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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,010

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This is the grave of Isaac Toucey.

Born in 1792 in Newtown, Connecticut, Toucey became one of the single biggest defenders of slavery in the North. A doughface’s doughface, people don’t know much about Toucey today because he wasn’t a huge loud player in the Senate and only served in Cabinet positions instead of became president, but working with people such as James Polk, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan, this leading Democrat did much to push the slaver cause in the government. He just had a common school experience and evidently did not attend college, just studying for the law.

In 1818, Toucey was admitted to the bar in Connecticut and started practicing. By 1825, he hung out his own shingle. Even before that though, in 1822, he became the prosecuting attorney for Hartford County. Until 1835, he kept that position and his own practice. As an elite, he spent his free time during these years helping to found the Connecticut Historical Society, which became a frequent project for the elites of given states around these years. But then he went to Congress after winning election in 1834. He was a Jacksonian Democrat. He served two terms and lost in 1838, part of the backlash to the disastrous economic policies of Jackson and Van Buren. He came back to Hartford and retook his job as prosecuting attorney. In 1845, Toucey was the Democratic candidate for governor of Connecticut. He lost to Roger Baldwin, but then Connecticut sent Baldwin to the Senate. So the legislature had to pick a new governor and they chose Toucey. But he lost his bid for his own term in 1847. His doing basically nothing with a divided legislature was part of the reason. When a bill passed the legislature to build a bridge over the Connecticut River at Hartford, Toucey vetoed it based on the principle that it would block river access to the city. The legislature overrode the veto. In short, this was the classic “should we fund internal improvements or not” that defined a lot of politics in these years. He did not endear himself to the growing Connecticut business community, let’s just say that.

However, by this time, Toucey was a big time Democrat. He also, again, hated internal improvements and believed that if the Constitution didn’t explicitly say the government could do something, then it could not do it. Moreover, with New England primarily Whig country, he was one of the region’s top Democrats. So in 1848, James Polk named Toucey to be Attorney General. He didn’t have the chance to do too much damage here, as Democrats lost the 1848 election and so he was in office for less than a year. Half of this time, Polk named him Acting Secretary of State. So he was busy doing not all that much.

Toucey went back to Connecticut and got elected to the state senate in 1850. Served a year. Then in 1852, he was elected to the state legislature. But that didn’t last long. The U.S. Senate seat was open, Democrats now controlled the legislature and so he was sent to Washington. There, he was a big pain in the ass. He was such a strict constructionist on the Constitution that he would get up to argue that the nation should have no public lands. He also favored the South in every debate about slavery. He was exactly the kind of useful guy the South wanted there. This made him increasingly unpopular in Connecticut, as so many people turned against the slave power over the Kansas-Nebraska Act and all the violence in Kansas that followed. But none of this bothered Toucey much. What mattered the most for him is that the government never do anything that might mitigate state rights, such as the right of people to take their slaves into whatever territories they wanted and not worry about lawsuits from those slaves that they were now free. He was also Franklin Pierce’s personal point man in the Senate.

This led the Connecticut legislature to kick him out of the Senate in 1857. But James Buchanan was now president. Buchanan and Toucey were friends and had many of the same beliefs. So he named Toucey Secretary of the Navy. Now, the American Navy was trash. It was routinely underfunded and the boats were in terrible shape. Congress had no interest in funding it no matter who was in charge. Toucey asked for more money. But the Panic of 1857 hit and so Congress said no. But the Navy was reasonable active despite this. In 1855, there was an incident between Paraguay and a U.S. ship where the Paraguayan government attacked it. This festered. Buchanan and Toucey sent a bunch of ships down there. The situation was worked out but a sizable chunk of the Navy ended up staying around South America during the Buchanan administration.

Now, much to Toucey’s disgust, Abraham Lincoln became president in 1861. Toucey’s southern friends then commit treason in defense of slavery. Oh hey, the ships are still in South America. Gee, I wonder if they will be ready to fight that treason! A lot of people thought Toucey did this intentionally. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. He most certainly did sympathize with the Confederacy. Now, an 1864 investigation did mostly exonerate him and placed the blame squarely on Buchanan. Still, he was now politically persona non grata, just like rest of Buchanan’s Cabinet. To be fair, Toucey was not the worst of the Buchanan Cabinet. After all, unlike some of them, he did not actively commit treason and was actually concerned about resupplying Fort Sumter. Not only was he sympathetic to the South, but there were corruption investigations into Toucey. The Covode Committee, created in 1860 to explore corruption in the Buchanan administration. Just as an example, here’s some site selling a letter from Buchanan to Toucey where the president asks Toucey to hire his buddy, a legendary grafter, into the federal government. Friends of Buchanan claimed the commission was politically motivated and this was probably true. And yet, it found tons of corruption in the administration. Toucey was censored by the House, though this didn’t have any real consequences.

Upon the Civil War, Toucey left politics behind. He was a trustee of Trinity College in Hartford and got very involved in that. He also restarted his law work. He died in 1869, at the age of 76.

Isaac Toucey is buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery, Hartford, Connecticut.

If you would like this series to visit the other horrible members of the Buchanan Cabinet, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Jacob Thompson is in Memphis and Jeremiah Black is in York, Pennsylvania. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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