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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 858


This is the grave of Levi Woodbury.

Born in 1789 in Francestown, New Hampshire, Woodbury grew up relatively prosperous and attended Dartmouth College. He attended the Tapping Reeve Law School in Connecticut, but didn’t stay long. After all, it’s not as if one needed a law degree to practice law in the early 1800s. In fact, Woodbury would much later be the first Supreme Court justice to attend law school at all. He passed the New Hampshire bar in 1812. Although in a Federalist stronghold, Woodbury would quickly make a name for himself as a leading New England Jeffersonian, defending the Madison administration and the War of 1812.

With the politics of New England shifting pretty hard after the War of 1812 and the embarrassment of the Hartford Convention that made the Federalists look like traitors, space opened up for someone like Woodbury to rise in the Era of Good Feelings, where everyone was a nominal Democratic-Republican. So in 1816, he was appointed as clerk of the state senate. The next year, he nabbed a position on New Hampshire’s Superior Court. He stayed there for six years. He then served a year as governor starting in 1823 (these were one year terms), lost his reelection campaign in 1824, and then became Speaker of the House in his state in 1825.

In 1825, the state legislature sent Woodbury to Washington as a senator. There, he became a key player in the early Democratic Party, forming after the contested 1824 election that saw John Quincy Adams become president even though Andrew Jackson had more votes. He was a solid Jacksonian through his term.

In 1831, the New Hampshire legislature did not send Woodbury back for another term. He had won a term in the state senate. But he never served there because Jackson named his Secretary of the Navy. He was a close advisor to Jackson by this time. As Secretary of Navy, where he stayed for three years, he was highly involved in early attempts to open Asia to American ships. He also had to take stands on controversial issues in the Navy. One was flogging, which was still legal. Another was the daily booze ration to sailors. On both, he was a relative moderate. But he did want reform. Alas, he failed on both accounts. The ship commanders were too in thrall with beatings at that time for Woodbury to win that one. Flogging was not banned until 1850. On the alcohol issue, Woodbury tried a program where sailors would get extra money if they gave up the alcohol voluntarily. Very few did. The daily grog ration continued until 1862.

In 1834, Woodbury got a promotion and became Secretary of the Treasury. This was because he was right there with Jackson and Martin Van Buren on destroying the centralized American banking system. He, like they, distrusted central banking as a way that elites could maintain a hold on the economy and suppress the democratic impulses of the young nation. This was, of course, ridiculous. But it also was pretty orthodox thinking for Jackson’s supporters. Woodbury stayed on at Treasury when Van Buren became president. This meant he was on the job when his policies created the Panic of 1837. But none of this impacted Van Buren’s faith in him. He served a seven years at Treasury, only leaving when William Henry Harrison became president in 1841. Woodbury’s response to the Panic was to support the independent treasury system, which separated government funds from commercial banks. This was ended by Harrison, but then reestablished when Democrats again controlled Washington, in 1846.

Immediately upon leaving Treasury, New Hampshire sent its most powerful politician back to Washington for another term as a senator. Then, when James Polk took the presidency, he became a Supreme Court justice. An aggressive expansionist, he appealed to Polk, who was the arch-expansionist. In fact, Woodbury had recently given a talk about Thomas Cole’s famous painting cycle The Course of Empire. In it, he argued that unlike what Cole intimated, the U.S. would never ever decline. It would rise forever. Huge eyeroll. Anyway, on the Supreme Court, he was a conservative who continued to distrust state power. He theoretically at least didn’t like slavery. But in Jones v. Van Zandt, he issued the opinion which ruled in favor of slaveholders that the original Fugitive Slave Act was constitutional. He also routinely defended states rights commerce clause cases such as Waring v. Clarke, where he dissented in a case that had to do with whether the federal government had authority over what happened to rivers influenced by tides instead of the states (it was a shipwreck case). But in contract clause cases, he tended to favor corporations, such as in Planters Bank v. Sharp, where he issued an opinion against Mississippi interfering in banking. The far right conservatives on the bench, such as Roger Taney and Peter Daniel, ruled for Mississippi.

Woodbury had presidential ambitions. He hoped to be the nominee in 1848, but never really got past favorite son status and the odious Lewis Cass of Michigan won the nomination instead. This was the election when Van Buren agreed to run as the Free Soil candidate in part to ensure Cass lost. Not real sure if he would have done that had Woodbury been the nominee since they had such a long working relationship and Woodbury was at least somewhat less in thrall of the slave power than Cass. Anyway, Woodbury was considered a possible candidate in 1852 as well. He most certainly wanted the top job. But then he up and died in 1851, at the age of 61.

Levi Woodbury is buried in Harmony Grove Cemetery, Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

If you would like this series to visit others who spent time as Secretary of the Treasury, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Thomas Ewing, who succeeded Woodbury, is in Lancaster, Ohio and Walter Forward, who succeeded Ewing, is in Pittsburgh. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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