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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 378

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This is the grave of Francis Preston Blair.

Born in Abingdon, Virginia in 1791 to a politically ambitious family, Blair’s father would become Kentucky’s attorney general after the family moved to Frankfort when he was a child. Blair went to Transylvania University and then was admitted to the bar in 1817. But he never practiced because he had a voice problem and couldn’t really argue a case in front of a judge. Instead, he went into the newspaper business. He rose rapidly in Kentucky politics, following the lead of his father. He was a central player in Kentucky’s bank controversy, where rival state banks developed to deal with the Panic of 1819 and the huge debts held by the state and its residents. As there could only be one state bank, Blair actually led a party to break into the rival bank and steal all its records.

Blair was a major Andrew Jackson partisan as the Second Party System began. He worked hard to carry Kentucky for Jackson in 1828. He then went to Washington to run the most important Jacksonian paper, The Washington Globe. There, he became close to Jackson personally. He was a key member of the so-called Kitchen Cabinet, Jackson’s informal advisers who he was closer to than his fractious actual Cabinet that was more concerned with the respectability of Secretary of War John Eaton’s wife than with governance. He was a big supporter of Jackson’s actions during the nullification crisis–although a very racist man, he always prioritized nationalism over slavery. He also made his money off Jackson, getting the contract to print the Congressional Record, which like everything else in these decades was a political plum. He was close to Van Buren as well and remained in good stead in Washington during those four years.

In 1844, Blair backed James Polk but they later had a falling out and Blair lost his influence, selling his interest in the Globe. This led to him to support Van Buren in 1848, even though he was running on a Free Soil ticket. But this in part had to do with the increasing extremism of the Democratic Party on slavery. Like a good Jacksonian, Blair wanted slavery swept under the rug. This was the core of the Second Party System after all: everyone can get along if no one talks about slavery. Tyler and Polk killed this by making slavery expansionism the central feature of the Democratic Party. This really put Democrats such as Blair into a bind, as it did southern Whigs, leading to the destruction of that party after 1852. Blair supported Franklin Pierce in 1852, but then hated him for embracing the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

This was the straw that made Blair believe a new party was in order. He was a slaveholder on his Maryland estate (the city of Silver Spring is named after what he called his land on that spot) but he believed slavery was probably doomed and he opposed its extension. He played a critical role in the founding of the Republican Party. But he represented its far-right flank on slavery. He hated abolitionists and he hated fireeaters. He wanted a party that was for the Union on an anti-abolitionists, pro-compromise stance. That was a delicate balance. He was close to John C. Fremont and helped him get the 1856 nomination. He initially supported Edward Bates for the 1860 nomination but was completely fine with Lincoln. The new president became close to Blair and named his son Montgomery as Postmaster General. Blair actually is the one Lincoln asked to visit Robert E. Lee and offer him the command of Union armies, but Lee chose to commit treason in defense of slavery instead and turned him down. Because he was a long-time Democrat, Blair had good personal relations with many Confederate leaders. In late 1864, when it was clear that the Confederacy was going to lose, Blair reached out to Jefferson Davis to talk peace. This led to the Hampton Roads conference in February 1865, which led to nothing as Confederate leaders would not surrender.

After the war, Blair was a big supporter of Andrew Johnson and turned sharply against Congressional Reconstruction. This isn’t surprising. Blair never cared about black rights. Putting the nation back together without changing social relations was what he always wanted. In fact, his son Frank Blair Jr. became the VP candidate for Horatio Seymour in 1868, the most openly race-baiting presidential campaign in American history, something the entire Blair family engaged in heavily. Blair had rejoined the Democratic Party by this time, where he was always more comfortable unless treason in defense of slavery was on the table. He died in 1876 in Silver Spring at the age of 85.

Francis Preston Blair is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C. If you would like this series to cover other members of Jackson’s Kitchen Cabinet, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Amos Kendall is in Washington and Andrew Jackson Donelson is in Memphis. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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