Silas Wright turned down more major offices than most politicians win in a lifetime of election campaigns. Before his career ended with his premature death, he had turned down at least one cabinet post, a seat in the U.S. Senate, the governorship of New York, the Vice Presidency, and the Presidency itself.
Silas Wright was born on May 24, 1795 in Amherst, Massachusetts. When he was just a year old, his family moved to Vermont. Wright got his political grounding in Vermont where his father was a member of the state legislature. Silas Wright was educated at the Addison County Grammar School and then the Middlebury Academy in Middlebury, Vermont. To support himself while at Middlebury Academy, Silas taught school between his own classes. After graduating from Middlebury Academy, Silas read for the law and moved to New York to practice law. In January 1819, Wright was admitted to the New York bar and established his practice in Canton, New York.
One of the attractions of Canton was the home of an old family friend, Medad Moody. Moody offered to build Wright a home as an enticement to settle there. Also, Moody also had an attractive daughter. Wright married that attractive daughter fourteen years earlier.
It was about this time that Wright met and made friends with his political mentor and ally, Martin Van Buren. Wright and Van Buren, strangers to each other, got into a friendly scuffle on a steamboat. Wright either pushed Van Buren, or Van Buren fell overboard. Either way, Van Buren took it all with good humor, and the two men became friends and staunch political allies.
Wright’s political start came very quickly. Wright’s legal tutor was a leader in state politics. Wright’s friend, Van Buren, was rising quickly in national politics. These men, and a few others, formed the Albany Regency, a political organization that controlled New York politics for several decades. Wright served in minor positions before being elected to the New York Senate in 1823.
Wright had few strong positions on the issues of the day and followed the leadership of the Albany Regency. His first task was to help William Crawford, the presidential candidate favored by the Albany Regency, win New York in 1824. The electoral votes of New York had always been determined by the state legislature rather than by popular vote of the people. The Albany Regency wanted to continue this practice. Crawford was not popular with the people of New York, and had little chance to win a direct election. Wright joined the other members of the Albany Regency in postponing any consideration of changing the method of choosing presidential electors until after the November election. Wright also voted with the Regency to remove former Governor De Witt Clinton from his position as canal commissioner. This was a blatantly partisan move and it backfired. Clinton was removed, but then ran for governor of New York and won the election.
The result of this maneuvering was that the Regency lost its control of the legislature. This was unfortunate for them, as the legislature was about to choose a successor to Senator Rufus King. It looked as though the opposition would select the next Senator, but Wright and the other members of the Regency managed to deadlock the voting so that no candidate was selected. A year later, after another election had returned the Regency to power, they were able to select their own candidate for the seat.
Wright was elected to a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served from 1827-1829. The main issue at the time was the tariff. Wright believed that tariffs should be for the purpose of raising revenue only, and not protect industry. For this reason, he supported Andrew Jackson for President in 1828. His friend and ally, Van Buren, was also a Jackson supporter. Wright’s re-election to the House of Representatives in 1828 was by a margin of only forty-five votes because Jackson was not popular in his district.
The election of 1828 also saw Martin Van Buren win the governorship of New York. Van Buren looked to Wright to fill one of two vacancies. One of New York’s seats in the U.S. Senate was vacant, as was the post of State Comptroller. Wright was offered the Senate seat, but declined it. He said that the Senate was for wealthier men and that he could not properly fill the position. Instead, he took the more lucrative position of State Comptroller.
Wright’s new position was complicated and difficult. As the chief financial officer for the state, he was required to sit on many boards and commissions. Wright tried to fight the corruption that was rampant in the state. In a number of cases, Wright conducted investigations and published the results. Because of his anti-corruption efforts, he was constantly mentioned for higher offices. In 1832, he was asked to run for governor of New York, but declined. Instead, he put his efforts that year into Van Buren’s campaign for Vice President. After Van Buren became Vice President, Wright was again asked to stand for the U.S. Senate. He agreed, but only reluctantly, as he did not want to leave Albany and was not sure of his ability to serve in the Senate.
As Wright took his seat in the Senate, the burning issue of the day was the Nullification Crisis. South Carolina had nullified the recent tariff law, refusing to allow it to be enforced in South Carolina. President Jackson was ready to use force to enforce the law. Wright was unsure of what stand to take, and could not get solid advice and was confused about what to do. He visited President Jackson to get advice, but was still undecided about the right course of action. Eventually, he voted for the compromise tariff that reduced the tariff rates, and the crisis passed.
After the Nullification Crisis was resolved, Wright returned to Canton, New York to marry Clarissa Moody. The marriage was a strong one, in spite of political differences between Wright and his new wife. His wife was incredibly shy, and was not up to the social requirements of being a politician’s wife. There were many stories of her problems and missteps at political-social gatherings. Wright was aware of her social shortcomings, but did not seem to care about them. The only possible problem in the marriage was Wright’s heavy drinking. Wright was a comparatively heavy drinker in an age of heavy drinkers. His complexion was “frequently florid” even though his mental and physical abilities were never noticeably affected by his drinking.
In the next article, we will follow Wright’s Senate career, and his many refusals to accept higher offices. The only exception is his one agreement to run for governor of New York and his one term in that office.
Wright soon faced his next crisis. He had to make a decision on the national bank issue. Wright had always been opposed to the Bank of the United States, and banking interests in general. He supported Jackson’s plans to remove all federal funds from the Bank of the United States, but disagreed with Jackson’s methods. He wanted President Jackson to wait until Congress came back in session, but Jackson chose to do it immediately while Congress was out of session.
When Congress again convened, the attacks on President Jackson for removing the federal funds from the B.U.S. were angry and vicious. Democrats supporting Jackson rose to his defense but Wright, a strong supporter of Jackson, remained silent. Vice President Van Buren, Wright’s close friend and political mentor, questioned his silence on this crucial issue. Wright, showing his strong feelings of inadequacy, told Van Buren that there were many men much better able to defend the President.
Van Buren reminded Wright of his duty, and Wright joined the debate in support of the President. Wright’s participation on Jackson’s behalf offered little benefit to the President because Wright was not a very effective speaker, which is why Wright had initially left Jackson’s defense to other senators who were better orators. As a speaker, Wright was unemotional and unpersuasive. Daniel Webster, considered one of the greatest orators ever to sit in the Senate, called Silas Wright “the most inferior man in debate that sat in the Senate.” While that evaluation may be overly harsh, he certainly had it right when he placed Wright among the worst speakers in Congress.
In 1836, President Jackson issued the Specie Circular. This was an order that government lands could be purchased only with specie, (hard currency such as gold or silver coins). Jackson published this order to end the land speculation in the west that had been fueled by the easy money provided by state banks fattened with federal funds pulled out of the Bank of the United States and placed in “pet” state banks owned by supporters of Andrew Jackson.
Wright had long opposed banking interests, especially the Bank of the United States. He was also highly partisan in his support of Andrew Jackson. Calling land speculation “public gambling,” he wholeheartedly supported President Jackson on the inflammatory issue. Later the same year, he supported Vice President Van Buren in his race for the Presidency. Van Buren was already President when the Specie Circular, along with a world-wide depression, and some probable attempts by the leaders of the Bank of the United States to promote a recession and discredit Jackson, caused the first major economic depression in our history.
The economic problems caused by the Panic of 1837 put the Democrats on the defensive. They desperately tried to explain their economic policies, and Van Buren’s solution, which was to create an Independent Treasury System to keep and control federal funds, thereby taking them out of banks altogether. To this end, Wright wrote and published letters supporting Van Buren’s policies, but they accomplished little. Wright introduced the Independent Treasury Bill in the Senate, and spent several sessions of Congress guiding it through to passage in 1840.
Immersed in these controversies, Wright became depressed. He did not enjoy the controversy and acrimony. “Pessimistic, timid, low on self-esteem” Wright had what he called “an unusual visitation of hypocondria.” As things got worse, the administration forces suffered numerous defeats in Congress on their proposed bills. As well as being a very close friend of President Van Buren, Wright was probably his closest advisor. He sympathized with the President, but was not able to help him in any practical way.
Slavery was also becoming a controversial issue, and the agitation did little to help Wright’s declining morale. He felt that slavery was a great moral wrong and its extension should be prevented, but he also felt that Congress should not get involved in the emotionally charged issue. At the same time, President Van Buren, Wright’s political mentor, lost his bid for re-election to the White House in the 1840 “log cabin and hard cider” Whig campaign. His party also lost control of Congress to the Whigs.
During the Democrats’ time in control of the White House and Congress, Wright had been chairman of the powerful Finance Committee. With the Whigs’ winning control, Wright lost his chairmanship and most of his political influence. The only change he did not seem to mind was the defeat of Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson. Wright found Vice President Johnson to be completely unacceptable and an embarrassment to the Democratic Party.
1840 was not a great year for Wright politically. He once again refused to run for office, this time for the governorship of New York. Wright was afraid that he would win, and the Whig majority in the legislature would select an unsatisfactory (that is to say Whig) replacement for him in the U.S. Senate.
In 1840, the Whigs won control of the White House and both houses of Congress. The new Whig majority in Congress quickly repealed the Independent Treasury Bill that Wright spent three years guiding through Congress. But Wright found the new President, John Tyler, a useful ally in the fight against the creation of a new Bank of the United States. The Whigs managed to get a new Bank Bill through Congress despite the efforts of Wright and others, but Tyler twice vetoed the bills, ending the Bank of the United States once and for all. Still, all this controversy was more than Wright could, or wanted, to handle, and he again began thinking of retirement.
Wright had easily won re-election to his Senate seat in 1837, and was up for re-election in 1843. He only agreed to stand for re-election when he was convinced the vacuum caused by his refusal might split the party and allow a Whig to win the seat. He reluctantly agreed to run, and won another term. As the political battles between Tyler and the Whigs became more acrimonious, Tyler tried to mend fences with the Democrats to gain their support. One such effort was the offer of a seat on the Supreme Court to Senator Wright. The play for favor with the Democrats was painfully obvious, and even though Wright was tempted to accept, he again declined to accept a major office.
Wright opposed the annexation of Texas, because he did not want to see any more slave states enter the Union. Even though it might jeopardize Van Buren’s chances for the Democratic presidential nomination, Wright counseled him to stand firmly against the annexation of Texas, the primary issue in 1844. Van Buren started the convention with a majority of delegate votes, but a two-thirds majority was required to secure the nomination. It became clear after a number of ballots that Van Buren would not achieve a two-thirds majority.
Van Buren had given a friend who was a delegate to the convention a letter to be used in the event of a deadlock. The letter contained Van Buren’s withdrawal from the race, and his request that his supporters vote for Silas Wright for president. Wright stubbornly refused to accept any such plan. He did not want the presidency, nor did Wright want to risk any appearance of being involved in a conspiracy to defeat Van Buren so he could gain the nomination.
James K. Polk, a former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and governor of Tennessee, finally won the democratic presidential nomination. Silas Wright easily won the vice presidential nomination. Wright learned of his victory by a new invention, the telegraph. He immediately wired back his refusal of the nomination. A series of telegraphs were exchanged, but Wright maintained his refusal to accept, and the nomination was given to George Dallas of Pennsylvania.
Being perceived as turning down both the presidential nomination and the vice presidential nomination out of a matter of integrity and loyalty to his personal and political friend Van Buren only made Wright more popular than ever. This brought incredible pressure on Wright to run for governor of New York, a position he had previously declined. Even his close friend Van Buren argued that Wright should run. Van Buren pointed out that Wright’s refusal to run might reflect poorly on Polk. Wright’s presence on the ticket would help Polk carry New York. Wright still asked his supporters not to nominate him, but he won the nomination anyway. Wright was not exactly happy about winning the nomination, and secretly hoped that he would lose the general election to the Whig candidate, Millar Fillmore. On winning this nomination, Wright said “never has any incident in my public life been so much against my feelings and judgment.” To his great surprise and disappointment, Wright defeated Fillmore and became governor of New York. He won with just 50.5% of the vote.
Wright had a number of serious problems to face as governor. The biggest was probably the anti-rent violence. Large, almost feudal landlords owning huge tracts of land brought about strikes and violence on the part of tenants tired of the abusive power of the landlords. Wright took strong actions against the violence, which made him unpopular among the tenants.
Another problems centered around the intra-party conflicts. As the leader of the New York Democratic Party, Wright was expected to solve these factional problems and lead the party, but he tried to remain above the petty politics. The result was that his party was seriously split when he ran for re-election in 1846. Between the split in the party and his unpopularity over the anti-rent violence and some other stands he had taken, he lost his bid for re-election by a landslide.
In actuality, Wright’s administration had made some progress in passing some reforms in the anti-rent problems. Landlords could no longer seize a tenants property to satisfy back rent obligations, and a tax was instituted on income from rental property.
Wright could finally retire from politics, even if it was not voluntarily. He retired to his farm which he enjoyed running. He gave up drinking entirely after a lifetime of extremely heavy drinking and engaged in strenuous exercise working on his farm. The heavy exercise, the summer heat, and maybe even his sudden abstinence proved to be too much for Wright. He left the governorship in January 1847. That summer he suffered two mild heart attacks, and on August 27, 1847, suffered a third and fatal heart attack.
Silas Wright was an intelligent, capable politician. The farther he rose in politics, however, the more timid and unsure he became. Not having had a strong formal education, he felt unequal to the men around him. Not feeling anywhere near equal to speakers like Webster and Clay, he seldom spoke in the Senate. It was this feeling of inadequacy that led him to turn down numerous job offers, including a seat in the U.S. Senate, the governorship of New York (both of which he later accepted), a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, the presidency in 1844, and the vice presidency in 1844. The fact that all the men he knew seemed to think him extremely capable did nothing to allay his feelings of inadequacy. Van Buren himself named Wright as the man who should be the next president if he (Van Buren) did not get the nomination. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy that the higher he rose, the more timid he became because he felt unequal to the others around him. His feelings of inadequacy only increased, which made him feel more timid and inadequate. A politician who does not want higher office is rare, and Silas Wright was such a politician.