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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,553

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This is the grave of Caleb Cushing.

Born in 1800 in Salisbury, Massachusetts, Cushing grew up rich. His father was a very successful shipbuilder. He grew up mostly in Newburyport and then went to Harvard in 1813. This was still the age where kids might go to Harvard at 13. He graduated in 1804, still only 17 years old. By 1820, he was teaching math at Harvard, younger than some of his students. But he was more interested in the law and then of course politics. He passed the bar in 1821 and began practicing back in Newburyport in 1824.

That same year, Cushing entered politics, running for the state legislature. He did that for a single term before then running for the state senate in 1825, then he went back to the legislature. He spent a couple of years in Europe in the late 1820s, on business I guess, and then came back to the legislature. In any case, he was elected to Congress in 1835. Now, Cushing had weird politics. When he first ran for office, everyone was a member of the Democratic-Republican Party and this was the Era of Good Feelings, so what did that even mean anymore? As Massachusetts became a Whig stronghold, Cushing was a Whig. But it’s hard to honestly say what he actually believed in. Cushing was in Congress into 1843, but not without controversy.

See, John Tyler was president and his Accidentcy decided to break from the Whigs who had elected him. After all, the only reason Tyler was on the ticket was to balance the anti-Jacksonians that needed to form awkward coalitions to have a chance of winning. Tyler was a Calhounite pro-Southern extremist who hated Jackson and Van Buren for the Nullification controversy and how dismissive Jackson was of Southern extremism. Tyler felt no loyalty to the Whigs, who he hated on every economic issue. So he started vetoing all the bills coming from the Whig dominated Congress. Almost no Whigs defended him. Except for Caleb Cushing. Nope, Cushing said that Tyler had every right to veto those bills and he supported the president in his efforts. This was absolutely baffling for the rest of the Whigs and he was pretty much read out of the party. He officially joined the Democrats in 1847, but functionally had already been one for years.

Tyler, hoping to build a coalition that would get him elected on his own in 1844, wanted to pay Cushing off big time for providing him real support among the Whigs. So he decided to nominate Cushing for Secretary of Treasury in 1843. The Senate immediately rejected him. Tyler renominated him the same day. The Senate immediately rejected again. Then, later that day, Tyler nominated him again and the Senate rejected him again. Yep, three times on the same day. People of both parties hated Tyler so much by this time that they weren’t going to accept many appointments from him at all and Cushing had no friends left either since Democrats or Whigs didn’t trust him. Finally, the Senate accepted John Canfield Spencer in the position.

Tyler still valued Cushing though, so he named the sorta Whig Ambassador to China. That’s a wild position in the 1840s. I don’t think Cushing knew the first thing about China, minus whatever trade the family might have been involved in, but he wasn’t involved in any of that personally to my knowledge. The idea behind the expansionist Tyler administration here was to overwhelm the Chinese with American technology and power to cower them into giving concessions. This was the time of the Opium Wars, so the Chinese were weak and the British were strong and this is the context that Cushing entered. The idea was to take a bunch of warships, bring a bunch of scientific equipment and other examples of American superiority, and bully the Chinese. Not surprisingly, the Chinese were not real happy here. Cushing first arrived in Macau in 1844 and he got tons of attention. But the government didn’t want to meet with another white devil seeking to control it. Cushing was not subtle here. He was basically “meet with me and recognize me as the agent of the U.S. government or we are going to use our warships to bomb your ports.” So China caved. This led to the Treaty of Wanghia, which gave the Americans the same trading rights as the British. American trade exploded in coming years and so did resentment toward the Americans, as well as all the other European powers and the Japanese exploiting the once great empire.

Cushing had left Congress of course by this point and when he returned to Massachusetts, he was something of a man without a party. He did get back into the state legislature in the 1846 elections. Naturally, he was a big supporter of the Mexican War and its attempt to steal most of Mexico to expand slavery, though I think he was more invested in the expansion than the slavery. He tried to get the state to pass a bill that would fund him to lead a regiment, but the rest of the legislature was extremely uninterested in using state funds for this. So Cushing did it with his own funds. He was named colonel of the 1st Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment. He and his men didn’t do anything. They got to Mexico far too late to participate in the war, though they did reach Mexico City after the end of the war.

By this time, Cushing was a Democrat. The Democrats nominated him for governor in 1847 and 1848 (they were 1-year terms), but he was so hated by the Whigs that he had no real chance of winning, especially given how the Mexican War had shook people up in the Bay State. He was on the edge of politics for a few years, back in the state legislature, mayor of Newburyport, certainly not the positions he really wanted. But in 1853, Franklin Pierce named Cushing Attorney General, which meant he was the legal arm behind Pierce’s doughface support of the slave power. To my knowledge, Cushing was not a major force within the Pierce administration and I don’t know anything about his time there that was egregious compared to Jefferson Davis and the rest of the Pierce Cabinet, but it certainly wasn’t good. Moreover, this was the era of enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act and Cushing was totally fine with that, even if it was effectively null and void in his home state.

By 1860, Cushing was totally lost, just the worst kind of northern doughface willing to do anything to serve the Slave Power. He presided over the disastrous 1860 Democratic National Convention, when southern delegates walked out because Stephen A. Douglas doing whatever the slaveholders wanted wasn’t good enough anymore. Then he presided over the Southern Democratic Convention in Charleston that chose the despicable John C. Breckinridge.

Despite this, Cushing did support the Union in the Civil War. But he hated Lincoln, hated freeing slaves, hated anything the Republican Party did. But he was most certainly out of office. Of course Andrew Johnson liked him and he was one of Johnson’s commissioners intended to rein in Congress, but that didn’t work. Johnson sent him to Bogota in 1868 to try and get Colombia to give up a right-of-way across the Isthmus of Panama for a canal, but the Colombians told him to take a hike.

For some reason, Ulysses S. Grant really liked Cushing, which is a piece of evidence as to the really not good president that Grant proved. I know Grant crushed the KKK and he deserves all the credit for that, but his governance was so wildly inconsistent and he was so in thrall with people he liked personally that he was really not good at being president. Grant appointed Cushing to settle the Alabama claims with Britain in Geneva, which was the Americans outraged that the British built ships that the Confederates used to destroy American shipping.

Then Grant, for some goddamn reason, tried to appoint Cushing to the Supreme Court in 1874. They agreed on nothing politically. But Grant just liked him. The Senate went ballistic. Cushing himself was shocked. Grant hadn’t mentioned it to him. A letter soon leaked that Cushing had written to Jefferson Davis back in the war supporting the traitor’s position. Four days later, Grant withdrew the nomination. Instead, he sent Cushing to Madrid as Minister to Spain.

Cushing came back from Spain in 1877, went home, and died in Newburyport in 1879. He was 78 years old.

Caleb Cushing is buried in Highland Cemetery, Newburyport, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other mid 19th century Attorney Generals, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Jeremiah Black is in York, Pennsylvania and Reverdy Johnson is in Baltimore. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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