About Henry Brewster Stanton, Sr.
Birth: June 27, 1805 - Preston (now Griswold), Connecticut
Full Name: Henry Brewster Stanton
Parents: Joseph Stanton and Susan Brewster
Henry was the eldest son and second child of six.
Marriage: May 1, 1840 to Elizabeth Cady of Johnstown, New York
Children: Daniel Cady Stanton, Henry Brewster Stanton, Jr., Gerrit Smith Stanton, Theodore Weld Stanton, Margaret Livingston Stanton, Harriot Eaton Stanton, Robert Livingston Stanton
Served in the New York Senate from the 25th District in the 73rd and 74th Sessions (1850 and 1851)
Death: January 14, 1887, New York City
The abolitionist cause in the 1830s was an appropriate haven for a confident, restless and strongly nationalistic young man, imbued by his Puritan background with a sense of mission. Henry B. Stanton, in his Whig optimism, had the vision of a democracy realizing its potentials and overcoming its contradictions.
Stanton had begun a promising career in journalism and politics in western New York when at the age of twenty-five, Charles G. Finney’s Great Revival in 1830 swept him up and thrust him into the cause of moral regeneration. To prepare himself for the ministry he attended the Rochester Manual Labor Institute, a work-study institution set up to offer a sound classical education to those young men who could not afford to attend traditional colleges. While he was there that he met the charismatic Theodore Weld, who was to become the prince of abolitionism. Weld was at that time a student at the Manual Labor Institute near Utica. A mentor to Stanton and the model of what a reformer should be, he inducted Stanton into the developing anti-slavery movement and encouraged him to enroll in a program at Lane Seminary in Ohio in 1832. In a series of debates there Stanton became aware of his mission to help eliminate slavery and became a spokesperson for the doctrine of immediate emancipation.
Although Stanton was not deeply discontented with the world of the nineteenth century, as a proponent of progress, moral and economic, he could not remain silent about the paramount evil of his day. The anti-slavery movement legitimized his desire to serve in the vanguard of a noble cause. Withdrawing from Lane with fifty fellow-students because of the hostility of the administration to the agitation of the slavery issue, Stanton soon joined Weld as an agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society, touring the eastern part of the United States, making converts to abolitionism, organizing local societies and collecting funds. His efforts did much to nourish the movement during its difficult early years.
Stanton lacked the brilliance, the sharp logical faculties of his mentor, Theodore Weld, the trenchant journalistic talents of William Lloyd Garrison, the Patrician style and grace of Wendell Phillips, the strict rectitude of Arthur and Lewis Tappan and the chivalrous manner and reputability of James Birney. Because he was not pre-eminent in the possession of any one of these qualities, history has underrated his accomplishments. Nevertheless, Stanton, eloquent as an orator, lucid as a writer and skilled as an organizer became one of the most influential of the abolitionists directing the national campaign against slavery.
Stanton assimilated traditional anti-slavery arguments and rephrased them for the multitude. He dressed them in metaphor, sarcasm and wit; delivered them with conviction and passion; and courageously withstood the attacks and abuse of the defenders of the status quo.
Stanton had a strong mind, but not an unusually creative one. He strengths lay in interpretation and popularization. It was effect that he was concerned with. Through the medium of the spoken word, he compelled listeners to share his feelings, his commitment. He played on the consciences of his listeners to win their souls and their coins for the anti-slavery cause. As an opinion-maker Stanton had an intuitive feel for the appropriate phrase, the winning argument. Sensitive to the interests of the people that he had to influence, he paid heed to their biases and their loyalties as well as to the ethical validity of the propositions around which he asked them to unite. Among his recruits were community leaders whose efforts swelled the ranks of abolitionism. He planted a conviction in people’s minds of the iniquity and the anti-democratic nature of slavery where it grew into a rich harvest. Stanton helped construct an institutional structure for the anti-slavery impulse. The local societies he established throughout the north acted as cells of the abolitionist organism, their prosperity and smooth functioning augmenting the push against slavery. They kept the spirit of reform alive, nurtured camaraderie, reinforced the convictions of the faithful, converted the curious, and provided a forum for the spread of anti-slavery memes. Stanton’s most significant contribution to the abolitionist movement was his building of institutions for the preservation and extension of the antislavery cause. He advised local abolitionists on plans of organization, selected leaders, raised funds, helped to make the local organizations self-sustaining and trained new agents.
At the headquarters of the American Anti-Slavery Society, he directed and coordinated the operations of the local societies, engineered the petition campaign, raised funds, pressured office-seekers and legislatures by mail and in person, and distributed literature. With Joshua Leavitt, Elizur Wright, James G. Birney and Weld, Stanton forged the policies of the national organization. Few of his associates—not Garrison, nor Weld, nor even Birney, shared the pragmatic orientation of his superb propagandist and organizer. He was more concerned with actions than motives, practice rather principles. Consistency and logic were important when they contributed to a desired result. Loyalty to the ultimate objective during Stanton’s early years, superseded loyalty to others or the purity of ideas.
More than any of his associates, Stanton understood the nature of power and set about to harness it in the cause of abolition. Garrison sanctified his use of power through self-deification but denied its use to others. Weld shrunk from power, apologized for it, denied that he was worthy to use it. He humbled himself where Garrison exalted himself. To Stanton power was the well-spring of action, an instrument that could be used for ill or noble ends. When moral suasion proved inadequate, it had to give way to political action. The moral revolution would follow not precede victory.
Stanton’s altered aspirations from the ministry in the 1830s to law in the 1840s paralleled the movement’s change in modus operandi from attacking the sin of slavery with words to attacking human bondage with political action. The dynamic element of abolitionism made this same shift, saving the movement from oblivion. What the anti-slavery cause lost in purity, it gained in virility. Stanton, pragmatic to the core, ardently advocated political action. He called for the abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia and the use of Congressional power over interstate commerce and the admission of new states. He maintained that the delegated powers of Congress were sufficient to end slavery. Amending the Constitution was the last resort.
A schism developed within the movement in the late 1830’s. Garrison’s focus on causes unrelated to the slavery question alienated strong abolitionists. When he took up the cudgel for the full participation of women in the movement, Stanton agreed in principle but feared the loss of the influential conservative clergy. The coup de grace was Garrison’s belief that human government was evil and his personal conviction that political action a sin. Stanton believed that if Garrison went unchallenged in New England the politically-oriented westerners would go their own way. Stanton became one of the leaders in an attempt to provide the New England abolitionists with an alternative to Garrison. He backed the formation of the pro-political Massachusetts Abolition Society and its organ, the Massachusetts Abolitionist. Garrison, who could not distinguish between himself and the anti-slavery cause, screamed “treason” and led his troops into battle in 1840. Garrison’s supporters seized the national organization when Stanton and Birney were on their way to Europe to attend the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention. Stanton in addition to his anti-slavery duties was honeymooning with his May Day bride, whom he had met in October of 1839. Elizabeth Cady Stanton his partner in life and in reform was one of the foremost leaders in the struggle for women’s rights.
The political abolitionist minority proceeded to form the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, naming Stanton to the Executive Committee and appointing him its delegate to the World Convention. In London, the Garrisonian Wendell Phillips, who sailed to London with a contingent of women abolitionists, introduced a motion to admit the women as delegates to the Convention. Stanton definitely believed that Garrison was right on the woman question but a number of his pro-political colleagues, including Birney, did not. How Stanton voted on that issue was a matter of some debate. It seems clear, however, that he made a strong speech, either for Phillips’ motion or for the inclusion in the minutes of a protest, also proposed by Phillips, against the treatment of the women delegates.
When he returned from Europe in December of 1840 Stanton was aware that he needed a profession that would allow him to provide for a family. He started reading the law and was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar as a lawyer in May of 1842.
Throughout the late 1830’s Stanton and his friends had brought abolitionist influence to bear on the existing political parties. He had himself been raised a Whig and taken Henry Clay as his idol. When Myron Holley, Gamaliel Bailey and Elizur Wright advocated the formation of a third party, Stanton, realizing the strong attachment of most anti-slavery men to their traditional parties, was reluctant to go along with them. It wasn’t until the balance of power strategy was clearly failing that Stanton agreed to recruit for the Liberty Party.
Stanton’s labors for the party in New York and Massachusetts, contributed significantly to its growing power. He was selected for the State Central Committee in Massachusetts in 1843. The following year, vehemently attacking what was being called the Slave Power and its drive for the annexation of Texas, he ran for Congress as a Liberty Party candidate. Stanton was convinced by the reaction of the Whig Party to the annexation of Texas, the war against Mexico and the Wilmot Proviso that the Whig Party was not going to be an anti-slavery vehicle. The Liberty Party could best serve the anti-slavery cause by eschewing a multi-plank platform, focusing only on the anti-slavery question, and attracting anti-slavery Democrats and Conscience Whigs. In 1847 he was instrumental in securing the Liberty Party presidential nomination for the Free Soil Senator and former Democratic Congressman from New Hampshire, John P. Hale.
Dallying with Democrats:
When the Stanton family moved to Seneca Falls, New York, mainly for Henry’s health, a split occurred in the Democratic Party of that state between a liberal faction called the Barnburners and the conservative Hunkers. Stanton saw the Barnburners as the nucleus of a strong anti-slavery movement within the Democratic Party. At this point he was willing to align himself with the Barnburners even if it meant association with others whose interest was not primarily the well-being of African-American slaves. By 1848, Stanton had convinced himself that strong resistance to anti-slavery expansion would result in the extinction of slavery. He had come a long way from Lane Seminary days and commitment to the doctrine of immediate emancipation.
Abolitionists, aware of the moral evil of slavery, had long tried to alert the nation to the threat to civil liberties from pro-slavery forces. Stanton himself had been the target of mobs during his days as anti- slavery agent. Memory of the murder of Elijah Lovejoy while defending his press from a pro-slavery mob in Alton, Illinois in 1837 and other assaults on civil liberties affected the general public to some degree. However, the threat to free labor in the North and West through the extension of slavery became a volatile issue by mid-century.
The Barnburners, after their credentials were rejected by the national Democratic Convention in Baltimore, met in Utica in June of 1848, nominated Martin Van Buren for President, and strongly supported the Wilmot Proviso, the attempt to keep slavery out of the territories acquired from Mexico. Stanton thought that large numbers of Whigs and Democrats would back the Free Soil candidate. Most of the New York State Liberty men joined the Barnburners in support of Van Buren. Although many abolitionists objected, pointing to Van Buren’s spotty record, Stanton affirmed his belief that opposition to the extension of slavery as the key idea. Delegates from eighteen states and the District of Columbia, Barnburner Democrats, Conscience Whigs, Liberty Party members and others met at a Free Soil Convention in Buffalo in August of 1848. Stanton, who with a few others had been given authority by John P. Hale, announced that the New Hampshire Senator was willing to relinquish his Liberty Party nomination, should the platform be acceptable,. The convention proceeded to nominate Van Buren as the Free Democracy’s Presidential candidate.
Stanton was chosen an elector for Seneca County and campaigned for the Free Democracy in western New York. In 1849, he was nominated by the Barnburners and Liberty men to represent Seneca, Tompkins and Yates Counties in the New York State Senate. He won handily as a born-again Democrat.
When the Barnburners were unable to maintain control of the party in New York sufficiently to defeat a proposal to accept the Compromise of 1850, Stanton still clung to his newly-adopted party. He shifted his rhetorical focus from slavery and the greedy owners of human flesh to “slavery to monetary and corporation monopoly.” In the metamorphosis into Jacksonian Democrat, defender of farmers and workers, he declared the enemy to be “the bill brokers and money changes of Wall-street.” The grand issue became the Whig plan to borrow nine million dollars for the enlargement of the Erie Canal. To prevent passage of that bill, twelve Democrats, including Stanton, who was proving his loyalty to his new party, resigned their seats in order to reduce the Senate membership below the three-fifths necessary to conduct important business. Despite the invasion of his district by Stanton’s wife’s cousin and former ally in the anti-slavery movement, Gerrit Smith, now championing canal expansion, Stanton was re-elected by four votes. Due to a change in the membership of the committee investigating a charge of fraud in the counting of ballots leveled by Stanton’s opponent, the vote was allowed to stand. The powerful Whig leader, Thurlow Weed, in engineering the change in the committee, repaid a favor Stanton had done him and Weed’s protégé, William Seward, years before.
Rallying with Reprobates:
Problems with unruly sons, kept Stanton from running again for the State Senate in 1851, but he retained his allegiance to the Democracy, launching him into a strange orbit. He supported Franklin Pierce and William King for President and Vice President in the election of 1852, not the Free Soil ticket of John P. Hale and George Julian. This was the Pierce who had supported the Gag rule in the House, urged the suppression of the discussion of the slavery question, and ostracized John P. Hale for his opposition to the annexation of Texas. King voted against the Compromise of 1850 because he thought it was unfair to the South. He affirmed the right of slaveholders to take slaves into the territories. To King, slavery was national, freedom was sectional. The 1852 platform of the Democrats would have enraged Stanton several years earlier. It upheld the Compromise of 1850, including the Fugitive Slave Law, and called the Mexican War just and necessary. Over integrity, Stanton chose party loyalty, the approbation of his associates, and the promise of reward.
The depredations of the border ruffians in Bleeding Kansas and the refusal of his liberal Democratic colleagues in New York to condemn them seemed to wake Stanton up and convince him that he had boarded the wrong ship. A new ship awaited in the harbor. When President Pierce removed Kansas Governor Andrew Reeder, Stanton disembarked and joined the newly-formed Republican organization. In September of 1855 he made his maiden Republican speech for that party, confessing recent errors.
Stanton found what he had sought: a major party committed to preventing the further extension of slavery. Slavery would die, he and many slavocrats believed, if it could be stopped from spreading. In 1856 he was assigned to recruit speakers and speak himself for the Republicans. After the not-surprising loss in the party’s first Presidential election, he worked for his law clients, hobnobbed with the powerful in Washington and geared up for the 1860 election as a knowledgeable and respected politician.
Although he had been a long-time friend of Salmon P. Chase, when no bandwagon for the Ohioan’s Presidential nomination emerged, he backed William Seward, the candidate of his old friend and early mentor, Thurlow Weed. When Lincoln won the nomination, Stanton campaigned energetically for him. When it came time for Lincoln to choose his cabinet, Stanton hoped Chase would be selected as Secretary of State. When instead Chase received the Treasury post, Stanton asked Chase, Gideon Welles, Navy Secretary designate, and other influential friends to recommend him for the post of Surveyor of the Port of New York. He had to settle for appointment as Deputy Collector of the Custom House.
In 1863 a scandal erupted at the Custom House. It was alleged that illegal trade had been facilitated by the canceling of bonds, securities against the illicit shipment of goods, for large amounts of money. These bonds had been abstracted and removed from an office under Stanton’s supervision. The Stantons’ oldest son, Neil, a mendacious and sly boy, indolent and apparently immoral, admitted that he had taken money to abstract bonds. His father denied any personal wrong-doing but Hiram Barney, Collector of the Port, had informed Chase as early as 1862 that Henry had been negligent in his duties. He either resigned or was fired in late 1863.
In January of 1864 a Congressional committee, investigating the operation of the port issued a report extremely critical of Stanton. It rebuked him for exercising his notorial powers on the job, for drawing up affidavits upon which he, in his official capacity, would have to rule, and of accepting several hundred dollars anonymously given. Stanton expressed astonishment and immediately penned a letter to Chase, published in the Times and the Tribune to counter the “great injustice” which had been done to him.
Stanton claimed that operatives at the Custom House had sacrificed him to deflect attention from the inadequacies of Treasury Department regulations and weaknesses in other departments at the Custom House. A plausible case could be made that backers of Chase scapegoated Stanton, to shield Hiram Barney and preserve the treasury secretary’s control of the lucrative patronage at the Custom House. Chase’s friends, this theory holds, acted to protect his political power in New York, and thus his chance for his party’s nomination for President in 1864. Thurlow Weed, a virtuoso in political intrigue, was conspiring to oust Barney and replace him with a Seward-Weed ally. Weed got Lincoln to promise to remove Barney but the President reneged and Barney stayed at his post.
Calvin T. Hulburd, the chairman of the investigating committee, seems to have been a Chase man. Lincoln whiffed intrigue. He told Chase that Joshua F. Bailey, a Chase confidant, had spoken to Hulburd “to endeavor to smother the investigation.”
Stanton claimed that “two wily scoundrels,” had conspired to oust him. He probably was referring to George Denison, the Naval Officer, and Albert Hanscom, a Deputy Collector---two men who had profited greatly from seizures of vessels and felt hampered by Stanton’s exercise of his official powers.
Although the committee report was damaging to Stanton, for the most part the New York press did not exploit it. The Tribune printed the report, the World printed abstracts from it, while the Times did not print it at all. Stanton was well-known in New York journalistic circles and his good reputation saved him from much shame and embarrassment. The Albany Atlas and the New York Herald did not treat him kindly but Greeley’s influential Tribune vouched for Stanton’s character, calling him “a citizen of blameless repute and a lawyer of decided ability.”
Pooling Press and Politics:
After leaving the Custom House, Stanton continued to practice patent law in the city and resumed the profession he had intermittently practiced since he was twenty-one, becoming a regular contributor to Greeley’s Tribune. He began with Thurlow Weed’s Telegraph in the 1820’s and throughout his days as anti-slavery agent wrote and edited numerous articles for anti-slavery journals.
Stanton’s overt political activities diminished when he left the Custom House, but he campaigned for his favorites and pressed for reforms. He advocated the use of black troops during the war, opposed efforts to end the war prematurely, disliked what he regarded as Lincoln’s mild reconstruction program and supported John C. Fremont for the Republican nomination in 1864. Only after Fremont’s withdrawal did Stanton support Lincoln’s re-election bid.
After the war Stanton at first opposed leniency toward the South, insisting that the price for readmission was the guarantee of full equality for blacks including the right of black men to vote. However, when the Civil War amendments were added to the Constitution, Stanton mistakenly thought they were sufficient to protect the rights of the freedmen, and needed only to be protected against repeal by an alliance of northern and southern Democrats. Repeal would not be likely, he came to believe, if there was a policy of conciliation toward the South.
Stanton’s shift to conciliation was also fed by disillusionment during Reconstruction with widespread corruption, the expansion of the power in Washington under Grant and the selfishness of Republican politicians.
There was, however, a curious twist involving Stanton’s opposition to corruption. In 1868 Charles Dana became editor of The Sun. He hired Stanton whose journalistic talents were well known and who had personal acquaintance with major politicians in New York and on the national level. Stanton’s close relationship with Dana led the editor of The Sun into an unethical bargain during Reconstruction with Henry Clay Warmouth, the Radical governor of Louisiana. Dana’s paper had been severely critical of the corruptions that characterized that regime. Stanton knew Warmouth and asked him to give his oldest son a job. Warmouth agreed to place Neil Stanton in his administration and promote him rapidly if The Sun would stop its blistering attacks. Dana consented, Stanton’s nephew reported, the attacks ceased, and the amoral young man proceeded to enrich himself as supervisor of elections and as state senator. Nepotism, is appears, trumped journalistic ethics.
Stanton opposed Grant’s Reconstruction agenda. Anxious to secure civil liberties, limit federal power and bring sectional hostilities to a close, Stanton supported the Liberal Republican-Democratic candidate Horace Greeley’s run for the While House in 1872. The Democratic support for Greeley signaled to Stanton the end of any attempt to repeal the Civil War amendment and the completion of the campaign for equal rights for African-Americans. How wrong he was!
Stanton slid back into the Democratic Party, supporting Samuel Tilden in his campaign for governor of New York. Two years later he campaigned for Tilden for President in what became the disputed election of 1876. Stanton believed that by a fair count of the votes Tilden had been elected. However, one of Rutherford B. Hayes’s lieutenants reported to Hayes that Stanton, acted covertly in the interests of Hayes during the post-election maneuvers. He assured Hayes that Stanton was keeping an eye on the efforts of leading Democrats to contest the election. “There is no keener and brighter man in our State, and he is perfectly reliable,” A. N. Cole informed Hayes.
Stanton wrote for The Sun for nearly two decades. His knowledge of politics and politicians and his journalistic talents made his productions for The Sun authentic and insightful. On election night of 1886, Stanton stood outside the Fifth Avenue Hotel watching as the returns were posted and caught a cold. Although he seemed to recover, during the week of January 8 he took a chill in The Sun office. He spent a few days at home working on the proofs of the third edition of his reminiscences, Random Recollections. The cold worsened. Early on the morning of January 14, 1887, Henry B. Stanton died. Two of his sons were at his side when he passed away. His famous wife, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was in Europe visiting their daughter. The final page had been turned in the record of Henry Brewster Stanton: abolitionist warrior, patriot, democrat, politician, journalist.
Except for the hiatus when he served as anti-slavery agent, probably his finest days, Stanton’s consuming passion was politics. He liked to believe that political action was the means to achieve lofty ends, but as Theodore Weld once pointed out, Stanton tended to confuse what is true with what he wanted to be true. As a result he was always able to justify his actions, bizarre and self-serving as they sometimes were. Despite his failings and his inconsistencies, there is no doubt that he contributed greatly to the noble objective he sought, the abolition of human slavery.
Henry B. Stanton, Remarks of Henry B. Stanton in the Representatives Hall on the 23d and 24th of February, 1837, Before the Committee of The House of Representatives of Massachusetts, to whom was referred Sundry Memorials on the Subject of Slavery. Boston: Isaac Knapp, 1837.
Henry B. Stanton, Sketches of Reforms and Reformers, of Great Britain and Ireland. New York: John Wiley, 1849.
Henry B. Stanton, Ultraists-Conservatives-Reformers: Mr. Stanton's Address Delivered Before the Adelphic Union Society of Williams College, August 20, 1850. Williamstown, MA: Adelphic Union, 1850.
Henry B. Stanton, Random Recollections. Third ed. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1887. (1885, 1886)