11. Columbians and the Irrepressible Conflict

William F. Havemeyer

Few Columbians in the 19th century played significant roles in national affairs or made a mark on sectional politics as the irrepressible conflict intensified. Some who did identified with the Democratic party – notably John L. O’Sullivan, an 1831 graduate who in the 1840s edited the New York Morning News, where he was an outspoken expansionist and coined the phrase “manifest destiny.” William F. Havemeyer, an 1823 graduate who made a fortune in the sugar refining business, was twice elected mayor of New York City in the 1840s as a Democrat. Aligned with the “Barnburner” wing of the party, which opposed the expansion of slavery, he supported Martin Van Buren for president in 1848 as the candidate of the newly-formed Free Soil party. A few Columbians, such as Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy Charles W. Hackley, were emphatically pro-southern. “My sympathies are entirely with the South,” Hackley wrote to Senator and soon-to-be-Confederate president Jefferson Davis in December 1860. William B. Lawrence, an 1818 graduate of the college and the son-in-law of the wealthy merchant Archibald Gracie, became a fixture in Democratic politics in Rhode Island in the 1850s. He called for the annexation of Cuba, demanded vigorous enforcement of the fugitive slave law, and endorsed the Dred Scott decision. Rhode Island, he also insisted, violated the U. S. Constitution, as explicated in that ruling, by allowing black men to vote. Most Columbians, however, can be characterized as conservative Whigs, somewhat hostile to slavery, strongly opposed to the abolitionist movement, and not inclined to do anything that might threaten the stability of the Union or the city’s lucrative commerce with the slave South.[i]

Hamilton Fish

One Columbian who did have a prominent political career before the Civil War was Hamilton Fish, the son of Nicholas Fish, a wealthy merchant who served for many years as chairman of Columbia’s board of trustees and owned at least one slave when Hamilton, born in 1810, was a young child. An 1828 graduate of the college, Hamilton Fish went on to become one of the city’s leading lawyers and a Columbia trustee from 1851 to 1893. As a Whig and then Republican, he served in Congress and as New York’s governor between 1843 and 1857 and, later, under President Grant, as Secretary of State. Fish’s law clients included some of the most wealthy New York families, including merchants involved in the southern trade, and, reflecting their views, he devoted himself to trying to preserve national unity. He was a life member of the American Colonization Society. Ironically, his election to the Senate in 1851 was delayed when James W. Beekman, another Columbia graduate and Whig, voted against Fish in the legislature, fearing he was too close to the more radical Whig Senator William Seward. In fact, once in the Senate, Fish said almost nothing about slavery, attempting to maintain the unity of the Whig party against what he called “the extremes of abolitionism and secessionism.” He condemned the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 as a “flagrant outrage” because it reopened the “slavery agitation,” but was reluctant to join the new Republican party: “I cannot consent ... to become an ‘Agitator of the slavery question.” By 1856, accepting the fact that the Whig party was dead, he endorsed Republican candidate John C. Fremont, while dissociating himself from “the useless, perpetual agitation of the slavery question” and “the general and indiscriminate denunciation of the institution of slavery.”[ii]

Charles King

Before the Civil War, King as president tried to keep Columbia as an institution out of sectional politics.  When a senior in 1851 delivered an oration in the chapel on the Fugitive Slave Law, King notified undergraduates that no political speeches would be allowed.  Nonetheless, in 1854 he presided at the meeting that created the Kansas Emigrant Aid Society, which assisted northern migrants who would favor free labor in that contested territory.  Two years later he spoke with great emotion – the Liberator called it a “thrilling speech” – at a mass meeting that followed the caning of Senator Charles Sumner by South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks.  King called slavery the “ignoble cause” of the suppression of “free thought, free speech, and a free press,” and referred to Washington, D. C. as the “camp of the enemy.”  In 1859, King permitted several orators at Columbia’s commencement to make antislavery remarks.[iv]

Philip Hone

Other prominent Columbians took a more moderate approach to the sectional crisis, seeking some kind of middle ground between pro-slavery radicalism and abolitionism. Probably typical were the College’s two renowned diarists, Philip Hone and George Templeton Strong. Hone had been a slaveowner – in 1809, at the age of 29, he manumitted a female slave. He later served as New York’s mayor in the 1820s and a Columbia trustee from 1824 to 1851. In his diary, he denounced “the two curses of our country… fanaticism of the abolitionists of the North, and the violence of the nullifiers of the South.” When Governor George McDuffie of South Carolina in 1835 proclaimed slavery a benefit to the community, “sanctified by God and man in all ages,” Hone termed his message “ridiculous.” In the same year he took part in a “great meeting” that brought together leading New Yorkers of both parties “opposed to the incendiary proceedings of the abolitionists.” (Egbert Benson, Jr., Class of 1807, was one of the meeting’s vice-presidents.) Hone condemned the “inflammatory publications” abolitionists were sending into the South, but found Postmaster General Amos Kendall’s policy of allowing local postmasters to remove them from the mails a “remedy worse than the disease… I do not choose to surrender the power of executing justice into the hands of the slave-owners of South Carolina.” The “terrible abolition question,” he feared, was “fated… to destroy the Union.” A year before his death, Hone strongly supported the Compromise of 1850 as a final settlement of “these horrible slavery questions.”[v]

George Templeton Strong

Hone did not live to see the dissolution of the Union that he had come to fear. George Templeton Strong, an 1838 graduate, well-connected lawyer, one of Columbia’s most active trustees, and oft-quoted diarist, did. Strong’s diary reveals that he shared many of the prejudices of his era. He regularly used the word “nigger,” detested Irish immigrants, and made anti-Semitic comments as well. Nonetheless, he increasingly came to resent what he considered the South’s control of the national government and its supercilious attitude toward the North. Like Hone, Strong was thoroughly alarmed by the intensity of sectional passions in the late 1840s and joined in public meetings to support the Compromise of 1850. “Slave-holding is no sin,” he declared in his diary. In 1854, like many conservative northerners, he strongly opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. “I’m resisting awful temptations to avow myself a Free-Soiler,” he wrote. Now he claimed never to have doubted “the wrong of slavery.” He had not avowed this “because I could not affirm that all men were born free and equal… Don’t believe all men so born.”[vi]

As with President King, the shocking assault on Charles Sumner outraged Strong and turned him further against the South. “They are… a race of lazy, ignorant, coarse, sensual, swaggering, sordid, beggarly barbarians,” he wrote. He still maintained that “slavery is not a wrong, per se,” but now concluded that “as it exists at the South… [it] is the greatest crime on the largest scale known to modern history.” The North had no right to interfere with the institution where it existed, but should bar it from expanding into new territories. In other words, Strong had come around to the position occupied by the newly-created Republican party. Four years later, he wrote, “we may as well settle the question whether a president can or cannot be chosen without the advice and approval of the slaveholding interests; whether 300,000 owners of niggers have or have not a veto on the popular choice.”[vii]

On November 6, 1860, Strong cast “a lukewarm Republican vote” for Abraham Lincoln. The same day Rev. Morgan Dix, an 1848 graduate of Columbia College, the rector of Trinity Church, and, beginning in 1862, a Columbia trustee, rose from his sickbed, compelled by “conscience and duty” to vote “1st against Lincoln, and 2ndly against Negro suffrage” (the subject of a referendum that went down to defeat.) In the ensuring secession crisis, prominent Columbians of all political persuasions, like most of the city’s business and professional elite, called for sectional reconciliation and concessions to the South. Hamilton Fish and John Jacob Astor, Jr., a Columbia trustee and one of the city’s wealthiest businessmen, who had reluctantly voted for Lincoln, were among the “leading men” of the city who gathered in December to devise a plan to avert disunion. Fish wrote in December 1860 that the North could “honorably concede almost all that they ask,” since “no concession can take away the great result of the victory.” Yet even Fish expressed surprise at the “extent of concessions” New York merchants were willing to make to the South, including allowing slavery to spread throughout the West. But as the crisis deepened, the mood even among New York businessman became more bellicose, and long-simmering resentments over southern dictation rose to the surface. By January 1861, Strong was doubting the possibility of reconciliation. The only way to satisfy the South, he wrote, was to “declare slavery just, beneficent, and expedient,” and allow every southerner to “bring his niggers and his own slave code” with him into the North. “We shall have to fight them with their own weapons,” he concluded. “We shall be arming and drilling slave regiments within a year.” He was sure to add, however, “we northerners object to slavery on grounds of political economy, not ethics.”[viii]

[i]. Howard B. Furer, William Frederick Havemeyer: A Political Biography (New York, 1965), 13-65; Liberator, September 4, 1863; Joseph Dorfman and Rexford G. Tugwell, “William Beach Lawrence: Apostle of Ricardo,” Columbia University Quarterly, 27 (September 1935), 230-35; McCaughey, Stand, Columbia, 141.

[ii]. Allan Nevins, Hamilton Fish: The Inner History of the Grant Administration (2 vols: New York, 1936), 1: 3-60; Note by James W. Beekman on James H. Van Alen to Beekman, February 5, 1851, Beekman Family Papers, New-York Historical Society.

[iii]. Joseph L. Arbena, “Politics or Principle? Rufus King and the Opposition to Slavery, 1785-1825,” Essex Institute Historical Collections, 101 (January 1965), 56-77; J. H. Van Amringe, “Charles King,” Columbia University Quarterly, 6 (March 1904), 122-27; New York American in Liberator, September 15, 1832; New York Tribune in Liberator, December 18, 1863; Liberator, September 13, 1834, September 12, 1835, March 4, 1842, October 6, 1843; Colored American, February 16, 1839; National Anti-Slavery Standard, March 24, 1842, July 27, 1843.

[iv]. Manuscript History of Columbia, Chapter 7, Box 31, Miner Papers; National Era, June 8, 1854; Liberator, January 20, 1856; Frank Leslie’s Weekly, July 9, 1859.

[v]. Tuckerman, Hone Diary, 1: 155-57, 174-75, 278, 320, 373-74; Foner, Business and Slavery, 14n., 34.

[vi]. McCaughey, Stand, Columbia, 115-16; Manuscript History of Columbia, Chapter 14, Box 31, Miner Papers; Nevins and Thomas, Strong Diary, 1: 100, 199, 236, 2: 22, 174, 241.

[vii]. Ibid., 2: 275, 278, 287-88, 304-05; 3: 52.

[viii]. Ibid., 3: 52, 57, 91, 99, 106; Frank Leslie’s Weekly, December 20, 1862; Extracts from Morgan Dix Diary Pertaining to Columbia College, November 6, 1860, Item 195, Columbiana Manuscripts; Foner, Business and Slavery, 200-01, 308; Nevins, Fish, 1: 77-80; Foner, Gateway, 219-20.