A Coffin for the Union

Article excerpt

A Coffin for the Union

It is not unusual for politicians to use a vote on the modification of an already existing law to signal or gage their degree of support in a political body. Such was the case in the 1850-51 session of the New York General Assembly when modifications of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 were to be used to demonstrate support for and settle a dispute between Millard Fillmore, the newly elevated President of the United States, and Thurlow Weed and New York Senator William H. Seward, who controlled New York State politics. This was a period when State level politics played an important role in shaping the attitudes of the country, and the winners would gain much in control of national politics.(2) However, as the saying goes, "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men Gang aft agley, ..." None of the protagonists could foretell the courage of one member of the Assembly from Otsego, New York who introduced a bill which embarrassed both parties and preserved the right of New York State to prevent the effective execution of the Fugitive Slave Law.

The matter of this affair recently came to light with the discovery of an autograph book owned by Mr. Edwin S. Coffin of Otsego, New York, who was a member of the 74th Session of the New York Assembly, January 7, to April 17, 1851. All the autographs in it are dated between April 15 and April 17, 1851, the closing dates of the Assembly, and are autographs of various New York State Senators and Assemblymen. Included are such famous names as Washington Hunt, then Governor of New York State, Henry Brewster Stanton, the American antislavery reformer and journalist who drafted the Free Soil Platforms at the formation of the Party in 1848, Henry J. Raymond, Editor of the New York Times and later biographer of Abraham Lincoln, Joseph B. Varnam, Jr., friend of President Millard Fillmore, and A. A. Thompson, friend of New York boss Thurlow Weed.

Many of the notes in the book make fun of Coffin's name, but many of them are in a serious vane expressing the strong feelings of the early 19th century New York State Assemblymen, illustrating the passions that were stirring the roots of America and the political climate in Albany, New York at the time. The Honorable Edwin S. Coffin claimed to be an "independent" representative from Otsego County. In fact, Coffin was a member of the Free Soil Party and as many Upstate New Yorkers, he was against the newly signed Fugitive Slave Law. The Free Soil Party was an historically important third party organized in the 1840's to combat the extension of slavery into newly acquired territories. The party, however, was not principally an abolitionist party.

By 1851, the New York State Assembly, however, was composed of a mixture of Whigs; Hunkers, Barnburners and Liberty Party members who made up the Free Soil Party; Native Americans; and Antirent members. The Whigs were composed of two factions: The Woolly Heads, who supported Thurlow Weed and William H. Seward, and the Silver-Grays, who supported President Millard Fillmore. A feud between these two factions has been documented by Carman and Luthin(3) and there-by hangs our tale.

In summary, shortly after Millard Fillmore's inauguration as Vice-President, there occurred a break in the working relations, which had been long standing, between him and Thurlow Weed, the New York City Boss, and William H. Seward, who was then U.S. Senator from New York. The loss of these political colleagues was compensated, to some extent, h(8)owever, by Fillmore's reconciliation with Daniel Webster, with whom an unfortunate misunderstanding had occurred a few years before.

When the U.S. Congress was convened in December 1849, a bitter battle erupted between pro-slavery and anti-slavery men over various aspects of the slavery question. Tension between North and South built up sharply. Finally, the question of extending slave territory became so heated it brought about the possibility of secession of the South. …