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Money, morals, and politics : Massachusetts in the age of the Boston Associates /
William F. Hartford.
Boston, Mass. : Northeastern University Press, c2001.
xiv, 286 p.
1555534899 (cloth : alk. paper)
More Details
Boston, Mass. : Northeastern University Press, c2001.
1555534899 (cloth : alk. paper)
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One

Forging a Popular Conservatism

* * *

In the early 1800s, Bay State Federalism and the system of elite rule that it sustained seemed fated for an early end. As one party leader lamented in a letter written shortly after Jefferson's overwhelming victory in the 1804 election: "We appear to be changing very fast, & the little Federalism that is left, will soon be no more. We may rise to something else, but not to that." On one level, this writer's foreboding proved premature. It would be another two decades before the "party of good principles" passed from the scene in Massachusetts, where as late as 1823 it still controlled the governorship. But his broader point was well taken. Though Federalism did "rise to something else," it was not the same party it had once been. To prevent the early demise many predicted, party bosses had to abandon an older elitism and create an electoral style more congruent with the popular politics of the era.

    Important parts of the story have been told before, most notably by David Hackett Fischer, whose study of early-nineteenth-century party development provided an able account of the organizational innovations adopted by beleaguered Federalist leaders. Our account here focuses on ideology and class relations, beginning with an examination of the traditional social views that obstructed Federalisms adaptation to the new political world created by the rise of Jeffersonianism. It then goes on to relate how Jefferson's embargo and "Mr. Madison's War" furnished a propitious set of circumstances that enabled Bay State Federalists to secure the backing of a heretofore resentful "middling interest" and forge a popular conservatism capable of maintaining elite rule.

    The story's main actors fall into three groups of Federalists, identified by Fischer: a group of old-schoolers who viewed popular politics with disdain and largely withdrew from active participation in party affairs after Jefferson's triumph in 1800; a transitional group deeply imbued with old-school principles and biases but still too young and energetic to remain content hurling abuse from the sidelines; and an ambitious band of young Federalists who were all too ready to accommodate the new order as they set about doing whatever was necessary to establish their political relevance. Though such ideal types are never perfect, Fischer's categories remain extremely useful and will be employed here to distinguish among major tendencies within Federalism.

    The most distinctive feature of old-school Federalism was its uncompromising adherence to a hierarchical view of sociopolitical relations in which the masses deferred to their wealthier and more learned superiors. Believing inequality to be part of the natural order of things, old-schoolers peered out upon a two-class society comprising "the better sort of people" and "the lower sort." One group had a responsibility to rule, the other to obey. And so long as each acted accordingly, peace, prosperity, and happiness could be had by all.

    It was no coincidence that many of the most prominent old-schoolers hailed originally from the North Shore port towns of Essex County, where early seafaring experiences left a lasting mark. "The habit of the quarterdeck," Thomas Wentworth Higginson once wrote, "went all through Massachusetts Federalism." An even more important factor in shaping the old-schoolers' view of social relations was the networks of dependency that leading shipowners established in these locales. In postrevolutionary Salem, Newburyport, and other maritime communities, sailmakers, cordwainers, shipwrights, stevedores, common seamen, and a host of other occupational groups relied on wealthy merchants for their livelihood. In turn, merchants expected dependent mechanics and laborers to follow their lead on political matters. As late as 1816, Salem Republican William Bentley complained of Federalist threats to withhold employment from any seaman or dockworker who cast a ballot for the party of Jefferson.

    Outside the port towns, economic power was generally more diffuse. In rural inland communities, most farmers and craftsmen operated independent household enterprises, and wage labor occupied a less prominent place in productive activities. Yet even here, substantial merchants and landowners could exact some measure of deference from subsistence farmers and small tradesmen by providing debt relief and various favors. After departing his ancestral home in Essex County, George Cabot found life in late-eighteenth-century Brookline more than agreeable. "The swinish multitude are occasionally noisy," Cabot said of his neighbors, "but a sop from the cook or a pail from the dairy-woman never fails to quiet them. More humane than those of Paris, they are satisfied with milk instead of blood. Accordingly, we go on harmoniously together; I support their table, and they support mine."

    Had all the world been Brookline, Bay State Federalists would have been a happy lot indeed. Unfortunately for them, it was not. One source of unease was the ambitious mechanic, farmer, or small trader who was discontent with his current social position. The old-schoolers did not condemn social mobility per se, for many of them had experienced substantial mobility in their own lives. Having come of age during the chaotic years of the American Revolution, when older patterns of wealth and authority were thrown into question, they had seized their opportunities and made the most of them. They also demonstrated a willingness to promote the advancement of bright young men of good principles but modest fortune such as Fisher Ames, who drew criticism in his first electoral contest for being the son of a mere almanac writer, and who perhaps best stated the Federalist position on social mobility in an 1801 essay: "All cannot be rich, but all have a right to make the attempt; and when some have fully succeeded, and others partially, and others not at all, the several states in which they then find themselves become their condition in life; and whatever the rights of that condition may be, they are to be faithfully secured by the laws and government."

    The problem was that many of those who failed to succeed refused to accept their fate. To the old-schoolers, these disappointed social climbers constituted the most dangerous group in the community because of the pivotal role they played in the social dynamics of revolution. Eager to attribute their lack of success to others, George Cabot explained, "the desperate adventurers who are uneasy with their present condition know that the poor we have always with us, and that these, with many of the ignorant, are easily formed into a revolutionary corps in every country." At such moments, Cabot added, reason was unavailing, for "jealousy of the rich is a passion in the poor, which can always be appealed to with success on every question, and instead of an answer to every argument."

    Cabot's fears, which old-schoolers generally shared, reveal much about the Federalist response to events of the 1790s. They help explain why Federalists came to view the French Revolution with such alarm, and why they saw a similar threat in Jeffersonianism. When old-schoolers condemned Republicans as Jacobins, they were not simply engaging in partisan rhetoric, but expressing deeply ingrained apprehensions about a political creed that gave unchecked rein to the aspirations of ambitious men. Moreover, recent history provided a frightening example of what happened when those aspirations went unsatisfied. Many old-schoolers believed Shays' Rebellion had resulted from the actions of just such people--people who, in Stephen Higginson's words, "have too high a taste for luxury and dissipation, to sit down contented in their proper line, when they see others possessed of much more properly than themselves."

    In Salem, William Bentley later observed, "the Republicans are the middle class & the Federalists, the top & bottom." Although Bentley oversimplified, the statement did reflect a basic truth: there was little room in Federalist social ideology for the middling interest. To be sure, old-school criticism focused on those who sought the unattainable and refused to accept the result. But such fine distinctions were never easy to convey, given the elitist tone of most old-school social pronouncements. This was especially so during the economic boom of the mid- to late 1790s when, said Theodore Sedgwick, "The rage for acquiring property by other means than industry and economy was not confined to towns but extended to almost every neighborhood in the country." Federalists paid a heavy price for these attitudes, as their political adversaries took advantage of their inability to address the middling interest without condescension. Among rank-and-file Republicans, Henry Adams shrewdly commented, "dislike of Federalists was a social rather than political feeling, for Federalist manners seemed to them a willful impertinence."

    Old-schoolers might have found the middling interest a little easier to bear had they been able to rely fully on members of their own class. But there were problems here as well. One was the politician who craved popular applause. Ardent proponents of government by the rich, the wise, and the good, Federalists had little patience with wealthy political leaders who--to them at least--appeared neither wise nor good. When confronted with a public figure of this sort, old-schoolers felt they had a duty to expose the man's shortcomings.

    In postrevolutionary Massachusetts, John Hancock best exemplified the problem. To old-schoolers, the flamboyant Hancock was a ridiculous figure who had more money than sense, and Stephen Higginson assumed the responsibility of letting people know why this was so. Writing under the pseudonym "Laco," Higginson penned a series of newspaper articles that presented a savage indictment of Hancock's political career. As a member of the Continental Congress, Higginson wrote, Hancock had been a veritable model of indecisiveness while exhibiting a fondness for "Southern manners" that led him "to contemn the manly simplicity and firmness of the delegates from New England." As a Revolutionary War general, his steadfast cultivation of "new means of dissipation" rendered him totally incapable of leading by example. And as governor, he appointed numerous public officials whose only qualification for office was their friendship with him, and who through "their ignorance and folly, injured the reputation of government, perverted the laws, and proved a curse to society," thereby paving the way for Shays' Rebellion.

    On a related matter, old-schoolers worried about the constancy of wealthy associates when political principle clashed with economic interest. This concern first surfaced at mid-decade during the struggle over Jay's Treaty. Though not entirely satisfied with the treaty themselves, Federalist leaders believed any agreement that promised peaceful relations with England and undermined the position of France's American friends deserved their support. They were not happy when regional merchants, dissatisfied with the pact's provisions on the West India trade, initially joined anti-treaty demonstrations. Even though most of these merchants subsequently backed the agreement, the fact that they could be so easily misled disturbed old-schoolers. Speaking for many of his colleagues, Fisher Ames wrote: "I could neither repress my indignation, nor disguise my contempt for the blindness and gullibility of the rich men who so readily lend their strength to the party which is thirsting for the contents of their iron chests." Later in the decade, during the Quasi-War with France, George Cabot expressed serious doubts as to whether merchants engaged in the West India trade could resist the temptation to take advantage of rising prices in the French islands. Recognizing that one could not ignore the "commercial spirit" that dictated merchant conduct, Cabot urged Secretary of Treasury Oliver Wolcott to "authorize indiscriminate reprisals on French property," in the hope that "Avarice would fight our battles."

    Old-schoolers further regretted that merchants failed to do their part in financing the military buildup of the late 1790s. The reluctance of wealthy traders to subscribe generously to government loans forced the administration to pay higher interest rates than was politically wise, given popular resentment of the increased taxes levied to fund the war program. But as Stephen Higginson explained in a letter to Wolcott, this could not be helped. With current trade prospects "too flattering to be resisted," active merchants had most of their funds tied up in various commercial ventures. Nor could "money-holders who have retired from trade" be expected to relieve pressure on the government: "A moment like the present," Higginson noted, "is to such men, the time for harvest; their private interest is opposed to the object in view; and we must expect them to combine to reduce, rather than raise the price of stocks, that they may purchase with more advantage." In concluding, Higginson advised that government should attempt to bolster confidence through the systematic adoption of wise policies.

    That Higginson could do no better than this was of particular significance. A principled man who strongly believed that people of privilege had a special duty to behave responsibly, he had never been an apologist for elite foibles. In addition to his flaying of John Hancock, he had been a sharp critic of Robert Morris's financial machinations in the Second Continental Congress. And when Alexander Hamilton put together his financial program, Higginson recommended that public securities obtained at depreciated prices be redeemed at reduced interest rates, so as to remove the impression that the funding plan constituted nothing more than a contrivance for "stripping the poor to increase the wealth & influence of the rich." His lame counsel on the war loan reflected a major shortcoming of Federalist thought: an inability to resolve the contradiction between marketplace dictates and desired elite conduct. It was a dilemma that, for obvious reasons, old-schoolers never fully confronted. To have done so would have required the promotion of government initiatives that restricted their own economic activities. Rather than consider this unwelcome prospect, they found it much easier to propose policies that would make avarice an ally of good principles.

    The Quasi-War with France marked a major turning point in Federalist fortunes. Begun with high hopes and broad public support, it ended in disaster. One problem was the Federalist war program, which reawakened fears of a standing army and necessitated the imposition of a burdensome land tax that caused widespread alarm among small farmers. Just as troublesome were disagreements among leading Federalists over how to deal with France. When John Adams opted for peace, party ideologues, led by Alexander Hamilton, openly broke with the president. This created a dilemma for Massachusetts old-schoolers, who shared Hamilton's views but recognized that a clear majority of other Bay Staters strongly endorsed Adams and his policies. Thus immobilized, they sat out the ensuing presidential contest, privately lamenting the personal idiosyncrasies and muddled political thinking that had prompted Adams to pursue so misguided a course. Long before these intraparty squabbles could be resolved--if indeed they ever were--Thomas Jefferson had moved into the White House.

    Despite Jefferson's victory, Federalism remained a powerful force in Massachusetts politics. But most old-schoolers, believing that history had passed them by, derived limited satisfaction from continued state successes. The ever-pessimistic George Cabot had sensed that the end was near as early as 1797. "Whenever I go out of my house, or have guests within it, I am led to distrust my reasoning and conclusions," he observed in a letter to Oliver Wolcott. "I find myself in the errors of the French revolutionists, who maintain that the people understand their true interests, and will always vindicate them." Though Cabot never accepted such beliefs, he felt that little could be done to combat their spread. "After all," he added, "we must take the world as it is, and by expecting less, expose ourselves to less chagrin." With Jefferson's triumph, Cabot and other old-schoolers who had remained politically active largely withdrew from involvement in political affairs.

    The next several years were a transitional period in the evolution of Bay State Federalism. For a time, a group of younger men who championed old-school beliefs, but recognized the need to court popular opinion, attempted to devise a means of broadening Federalism's appeal without sacrificing party principles. The most notable of them was Fisher Ames, a Dedham lawyer whose slight frame and correct manners masked a fiery temperament. Driven as much by impulse as reflection, Ames was by his own admission "habitually a zealot in politics": "I burn and freeze, am lethargic, raving, sanguine and despondent, as often as the wind shifts." In what might have served as a comment on much of his writing, he said of one letter, "I have written thus far as fast as I could make my pen go--too fast, perhaps, for my discretion to follow." On another occasion he remarked, "With a warm heart, and an hot head, I often dupe my friends and myself."

    Although economic circumstances had forced Ames to retire from Congress in i797 and "truck off reputation for cash" by resuming the full-time practice of law, he maintained a keen interest in party affairs. Convinced that Jefferson's election posed a dire threat to all that Federalists held dear, Ames sharply criticized the old-schoolers' withdrawal, which he attributed to a debilitating preoccupation with wealth and leisure. When they largely ignored his urgent warnings, he lashed out in disgust, condemning their sacrifice of principle for "money-getting" and pleasure: "He that robs me of my good name, takes trash. What is it but a little foul breath, tainted from every sot's lungs? But he who takes my purse, robs me of that which enriches him, instead of me, and therefore I will have vengeance." A longtime critic of such attitudes, Ames believed that people content to wait for the actual day of expropriation were already doomed. And despite failing health, he resolved to employ what energies he still possessed to combat Jeffersonian heresies. "If Jacobinism makes haste," he wrote to Timothy Pickering, "I may yet live to be hanged."

    Turning his attention to party problems, Ames believed that Federalism most needed an effective and appropriate means of shaping public opinion. However much he despised the Republican press, Ames appreciated its contributions to party successes and felt that Federalists had yet to make full use of this powerful electoral weapon. Accordingly, he urged the creation of a first-rate newspaper--one that would provide a forum for the thoughtful analyses of "able men" rather than the scribblings of "uneducated printers, shop-boys, and raw schoolmasters" that all too frequently littered the columns of existing party publications. Unlike these wretched sheets, the journal Ames envisioned would "be fastidiously polite and well-bred. It should whip Jacobins as a gentleman would a chimney-sweeper, and keeping aloof from his soot."

    With the establishment in 1801 of the Palladium , Ames got his newspaper. But he got little else. Younger party regulars welcomed Ames's enthusiasm and energy; they had much less use for his ideas about political journalism. By mid-decade, the Palladium was indistinguishable from other party papers, and Ames had for all intents and purposes joined his more aged old-school associates in political retirement. He recorded his disillusionment in an unpublished 1805 essay, "The Dangers of American Liberty," whose unrelievedly grim analysis of political developments made the gloomy speculations of George Cabot seem cheerful by comparison. Ames now saw that the press offered no solution; "by rendering men indocile and presumptuous," it was more often than not part of the problem. Nor could he see any way of reversing America's downward course, there being "no society without jacobins; no free society without a formidable host of them; and no democracy whose powers they will not usurp, nor whose liberties, if it be not absurd to suppose a democracy can have any, they will not destroy."

    By 1805 Ames had come to realize--as Cabot had nearly a decade earlier--that old-school principles could not be reconciled with the demands of popular politics. Recognizing the nation's irrevocable commitment to a democratic future, he belatedly accepted the fact that people like himself had little place in public life, as democracy was "of all governments that very one in which the wise and good are completely reduced to impotence." He and other old-schoolers remained Federalists only because they had no choice, the alternatives being so much worse. "The people will not knowingly employ nor voluntarily support a government whose acts contravene their favorite purpose, which are those of their worse passions," Cabot remarked. As a result, he added, "Some of our best men in high stations are kept in office because they forbear to exert any influence, and not because they possess right principles."

    The younger men who replaced the departing old-schoolers shared many of their misgivings. But as Fisher Ames learned when he sought to make the Palladium a journal of polite opinion, the young Federalists were mainly concerned about winning elections and would do whatever was necessary to keep the party in power. Their most important contributions were in the area of party organization. Apart from a legislative caucus formed in 1800, Massachusetts Federalism during the early nineteenth century remained a loosely structured band of like-minded individuals that relied primarily on the self-induced prompting of traditional party loyalties for electoral success; little was done to get voters to the polls or to recruit new members. All this changed in 1804, when Republican advances underscored the need for more effective organization. That year witnessed the creation of a state Central Committee to manage party affairs during those long periods when the legislature was not in session; the establishment of country and town committees that looked to the "Headquarters of good principles" for guidance soon followed. With these developments, the party possessed a tightly knit pyramidal structure capable of mobilizing rank-and-filers throughout the state for mass rallies as well as getting out the vote on election day.

    The new emphasis on organization also strengthened the position of a group whose contributions to party development have been largely overlooked: the printer-editors whom Ames so cavalierly dismissed when making plans for the Palladium . During this period, the most prominent was Benjamin Russell, longtime publisher of Boston's Columbian Centinel . The son of a stonemason, Russell learned his craft under the tutelage of Worcester's Isaiah Thomas, who was for many years the dean of Bay State printer-editors. Although Russell's formal schooling ended at an early age, he was by no means "uneducated." A gifted writer and polemicist with a keen instinct for the jugular, Russell himself produced many of the provocative editorials and entertaining poems that appeared in the Centinel 's columns. His influence as a political journalist extended well beyond Boston. Rural printers of this era relied on metropolitan papers for editorial opinion and news to fill their own sheets, and in Massachusetts no Federalist journal supplied more than the Columbian Centinel .


Excerpted from Money, Morals, and Politics by William F. Hartford. Copyright © 2001 by William F. Hartford. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Choice on 2002-06-01:
The influence of the captains of industry on the political process is currently a hot topic, but, as this book shows, the subject is not a new one. Hartford continues his study of industrialization in Massachusetts in the 19th century by focusing on the control that the Boston Associates exerted over the politics of the state. Preaching economic and social interdependence and holding themselves out as "the defenders of New England civilization," they built a broad base political coalition with the "middling class." Out of this linkage rose the Whig party, which dominated Massachusetts politics for nearly two decades. With the rise of labor radicalism and the building national crisis over slavery, the linkage began to rust. By 1854 the party was shattered, and the political influence of the Boston Associates was grinding to a halt. This is more than a sociopolitical study. The depth of coverage given to the leading spokespersons on issues that served as the basis for political discussion and controversies pushes the book toward the realm of intellectual history. Recommended for all universities and four-year college libraries. A must for all such libraries in Massachusetts. J. J. Fox Jr. emeritus, Salem State College
This item was reviewed in:
Reference & Research Book News, February 2002
Choice, June 2002
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Main Description
Enlivened with sketches of leading figures of the period, this in-depth study of the rise and fall of Massachusetts Whiggery offers a fresh vista on the political and social history of antebellum America.
Unpaid Annotation
A Group of Wealthy families bound together by marriage and financial interests, the Boston Associates controlled extensive sectors of the antebellum Massachusetts economy. As leading figures in the Whig party, they also dominated politics in the Commonwealth. While the Associates remained a powerful force in Bay State economic life through most of the nineteenth century, their political authority had been sharply curtailed by the time of the Civil War.In this insightful volume, William F. Hartford breaks new ground by asking how the Associates and their Federalist forebears maintained their dominance for as long as they did. He argues that the reasons for the elite group's early successes in establishing political leadership provide the key to understanding the demise of Massachusetts Whiggery. Hartford explains how the Associates secured and preserved power by crafting a compelling political appeal that garnered the support of broad segments of the electorate. The ideological framework of that appeal rested on two overarching principles: a strong defense of regional economic interests forged by linking merchant and manufacturer fortunes to those of regional farmers, mechanics, and other "middling classes", and a spirited assertion of regional values that allowed the Associates to pose as credible defenders of New England civilization.By the mid-nineteenth century, the Associates' rule was being challenged by dissident views, first expressed by labor radicals who raised troubling questions about the elite's commitment to the doctrine of social interdependence. More importantly, the Associates' equivocal response to the growing slave crises, beginning with the annexation of Texas,gave rise to charges that the group was more concerned about promoting its own interests than protecting the Commonwealth from the aggressions of a malevolent slaveholding aristocracy. As these perceptions spread, Boston's e
Table of Contents
Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Introductionp. xi
Forging a Popular Conservatismp. 1
From Federalism to Whiggeryp. 32
Labor and Challenges to Elite Rulep. 65
Antislavery and Challenges to Elite Rulep. 91
The Revolt of the Subelitesp. 119
Whig Factionalism and the Coalitionp. 148
The Final Years of Bay State Whiggeryp. 179
Conclusionp. 209
Notesp. 213
Bibliographyp. 263
Indexp. 279
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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