Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Birth of the Silver Greys

I've referred in several recent posts to the faction of New York Whigs known as the "Silver Greys." I thought I'd take a brief post to tell you where the name came from.

The Silver Greys were born at a New York Whig nominating convention that opened on September 26, 1850, shortly after Millard Fillmore, who was then president, had signed the bills known collectively as the Compromise of 1850.

William Seward and his mentor, Thurlow Weed, had been enemies of Fillmore for years. When Zachary Taylor had become president in 1849, Seward obtained Taylor's confidence and saw to it that Fillmore was deprived of patronage in New York, even though Fillmore was then vice president. Their rivalry also manifested itself in policy disagreements. Seward opposed and denounced the Compromise; Fillmore helped engineer it and insisted, after its passage, that it should be regarded as the "final settlement" of the slavery issue.

In this heated atmosphere, the Whigs met in September 1850 in New York to select nominees for state elections and congressional races. Weed and Seward had full control of the convention. They acquiesced in the selection of Francis Granger, a Fillmore man, as chairman. However, when nominations for office were made, the Fillmore partisans were largely snubbed.

The convention then turned to the party platform. William Duer, a Fillmore supporter, proposed a platform that included planks that were pro-Fillmore and pro-Compromise. They
praised Fillmore's virtues and declared that New York's Whigs had "the utmost confidence in his administration of the government and his maintenance of the well-know principles of the Whig party." They iterated New York Whigs' adamant opposition to slavery extension and their belief that Congress had a right to prohibit it. Nonetheless, they "acquiesce[d]" in the Texas-New Mexico boundary bill and the creation of territorial governments for New Mexico and Utah "in the confident belief that those acts of conciliation will result in the exclusion of slavery" and "restore cordial sentiments and fraternal ties" between the sections.

William Cornwell, "a Sewardite from Cayuga County," proposed amendments that contained substantive differences, but which also seemed designed to insult Fillmore and provoke a fight. Substantively, Cornwell "intransigently rejected acquiescence in the territorial bills" without the Wilmot Proviso, and maintained that it would be "'the solemn duty of Congress' to impose the Proviso on those territories at 'the first indication' that slavery would introduced into them."

Cornwell's modifications also pointedly omitted all reference to Fillmore's "maintenance of the . . . principles of the Whig party," followed by a new plank that clearly contrasted Seward's fidelity to those principles:
Our thanks are especially due to the Hon. William H. Seward for the signal ability with which he has sustained in the United States Senate, those beloved principles of public policy so long cherished by the Whigs of the Empire State, expressed in State and County conventions, as well as on the votes and instructions in our State Legislature.

"Pandemonium erupted." After the platform committee deadlocked, the dispute returned to the floor of the convention. Weed's forces, in control, passed Cornwell's substitute handily, the opposition walked out, and the Silver Greys were born:
When the resolution praising Seward passed passed 76-40, Duer and his thirty-nine supporters began to march ostentatiously out of the hall. Granger, who remained in the chair and who had presided with scrupulous fairness, then gave a short speech calling this the saddest day of his political career, relinquished his gavel, and followed Duer and his colleagues out the door. Granger, in short, did not lead the exodus, but forever afterward the bolters and other Fillmore men would be called Silver Grays in reference to Granger's hair.

All quotes are from Michael F. Holt's encyclopedic The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War, at 587-88.

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