George Boutwell and seven decades of American history

I wrote here about Lewis Cass, and how he influenced American history for seven decades — the 1800s through the 1860s. Now, I have found another seven-decade man, George Boutwell.

Boutwell wasn’t as influential as Cass for as long a period of time, and he never ran for president. But like Cass, Boutwell served as governor, U.S. Senator, and key member of a presidential cabinet (Cass actually served in two cabinets, but was a fringe figure in President Buchanan’s).

Unlike Cass, Boutwell was a crusader. And at various times, he was heavily involved in the three issues that have dominated American history: treatment of Blacks, money and finance, and U.S. relations with the rest of the world.

Drawing heavily from a biography of Boutwell by Thomas H. Brown ( George Sewall Boutwell: Human Rights Advocate), I have compiled this partial list of Boutwell’s poltical activities from 1841 until his death in 1905:

1841 — Boutwell is elected to the Massachusetts state legislature at age 23. He wins as a Democrat, having lost the previous year as a candidate of the Temperance Party.

1843 — Although he opposes slavery, Boutwell does not take a hard line against the annexation of Texas.

1844 — Boutwell loses his seat in the state legislature and a bid for the U.S. House. The defeats are mainly the result of the unpopularity in Massachusetts of James K. Polk, the Democratic presidential candidate.

1846 — Boutwell returns to the state legislature.

1850 — Boutwell becomes governor of Massachusetts as a “fusionist” candidate. His coalition of Democrats and Free Soilers is the same one that sends Charles Sumner to the Senate.

Boutwell will govern in a populist, loco-foco style. His two main causes will be the secret ballot and the reorganization of Harvard.

1853 — Boutwell’s coalition dissolves, and he is defeated in an attempt to win a third term as governor.

1855 — Boutwell joins the nascent Republican Party of Massachusetts.

1860 — Boutwell supports Massachusetts man Nathaniel Banks for the Republican presidential nomination. Then, he campaigns vigorously for Abraham Lincoln.

1861 — Boutwell represents Massachusetts at the “peace convention.” He owes his place to the confidence of Sumner and others that he will take a hard line against the South. Boutwell does take a hard line. He tells the Southern representatives:

The North will never consent to the separation of the South. If the South persists on the course on which she has entered, we shall march our armies to the Gulf of Mexico or you will march yours to the Great Lakes. There can be no peaceful separation.

1862 — Boutwell is selected by Lincoln and Salmon Chase to be the first Commissioner of Internal Revenue. In his second year in charge, it will collect $109 million and become the largest department in the government, exceeding the rest of the Treasury Department to which it belongs.

1862 — Boutwell is elected to the U.S. House, where he quickly becomes the leading supporter of suffrage for Blacks.

1864 — Boutwell considers supporting a more radical Republican than Lincoln for president, but ends up backing Lincoln.

1866 — Boutwell pushes hard for Black suffrage legislation and against the readmission of Confederate states that don’t agree to suffrage for Blacks.

1867 — Boutwell sponsors an Army Appropriations bill, drafted by Secretary of Defense Stanton, that would limit President Johnson’s authority as commander-in-chief. He becomes a leader of the movement to impeach Johnson, and helps draft impeachment articles.

1868 — He is elected chairman of the impeachment managers’ committee but steps down as chairman to avoid divisions, as he is considered too radical by some.

Johnson narrowly survives the effort to remove him, but Bouwell is successful in seeing Black suffrage legislation enacted.

1869 — President Grant selects Boutwell to be Secretary of the Treasury. Henry Adams will later say that the selection of Boutwell instantly soured him on Grant. But Hugh McCulloch, Secretary of Treasury under Johnson and admired by Henry Adams, will later describe Boutwell’s tenure as “conservative, judicious, and creditable to himself and the administration.”

Why was Adams so sour on Boutwell? Adams wrote that Boutwell’s selection meant “the total extinction of anyone resembling Henry Adams” and that “Grant had cut short the life which Adams had laid out for himself in the future.” So we’re talking about patronage. In addition, though, I think we’re talking about snobbery. Adams was a Boston Brahmin; Boutwell was a self-made man (sort of like John Adams, Henry’s great-grandfather).

1872 — Boutwell leaves Grant’s cabinet to run for the U.S. Senate.

A debt hawk of the first order, Boutwell leaves the Treasury Secretary post having massively decreased the national debt. Rutherford Hayes will say that “Boutwell saved me by paying off the debt.”

Boutwell pursued a balanced monetary policy and took a wait-and-see approach to specie repayment. He also helped thwart a scheme by Jay Gould and James Fisk to corner the gold market by releasing $4 million in gold.

1872 — Boutwell is elected to the U.S. Senate. He fills the un-expired term of Henry Wilson, who resigned to become Grant’s running mate.

1873 — As Senator, Boutwell resumes his role as civil rights crusader. He focuses on fighting against school segregation.

1877 — Boutwell is defeated in his effort to win his own Senate term. He loses to George Hoar. Twenty years later, Hoar will be Boutwell’s steadfast ally in opposing U.S. “imperialism.”

1884 — Boutwell completes a term as counsel to the U.S. government in the French-American claims commission. The commission resolves issues relating to French losses during the Civil War and U.S. losses during the Franco-Mexican War, the Franco-Prussian War, and the Paris Commune uprising.

1893 — Boutwell is a leading critic of U.S. sponsorship of a revolution in Hawaii.

1895 — Boutwell is a leading critic of the Cleveland administration’s handling of a boundary dispute involving Great Britain and Venezuela. He denounces those who advocate U.S. military action.

1898 — Boutwell blasts those who favor the U.S. taking control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines without the intention of making them U.S. states.

1898 — At the age of 80, Boutwell is selected to head the Anti-Imperialist League. At its peak, the League will have 500,000 members.

As a long-time Stalwart Republican, Boutwell makes an unlikely leader of the League, which consists largely of Brahmins, mugwumps, liberal Republicans, and half-breeds. Ironically, though, Henry Adams is not at all in the anti-imperialist camp.

As a leader of the anti-imperialist movement Boutwell’s focus will be on the Philippines. He shuns anti-imperialist arguments that assert the undesirability of involvement with “inferior” populations, and he fears that U.S. policy is exacerbating U.S. racism.

1900 — Present in the Republican Party since its inception, and long one of its most stalwart partisans, Boutwell breaks with the GOP over its “imperialism.” He supports William Jennings Bryan for president, rather than looking to a third party, as many of his allies do.

Boutwell will continue to press for independence for the Philippines until his death in 1905.


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