Chapter 15: politics in mid-nineteenth-century Michigan.
For some years prior to Andrew Jackson's election to the presidency in 1828, party lines in the nation had been blurred. So vigorous a leader as Jackson was bound to make enemies, and he made many. They included the remaining New England Federalists, supporters of the United States Bank, anti-Masons, South Carolina nullificationists, Clay men, Calhoun men, and Webster men. Without having anything in common except their dislike of Jackson, these groups coalesced in the early 1830s under the name of Whig, chosen because the party of that name in England had been opposed to the supporters of the king. The backbone of the early Whig Party in Michigan was a group of three Detroit men who had been appointed to positions in the territorial government by Jackson's predecessor, John Quincy Adams: William Woodbridge, Henry S. Chipman, and Thomas Rowland. There was no love lost between Jackson and Adams, and so it was natural that these Adams appointees should lead the fight against "King Andrew."
The Whigs made little headway in Michigan at first. The Democratic candidate for governor in 1835, Stevens T. Mason, was elected, and was reelected in 1837 with slight opposition. The legislature contained a large Democratic majority. The Detroit Free Press staunchly supported the Democratic cause, and most of the outstate newspapers were Democratic. But the situation began to change as hard times hit the state. As usual, economic distress was blamed on the party in power. This set the stage for a Whig victory in 1839, when William Woodbridge was elected governor. The next year Michigan voters gave the Whig candidate for president, William Henry Harrison, a majority. The Whig triumph, however, was short-lived. In Washington Harrison survived his inauguration by scarcely a month, and following his death and the assumption of the presidency by John Tyler, the Whigs divided into snarling factions. In 1841 the Democrats were again triumphant, electing John S. Barry of Constantine as governor, and from then until 1854 the Democrats won every state election, and every legislature had a Democratic majority. The voters also gave a majority to the Democratic candidate for president in 1844, 1848, and 1852.
Whig hopes were kept alive by factionalism in the Democratic Party. At times the Democrats seemed to dislike each other about as much as they did the Whigs. One Democratic faction was headed by John Norvell, the postmaster at Detroit, and consisted largely of federal appointees. The second faction, led by Lucius Lyon of Kalamazoo, Elon Farnsworth of Detroit, and Governor Batty, consisted of the conservatives: men of property who opposed the "extravagances" of the Mason administration and would have preferred to restrict the right to vote to property owners. The "radical" wing of the party was led by Kinsley S. Bingham of Livingston County. He and his followers were critical of banks, corporations, and special privilege groups of any sort. This faction included men of small means, in contrast to the more affluent conservatives. In the later 1840s and early 1850s the radicals came to include a large number of antislavery enthusiasts. Finally, a faction of the party had its strength in the western part of the state and consisted of those who felt that the eastern section received too many favors from state government. Epaphroditus Ransom of Kalamazoo may be regarded as the leader of this faction.
The Whigs might have capitalized on these splits within the Democratic ranks had they too not been divided into factions. The conservative Whigs, led by Woodbridge, resembled in many ways the conservative faction in the Democratic Party. They were monied men, large landowners, and prosperous merchants, most of whom had little time or taste for active political work. By contrast, the Whig radicals included a good many younger men, particularly young lawyers, and in the latter part of the period they espoused, like the Democratic radicals, also the antislavery cause.
The latter was but one of a number of causes that increasingly overshadowed such state political issues as internal improvements, education, and banking legislation, as Michigan, along with much of the country, was swept by a great wave of reforming zeal that followed a series of religious revivals in western New York led by Charles S. Finney in the 1820s. (1) Western New York was largely populated by New Englanders who had brought their Puritanism along with them. Implicit in this religious faith was the Calvinist dogma of predestination and the notion that humankind bears the taint of Adam's original sin. The effect of the Finney revivals was to destroy the attitude of resignation toward a wicked world and to substitute the view that it is the duty of the Christian to make the world a better place. Around the beginning of the nineteenth century, the churches had awakened from their lethargy and had undertaken through foreign and home missions "to spread the gospel to every creature." But the Finney revivals did something else: they imparted to religion the red-hot zeal to change society--not merely to convert the heathen or impart religion in the frontiersmen, but to eradicate evils and injustices in the country. This spirit expressed itself in many different ways: the temperance crusade, the campaign for women's rights, anti-Catholicism, dietary reform, new religions, utopian socialism, prison reform, new schemes for education, and, the most famous of them all, the movement for the abolition of slavery. Western New York was the fountainhead of most of these reform movements, and since so many of the people of Michigan had come from that area, it is not surprising that almost all these manifestations were reflected in Michigan.
Concern with the evils of heavy drinking and drunkenness went back to the earliest fur-trading days in Michigan when Jesuits and others made futile efforts to prohibit the use of liquor in the trade with the Indians. The sale or gift of intoxicating liquor to Indians was prohibited by a law of the Northwest Territory passed in 1790 and by an act approved by the governor and judges of Michigan Territory in 1812. The sale of liquor to minors, servants, soldiers, prisoners, and anyone on Sundays was forbidden. Another type of restriction was the requirement that vendors of intoxicating liquors obtain a license. In 1845 the legislature empowered any township or city to refuse to issue such licenses, and the Constitution of 1850 banned licenses altogether. But the net result was only to leave the sale of liquor unregulated. "Demon rum" was also attacked by means of "moral suasion." Societies were formed to promote the cause of temperance, first locally, then statewide, and in 1826 the American Temperance Society was established on a national basis. The Michigan Temperance Society was formed in 1833 and had many branches. At first the temperance movement stressed moderation. Since this effort brought no concrete results, abstinence from "ardent spirits" was advocated. The drinking of beer and wine rather than whisky, rum, and brandy was encouraged. But this policy was condemned as undemocratic. Whisky was cheap, but beer and wine were relatively expensive at that time. The temperance forces were finally driven to the advocacy of total abstinence.
About 1840 the "Washingtonian movement" was started by a group of reformed drunkards in Baltimore, and it rapidly spread to the West. Some of these ex-tipplers developed mighty oratorical powers. They held meetings or attended them, told their experiences "before and after," and urged everyone to sign a pledge to abstain from all drinking. The Washingtonian meetings were characterized by lusty singing, excited oratory, and pledge signing. Augustus Littlejohn of Allegan, brother of Flavius T. Littlejohn, candidate for governor in 1849, conducted a series of meetings in Kalamazoo County in 1844. Littlejohn is described as a man of medium height, well proportioned, "straight as a Choctaw," with a face of "clear intellectual cast and a keen black eye." His voice was "strong and splendidly modulated to express feelings of pathos or to emphasize a point." In one town the meetings were held every evening and part of each day for two weeks. Crowds came from miles around. Littlejohn organized his work carefully, put great emphasis on the singing of temperance songs, drilling a choir an hour before each meeting, and then lectured so as to entertain as well as persuade. Saloon keepers made every effort to bring disrepute on Littlejohn and his cause, but without success. Similar meetings were held in Battle Creek, Marshall, and other parts of the state, and the people came to be sold on the temperance cause even though they did not stop drinking. (2)
Soon the temperance crusade turned from "moral suasion" and pledge signing to prohibition as the answer to the liquor problem. The movement for prohibition started in Maine, where in 1851 the legislature passed a prohibitory act that became a model for other states to the extent that prohibition acts came to be known as "Maine laws." This act prohibited the manufacture, sale, or keeping for sale of intoxicating liquors and set heavy penalties for violations. Minnesota, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Vermont enacted prohibition laws of this kind in 1852. In Michigan the legislature adopted a prohibition law in 1853, but provided that it should go into effect only upon approval by the voters in a popular referendum. This approval was given by a substantial majority, but in 1854 the state supreme court declared that the legislature did not have the right to make the law dependent on a popular referendum and, for that reason, declared the law to be invalid. The Republican-controlled legislature in 1855, however, passed an acceptable law. After this the temperance forces rested on their oars, thinking that the battle had been won. They soon found that it was one thing to pass a law and quite another to enforce it. Loopholes were discovered and soon liquor was being sold openly. In 1857 Detroit is reported to have had 420 saloons, 56 hotel and tavern bars, 23 breweries, and 6 distilleries. The prohibition law remained on the statute books until 1875, but for many years prior to that date it was in reality a dead letter. (3)
The crusade for women's rights, inaugurated at the Seneca Falls Convention in New York in 1848, was considered by many to be the most radical of the reform movements of the time. Two years before the Seneca Falls meeting one of the leaders of the movement, Ernestine L. Rose, addressed the Michigan legislature in an appeal for women's rights. The future Civil War governor, Austin Blair, then a young Whig legislator from Jackson, spoke up in favor of the vote for women, and in 1849 a Senate committee headed by Rix Robinson of Grand Haven reported a resolution in favor of a state women's suffrage amendment, but other lawmakers ridiculed it. At the time, women had virtually no rights before the law. The Michigan Constitution of 1850 gave women property rights but not the ballot. In the 1850s the freed slave Sojourner Truth settled in Battle Creek; although she is best remembered as one of the most famous black crusaders against slavery, she was also an active campaigner for women's rights, including the right to vote. (4) Another phase of the women's rights movement aimed at greater educational opportunities for women, part of the great upsurge in efforts to improve educational opportunities for all that was also high on the reformers' agenda. The conflict between those who favored coeducation and those who thought there should be separate schools and colleges for women already has been described. The opening of the University of Michigan to women in 1870, although not the first move in the state to lower the barriers to women being admitted to college, was regarded as a landmark in the women's rights struggle. The incentive for this move was largely the result of the work of Lucinda Hinsdale Stone of Kalamazoo, who had conducted a successful female college in connection with Kalamazoo College. She also had been a leader in the formation of the Ladies' Library Association in Kalamazoo in 1852, which was the first women's club in Michigan and the third oldest in the United States. In later years Mrs. Stone came to be known as the "mother of women's clubs" in Michigan. (5)
The reform crusade that began in the late 1820s gave rise to several new religious denominations, among them the Spiritualists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Mormons. By 1860 Battle Creek had become the foremost center of the Seventh-day Adventists, a denomination that had originated in the East in the 1840s and whose leaders ultimately embraced the dietary changes that were another of the popular reforms of this period. An offshoot of the Mormon Church also grew up in Michigan. The founder of Mormonism was Joseph Smith. Following their beginnings in western New York, the Mormons moved to Ohio, then to Missouri, then back to Illinois. Their city of Nauvoo in southern Illinois was a community of considerable size and importance. Some of Smith's followers had also settled in Michigan, where, in Pontiac, Smith preached to the members of the first Mormon church established in the territory, in October 1834. (6) Because of claims that Smith practiced polygamy, he was generally condemned. In 1844 Joseph and his brother Hyrum were murdered in Nauvoo by an angry mob. After Smith's death, most Mormons accepted the leadership of Brigham Young, who in 1846-47 led them to Utah. But not all Mormons followed Young. One relatively small group accepted the leadership of James J. Strang and settled in Voree, Wisconsin. Sufficient lands were not available for the entire group, and Strang began to look for greener pastures for his flock. His attention was drawn to the Beaver Islands, which lie in the northern part of Lake Michigan and are part of the state of Michigan. There are twelve of these islands, the largest and best known--Beaver Island--being twelve miles long and six miles wide. The only inhabitants at the time were a few Irish fishermen. Here was an ideal spot for his people, Strang believed, and in 1848 and 1849 they began to arrive in large numbers.
Strang, like Joseph Smith, was from western New York, and claimed to have been favored with divine revelations. In accordance with one of these revelations, Strang had himself crowned as "King James, Viceregent of God on Earth." At first he was not a polygamist, but in the early 1850s, dutifully following the commands of another revelation, he took unto himself four additional wives. Although "plural marriage" was now permitted in the Strang settlement on Beaver Island, few of Strang's followers could support more than one wife, and the code of the community was strict in regard to immoral conduct, drinking, and profanity. Strang absolutely dominated the settlement. But he made enemies, and on one occasion was taken to Detroit for trial in federal district court. He was acquitted of the charges against him and returned home in triumph. He then ordered his followers to elect him to the state legislature. In 1852 he went to Lansing, where he was highly regarded by his fellow legislators. Both Whigs and Democrats courted his favor, for it was said that he could control nearly 2,500 votes.
Strang's downfall was the result of the enmities he had incurred among the earlier residents of the area, particularly the Irish fishermen, and the jealousies that had developed toward him among his own followers. On June 16, 1856, he was assassinated. Shortly thereafter, his assassins were released by the authorities. Strang's followers, left leaderless, were attacked by mobs of fishermen from the mainland and were forced to flee for their lives. (7)
Despite the plethora of biographies written about him, Strang had virtually no lasting impact as a religious leader. The federal census of religious groups taken in 1936 revealed only fifteen Strangite Mormons in Michigan, a figure that probably did not greatly increase in later years.
The same fascination with that which is out of the ordinary that helps to account for the attention Strang has received also helps to explain the interest in utopian societies which in this period led to such experiments as the Brook Farm project in New England and the Oneida community in New York. A similar experiment called the Alphadelphia community was located near Kalamazoo and lasted but a brief time in the mid-forties. It numbered no more than three hundred members at its peak, less than one-tenth of one percent of the state's population. In 1848 the project was abandoned because of internal dissension. The property was divided and the members drifted away. (8)
These developments on the fringes of the reforms of this era are interesting but of rather questionable significance. One reform movement whose significance cannot be questioned, even though its hard-core supporters were also limited in number, was the movement against slavery. In the forefront of the antislavery forces were the Friends, or Quakers, although several other religious denominations in Michigan were almost equally opposed to slavery. Abolition societies were formed throughout the North by the thirties, with Quakers in Lenawee County forming the first such society in Michigan in 1832. Before her death in 1834, Elizabeth Chandler, a young Quaker who had come to Adrian in 1830, became a nationally known figure for her writings attacking the evils of slavery. Laura Haviland, another Lenawee County Quaker, would, with her husband, carry on a lifelong fight against slavery and for the betterment of the lot of blacks.
In 1836 the Quakers and other religious groups formed the Michigan Antislavery Society in a meeting at Ann Arbor's Presbyterian church, while local societies sprang up throughout southern Michigan. During the 1840s, the sentiment against slavery was politically expressed in third-party movements, and coalesced in 1854 in the Republican Party. But many people found other ways to aid the cause than by voting for polite resolutions or casting a ballot. The "Underground Railroad" was an informal organization for the assistance of escaped slaves in reaching free soil. Slaves who escaped across the Ohio River found their way northward through Indiana or Ohio and were welcomed by many Michiganians. The Quakers everywhere took the lead in this work, but others assisted as well. An established route ran from Niles through Cassopolis, Schoolcraft, Climax, Battle Creek, and along the old Territorial Road to Detroit or northward to Port Huron. From these points blacks were aided in reaching Canada, though many remained in Michigan. Erastus Hussey of Battle Creek was one of the most active "conductors." On the eastern side of the state Laura Haviland was deeply involved in Underground Railroad activities. Some, however, who claimed to have been active in this work may have exaggerated their contributions. Aiding a fugitive was against the law, and therefore many who were involved at the time did not publicize their actions. Most of the information that is available is in the nature of reminiscences published after the Civil War, when there was no longer any danger of being arrested, fined, or imprisoned for this kind of activity. The historian Larry Gara, among others, believes that much of this evidence is suspect, and that the impact of the Underground Railroad was far less significant and widespread than many in the past have assumed. (9)
In order to escape the vigilance of slave hunters, the refugees generally were concealed in houses or barns during the day and carried on to the next "station" in the night. There are several documented cases of slave owners, usually from Kentucky, who came to Michigan to reclaim their slaves and were subjected to delays and even violence. Most famous of all these was the Crosswhite Case. Adam Crosswhite, his wife, and four children were fugitives from Kentucky who settled near Marshall. (It has been claimed that Crosswhite was the prototype of George Harris in the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.) Fearing that he might be kidnapped by his former owner, Crosswhite had arranged to fire a signal shot should he be threatened. One morning in January 1847 this shot was heard, and neighbors came running to find four Kentuckians and a local law officer at Crosswhite's door. The mob of nearly a hundred citizens succeeded in foiling the Kentuckians' plans and spiriting the Crosswhite family away to Canada on board a Michigan Central train. The enraged Kentuckians returned to bring suit against the leaders of the mob for having prevented them from regaining their property. The result of the first trial was a hung jury, but in the second trial the jury brought in a verdict of guilty against the Marshall citizens, after the judge had advised the members of the jury that no matter what their feelings might be in the case, the law was definitely on the side of the Kentuckians. Fines were assessed against the Marshall citizens equal to the value of the Crosswhites if they had been sold in a slave market. Local tradition in Marshall would later claim that the Crosswhite Case had national repercussions and that Senator Henry Clay, a neighbor of the owners of the Crosswhites, demanded a harsher fugitive slave law in 1850 because of his outrage at the manner in which the rights of his fellow Kentuckians had been abused by the Marshall mob. In actuality, a careful search of the record has revealed no evidence that Clay's actions were in any way influenced by the Crosswhite Case. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, however, did lead the first Republican-controlled legislature of Michigan in 1855 to adopt a strong personal liberty law which went to the very limit of every constitutional device to prevent the recovery of fugitive slaves in Michigan by forbidding state and local officials to cooperate with federal marshals in the recovery of slave property. (10)
At the end of the 1830s many activists in the antislavery movement, discouraged at the lack of progress they had thus far achieved in their efforts to end slavery, turned to political action, and since the Democrats and Whigs tended to avoid the slavery issue in order not to alienate their supporters in either the North or the South, the abolitionists formed their own party, the Liberty Party. The party's candidate for president in 1840 was James G. Birney, a former slaveholder who had been converted to the antislavery cause and had moved north to live in Bay City (then called Lower Saginaw). Running on a platform that emphasized only the slavery issue, Birney and his party had little impact, polling only 294 votes in Michigan. Two years later, Birney was the Liberty Party candidate for governor, and, although he ran far behind the Democratic and Whig candidates, he received 2,775 votes. In the hotly contested presidential election of 1844, Birney, again his party's candidate, polled over 62,000 votes across the country, nearly nine times as many votes as he had received in 1840, and in this instance the votes that went to Birney in a few key states, particularly New York, drew enough support away from the Whig candidate, Henry Clay, to give the victory to the Democratic candidate, James K. Polk. (11)
Shortly after this election, Birney fell ill and was unable to play an active role in subsequent political battles. The party that he had led also disappeared in the next few years, its members joining with some disaffected northern Democrats to form the Free-Soil Party, which, while still opposed to slavery, took a stand on other issues in hopes of attracting more support to its candidates. In the 1848 presidential election, the party's candidate was one of the nation's best-known political figures--former president Martin Van Buren--who received 10 percent of the votes cast, including over ten thousand votes in Michigan, despite the fact that the Democratic presidential candidate was Lewis Cass.
Cass was, until the nomination of Gerald Ford by the Republicans in 1976, the only Michigan resident to be nominated for the presidency by one of the major parties. (Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican candidate in 1944 and 1948, was a native of Owosso, Michigan, and a graduate of the University of Michigan, but he was a resident of New York at the time of his nomination and it was his political strength in the latter state that gained him the nomination.) (12) Cass had been grooming himself for the presidency throughout much of his long political career as he advanced from the governorship of Michigan to a post in Andrew Jackson's cabinet to minister to France and finally to a seat in the United States Senate.
By 1844 Cass, who would be sixty-two that year, was a recognized national leader of the Democrats and came within a few votes of gaining his party's nomination for president. As the 1844 race for the presidency approached, it had been assumed that Martin Van Buren, who had been defeated for reelection in 1840 but still had strong support in the party, would again be the party's nominee. Van Buren, however, forfeited his chances by coming out in opposition to the annexation of Texas, a move that cost him the support of the southern Democrats that he needed to get the required two-thirds of the delegates' votes at the national convention. Shortly after Van Buren's announcement and shortly before the convention was to convene, Cass, on May 10, 1844, publicly announced his wholehearted support for Texas annexation. It was a move patently intended to gain him the nomination by courting the favor of the pro-Texas delegates from the South. At the same time, by emphasizing the need of annexing Texas in order to stave off a feared British domination of the Lone Star Republic, Cass appealed to expansionist and Anglophobic sentiments in the North as the most likely means of winning support in that area where antislavery sentiments tended to create opposition to the annexation of territory that would strengthen southern slave forces. For his stand, Cass was derided by northern critics as a "doughface," that is, a northern politician who was dominated by the southern wing of the party. Later, however, when Cass came out in favor of acquiring the Oregon country, no one accused him of catering to northern interests. Indeed, his position on both the Texas and the Oregon questions was entirely consistent with his longtime commitment to western expansion. (13)
At the Democratic convention held in Baltimore late in May 1844, Cass's strategy appeared to be working. After several ballots, his delegate strength pushed him ahead of Van Buren, but before the Michigan Democrat could corral the needed two-thirds majority, southern support shifted to Andrew Jackson's protege and fellow Tennessean, James K. Polk, and Cass's chances evaporated, as Polk, the so-called dark horse in the race, gained the nomination and went on to win the presidency in the fall election. But Cass's strong showing at the 1844 convention and Polk's pledge to serve only one term in the White House made Cass the front-runner for the nomination in 1848.
The outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846 and the certainty that the United States would gain vast new areas in the Southwest as a result of the war once again, as in the earlier debate over annexing Texas, made the issue of slave expansion in the West the burning issue of the day. In response to a letter from A. O. P. Nicholson, a southern Democrat, asking Cass how he stood on the question of allowing slavery to enter the lands that Mexico would be forced to surrender to the United States, Cass on December 24, 1847, declared that the people settling in these new territories should be allowed to decide this issue for themselves, rather than allowing Congress to impose its will and decreeing that slavery should or should not be permitted to enter a territory, as Congress had done in the case of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787. Cass thus became the first front-rank American politician to expound the doctrine of squatter sovereignty or popular sovereignty, as it later came to be called, although in the 1850s Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois became so identified with this doctrine that it is often assumed that he originated the idea.
Although Cass's reply to Nicholson would not please the extremists in the North and the South who favored a policy either to exclude slavery entirely from the territories or to actively defend the rights of slaveholders to remain in those areas throughout the territorial phase of development, it would, Cass was hoping, appeal to the moderates in both sections. Cass's position was again consistent with his past actions as governor of Michigan when he had sought to give the people in the territory as much power as possible to govern themselves, with a minimum of federal restraints.
Squatter sovereignty gained Cass the Democratic presidential nomination at the Baltimore convention in May 1848, and had the Whig party, which placed the Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor in nomination, provided the only major opposition, Cass would have won the election. But the entry of the Free-Soil Party in the race, with its candidate, Van Buren, killed Cass's chances for victory. Those Democrats in the North who felt that Cass's proposals on the issue of slavery in the territory had gone too far in appeasing the South could vote for Van Buren, and their defection from the Democratic column in New York, which Cass would normally have carried, gave that state to Taylor, which was enough to deny Cass the victory. Four years later, after Congress in the Compromise of 1850 had applied Cass's popular sovereignty ideas in organizing two new territories in the areas acquired from Mexico, Cass was again a leading contender for the Democratic nomination, but his defeat in 1848 and the fact that he would be seventy years old in October 1852 told against his candidacy and ultimately led the party to turn to a nonentity, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire. This was Cass's last chance at the office he had sought so long, and he concluded his political career as senator from Michigan and finally as secretary of state in President James Buchanan's cabinet from 1857 to 1860. He was in these years an elder statesman who was still much respected but whose mantle of leadership had been usurped by a new generation of politicians.
After 1850 the Whig Party rapidly disintegrated as the issue of slavery made it ever harder to hold together the northern and southern wings of the party. In many cases, the members of the radical faction of the Whigs in the North went over to the Free-Soil Party. This party also received adherents from the radical faction of the Democratic Party. In 1849 the Whigs and Free-Soilers in Michigan combined to support Flavius T. Littlejohn of Allegan for governor, but he was defeated by the Democratic candidate, John S. Barry.
Some surcease of agitation on the slavery issue came after Congress enacted the Compromise of 1850, which settled the status of slavery in the areas acquired as a result of the Mexican War. But in 1854 the question was ripped wide open again when Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska bill, repealing that part of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 which had prohibited slavery in western lands that lay north of the southern boundary of Missouri, except in Missouri itself. The new law applied Cass's principle of popular sovereignty to the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska, opening them to slavery until such time as the people who settled in the territories had had a chance to decide for themselves whether they wanted slavery. The prime supporter of the Kansas-Nebraska bill was Stephen A. Douglas, Democratic senator from Illinois, whose support of popular sovereignty, like Cass's support of the same policy earlier, was partly motivated by Douglas's hopes that it would advance his ambitions for the presidency. But Douglas's bill brought forth violent protests throughout the North. Meetings were held at which "Free Democrats" and "Free Whigs" ultimately joined with Free-Soilers to express their outrage at this opening of the West to slavery. Out of these meetings the Republican Party was born.
It is believed that the first of these meetings to form a coalition of those opposed to the Kansas-Nebraska bill was held at Ripon, Wisconsin, on February 28, 1854. In Michigan, Democrats and Whigs at meetings held as early as February held separate protest meetings in Detroit, Grand Rapids, and other cities. Then, late in May, leaders of both groups agreed to join in forming a new party. A call was sent out for a meeting to be held at Jackson on July 6. A crowd variously estimated as numbering from 1,500 to 6,000 people appeared on that day, far too many to be accommodated at any building in Jackson. Therefore, a speaker's stand was erected "under the oaks," near the corner of Franklin and Second streets in downtown Jackson, and there the meeting was held. An organization was formed called the Republican Party, the first occasion on which this name was officially attached to the newly emerging party. A platform was adopted and candidates for state office in the fall election were nominated. The question of whether the Republican Party was born at Ripon or at Jackson will probably never be settled. The Ripon meeting preceded the Jackson meeting by several months, but it was hardly more than a local political gathering and only preliminary steps were taken to form a new party. The assemblage under the oaks at Jackson was the first statewide Republican meeting; it was there that the first platform was adopted and the first full state ticket nominated. A marker designating Jackson as the birthplace of the Republican Party was dedicated in 1910. The Republican President William Howard Taft was present on the occasion and seemed to throw his considerable weight behind the Michigan city's claim, but Jackson has done little since then to capitalize on its historic importance in this regard.
The Republican slate of candidates in 1854 was headed by Kinsley S. Bingham, who was nominated for governor. Bingham, a New Yorker who had come to Michigan to farm in Livingston County, was a former Democrat who had served in Congress during the Mexican War. As an antislavery Democrat his chances for political advancement had been dimmed by his opposition to the compromises that party leaders, such as Cass, had been willing to make on the slavery issue in order to avoid alienating southern support. The Whig faction of the new Republican Party, however, had felt that Zachariah Chandler, a Detroit businessman who had been the Whig candidate for governor in 1852, not the former Democrat Bingham, deserved the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1854. Chandler wished to become United States senator, and he therefore supported Bingham's nomination after securing a promise from the former Democrats in the party that they would support his bid for the Senate two years hence when Lewis Cass's term expired.
At the November election in 1854 Bingham and the entire Republican ticket emerged victorious, and a Republican majority was elected to the legislature. It marked a complete turnaround in Michigan politics, which up to this time had been almost completely dominated by the Democratic Party. From this date until 1932 Michigan was persistently Republican. The Democratic Party was by no means destroyed, as was the case with the Whig Party, but during the following eighty years after the formation of the Republican Party in Michigan there were relatively few occasions when the Democrats were able to win national or state elections. The strength of the Republicans at the outset came from several sources. The New England element, still dominant in the state, regarded the antislavery movement, with which the Republican Party was associated, as a crusade for righteousness. The temperance and women's rights advocates were impatient with the Democrats' failure to enact desired legislation. The Protestant churches, except for the Lutheran groups, were strongly Republican, with many of the leading Republicans being Protestant ministers. The farmers who were seeking the establishment of a separate agricultural college were Republicans. The Democrats relied on Detroit and, to a lesser degree, on other cities for their strength. The foreign element in the population leaned toward the Democrats, a fact that drove many Whigs who did not immediately join the Republican Party into the ranks of the American or Know-Nothing Party, which advocated antiforeign policies in the mid-fifties. When that third party fizzled out, most of its adherents probably became Republicans.
Political parties, however, are built more around persons than policies. Behind the election returns are the campaigns, the human relationships, the force of personalities, and the influence of leadership. For a generation, the foremost name in Michigan politics had been Lewis Cass. Age and the growing support for more extreme stands for or against slavery brought on a decline in Cass's influence in the 1850s, and when his second six-year term as senator expired at the end of 1856, there was no possibility that the state legislature, now solidly controlled by the Republicans, would fill the seat with a Democrat. Instead, Zachariah Chandler was chosen by the legislature on January 10, 1857, with 106 votes cast for him and only 16 for Cass. (14)
Both men proceeded to go to Washington, but whereas Cass was finishing out his long and distinguished political career as secretary of state in Buchanan's administration, Chandler was launching a career that would make him one of the most powerful senators Michigan has ever had. Like Cass, Chandler was a native of New Hampshire, and like him he was also the dominant force in his Michigan party for many years. Cass and Chandler are also the only nineteenth-century Michigan politicians who can be said to have risen to recognized positions of national leadership. But there the similarities end. Where Cass was a well-read, almost intellectual man, who made long, carefully thought-out, if often dull, statements of his views on issues, Chandler was a poorly educated man, given to off-the-cuff, often crudely phrased statements. Rather than being a rational debater of the merits of an issue, his reactions were more those of a street fighter, and he sometimes resorted to physical tactics in order to clarify his points. He was the boss of the Michigan Republican Party during most of that party's first twenty-five years of existence, and he exhibited all the characteristics associated with that term. Although he had some negative traits, he displayed more positive ones, and he was undoubtedly an effective leader who accomplished much. A wealthy Detroit wholesale merchant, Chandler's action in paying the fines of the citizens of Marshall who were convicted of aiding in the escape of the Crosswhite family was an indication of the strength of his antislavery convictions, which helped to account for much of the support he received when the Republican Party was formed.
Aside from a brief period when young Stevens T. Mason was at the peak of his popularity, no other Michigan political figures from 1835 to 1860 could approach the influence that Cass and Chandler were able to wield. The eighteen men who served as governor or United States senator during these years (three of these eighteen held both offices during this period) tended to share some characteristics. All but three were born in New York or in one of the New England states. All but two studied and practiced law at some point in their careers. Measured by modern standards all of them were young when they began their public service. Although William Woodbridge was sixty when he became governor, he had been appointed territorial secretary at the age of thirty-four. Cass became territorial governor when he was thirty-one. Lucius Lyon became a United States senator at age thirty-five. Mason was acting governor at nineteen and became governor at twenty-three. Epaphroditus Ransom, governor in 1848 and 1849, became a justice of the state supreme court at age thirty-nine; and Alpheus Felch, who was governor in 1846 and 1847 and then senator until 1853, had earlier become a Supreme Court justice at thirty-six. Only five of the eighteen officeholders were Detroiters, and of these, three owed their positions at first to federal appointment. Only Augustus Porter, senator from 1839 to 1845, and Chandler (both of whom had served as mayor of Detroit) attained the position of senator without the earlier prestige of federal favor. It would appear that the citizens of Detroit were handicapped in politics by their residence in that city. It is also apparent that the position of United States senator was more highly regarded than that of governor, since two governors, Woodbridge and Felch, resigned as governor to accept election to the Senate. Governor Robert McClelland also resigned the office in 1853 to accept the appointment of secretary of the interior in Franklin Pierce's cabinet.
John Barry, the favorite of conservative Democrats, was a merchant in Constantine and was one of the organizers of the Michigan Southern Railroad. Felch, a native of Maine, was a Monroe lawyer. After his retirement from the Senate he settled in Ann Arbor, became professor of law at the University of Michigan, and served as president of the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society. He lived to the age of ninety-two. Ransom was born in Massachusetts and came to Michigan in 1834, making Kalamazoo his home. He was the first governor to be inaugurated in the new capital of Lansing. After his term as governor he served as a regent of the University of Michigan and one term in the state house of representatives. He moved to Kansas in 1857 and died there two years later. Robert McClelland was the son of a Pennsylvania physician. He studied law and moved to Monroe in 1833. After the conclusion of his term as secretary of the interior he returned to Michigan. On the eve of the Civil War he counseled moderation and compromise, a policy that was in violent contrast to the views of such Republicans as Zachariah Chandler. Charles E. Stuart, a Kalamazoo attorney whose term as senator expired in 1859, had the distinction of being the last Democratic senator from Michigan until the election of Woodbridge N. Ferris in 1922. (15)
Other Whig leaders besides Chandler who joined the new Republican Party were Jacob M. Howard of Detroit and David Walbridge of Kalamazoo, both later to become congressmen. Kinsley Bingham, the first Republican governor, served two terms in that office and was then sent to the United States Senate, but died in 1861 before his term expired. Moses Wisner, who succeeded Bingham as governor, was a Pontiac lawyer. During his administration the first law was passed requiring the registration of voters. The embezzlement of a large sum of money by the state treasurer occurred during Wisner's term, and this may have been a factor in his decision not to seek a second term. He died of typhoid fever in 1863 at the age of forty-six while serving as the commander of the Twenty-second Michigan Infantry regiment in the Civil War.
Michigan politics was greatly affected by a movement to scrap the 1835 Constitution, only a decade and a half after it had been adopted. In 1849 the voters, by a lopsided margin of 33,193 to 4,095, approved the calling of a constitutional convention. Behind this desire for change was the ferment of Jacksonian democracy. Michigan's first constitution had been framed before the implications of Jackson's ideas for state government had been generally understood. These included the choice of public officials by election rather than by appointment, limitations upon the powers of the legislature, and opposition to special acts of incorporation. During this time, Michigan was only one of many states that were writing new constitutions or amending old ones to incorporate these Jacksonian principles. (16)
The convention called to revise Michigan's constitution met at Lansing on June 3, 1850, and completed its work on August 15. It included one hundred delegates, only one of whom was a native of Michigan. Daniel Goodwin of Wayne County was chosen as president. The constitution framed by this body was submitted to the voters on November 5, 1850, and was ratified by a large majority.
The new constitution was more than twice as long as the state's first constitution and was much more detailed. It included many restrictions on the legislature. The lawmakers were prohibited from passing special acts of incorporation; henceforth all corporations had to be formed under a general law, thus assuring that no group would get special favors. Banking laws could take effect only after a majority vote of approval by the people. The legislature was forbidden to engage the state in building or financing internal improvements (a reflection of the antagonisms created by the act of 1837). Salaries of state officials were fixed in the constitution and thus could not be changed except by an amendment, which required the voters' approval (the governor was to receive a salary of $1,000 per year). The question of constitutional revision was to be submitted to the people automatically every sixteen years.
A major change was to make all the principal state officials elective. This included the secretary of state, state treasurer, attorney general, auditor general, superintendent of public instruction, regents of the University of Michigan, state Board of Education, and supreme court justices, all of which had been previously appointive. This was one of several changes that served to weaken the office of governor, because the governor now was forced to take whomever the voters had elected, while these elected officials, by the very fact that they owed their jobs to the voters, were more inclined to act independently of the governor than they were when they had received their jobs by appointment from the governor.
The terms of members of the state house of representatives were extended from one year to two. Henceforth, elections for the chief state officials were to be held in the even-numbered instead of the odd-numbered years, making them come at the same time as national elections and thus paving the way for long and crowded ballots. It also meant that when the state election coincided with the election of a president, which could never happen under the time schedule provided in the 1835 Constitution, state issues were likely to be overshadowed by national issues, and the candidates for governor might tie their campaigns to those of their parties' presidential candidates.
The new constitution also drastically altered the judiciary. The county courts were abolished. Instead, the state was divided into eight circuits, each of which was to have a judge elected by the people. The eight circuit judges were to constitute the supreme court, but the legislature was empowered to organize a new supreme court with a chief justice and three associate justices, to be elected by the people.
The article on education stipulated that free schools were to be maintained for at least three months each year beginning five years after the constitution was adopted, but it was not until 1869 that "rate" bills were finally abolished throughout the state. Not only were the university regents made elective, but they were also to be free of legislative interference in the operation of the university and were directed to elect a permanent president.
Aliens who had declared their intention of becoming United States citizens were given the right to vote, as were "civilized" male Indians. But the same right was not extended to black males. As early as 1843, a convention of Michigan blacks, meeting in Detroit, had issued a manifesto demanding the right to vote, declaring "that the Declaration of Independence is the textbook of this nation and without its doctrines be maintained [sic], our government is insecure." The constitutional convention in 1850, however, avoided taking a direct stand on the issue. Instead of including a provision in the new constitution which would extend the vote to black males, it submitted the question as a separate proposal, thereby assuring its defeat by the white voters, who rejected the idea of black suffrage by a margin of 32,000 to 12,000. (17)
The Constitution of 1850 remained the fundamental law of Michigan until January 1, 1909. During that period, seventy-one amendments were proposed, of which thirty-eight were adopted. Two attempts at a general revision, one in 1867 and a second in 1874, failed to receive the support of the voters. The constitutional conventions in 1908 and in 1961-62 attempted, with only limited success, to eliminate the defects contained in what has to rank as Michigan's worst state constitution.
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|Publication:||Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1995|
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