Hamilton Fish: The Inner History of the Grant Administration - Vol. 1

By Allan Nevins | Go to book overview
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Chapter III The Senate in Stormy Days

FISH might easily have been reëlected governor in 1850. But he did not desire it, while his friends intended to make him Senator in succession to Daniel S. Dickinson, a Democrat, whose term expired March 4, 1851. An able up-State Whig, Washington Hunt, was therefore nominated and elected governor after a close race with Horatio Seymour. As New Year's eve, 1850, brought legislators crowding into the lobbies of Albany hotels for the session on the morrow, Fish's supporters were busy urging him for the Senate seat. He had several rivals, the chief being James Watson Webb, editor of the New York Courier and Enquirer; a mercurial, hotheaded giant, always ready to tweak a nose, fight a duel, or launch a libel suit. But Fish had the stronger backing, and on January 31, 1851, the Whig caucus voted to make him the party nominee. As both houses were Whig, this was thought equivalent to election.

But the election was not carried through without a grim and dramatic struggle; and for the explanation of this we must turn to the national scene. The clouds of the storm that was to break over the nation just ten years later were already mounting blackly in the sky. Both parties were more and more seriously divided by the slavery issue. During 1850 the question of the status of the vast region acquired from Mexico had produced a national crisis. Should California be admitted as a free State? Should the new territorial government in the remainder of the region exclude or permit slavery? To answer these and other questions, Henry Clay on January 29, 1850, had presented the resolution which formed the basis of his famous Compromise between North and South.1 On March 7 Daniel Webster had come to his support in a famous but much-abused speech. Radicals on both sides, under Seward and Chase in the North, under Calhoun and Jefferson Davis in the South, had risen in arms against the plan. It was Fish's position on this overshadowing national question which in the first weeks of 1851 suddenly endangered his election as Senator.

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1
Fish had ardently hoped for Clay's nomination by the Whigs in 1848, when the prize went to Taylor. His son Stuyvesant Fish, Sr., has left an undated memorandum of a conversation with his father on a boat in the Hudson, when he expatiated upon his devotion to the great pacificator.

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