Wheeler and the 1850 State Assembly Election


by Herbert C. Hallas[1]

            The 31-year-old lawyer and Whig State Assemblyman from Malone, Bill Wheeler, was in the fight of his political life. Seeking a second one-year term in the fall of 1850, Wheeler was running against a very popular, up and coming young Democrat, 33-year-old George S. Adams, clerk of the Franklin County Board of Supervisors. Like Wheeler, Adams was a lawyer and was from Malone.[2]
            Unlike Wheeler, Adams was running on the ticket of a united party. The two previously warring factions of the Democratic party, the Free Soilers and the Hunkers, had declared a truce.[3] In contrast, the Whigs had been at each other’s throats ever since Millard Fillmore had been elected Vice President in 1848. Wheeler’s political allies, U.S. Senator William H. Seward of Auburn and party boss Thurlow Weed of Albany, had been conducting an open, merciless war against Fillmore Whigs. Wheeler’s allies saw Fillmore as Seward’s chief rival for the Presidency and Weed’s chief rival for control of the Whig party in New York.[4]
            Wheeler knew if the Democrats in Franklin County remained united behind Adams, and if the Fillmore Whigs punished Wheeler for supporting Weed and Seward by staying home on election day or voting for Adams, Wheeler could lose the election. He was in deep political trouble and was worried about his future.

Enough To Stir A Fever In The Blood Of Age
            Life had been good to Wheeler since his poverty-stricken childhood. After attending college, he had become a lawyer, town clerk, real estate entrepreneur, and Franklin County District Attorney.[5] Through marriage to Mary King in 1845, Wheeler joined forces with the wealthy and influential King family.[6]
            Life had also been good for business in Malone and Franklin County. The population had been growing by leaps and bounds. The 1850 census showed that the County had grown from 18,692 in 1845 to 25,110.[7] Plans were being laid to build new plank roads.[8] The Northern Railroad was running trains back and forth through Malone from Rouses Point to Ogdensburg and points west.[9] Plans to build a telegraph line connecting Malone to New York and Boston and “every city in the nation” had been announced.[10]
            Wheeler had not been seriously challenged at the polls in his first two runs for office. In 1847, Wheeler had run for District Attorney on the same ticket with Democrat Joseph R. Flanders who was running for County Judge. They ran unopposed on a fusion or union ticket and easily won.[11]
            Two years later, when Wheeler decided to run for the State Assembly, the Democrats were deeply divided over the extension of slavery into land recently acquired from Mexico following the Mexican-American War. A small group of antislavery Congressmen, the Free Soilers, demanded that Congress exclude slavery from the territories. Their demand became known as the Wilmot Proviso.[12]
            The Hunkers vigorously opposed the Free Soilers and their Wilmot Proviso. U. S. Senator Daniel S. Dickinson of Binghamton, one of the leaders of the Hunkers, had introduced legislation calling for the people in the territories to vote on whether or not they desired slavery. This policy became known as popular sovereignty.[13]
            Wheeler’s opponent for the Assembly in 1849 was Democratic Free Soiler William Weed, a two-term Supervisor of Bellmont.[14] In the ensuing campaign, the Wheeler Whigs described Weed and the Democrats as “discordant spirits striving for one common object – public plunder.” They had faces “as animated as slippery cheese,” and could be heard shouting “hurrah for the mongrel, log-rolling, truck-and-dicker, spoils’ ticket.”[15]
            When the votes were counted, the Whig press rejoiced that “Bill” Wheeler had defeated Weed by 198 votes and declared that “Bill” Wheeler’s victory was “enough to stir a fever in the blood of age.”[16]

Here Lies A Lawyer, An Honest Man!
            In January 1850, Wheeler headed to Albany for his maiden one-year term. He was a smash hit. Wheeler quickly garnered statewide notoriety by leading a fight to reform the New York legal system. In a stirring speech that had to have caught the attention of party boss Weed and other statewide Whig leaders, Wheeler said he intended to work for reform of the civil and criminal code, even though he knew most of his fellow lawyers opposed the radical and sweeping changes that had been proposed. Wheeler said that if his opponents outlived him, they should write on his tombstone, “God works wonders, now and then – Here lies a lawyer, an honest man!”[17]
            Wheeler soon fell in league with the Weed-Seward wing of the Whig party and he was being mentioned as a future Speaker of the Assembly.[18]

The Compromise Of 1850
            While Wheeler was making a name for himself as one of the leaders of the Weed-Seward Whigs in Albany, debate in Washington over slavery reached a fever pitch. The Whigs and the Democrats were dividing along North-South lines and the Union was seriously threatened.
            Space does not permit a full discussion of the issues that divided the nation between January and September, 1850. Suffice it to say that President Zachary Taylor and Seward supported antislavery policies regarding the territories; Southerners reacted violently to them and threatened disunion; Taylor suddenly died; Vice President Fillmore became President and worked with slavery and antislavery interests in both parties to avoid disunion and signed legislation that became known as the Compromise of 1850; and Seward strongly opposed parts of the Compromise, particularly the Fugitive Slave Law and the absence of the Wilmot Proviso.[19]

Walkout By The Silver Gray Whigs
            Soon after President Fillmore signed the Compromise bills, Weed and Seward made plans to thwart Fillmore’s next steps. Weed was convinced that Fillmore Whigs planned to gain control of the upcoming New York Whig convention which had been called to open in Syracuse on September 26, 1850, to nominate candidates for governor and other state offices. Once in control, Weed expected that the Fillmore faction would seek vindication of Fillmore’s role in the passage of the Compromise legislation and would also rebuke all Whigs who opposed the Compromise, particularly Weed and Seward. They sent out a call for help to their Whig allies across the state.[20]
            Wheeler answered the call. He got himself elected to be the Franklin County delegate to the Whig state convention. His election was unanimous.[21]
            Weed had done his work well and his men, not Fillmore’s, controlled the convention. When Wheeler arrived in Syracuse, Weed tabbed him to help direct the convention’s work. Silver gray-haired Francis Granger of Canandaigua, a friend of Fillmore’s, was appointed chairman of the convention which went on to nominate Washington Hunt of Lockport, for governor. From the floor of the convention, Wheeler helped direct Weed-Seward delegates to defeat resolutions extolling Fillmore and not mentioning Seward; and passing measures denouncing slavery and eulogizing Seward.   The Fillmore Whigs were furious. Granger abruptly threw down the gavel and walked out of the convention in protest with all the other Fillmore delegates.[22]
            Granger’s long silver gray hair seemed to stand out like a mane as he walked up the aisle and out the door. Weed labeled the group, the “Silver Grays.” They met a month later in Utica and endorsed a platform backing Fillmore and the Compromise of 1850. Some Silver Grays decided to back Democrats in the fall election rather than support Weed-Seward Whigs.[23] This was what Wheeler was worrying about as he prepared to run for a second term in the State Assembly against Democrat George S. Adams.

Flip-Flopping Dickinson Hunker

            Wheeler Whigs kicked off the campaign by touting Wheeler’s “great industry, energy and perseverance,” “unsullied reputation for honesty,” “enviable standing in the legal profession,” and “fine talent and clear head.” The Whig press denied there was a split in the party calling such reports “unfounded rumors and false alarms.” The convention walkout by the Silver Grays was merely “the action of a few disaffected individuals.”[24]
            The heavy guns of Wheeler’s campaign took aim at the twin evils of the Compromise of 1850 – the Fugitive Slave Law and the rejection of the Wilmot Proviso. The Wheeler Whigs also demanded that the legislature replace U. S. Senator Dickinson, one of the architects of the Compromise. His term would expire during the upcoming legislative session.[25]
            The Wheeler Whigs lambasted Dickinson as “a man who has prostrated himself at the feet of Southern slavery.”[26] The Whig press denounced Adams as a “Dickinson Hunker” for pledging himself to vote for Dickinson, favoring the extension of slavery into the territories, and supporting the Fugitive Slave Law.[27]
            The Whig press went on to accuse Adams of flip-flopping on slavery. It revealed that Adams had courted the support of former Free Soil Congressman Sidney Lawrence of Moira and had subsequently campaigned as a Free Soiler in Moira, Bellmont, Franklin, and Bangor. However, when Adams campaigned in Burke, Chateaugay and Fort Covington, he reverted to being an “old Hunker.”[28]

Too Slippery To Be Trusted
            The Democrats struck back with a vengeance. They said the Whig campaign claims were “trash” and warned voters to “look out for Whig lies.” The Adams Democrats said while their party was united, the Franklin County Whigs were “torn apart” about whether to support Seward or Fillmore. The Democrats reminded voters that Whigs in Washington were responsible for the Fugitive Slave Law – after all, Whig Congressmen voted for it and Whig President Fillmore signed it. Calling Wheeler a “hypocrite,” the Democratic press said he was “too slippery to be trusted” because in the past he had “expressed contempt” for the Wilmot Proviso and its supporters. The Adams Democrats recalled that Wheeler once described the Wilmot Proviso as “the ____ humbug.”[29]
            The Democrats continued their attack by stating that Wheeler had no mind of his own, being a mere tool of Whig party boss Weed. They charged Wheeler with instigating a pay raise for himself as the Agent for the St. Regis Indians while he was an Assemblyman. In addition, the Democrats said Wheeler was guilty of practicing cronyism by getting his supporter, Charles Russell of Bombay, appointed to the Raquette River Improvement Authority in St. Lawrence County and arranging for him to be paid a substantial sum for a job for which he was not qualified – Russell was a “mere lumberman” and “knew nothing of engineering.” The Adams Democrats concluded their attack by calling Wheeler a liar. They said he had lied when he denied telling Franklin County Democratic leaders that he would act as a Democrat if he were nominated to run for District Attorney in 1847.[30]

Desperate Diseases Demand Desperate Remedies
            Wheeler had to have been stung to the quick by the ferocity of the Democratic attack and sensed that unless he did something dramatic to answer the charges, he might lose the election. He decided to do something highly unusual for a political candidate in the mid-19th century. Bill Wheeler wrote a meticulous letter to the Whig newspaper, the Frontier Palladium, answering the Democratic charges, one by one. No Whig candidate had ever done such a thing in Franklin County before.
            In his letter, he said he had expected the Democrats to try and humiliate and disgrace him with false and malicious charges because the Democrats were in a desperate situation. Borrowing from Hippocrates, Montaigne, and Shakespeare, Wheeler declared, “Desperate diseases demand desperate remedies.”[31]
            Wheeler stated that the Democrats were “grossly mistaken” about the facts concerning his pay for being Agent of the St. Regis Indians. He had received no more money than he was allowed by law to receive and a Democratic deputy comptroller had audited and allowed the expenses.[32]
            As for the charge of cronyism and the Raquette River Improvement Authority in St. Lawrence County, Wheeler admitted that as a member of the Select Committee that dealt with the measure in the Assembly he had recommended Charles Russell of Bombay to be a Commissioner because he was an “energetic businessman.” The Select Committee members agreed with Wheeler’s recommendation because they felt it was wise to have one of the Commissioners come from an area outside the immediate vicinity of the project.[33]
            Moving on to the charge that he was a liar for denying that he had promised to act as a Democrat if he were nominated to run for District Attorney in 1847, Wheeler reminded readers that he had been nominated to run for District Attorney by a union convention of Whigs and Democrats. Both parties supported the same ticket – the “only ticket” offering judicial candidates in 1847. Wheeler declared that he had always been open to everyone about the fact that he was a Whig, and not a Democrat.[34]
            Lastly, Wheeler addressed slavery and Dickinson. According to Wheeler, the Fugitive Slave Law was “an outrage upon the principles of justice and humanity” and should be repealed or modified. At a minimum, Wheeler argued, fugitive slaves should not be denied the right to a trial by jury. He said, “I would not deny to the black man, where his liberty, his happiness, his all is at stake, that right which our laws accord to the white man, whose only offense is the smallest larceny.” Wheeler also declared that it was the “solemn duty” of Congress to exclude slavery from the territories. Because Dickinson supported passage of the Fugitive Slave Law and opposed exclusion of slavery from the territories, Wheeler said Dickinson should not be reelected to the U. S. Senate.[35]

Weapons Of Their Own Demolition
            On November 5th, the voters went to the polls. After the ballots were tallied, the Whig press crowed, “We have met the enemy and they are ours,” “Old Hunkerism is forever dead in Franklin County.”[36] Wheeler had defeated Adams by 134 votes, winning 1696 to 1562. However, the Democratic state ticket had swept to victory in Franklin County. For governor, the Democrat Seymour carried Franklin County by 111 votes over the Whig Hunt. By defeating Hunt 1711 to 1600, Seymour polled 15 more votes than Wheeler had polled – the election was a great deal closer that the jubilation of the Whig press would allow people to think.[37]
            In what the Whigs described as a “hard fought battle,” Wheeler won a majority of the votes in every town in Franklin County except Burke, Chateaugay, Fort Covington, Moira, and Westville. According to the Palladium, although “many of our Free Soil opponents” voted for Wheeler,[38] Adams lost primarily because he tried to campaign on one side of the street as a Free Soiler, and on the other side of the street as a Hunker. The Democrats “furnished the weapons of their own demolition.” [39]
            The Democrats saw the election differently. They acknowledged that Adams was “severely injured” by a split in Democratic ranks which in some instances took the form of “open opposition” and in others of “secret treachery.” However, the biggest reason Wheeler won was because of the “old game of Whig deception and fraud.” Whigs were charged with printing split tickets “so exactly like the Democratic tickets” no one could tell the difference unless they examined them very closely. As proof of this, the Democrats noted that in Chateaugay, the Democrat Seymour won by 167 votes but Adams only won by 133 votes.[40] Until 1890, each party supplied and distributed its own ballots.[41] The Whig printer admitted printing split tickets using the same ink and paper that the Democratic printer used, by request from Democrats. Furthermore, Wheeler Whigs added, Democrats put the split tickets in the ballot box, Whigs did not.[42]

“Bill” Wheeler No More
            Wheeler’s 1850 run for office was a pivotal election for him and a true test of his political mettle. In this race, he proved to voters and himself, that he had the backbone to absorb whatever negative charges his opponents could throw at him, not lose his head, and continue to mount a courageous, forward-looking campaign.
            He ran at a time in America when racial prejudice ran deep. Racial stereotypes, crude jokes, and insulting images were pervasive throughout the culture. Wheeler’s position in the campaign that fugitive blacks should be entitled to the right to a trial by jury and that slavery should be restricted, was a distinct minority view. It ran up against an intense northern prejudice against blacks which Democrats constantly exploited. [43]
            By winning, Wheeler consolidated his influence with the state Whig leaders. His victory in Franklin County at the same time the Democratic state ticket was sweeping the field there, proved that Wheeler was not a flash in the pan. When Wheeler returned to the Assembly in Albany in January, 1851, he was recognized by Whig party boss, Thurlow Weed, as “the Whig leader of the Assembly” and made chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.[44] From this position, and with Weed’s support, Wheeler was able to ram through the Assembly a bill authorizing the construction of a “floating railroad bridge” across Lake Champlain which enabled the Northern Railroad to gain easier access to Boston and other major commercial centers on the east coast.[45]
            Wheeler’s political success in Albany translated into financial success for him in Malone. Doors opened to him in the worlds of law, banking, real estate, and railroad management. He became a wealthier man.
            Wheeler’s decision to break with tradition and write a signed letter to the newspapers answering the devastating barrage of Democratic charges was critical to his 1850 election victory. He signed the letter, “William A. Wheeler.” From that moment on, he would never be “Bill” Wheeler in public again – he would be “W.A. Wheeler” or “William A. Wheeler.” The change in name symbolized the maturing effect the campaign had on this rising political star of the North Country – a man destined to play major roles on state and national political stages over the next 35 years.

Works Cited

Alexander, DeAlva Stanwood. A Political History of the State of New York. 3 vols. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1906, 1923.

Barnes, Thurlow Weed. Memoir of Thurlow Weed. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1884.

Malone (NY) Franklin Gazette, 31 October; 21 November 1850.

Malone (NY) Frontier Palladium, 25 October; 5 November 1849; 17, 31 January; 19, 26   September; 10, 24, 31 October; 7, 14, 21, 28 November; 19 December 1850; 5 June; 3, 10 July 1851.

Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1976.

Rayback, Robert J. Millard Fillmore. Newtown, CT: American Political Biography Press, 1959.

Scarry, Robert J. Millard Fillmore. Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2001.

Seaver, Frederick J. Historical Sketches of Franklin County. Albany: J.B. Lyon Company, 1918.

[1] Copyright © 2007 Herbert C. Hallas. The author lives on Long Island, NY and may be contacted at herberthallas@gmail.com. He is preparing a biography of William Almon Wheeler and would like to hear from anyone who possesses any letters to or from Wheeler or any of his personal papers.
[2] Frederick J. Seaver, Historical Sketches of Franklin County, p. 717.
[3] DeAlva Stanwood Alexander, A Political History of the State of New York, pp. 155-156.
[4] Robert J. Rayback, Millard Fillmore,  p. 255.
[5] Seaver, p. 185 and pp. 705-706.
[6] Ibid. p. 711 and pp. 745-748.
[7] Frontier Palladium, 11/21/1850.
[8] Palladium, 1/31/1850 and 10/25/1849.
[9] Palladium, 9/26/1850.
[10]Palladium, 10/10/1850.
[11] Seaver, p. 102.
[12] David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, pp. 64-66.
[13] Ibid., p. 71.
[14] Seaver, p.794 and Palladium, 10/31/1850.
[15] Palladium, 10/25/1849.
[16] Palladium, 11/5/1849.
[17] Palladium, 1/17/1850.
[18] Palladium, 11/28/1850.
[19] See Potter, pp. 90-120 for a full discussion.
[20] Thurlow Weed Barnes, Memoir of Thurlow Weed, pp. 186-187.
[21] Palladium, 9/19/1850.
[22] Barnes, pp. 186-187.
[23] Robert J. Scarry, Millard Fillmore, p. 178.
[24] Palladium, 10/24/1850.
[25] State legislatures elected U. S. Senators until 1913 when the 17th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution was ratified providing for direct election by the voters.
[26] Palladium, 10/24/1850.
[27] Palladium, 10/31/1850.
[28] Palladium, 10/31/1850 and 11/21/1850.
[29] Franklin Gazette, 10/31/1850.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Palladium, 10/31/1850.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid.
[34] Ibid.
[35] Ibid.
[36] Palladium, 11/7/1850.
[37] Palladium, 12/19/1850. According to statewide results printed in the 1/2/1850 Palladium, Hunt was narrowly elected governor by 262 votes.
[38] Palladium, 11/14/1850.
[39] Palladium, 11/21/1850.
[40] Gazette, 11/21/1850.
[41] Seaver, p. 118.
[42] Palladium, 11/28/1850.
[43] Lewis L. Gould, Grand Old Party, pp. 20-22.
[44] Palladium, 6/5/1851.
[45] Palladium, 7/3/1851 and 7/10/1851.

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