1852: Judge Thomas A. Osborne to Judge Robert H. Shankland

This interesting 1852 political letter was written by Judge Thomas A. Osborne of Mayville, New York. It is addressed to Judge Robert H. Shankland of Ellicotville, New York. It concerns the selection of New York delegates to the Democratic National Convention that was to be held in April 1852 in Charleston, South Carolina. That convention would eventually settle on the dark horse, Franklin Pierce, to represent them in the fall election. The New York delegates were split in their support between the radical “barn burners” who favored William L. Marcy and the “hunkers” who favored the more conservative Cass. Martin Van Buren and his son, John Van Buren, threw their support behind Marcy, hoping that John Van Buren would obtain a high-level post within the cabinet of a Marcy administration and thereby influence domestic policy. Many prominent New York democrats are mentioned in this letter.

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[Addressed to Hon. R. H. Shankland, Ellicottville, Catt[araugus] Co., N.Y.]

Mayville [New York]
January 17, 1852

My Dear Friend,

I have just rec’d your two letters by today’s mail. I begin to doubt everybody. Not two days before the meeting of the convention, R. Davis of Panama, at my request had an interview with Glidden, & he obliged himself to go for you. Davis says in his letter to me, “you may rely upon him, he is sure for Shankland.” Sackett, in his letter to me, rejoices over the result in your county & says his own mind had fixed on you or Wheeler, but he would not pledge himself – only for a reliable National Democrat.

I saw Walworth at Fredonia & he engaged to call personally on Eacher & said I might feel safe that he would go for you. So I rested easy until I was surprised & mortified by the report of your defeat. Can Wheeler falter? This trick of pushing [William L.] Marcy is of Free Soil origin. They look, if it succeeds, to have John Van Buren appointed to high stations & control matters in this State. If there is any honor, honesty, or faith in man, Cass should be nominated. His principles have triumphed & why should the man be surrendered? I am not willing to sacrifice a patriot statesman to the revenge of the Van Burens.

As to noticing Sackett, he is beneath it. You hit him about right & now I would let him go. There are some men, you know, that you cannot touch without getting a little soiled.

As to being a State Delegate, should I be chosen, I would attend but I think it cannot be. A majority, I believe, are Marcy men on the start. I am for Cass & no one else so long as a chance exists of his nomination. However, if you choose, you can write to Senator Dickinson & if he thinks there is any prospect, an effort can be made. I am better acquainted with him than any other delegates. I have had introductions to Gen. [Aaron] Ward of Westchester, Moulton of Oneida, & [Benjamin F.] Angel of Livingston, & somewhat better acquainted with [James G. ] Dickie of Erie & [Horace] Gay of Monroe.

I scarcely know how to go, even if elected, but would & be glad of the chance to triumph over my barn burning & semi-barn burning neighbors.

I write just as the mail is expected & can say no more than to thank you for your good wishes & ask you to write as soon as you know how the chances really are.

Most truly yours, &c. – T. A. Osborne

  • Judge Thomas A. Osborne. Died 5/4/1877, age 76/9/0. Born Hoosick Falls, NY 1800. Came to Mayville 1822. Law partner of Jacob Houghton. Later of John Birdsall and George A. Green. 1827-1830 he was Clerk of Board of Supervisors; Member Assemble, 1834; First Judge of the Court of Common Pleas, 1843 – 1844; Deputy Collector of Customs in NY during Pierce Administration; He, with others, established the Mayville Sentinel in 1834….later sold to Beman Brockway. For many years he was Agent for Judge Peacock and his affairs.
  • In 1835, when Robert Shankland was 21 years old, he came to Ellicottville and purchased The Republican, a weekly newspaper for $200. The newspaper, then called the Cattaraugus Republican, was a source of state and national news and given that the area was sparsely settled, and mail poor, it was an important source of news. Robert was active in the democratic party at all levels serving in various capacities including Supervisor of Ellicottville.
  • 1852 DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION:   Benjamin F. Hallett of Massachusetts, the first national chairman, called the Democratic Party to order on June 1 – 5, 1852, again in Baltimore, Maryland. Procedural matters, including the retention of the two-thirds rule, were quickly handled. The balloting for the nomination, however, took two long days and 49 ballots. The major contenders were Lewis Cass of Michigan who had won the 1848 nomination along with James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, William L. Marcy of New York and the much younger Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. Each candidate represented the views of a section of the fractionalized democratic party and traded front-runner status as the balloting continued, none gaining enough votes to meet the two thirds needed to win the nomination. In pre-conference discussions New England Democrats had persuaded dark-horse candidate Franklin Pierce to consider running for the nomination. Pierce, an affable, undistinguished party follower with two terms in the House and one in the Senate, agreed – against his wife’s wishes ­ to run for the nomination if a stalemate occurred. His name was entered on the thirty-fifth ballot as a compromise choice. He gained support in subsequent ballots and won on the forty-ninth vote. Senator William R. King from Alabama was chosen as the vice-presidential nominee.
  • From Wikipedia: The Barnburners were the more radical faction of the New York state Democratic Party in the mid 19th century. The term barnburner was derived from the idea of someone who would burn down his own barn to get rid of a rat infestation, in this case those who would destroy all banks and corporations, to root out their abuses. The Barnburners opposed expanding the public debt, and the power of the large corporations; they also generally came to oppose the extension of slavery. A long-standing faction in the Democratic politics of the state of New York, they were led by party boss (and eventual President) Martin Van Buren. When the Democratic party divided in 1824, most of them followed Van Buren in supporting Jackson. But by the 1848 presidential election they bolted from the party, refusing to support presidential nominee Lewis Cass, and instead joining with other anti-slavery groups, predominantly the Abolitionist Liberty Party and some anti-slavery Whigs in New England and the Midwest, to form the Free Soil Party, which nominated the elderly Van Buren to return to the presidency. Their chief speaker was his eldest son, John Van Buren, and after proposals to have him “stump”, or campaign in, various states, they passed a resolution that John Van Buren be invited to stump the world.”The Modern Gilpins” – rivalry between the Hunkers and anti-slavery democrats

    Their opponents, the conservative Hunkers, favored state banks, internal improvements, and minimizing the slavery issue. The term hunker was derived from someone who “hunkers” (hankers) after a political office. Following the 1848 election, the Hunkers themselves split over the question of reconciliation with the Barnburners, with the Softs, led by William L. Marcy, favoring reconciliation, and the Hards, led by Daniel S. Dickinson, opposing it. This split would be exacerbated following the 1852 presidential election, when disputes over patronage led to an even broader split between Hards and Softs, and helped lead to the defeat of the Soft governor, Horatio Seymour for re-election in 1854.

    While this division occurred within the context of New York politics, it reflected the national divisions in the United States in the years preceding the American Civil War.

    The Hunkers wanted the status quo within the party in terms of the party’s relationship between government and business. They supported the Southern Democrats.

    The Barnburners were the reform faction because they were not in control of the party. They wanted to reform the system of party patronage. They broke with the Hunkers and supported the abolitionists. Eventually they abandoned the party and joined the Conscience Whigs and the Free Soil Party.


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