By Scott Sanders, Archivist
Horace Mann and the Election of 1848
Feeling in an electoral mood, “Stacks” ventures into politics this month, though true to form into the politics of 1848. That year, the first in American history to have a single Election Day, saw an electorate certainly as polarized as the one heading into the Election of 2012, and perhaps even more so, due to a single monumental issue, namely the extension of slavery into territory acquired in the Mexican War, known euphemistically as “the sectional crisis.” It meant nothing less than the proliferation of slavery or its destruction, members of Congress squared off in a contest that challenged loyalties and tempers alike. The issue tore both national parties into pieces, and they split along sectional lines: the Democrats, into Northern and Southern, and the Whigs into “Conscience” and “Cotton,” and an antislavery Free Soil Party organized from these factions. Legislators took to arming themselves before entering sessions of Congress. So high were the stakes that the often violent language of the national legislature would descend into real violence finally in 1856, when Preston Brooks (D, S. Carolina), due to a perceived slur on his family, beat the Whig Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts very nearly to death with a cane right on the Senate floor.
Election broadside for the Whig presidential ticket of 1848. Taylor and Fillmore won the electoral vote handily (163 to 127) but gained less than 50% of the popular vote.
Into this supercharged partisan atmosphere strode the distinctly nonpartisan Horace Mann in 1848. Elected to serve out the term of the late great John Quincy Adams, who had died in office in February, Mann was chosen by the Massachusetts Whigs precisely because of his highly practiced political neutrality. Despite his staunch antislavery outlook, he had no history of agitation on that front, had insulted no proslavery men in public, and had no track record of opposition to the admission of Texas as a state or to annexation of the conquered lands known as the “Mexican Cession.” The tactic worked, and in April Mann was elected to serve the Congressional Eighth District as its representative to Congress in a landslide.
It was the Whig party’s nomination of General Zachary Taylor, a hero of the war with Mexico, as its candidate for president that prompted Mann’s message to his constituents, reprinted below. “Old Rough and Ready” as Taylor was known was, much like his Democratic opponent, Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan, a compromise candidate who would do little to resolve the slavery question but was hoped to be able to win the presidency while keeping his respective party more or less intact. At least when it came to Boston Whiggery, the tactic most certainly did not work, and the local party was thrown into disarray over the prospect of a nominee who was barely a Whig and himself an owner of slaves. Mann saw Taylor’s candidacy as just another instance of the North acceding to Southern demands to preserve the Union, as did his Whig friends in Boston, who wanted him to publicly denounce the nomination, renounce his party affiliation, and lead his fellow Conscience Whigs into a new antislavery third party. However, he saw Cass as a greater evil as well as the Free Soil candidate, former president Martin Van Buren.
Mann undoubtedly disappointed his constituents with this rather long explanation for why he had to keep his opinions about the election to himself, but it is pure Horace. Note the unassailable moral position of protecting the job of Secretary to the Board of Education from political pressure. Ever the lawyer, Mann makes a legal argument against slavery, which rang rather hollow within the context of crisis but was nonetheless fresher in his mind than usual as he was preparing to defend the sea captain Daniel Drayton for his role in “the Pearl incident,” the largest attempt to free enslaved peoples in American history. Finally, his twin senses of duty and idealism, both seemingly unshakeable, seem to have taken a hit during his first few months in the cauldron that Congress had become, for he concludes with a plea to his district not to consider him for re-election in 1852. That year, by the way, he was elected first president of Antioch College.
Remember, your vote counts!
Hon. Horace Mann (Whig, Massachusetts), Eighth Congressional District. Photo by Southworth & Hawes, Boston, c. 1850
From The Roxbury Gazette, 2 Sep 1848
TO THE ELECTORS OF THE EIGHTH CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT
Fellow Citizens: I am frequently requested to express my opinions respecting the ensuing Presidential election. The relations of frankness, which I wish ever to sustain, seem to require that I should express these opinions, or give some valid reason for withholding them. Will you indulge me, therefore, while I make a brief statement of my position on this subject?
For twelve years, I have been annually elected by the Massachusetts Board of Education as its Secretary. When I first accepted this office, I resolved to disconnect myself wholly, as an active member, from all political organizations. Reserving the right to vote, as my conscience might dictate, I determined to do no other act of a public nature, which should connect me with any political party. This course was deemed just and necessary, in order to allay all jealousy, and to win the confidence and co-operation of all parties to the paramount subject of Education. To this position of neutrality, I felt bound both in duty and in honor to adhere; and I believe I can now say with unqualified sincerity and truth, that I have never, in a single instance, at any time, departed from it. Doubtless this is one of the reasons why the office has been continued in the same hands, in this State, for twelve successive years. While, in the last eleven in other States, where a similar office has existed, four years is the longest period during which any one person has filled it.
In February last, a vacancy occurred in this Congressional District. In April, I was elected to fill it. My office of Secretary was to expire in the following month of May. Immediately after my election to Congress, I wrote to Gov. [of Massachusetts George] Briggs, the chairman of the Board, declining a re-election as its Secretary.
In consenting to be a candidate for Congress, I explicitly declared that I could not accept the office as a party man. My only inducement was to participate in the then impending struggle, whether our vast western Territory should be rescued to perpetual Freedom, or doomed to eternal Slavery. –Either in a public or in a private capacity, I should have continued to labor in the cause of Popular education, but for this greater cause of Human Liberty. I had long been thoroughly convinced that that Congress has no power to create Slavery any where; and that, whether in the territories or in the District of Columbia, Slavery had only an actual, but not a constitutional existence. After the most careful study, and with the application of all the powers that I possessed, I had never been able to find that Congress had any more power to make a slave-owner than it had to make an emperor; or any more power to make slaves of the colored portion of the human race, because they descended, in the maternal line, from Africa, than it had to make slaves of the white portion of the human race, because they descended, in the paternal line, from Europe. When, therefore, Louisiana and Florida were ceded to the United States, by France and Spain, and the District of Columbia, by Virginia and Maryland, every bond of slavery was cut square off; because the government which made the cession had no power to continue Slavery after the cession, and Congress had no power to renew it. If a slave goes out of a jurisdiction where slavery is legalized, into a jurisdiction where it is not, it is acknowledged on all hands that he becomes free. The effect upon the slave must be precisely the same, when the jurisdiction that sustains slavery is removed from him, and a jurisdiction that does not sustain it is extended over him. The removal of the jurisdiction from the slave must have the same effect as the removal of the slave from the jurisdiction. When, therefore, now more than a dozen years ago, I signed a petition for the abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia, I meant the abolition of practical Slavery, believing that legal Slavery had no existence in it. If Congress can create an owner of one slave, it can create the owner of a million slaves; and thus, as the despotisms of the Old World die out, they may be revived in the New.
It was under the above mentioned circumstances; --within about one month of the expiration of my official term as Secretary; disclaiming to be elected as a party man; and under the daily apprehension that the great question between Freedom and Slavery would be called up for a final decision; --it was under these circumstances that I yielded to what seemed to me to preponderating motive.
When the Board of Education met in May last, my letter was laid before them; but, not being ready to proceed to the choice of a successor, they declined to accept it, and by formal vote requested me to continue in the office until December next, and to close up the business of the current year. To this proposition, I assented.
Very soon afterwards, namely, on the 9th of June, the Philadelphia nomination for the presidency was made. This nomination has created a wide schism in the Whig party of Massachusetts and of this District. As always happens, in such cases, each division of the party strove to obtain as many adherents as it could. Among others it was natural that they should look to their representatives in Congress for sympathy and support.
I saw immediately the painful relation in which this posture of affairs, into which I had been so unexpectedly, and, in some respects, involuntarily brought, was to place me. If I entered the political field on either side, I could not consistently retain my office as Secretary of the Board; and, under the circumstances, I did not feel at liberty to abandon it. On the other hand, if I should retain the office of Secretary, I must abstain from the strife of politics, and thus doubtless incur the censure of zealous mean on both sides. Nor did it relieve the case at all, that I entertained views which, but for the restraints upon me by the Secretaryship, I should have been as ready to express as any body would be ready to hear. –In this conflict of duties, I deemed those which were connected with education to be paramount, and I have acted accordingly. It is far more important to have the duties of the Secretaryship performed, than it is to know what the incumbent of the office may think about the next Presidency. I have thus far, therefore, scrupulously abstained from taking any public part in the Presidential canvass; and while I continue to act as Secretary, I must continue to do so. All declarations, wherever and by whomsoever made, that I have avowed a purpose to act upon one side or the other, have been made without authority. My past conduct is open to inferences; but those inferences have been verified by no declaration of mine.
I have deemed this course to be due to the neutral position which the Secretary of our Board of Education, whoever he may be, ought to hold; and I hope the following reasons will make its propriety apparent to reflecting men:
- In order to save the cause of education from being ruined by political jealousies and strifes, it is indispensible that its executive officer should be free from all just imputation of political partizanship. If he enters the lists as a combatant, the cause of education will be drawn in after him; and there, worse than the fate of the belligerents on either side, it will be pierced by the darts hurled from both.
- The duties of the Secretary’s office for the residue of the current year are to be unusually arduous and burdensome, so that whoever performs them will have no time to devote to any other object; and if this officer were to make an avowal of his opinions, he might reasonably expect to be called upon to defend them, and thus to withdraw a portion of his time and his powers from paramount duties, or he himself be obliged to suffer in silence under injurious imputations.
- In attending Teachers’ Institutes, Teachers’ Associations, and other educational meetings, (at many of which I have already engaged to be present,) if I am to be known in the character of a politician, instead of that of a promoter of education, all power of urging on the latter and nobler cause shall be neutralized. If, wherever I may go, I am to be exposed to the public greetings of the zealous advocates of one political party, as their friends, it would of course, draw upon me the public condemnation of the other party, as their opponent; and thus the cause of education would be in danger of being crushed between the upper and the nether mill-stone of political strife.
- Another reason consists in the importance of justly attaching to the conduct of any officer, when viewed as an example to his successors. While performing the duties of the Secretaryship, were I to suffer myself to be known as a political partisan, the precedent might hereafter be appealed to, to defend a departure from neutrality in cases devoid of the palliations of the present emergency.
- And finally, if any advocate of either presidential candidate thinks it a clear case, that my educational relations create no obstacle, and present no incompatibility to my coming out in favor of his side, let him ask himself if he would see as little objection to my coming out on the side of his opponents.
These, my fellow citizens, are the leading reasons for the course I have deemed it my duty to take, and to which I still propose to adhere. Doubtless there will be those whose minds these reasons will not appear as conclusive or peremptory as they do to mine. We are prone to think our own favorite cause superior to all other causes; and therefore to demand that all others, like the sheaves seen in the dream of Joseph, shall make obeisance to ours.
One word more, and I will close. From an experience in public life, now extending over more than twenty years, I have come to the conclusion that, unless one has some special object of public beneficence to perform, or of public evil to abate, a public life is by no means a desirable one; because the severity of men’s judgments for honest differences of opinion far outweighs the honor of the most honorable office. From my brief acquaintance, too, with Congressional life, I have also found, that the adequate performance of the duties, even of the humblest member of the House, requires talents and attainments far greater than I possess. To avoid, therefore, the censures of those who do not approve the course which I have deemed it my duty to take, and to escape the regrets of an inadequate performance of high legislative duties, I shall earnestly request my friends, if any I have, not to bring forward my name as a candidate for re-election. This course may be mutually satisfactory; at any rate, I shall be sure that I have not deviated from my convictions of duty through hope of advancement.
West Newton, August 28, 1848