James Doolittle: Washington County Abolitionist


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James_rood_doolittle WIKISlavery nearly destroyed this country. We now mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which many consider to have been a battle over slavery. But in the big picture, the battle over slavery has been ongoing since this nation was formed. In our infancy, it was outlawed in some states but not in others. With great gall and to our utter embarrassment, we called ourselves the Land of the Free. In fact, when Francis Scott Key wrote those words in 1814, about half of the states allowed slavery.

There were still plenty of lynchings 150 years later when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. That time is now 50 years past, yet there’s still plenty of bigotry and racism to go around. Judging by where we stand today, it’s shameful to suggest that we’ve come far. More than two centuries, and this is the best we can do?

But many people have fought hard for equality, and they should be remembered. Among the stalwart anti-slavery activists of the mid-1800s was a North Country native, James Rood Doolittle. He was born on January 3, 1815, in Hampton, New York, on the shores of the Poultney River in the northeast corner of Washington County.

By the time he was five, the family had moved to western New York. James learned to read at a young age, and at 12 years old he was attending a prep school in Wyoming County. In 1934, at the age of 19, he graduated from Geneva College (now Hobart) at the top of his class.

Doolittle became a lawyer after two years of study in Rochester, and then began to dabble in politics. From 1845 to 1849, he served as the district attorney of Wyoming County, and as the government battled over the issue of slavery, James stepped to the forefront.

In the late 1840s, General Lewis Cass sought the Democratic nomination for president, touting the Doctrine of Popular Sovereignty. While it sounded noble, it actually meant he favored allowing individual states the option of choosing slavery.

His efforts split the Democrats, one faction of which became known as the Free Soil Party. Among its leaders, firmly in the path of Cass, was James Doolittle, who crafted a document that came to be known as the Corner Stone Resolution. And there was nothing nebulous about it.

“Resolved: That while the democracy of New York represented in this convention will faithfully adhere to all the compromises of the Constitution and maintain all the reserved rights of the states, they declare, since the crises arrived when that question must be met, their uncompromising hostility to the extension of slavery into territory now free, or which may be hereafter acquired by any action of the government of the United States.”

For years he labored tirelessly against slavery, which had been allowed by the Missouri Compromise back in 1920. As bad as it was in the eyes of many, the Compromise was largely repealed in 1854. Because the Democratic Party had caved to pro-slavery interests, Doolittle left to help form the new Republican Party, based on the “ideas of Jefferson and Madison.” (He would return to Democratic ranks years later when the parties again changed.)

Thirty-four years earlier, when the Missouri Compromise was passed, Thomas Jefferson had written this warning: “I considered it at once as the knell of the nation.” He could not have been more right. In full agreement with those words, Doolittle continued the fight.

After moving to Wisconsin, James became a judge, worked as an attorney, developed further as a noted public speaker, and was elected senator in 1857. He quickly assumed a prominent role on the national stage, authoring the statement nominating Abraham Lincoln for president at the national convention.

Doolittle became a close friend and confidant of the president. During the war and reconstruction years, he was one of the party’s unifying forces in our nation’s darkest period. He was also a spectacular spokesman, known to all for his ability to deliver a moving speech without script or notes.

Standing before Congress in the midst of the war, its outcome still uncertain, he urged them to stand strong for what was best for America: “Slavery is dying, dying all around us. … The sword which it would have driven into the vitals of this Republic, is parried and thrust back into its own, and sir, let it die; let it die. Without any sympathy of mine, slavery with all of its abominations may die and go into everlasting perdition.”

Adherence to his core beliefs, expressed with great passion and eloquence, drew many followers to his side. No matter if it hurt him politically, Doolittle remained true to his principles and provided unwavering support for the president, who shared many of his opinions.

His valuable service is perhaps best described in comments by his contemporaries, both during his career and after his death. Leonard Sweet, one of Lincoln’s closest advisors, wrote: “During the years 1863 and 1864 … often I saw Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Doolittle together, and often heard the president speak of him in his absence. The most cordial and friendly relations existed between them, and the president always spoke of him in terms of warmest friendship and esteem.”

Once, while perusing a list of senators who would hopefully support Lincoln’s re-nomination, Sweet asked the president: “You don’t consider all these your friends?” Replied Lincoln: “No … when you speak of friendship, I sometimes thought Doolittle was the only real friend I had there.” James was frequently invited to breakfast with Lincoln, famously riding his warhorse, Chicamauga, to the White House early in the morning.

Said Secretary of State John Hay: “President Lincoln had a very sincere regard and esteem for Senator Doolittle, and considered him as one of the strongest and ablest supporters of the Union cause in the Senate.”

He unflaggingly supported the war, but when it was won, Doolittle immediately fought for Southern rights in order to restore the nation and make it once again whole. He hated slavery, but he loved his country. As Illinois Governor John Altgeld said: “He had knowledge, he had convictions, and he had the courage to act on them, even though it might cost him high office to do so.”

When Doolittle died in 1897, the Burlington Wisconsin Standard Democrat said: “Judge Doolittle … represents the non-partisan element of the people. … For nearly half a century, he has been a colossal figure in the history not only of this state, but of the country; and his name and fame have become household words.  … During the most trying scenes of the nation’s history, he towered aloft in the councils of the government, and his voice was heard in defense of the constitutional rights he so ably represented.”

An excerpt from his eulogy was equally laudatory: “The generation of today [1897] can little appreciate the terrors and the perils of those days, and the need of a statesmanship quite as broad and commanding in the halls of legislation as on the fields of battle. There were giants in those days, but those days demanded giants. Our friend and brother was a leader among leaders, a giant in a body of giants in that critical period of the Republic’s life.”

The town of Hampton, New York, has a native son of whom they can be truly proud.

One thought on “James Doolittle: Washington County Abolitionist

  1. Addie Harris

    Thank you for the excellent reminder that everything didn’t start (or end) on January 1, 1863.

    Reply

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