees of the Basement” who negotiated such lease agreements. The paper’s location in the church building may well have stopped an angry mob of 300 Hartford citizens from destroying Burleigh’s press in January 1848. Instead, they surrounded his home and smashed his front door and windows until the mayor and the watchmen calmed the crowd.
In the aftermath of the 1848 presidential election, the Connecticut Free Soil Party needed a permanent newspaper to help carry forward its program. On November 16, 1848 Burleigh promised his readers that he would make Charter Oak, the only Free Soil paper in the state, “worthy of the cause it advocates.” “We can not let Charter Oak become the peculiar organ of our party,” Niles wrote to Philleo Jr. His concern was due to the long association of the Charter Oak with the Liberty Party, which he correctly understood to be a party without any future. He was also concerned about “the old prejudice which exists against [Burleigh].” He predicted confidently, however, that “a good paper can take care of that.”He met with Burleigh and influential but skeptical Free Soil politicos to establish a new paper, which Burleigh publicized on November 23 as the prophetically named Republican. The new paper would begin publication, with Burleigh as editor, in early 1849.
Niles ran for Governor of Connecticut on the Free Soil Party ticket, or the “Free Democracy,” as the campaign called itself, in 1849. He led an effective antislavery coalition of Liberty abolitionists, progressive Whigs, and Jacksonians. Niles energetically barnstormed the state, traveling to Meriden, Waterbury, and Fair eld with the message of the state party’s platform: “Slavery is a crime, and a curse, hateful to God, degrading to man, and everywhere hostile to democratic institutions.” While Niles fell far short of being elected governor, the Free Democracy won 22 seats in the legislature and sent one of their own to Congress. “All together a Free Soil triumph,” he boasted.
Epilogue for John Niles and the Founding of the Republican Party
After his second wife, Jane Pratt, became ill and died in 1850, Niles prepared to settle to a semi-retired life. The Connecticut Historical Society, the Hartford Botanical Society, the Universalist Church, and his garden would occupy his time. Nearing sixty- five years of age, and sensing that the Free Soil moment had passed, he must have welcomed the prospect of life as a retired observer. Instead, the remarkable flurry of party-building activity that occurred in Connecticut and across the north in the mid-1850s drew him out of retirement and dominated what turned out to be the last few months of Niles’s life.
Niles and his life-long friend and editorial associate Gideon Welles attended a meeting with ten other men in the Hartford law office of Joseph P. Hawley on February 2, 1856. At 68, Niles was the oldest of the political allies that included former Whigs, Free Soilers, and Democrats. The group laid plans for a February 11 public meeting and a March 12 convention. The agenda was to include: nominating a gubernatorial candidate for the April 2 state election, establishing a newspaper, and determining representation for the councils of the emerging national Republican Party. Niles and Welles took on the lion’s share of this work, with Niles committed to raising $100 from each of 100 men to get a newspaper out by the end of the month. Welles agreed to edit the newspaper and be the Republican candidate for governor in the election, only eight weeks away. The group chose Niles to represent the state at the first Republican convention, to be held in Pittsburgh on February 17.
Niles was feeling ill, however, and was unable to make the trip. Those assembled in Pittsburgh, old Jacksonians like Preston King, David Wilmot, John Hale, and Hannibal Hamlin, as well as newer friends like Salmon Chase, placed Niles, despite his absence, on the first national executive committee of the new Republican Party. His illness, soon diagnosed as cancer of the jaw, would prevent him from participating at that level. By the time the party met its initial organizational goals, Niles had succumbed to cancer, on May 31.
Niles’s last speech in the Senate, delivered on February 28, 1849, is worth remembering as an epitaph on his life’s work. In the speech, he recited a stanza from the Unitarian and abolitionist poet, James Russell Lowell, whom he described only as “our own poet.”
They are slaves who fear to speak For the fallen and the weak.
They are slaves who will not choose Hatred, scoffing, and abuse;
Rather than in silence shrink
From the truths they need must think. They are slaves who dare not be
In the right with two or three.
In his book Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy (1995), Robert Wiebe cautions that democracy has not always been a “reliable support” for the grand concepts of liberty, equality, and fairness. “Democracy,” said Weibe, “does not reveal our salvation, but our humanity.” John Milton Niles came to learn that truth, his humanity manifestly evident during his long and influential career as a “democrat” and a “universalist.”