Following his political successes in the disputed Election of 1824, Thurlow Weed was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1825 and again in 1830.
In the 1820s, like many in Upstate New York with populist, anti-elite feelings, Weed strongly believed the Masons were trying to control government using secret means. He felt that political affairs should be conducted publicly and particularly opposed the fraternal secrecy of Freemasonry. An alleged conspiracy by Masons to murder William Morgan in Western New York in September, 1826 sparked the anti-Freemasonry movement. Weed began publishing the Anti-Masonic Enquirer in Rochester, NY in February, 1828.
Soon Weed was hired as editor of the newly formed Anti-Masonic Albany Evening Journal, which began publication on March 22, 1830. The move to Albany made him a statewide leader of the fledgling Anti-Masonic Party.
While in Albany on August 9, 1831, Weed had the unique experience of being invited on a “gala excursion,” a special press ride on one of the first passenger train trips in the United States. Fourteen miles of track had been constructed by the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad between Schenectady (the Erie Canal) and the junction of Western and Madison Avenues in Albany (soon extended to the Hudson River).
The engine pulled three, fully loaded stagecoaches that had their wheels grooved to fit the track. The train had neither springs nor brakes, nor had a spark catcher yet been developed to catch the sparks flying from the wood burning engine. Frequent starts and stops lurched the passengers forward and back through the entire trip and they spent much of their time beating out sparks landing on their clothes. The ride took 46 minutes at about 20 miles per hour. (The railroad officially opened on September 24, 1831; silhouette cut by artist William H. Brown memorialized the ride).
Republican Party Formed
The Anti-Masonic Party eventual faded and merged into the Whig Party, and as a result Thurlow Weed, together with William Seward, controlled the dominant faction of New York’s Whigs. Weed and Seward had been close friends since Weed arrived in Albany. When Seward was governor, Weed was the party chairman and met with him almost every day. Seward’s son worked for Weed at the Albany Evening Journal. While Seward was the political candidate and public speaker, Weed was the backroom organizer and political strategist who came to control the Whig Party’s nominations.
Horace Greeley, publisher of the New York Tribune, was a leader of the Whigs in and around the city of New York. Millard Fillmore led the Whigs of Western New York. Weed, Seward and Greeley were all strongly anti-slavery, probably among the strongest white anti-slavery proponents in the country. Fillmore, more willing to accommodate slavery, was becoming antagonistic of Weed’s control over Whig nominations, state patronage and canal contracts; a rift was developing.
In 1839, Weed met General Winfield Scott, President Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay at the United States Hotel in Saratoga Springs. At a private meeting, Clay asked for support in his run for the Presidency to succeed Van Buren. Weed tried to discourage Clay from running, telling him that he preferred him over all the candidates but that he could not win. The New York Whigs supported William Henry Harrison. Clay left Saratoga and took his campaign triumphantly into Albany a few days later.
While Weed was anti-slavery, he opposed committing the Whig Party solely to the anti-slavery cause as he felt it would divide the party and their candidates would go down to defeat. The Whigs needed other issues.
In the fall of 1848, a young Whig congressman campaigning for General Zachary Taylor for President and Millard Fillmore (New York’s State Controller) for Vice President visited Weed in Albany. The young congressman was trying to mend fences and seek Whig support. The young congressman was Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln came by train (Erastus Corning’s New York Central Railroad) from Chicago to Albany and then walked to Weed’s office at the Albany Evening Journal. Together they walked up the State Street hill to the Capitol to meet with Fillmore. The Taylor – Fillmore ticket would win in November.
The Fillmore election was a threat to Weed who feared that Fillmore would now control federal appointments made in New York State. To counter this, Weed pushed, despite Fillmore opposition, and won a position as congressman for his close friend, William Seward.
Weed had control of most of New York State’s congressional delegation. One of the most important was wealthy Albany businessman, John L. Schoolcraft who had been handpicked by Weed to head the New York Whig patronage interests. Seward and Fillmore met at Weed’s Albany home and agreed to consult with each other on federal appointments. This agreement did not last long however, as the two factions began bickering almost immediately upon reaching Washington.
Due to Seward’s influence and Weed’s shrewdness, they dominated the New York appointments, which angered Fillmore. He and members of the conservative branch of the Whig Party vowed to remove Weed and his strong anti-slavery supporters. They said that the Weed – Seward opposition to slavery would destroy the party and was not in conformance with President Zachary Taylor’s stated position of accommodating the South and trying to reach compromise on the slavery issue.
That summer Fillmore and several of his supporters, most importantly James Kidd, a wealthy businessman from Albany and one of the first directors of the Albany City National Bank, told Weed that they wanted to buy his newspaper, the Albany Evening Journal. They threatened that if he would not sell to them, they would establish a competing paper, the New York State Register. Fillmore was jealous of the large number of State and Federal public notices that went to Weed’s paper. They planned to divert it to themselves. When Weed would not sell, Kidd bankrolled the new paper but it did not begin publication until 1850.
The other attack on Weed was Fillmore’s attempt to create a new conservative Whig organization to compete with Weed’s Whig organization. Weed however, crushed Fillmore’s efforts and dominated the Whig convention by more than two to one.
Meanwhile, in Congress, rabid slavery supporter John C. Calhoun’s resolution denouncing any restriction on slavery in the new states was gathering support in the South while Weed and Seward kept up their efforts to only allow admission of new states or territories that were slave free. Albany conservative Whig Daniel Dewey Bernard cautioned that the “radical anti-slavery” line taken by Seward – Weed would denationalize the party and convert it into an abolition party. California and New Mexico were petitioning to become new states, free from slavery. Southern states were opposing this.
President Taylor proposed that both states be admitted and make their own determination on slavery. Since they both had current laws against slavery, the south objected, demanding that if California was admitted as a free state all other previous Mexican territory must allow slavery. Both sides were at loggerheads and southern secession was threatened.
Senator Henry Clay stepped forward and proposed the Compromise of 1850. Clay’s compromise held that while Congress had the right to abolish slavery it did not have the right to regulate interstate slave trade and would not abolish slavery without the agreement of a state’s inhabitants and adequate compensation to slave owners, and called for a stronger fugitive slave law. He went on to recommend immediate acceptance of all of the previous Mexican territory under their existing laws.
Both sides opposed the compromise. Jefferson Davis was one of many southern sympathizers who castigated it. Northern Congressman William Seward countered with his famous “higher law” speech strongly opposing slavery, saying there was a higher law than any that could be passed by Congress and that law prohibited slavery. Seward supported none of the proposals for compromise. Following this speech, Seward became known as the leading and most vocal opponent of slavery in Congress.
Seward was responding to his own conscience but also to a complicated set of developments in Albany. New York Whigs were very strongly anti-slavery. The national Whig policy of compromise was losing elections in Albany. However, Seward’s re commitment to anti-slavery could cost Weed his control over federal appointments because Seward was not supporting President Taylor while Fillmore was. On the following July 9th, 1850, the situation suddenly changed radically when President Zachary Taylor died and Millard Fillmore became President.
New York Governor Hamilton Fish sided with Weed and Seward and they urged the new President to continue with Zachary Taylor’s plan and oppose Clay’s compromise. Other New York leaders including Albany’s Daniel Dewey Barnard urged support of Clay’s initiatives. Albany Congressman Hugh White was elected with Fillmore support and would vote with Fillmore and against Weed – Seward on crucial compromise issues including the admission of Texas and California to statehood. White would also be unavailable to vote when the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed with Fillmore’s support.
Fillmore avoided replacing Weed appointees, but when a vacancy came open, he appointed his own man instead of Weed’s. He appointed Albany’s Daniel Dewey Barnard as U.S. Minister to Prussia. Fillmore favored pro-compromise Whigs over other members of his own party, but most of Weed – Seward’s previous appointments were left alone. This infuriated some Fillmore supporters, who insisted on the removal of Albany Postmaster Lewis Benedict and the switching of state printing contracts away from the Albany Evening Journal and to the New York State Register to send a clear message to New York Whigs that Fillmore, and not Weed, was in control.
On September 30th, Fillmore withdrew the nomination of Benedict as Albany Postmaster and replaced him with James Kidd, financial backer of the State Register. Fillmore was strengthening the power of pro-compromise Whigs but in the process was splitting the party in New York. New York Whig voters generally opposed slavery.
In late 1850, the New York Whig Party met in Syracuse. Both Weed backers including Benedict and Fillmore backers including Kidd were there in force. The convention turned out to be an ambush for Fillmore and his supporters. A prearranged ticket was nominated over Fillmore’s candidates and the party platform included a rousing support of Seward’s anti-slavery stance. Weed’s forces adopted the convention’s platform over Fillmore’s by a vote of 76– 40. Fillmore’s supporters, including James Kidd, marched out of the hall.
The convention opposed the pro-compromise positions of Fillmore, which caused Senator Daniel Webster to predict that if Northern Whigs felt the same as the New York Whigs “a new arrangement of the parties is unavoidable.” Weed supporters including Benedict traveled to Rochester and Buffalo to oppose the candidates proposed by Fillmore. Due to the divisiveness, Whigs won the governorship but took many defeats in congressional races. Albany’s Fillmorite Whig Congressman Hugh White, was defeated. John L. Schoolcraft, Weed’s congressional lieutenant from Albany was re-elected.
In 1852, Senator Henry Clay, the noted Whig leader, died and the steamship Santa Claus brought his body to Albany to lie in state at the Capitol.
On December 14, 1853, Iowa’s Democratic Senator Dodge introduced a bill to organize the vast area west of Missouri and Iowa into the Nebraska Territory. The bill was referred to the Senate’s Committee on Territories chaired by Stephen Douglas. Douglas’ plan was to allocate federal land grants from this territory to finance a Pacific railroad and encourage settlement with a homestead bill.
However, under the Missouri Compromise of 1820, slavery was forever prohibited from new territory, therefore Southern Democrats opposed it. Douglas now proposed that the residents of each territorial government have the right to make their own determination on slavery, voiding the Missouri Compromise. With Southern Whig support, but vehement northern opposition, the bill, named the Kansas-Nebraska Act, was passed, splitting and destroying the Whig Party. The Whig Party would never recover from the split and the animosity between Northern and Southern Whigs.
“I am a Whig but where is my Party? … what calls itself the Whig Party now … is just no Whig Party at all. It has not one element of nationality in its whole composition,” complained Albany Whig patrician and diplomat Daniel Dewey Barnard.
Weed and Seward and their various lieutenants began to plan, in May, 1855, to merge their forces with New York’s Free Soilers, anti-Nebraska Democrats and anti-Know Nothings to form a new party. “The Whig Party is dissolved by the formal action of its leaders with a view to its reconstruction,” New York Governor Horatio Seymour told Secretary of State, William L. Marcy.
In September, Weed engineered a joint convention of Whigs and the other components of the proposed a New York Republican Party in Syracuse. One ticket was chosen and one platform adopted: opposing slavery, demanding the exclusion of slavery in all territories, opposing the admission of any new slave states and repudiating the Know Nothings and their secret constitutions, oaths, rituals, and organizations. On October 12, 1855, on the steps of the Capitol in Albany, Seward delivered his epistle of praise for the Whig Party and asked previous supporters to “let the Whig Party pass” and rally to the new Republican Party.
Millard Fillmore’s supporters joined the American Party [nativist, Know-Nothings] and sought to have the remnants of the Whigs join them. Albany’s Ambassador Daniel Dewey Barnard proposed: “If anybody wants to see the true Whig Party reconstructed and substantially placed in power again, he should take the American Party at their offer and bring in an administration with Mr. Fillmore at its head.” New Yorkers James Hamilton (son of Alexander Hamilton) and Hamilton Fish as well as Albany’s James Kidd, were leaders of this group.
In 1856, the first Republican candidate for President, John C. Fremont lost to Democrat James Buchanan, but very significantly, Fremont ran ahead of Buchanan (45.2% to 41.4%) in the northern states with Fillmore finishing a distant third. The American Party dissolved and from this point on, two parties, the Republicans and Democrats would dominate American politics.
The Republican Party’s platform of opposing the extension of slavery in any new states or territories and Weed’s advocacy of that policy caused his paper, the Albany Evening Journal to be barred in the South. Southern postmasters decided to refuse to deliver the Journal together with the New York Tribune, New York Independent and the Springfield Republican. Even relatively mild abolitionist periodicals Harpers Weekly and Leslie’s Illustrated were restricted.
With the southern press falling into lockstep and presenting only one distorted side of the story, and preventing the populace from reading any intelligent opposition, irrational polarization and hatred developed.
Slavery continued to be the dominant issue throughout Buchanan’s term, continually getting more and more heated. The Kansas-Nebraska Act resulted in a bloodbath as pro- and anti-slavery forces (including John Brown) converged on the states to try to dominate its vote on whether slavery should be allowed.
Over 200 settlers were killed in 13 months. Southern secession would start to appear likely. As a last ditch effort, Weed and Seward were among those who met with previous Whig anti-secessionist friends in the South and considered certain measures to calm the rhetoric and try to prevent border-states from seceding.
Illustrations, from above: Thurlow Weed in ca. 1865 photo by Matthew Brady from the National Portrait Gallery; the silhouette cut created by William H. Brown memorializing the official opening of the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad (depicting only the first two cars); the schoolhouse claimed to be the birthplace of the Republican Party in Rippon, Wisconsin; Senator Henry Clay delivering a speech about the Compromise of 1850 in the Senate; and “The Great Republican Reform Party Calling on their Candidate,” an 1856 cartoon showing John C Fremont being lobbied by advocates of temperance, feminism, Fourierism, free love, Catholicism and abolition.