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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,165


This is the grave of Robert Winthrop.

Born in Boston in 1809, Winthrop came from one of the true Brahmin families. His ancestor was John Winthrop, founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony all the way back in 1630. He was super elite all the way, went to Boston Latin and then Harvard. He graduated from there in 1828. He manged to get Daniel Webster to take him on to study for the bar and learned a lot from the master. He was admitted in 1831 and immediately went into politics. In 1835, he got elected to the Massachusetts statehouse and was there for the next five years. In 1838, he was elected Speaker.

In 1840, Abbot Lawrence resigned from Congress. Winthrop decided he would run to replace him and he won that election. So now he was in Congress and he continued what seemed like a pretty fast rise. He did have a hiccup–his wife died in 1842 and so he left before his term ended. But then he was elected for another term anyway so he returned six months later. The Whigs loved this guy and he soon became a leader. Despite his very minor experience, he became Speaker of the House in 1847. He only served one term as Speaker and the Democrat Howell Cobb defeated him in 1849 in a long battle between a very divided Congress. But whatever, he was still a rising star, right?

Well, no. This is an odd case. See, Winthrop was Webster’s boy, all the way. He embraced Webster’s positions to the letter. But the late 1840s and early 1850s were a transitional moment in American politics, as slavery and the battle over what to do in the territories roiled American politics. It was a bad time for a lot of the older giants of American politics who had survived for so many decades by seeking to sweep slavery under the rug. This was as true in slave states as in free states. The Mexican War and the deep compromises that created the larger Compromise of 1850 cost people such as Thomas Hart Benton and Webster dearly. Abolitionists were still a small part of the Massachusetts population, but the number was growing. Moreover, lots of non-abolitionists were disgusted at the Fugitive Slave Act and this would only get more unpopular as slavers tried to reclaim property off the city’s streets.

Well, this helped lead to Webster’s downfall as the kingmaker of Massachusetts politics. Webster basically didn’t care about slavery and was one of the people who made the Compromise of 1850 happen. In the House, Winthrop followed his mentor. This made our young Speaker extremely unpopular back at home. Would he win reelection? Note as well that all his equivocation on slavery didn’t exactly get him a reputation among Democrats as someone they could trust. Democrats tarred him with the Wilmot Proviso as much as any other northerner when the slave power wanted their way, as they got when Cobb won the Speaker. But don’t think that Winthrop actually secretly cared about slaves and was just politically ambitious. He did not. He cared about tariffs and manufacturing. But what room was there in the growing sectionalism for the so-called Cotton Whigs? There really wasn’t much. He had opposed Texas annexation but also opposed anti-slavery activism and abolitionism. So he pleased no one except the manufacturing interests. Soon that would not be enough to sustain a political career in the Bay State. And when he ran for Speaker again, southern Whigs led by Alexander Stephens walked out, which led to them supporting Cobb even though he was a Democrat and the collapse of the Whig Party a few years later.

In 1850, Zachary Taylor offered Webster the position of Secretary of State. The governor, George Briggs, named Winthrop to take his mentor’s spot. But Winthrop would have to win a full term from the Massachusetts legislature that was increasingly angry about the perfidy of conservative Whigs in rolling over for the Slave Power. And the legislature did not choose him. Angry, he stomped off by immediately resigning his seat. He then ran for governor. He won the plurality, but in the collapsing two party system, there were lots of candidates and he did not win a majority. This meant the legislature again got to decide and once again, said legislature, with an alliance of convenience between the Free Soil people and Democrats, did not choose Winthrop. At this point, Winthrop left the Whig Party, became an independent, and basically was the kind of guy who would throw whatever limited weight he had at often ridiculous candidates. This would mean supporting John Bell in 1860. It would also mean supporting the Democrat George McClellan in 1864. Winthrop really, really, really did not care about slaves or slavery.

Now, look, the 1850s threw a lot of careers into turmoil. Lots of people changed parties. Some would change parties many times but find themselves able to survive in politics. Winthrop just lost interest. He was a conservative and that played perfectly into what his class and place would become–the conservative elite of Boston in the Gilded Age. He was only 43 years old when his career ended. So he had a whole life to lead yet. He became president of the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1855 and held that position for a decade. He worked on a biography of his noted ancestor. He was just a rich guy who did rich guy things–his law practice, his business interests, his historical interests, his philanthropy. Long trips to Europe were of course part of his life. He had a well-known bust made of himself while in Italy because what would be more Gilded Age than that. He remained a player–he knew every president up to his death except for Washington and Jefferson. But he was just a rich guy now and they aren’t very interesting.

Also, Winthrop’s great-great grandson is John Kerry. Because America is a meritocracy and all.

Winthrop died in 1894, at the age of 85.

Robert Winthrop is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Today, evangelical Christians try to claim Winthrop as a hero for his remarks on the Bible, because naturally ideas around religion never change and nineteenth century Whigs have the exact same beliefs about Jesus as twenty-first century evangelicals…..

If you would like this series to visit other Speakers of the House, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Howell Cobb is in Athens, Georgia and Linn Boyd is in Paducah, Kentucky. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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