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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,040


This is the grave of David Daggett.

Born in 1764 in Attleboro, Massachusetts, Daggett grew up in the New England elite of the Revolutionary War generation. This meant ending up at one of the leading institutions of higher education, in his case Yale rather than Harvard because he had family connections there. He was only 16 when he started in 1781 and he started as a junior as well, so he finished in 1783. He then got a master’s degree. He was already known for his oratory, which meant a career in the law and politics was in the offing.

Hopkins went into the law, studying with one of the leading jurists in Connecticut. He also married young. His wife proceeded to have 19 children. 14 survived their infancy. Only 3 would outlive their father. Such was the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Anyway, Daggett passed the bar in 1786 and started practice in New Haven. As he rose in society, one principle was clear for Daggett–he hated Black people. Shortly after he started his law practice, there was a Black man named Joseph Mountain who was executed for rape. Daggett created a “confession” from him and published it to show the evil scary Black people that wanted to rape our white women and needed to be controlled with violence. Even for 1790, this was pretty awful stuff.

Of course none of this would get in the way of his political career. He was a Federalist, but at this time, I’m not sure I would identify one party as being less overtly racist than the other, even as slavery was dying in the North and beginning to take off again in the South. He was a pretty standard Federalist generally. He got elected in 1791 to represent New Haven in the assembly and served six one-year terms. He rose pretty quickly, was elected Speaker in 1794, and entered the state’s upper chamber in 1797. He was a leading state-level Federalist for the next 14 years until finally in 1813, he was sent to the Senate after Chauncey Goodrich resigned to become the state’s lieutenant governor. He became known for his anti-Jeffersonian speeches that were often actually anti-Enlightenment period, questioning the entire worldview of his political enemies. His 1799 Independence Day speech for instance, was actually titled “Sun Beams May be Extracted from Cucumbers, but the Process is Tedious.” OK then. The point was that it was evil to replace tradition with reason. Whatever.

As a Senator, Daggett continued in his Federalist ways. He was solidly for the chartering of the Second Bank of the United States, for instance. He strongly opposed the idea of a draft for the War of 1812, stating on the Senate floor that it was “utterly inconsistent with the principles of civil liberty to compel a man to become a soldier for life, during a war, or for any fixed time.” Maybe, but that Daggett opposed the war of course influenced him. But Daggett did soften a bit later in his term. He actually dined with James Monroe at the rebuilt White House and was amazed at how beautiful it now was. His 1814 Independence Day address was a giant rant against the horrors of Napoleon and the moral rot he had caused the world. Daggett also was somewhat less hard core than other Federalists in his opposition to the war–not going down the Hartford Convention road of becoming secession curious, for instance. He also dismissed his constituents outrage over the idea of Sunday mail service during the war, noting it was necessary to keep the nation running. Ah, the things that upset early 19th century Americans.

After his single term, Daggett returned to Connecticut. As one of the state’s most successful lawyers, he did just fine. He was on the state supreme court, was mayor of New Haven for a bit, etc. He also did just fine in promoting his racist vision of America. By the 1830s, there was the beginnings of real sentiment in the North to do something for the Black population. It was hardly popular, but it existed and slowly grew, often in the face of outraged whites who couldn’t believe these reformers were so soft-headed about clearly inferior people. Daggett was, uh, definitely in the latter category. There was an effort in Connecticut to establish an institution of higher education for Black Americans there. This did not yet exist anywhere in the U.S. So a few reformers thought New Haven would be a good place for one. Daggett led the opposition which went into open race-baiting of the worst sort. There was a town meeting around it. The people attending the meeting chose 700-4 to reject the proposal. Such was the state of white supremacy in New Haven at the time. This is a good moment as well to mention that all the way into the Civil War, abolitionism was seen as a complete freak show by most of the northern population, the most unbelievably radical and awful position imaginable, outside maybe of the Mormons and their polygamy or women’s suffrage. So Daggett was hardly operating alone here. But his combination of leadership and race-baiting make his behavior particularly disgusting.

After this, Daggett pressed the point that Black people should not have access to good education. He became obsessed with the idea of education exclusionism. In 1833, a woman named Prudence Crandall ran a school for girls. She admitted a Black student. The town of Canterbury was horrified. All the whites withdrew their girls. Then Crandall reopened the school only for Black girls. Canterbury then passed a law banning such a thing. The case came before Daggett, who ruled that Black Americans were not citizens of the nation and therefore a town could totally exclude any educational offerings for them. Sam Alito and Brett Kavanaugh rub their chins in interest at this novel legal doctrine.

Daggett also led local outrage over abolitionists’ activities and proposed that Black Americans be sent back to Africa, whether they wanted to be or not. He also wanted to ban the use of the mail for abolitionists to send their materials. So yeah, nice guy.

Daggett worked as a lawyer almost until the point he died, when his health got so bad that he couldn’t go on. He died in 1851, at the age of 86.

David Daggett is buried in Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, Connecticut.

If you would like this series to visit other senators elected (or selected really since there were no senatorial elections) in 1813, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Christopher Gore is in Boston and William Wyatt Bibb is in Coosada, Alabama. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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