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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,117

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This is the grave of Peleg Sprague.

Born in 1793 in Duxbury, Massachusetts, I assume this Sprague was related to the New Hampshire senator of the Early Republic by same odd name, but that Sprague definitely wasn’t this one’s father. In any case, the young Sprague grew up pretty well off, went to all the good schools, onto Harvard, yadda yadda. He passed the bar in 1815 and moved to Maine, which was then still part of Massachusetts. He set up a practice in Augusta for a couple of years and then moved to Hallowell. While he was there, Maine became its own state as part of the Missouri Compromise. Sprague was already rising in local politics, so he ran for the state legislature and won himself a term. This was the so-called Era of Good Feelings and so it was the only time when Americans didn’t really have political parties. But he was a in the Federalist-Whig vein. It was very common at this time for legislators, even at the national level, to come and go pretty frequently, often choosing to just serve one term or even to leave in the middle of a term (this is one reason why the South dominated Congressional politics; they sent their people back forever). So he had his one term, went back to Maine, and resumed his private practice full time.

Still, Sprague had ambitions. Maine was a young state and there were possibilities there. Also, the second party system was forming and Sprague definitely did not like your Andrew Jacksons of the world. As the 1824 election and its aftermath blew up the myth that the nation could go on without political parties, Sprague became an avid follower of what was briefly the National Republican Party behind John Quincy Adams and then the Whigs as they consolidated the variety of anti-Jackson dislike. He ran for Congress in 1824 and won. He served two terms in the House and then went on to the Senate in 1829. He only served one term in the Senate, but he was a major player in opposing Indian Removal, which he thought a moral outrage. He also took on Jackson’s war on the Second Bank of the United States, which Sprague thought was a terrible policy, but he also framed it as Jackson’s authoritarianism for all the vetoes, which were unprecedented in America’s brief history to that point.

Now, we should note that just because people such as Sprague opposed Indian Removal definitely did not make them what today we might call “anti-racists.” No no. They still believed the tribes were savages whose culture had absolutely no value. It’s just that they thought the tribes should be given the opportunity to effectively become whites by adopting white ways. What outraged people such as Sprague about Indian Removal was not some respect for Native cultures. It was that tribes such as the Cherokee were in fact listening to white advice and adopting their ways, including developing the written language and large-scale farming. And to be clear, it was the farming issue that was the most important here. So much of the justification for stealing Native land was that they did not “use” it properly, by which was meant western-style farming. When the tribes who did move toward this were treated like the tribes who did not, it put the entire hypocrisy of American rhetoric toward the tribes up to a giant magnifying glass. Most Americans didn’t care. They never intended on being anything less than hypocrites. But for people such as Sprague and other New England reformer types, who had taken all of this quite seriously, it meant that the U.S. wasn’t the global beacon for reform that it claimed. And that was unacceptable. His speech of April 16, 1830 was important enough that you can download and read it here today.

Still, when considered within context of time and place, Sprague taking leadership against Indian Removal was a progressive position. In his attacks on this policy, he also noted that the tribes would receive no material assistance when they were dropped off in what is today Oklahoma and this would be disastrous for them. This was absolutely true and it was horrible for them. He also stated that there really wasn’t any difference between what Democrats wanted to do the tribes and what the British did in India or the Spanish in Latin America, which were important historical references for a nation that still considered itself a vanguard of reasonably moderate anti-colonial revolution at this time. But it wasn’t some great speech really. In it, he talked about how “the doom of Providence” meant that Indians “must perish.” Therefore, why not let them try to make it and live out their days at their homes if whites were going to inherit it pretty soon anyway. Why take on the moral stain if you were going to win the war anyway with a little time? To say the least, the Democratic Party did not care.

In 1835, Sprague decided to leave politics and return to the law. Instead of going back to Maine though, he moved to Boston, where he could have a more lucrative practice. He did well there. He stayed in private practice for the next six years. He also remained a very active Whig and was a major campaigner in Boston for William Henry Harrison in 1840. Then, after Harrison dropped dead, John Tyler still repaid Sprague for his work, nominating him to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. He stayed on that court for the next 24 years, resigning in 1865. For some reason, he ended up hearing a number of cases about the horrible treatment of sailors and the corporal punishment they faced, and he usually favored the sailors. In fact, along with Samuel Rossiter Betts and Joseph Story, Sprague is considered the most important jurist in working out the basics of American maritime law. One of his decisions created the principle that a steam ship must give way to a sailing ship on the water. Moreover, these cases had a larger importance, which was helping to settle the debate over whether federal or state power had precedence, which he and his colleagues consistently decided in favor of the federal government.

Sprague also had to rule on a number of cases around slavery, which put him in the spotlight of William Lloyd Garrison for not using the power of the bench to strike decisive blows against slavery, who targeted him and other judges frequently in the pages of The Liberator. In truth, Sprague really wasn’t very good on the slavery issue as a judge. While a senator, he stated that Christ himself would not intervene to end slavery if it meant riding roughshod over a nation’s laws. As a judge, he basically followed that same belief and followed the law to the letter. He was personally anti-slavery and was well-known for this, but there were higher principles than personal belief, or, you know, the hell of slavery. This was pretty typical Whig behavior, a party that basically wanted to sweep slavery under the rug to maintain itself as a national party. In addition, as a leading Maine figure, he played an important behind the scenes role working with Daniel Webster in settling the increasingly belligerent claims of Maine settlers along the northern borders with Canada, which led to the Webster-Ashburton Treaty in 1842.

After his resignation, Sprague went back to his private practice in Boston until his death in 1880. He was an impressive 87 years old upon his death.

Peleg Sprague is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other people sent to the Senate in 1829, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Branch is in Enfield, North Carolina and Edward Livingston is in Columbia County, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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