James Sullivan, son of old Berwick, by Daniel Breen

Son of Old Berwick

"James Sullivan, The Forgotten Founder"

by Daniel Breen, Lecturer of Legal Studies at Brandeis University and Professor of History at Newbury College, Boston, Massachusetts

November 20, 2014 Lecture of the Old Berwick Historical Society's Speaker Series

James Sullivan
James Sullivan (1744-1808)

The story of how James Sullivan came into the world is almost as interesting as his eventful career.  The story goes that his father, John Sullivan, a member of one of the leading families of Munster, decided at the age of 31 to leave Ireland when his family firmly opposed his plans to marry a certain girl that he wanted to marry, leading him to decide that if he could not have his way with the blessings of his family he would simply leave and go to America.  On the way he happened to meet a 9 year old girl named Margery Brown, who seemed lively and personable enough to lead John to take her on as a ward when his ship happened to land in York in the year 1723.  

He was not particularly planning to live in the District of Maine, but since York was where the ship put in, John got off and made his way to Berwick, where his knowledge of Latin allowed himself to set up as a schoolmaster.  He married Margery, a woman known to have a scathing tongue, when she came of age and began attracting others suitors.  They proceeded to have six children, of whom James was the fourth son.  Just before James was born his father apparently left home for Boston, tired of his wife’s bad temper, but came back after a public apology from Margery printed in the Boston Evening Post, an apology that may or may not have been sincere.  John did come back and the two of them continued to live long lives together, Margery dying at the age of 87, and John living to 104 or 105, depending on what date we accept as his actual birthday.

Much of what we know about James Sullivan comes from an extravagantly hagiographic biography published just before the civil war by one of his grandsons, and for good reason covering two full volumes, for Sullivan led an unusually full and active public life—he would be a busy lawyer, periodic member of the legislature, judge of the Supreme Judicial Court, attorney general of Massachusetts for an all-time record 17 years, owner of a fine Bulfinch-designed mansion in what is now Downtown Crossing, and finally the first Jeffersonian governor of Massachusetts, in which capacity he died at the age of 64.  One of the most impressive things about him was that he managed to fulfill all of these duties despite more obstacles than the anyone should have to face.  But before we get to the obstacles, what were the assets that allowed him to be a force in Massachusetts political life for so long, and ultimately to become governor?   He had three things going for him:

First, he had unquestioned revolutionary credentials, at a time when you were unlikely to get anywhere in Massachusetts politics if you had had Tory sympathies.  His brother John was one of Washington’s most important generals, and when the army was gathering around Boston after Lexington and Concord, James had worked hard to get supplies down to Cambridge from the coast of Maine.  Moreover, he had served in the revolutionary provincial congress meeting illegally in Watertown; organized the defenses of Biddeford and what was then Falmouth after the British burned it; helped prosecute the infamous spy Benjamin Church; and led a commission to inspect Massachusetts troops at Fort Ticonderoga, during which trip he had the distinction of being briefly imprisoned by Benedict Arnold.  He spent much of the war on the Supreme Judicial Court, worrying endlessly about the money he was losing in depreciated state currency.  Second, he had genuine political gifts—he was never very far from whatever the moderate middle was in Massachusetts political life—always a Republican but never a radical one, like the leaders of the Boston crowds, always excoriated by leading Federalists, yet able when he had to to do business with them and compromise with them.  Third, and most important, he was from Maine, at a time when that was the fastest growing region of the state.  New residents attracted by the lands of Maine tended to be Republican in sympathies, and Sullivan was a natural candidate for them to support.  Federalists lambasted them as “squatters” and asked whether the state would be permitted to be ruled by “the squatters of Maine.”  Republicans turned that into a badge of pride.  The more Maine grew, the more Sullivan’s vote totals grew when he ran year after  year for Governor, until he finally won in 1807.  


First was the matter of his physical troubles.  For one thing he was an epileptic, a condition he always blamed on a terrible fright occasioned by the sight of a snake when he was very young.  Sometimes he would suffer fits in court, and during the 1806 campaign for governor his enemies even began to spread a rumor that he was dead.  But more serious was his lameness.  Sullivan’s father did not do a whole lot of work on the farm, but his sons did, and although I don’t think we really know exactly what happened, but according to one of his sons his left knee joint was destroyed when he was 10 by a badly treated fever sore, leaving that leg shortened by two inches, and what was worse, his right leg was seriously hurt when he was cutting down a tree and somehow slipped as the tree was coming down, so that the leg was caught between the tree and a nearby stump.  They wanted to cut the thing off but young Sullivan asked to take his chances, and was able to recover with no infection setting in, but he ended up having to walk for the rest of his life with a difficult, awkward shuffling gait, made a little more tolerable by a special high-heeled show that he would wear on one of them.  According to his son he should have been six feet tall but only looked 5’7”.  What we know for sure is that his political enemies always made fun of this disability, calling him “crooked shanks,” and sometimes signing their letters “Judge Sullivan’s Leg.”  One Federalist sniffed that Sullivan’s chief claim of office was that his leg happened to be mangled north of the Piscataqua.  But what his enemies saw as a figure of fun was actually a source of strength.  Sullivan developed a supreme sense of determination to succeed, no matter what, and also I think the same quality that Franklin Roosevelt had, a unique sensitivity to what other people were thinking and a quality of showmanship that distracted them from his physical handicaps.  And he was a very determined character; he would have had to be to travel throughout Massachusetts not only as a lawyer, but later as a judge on circuit, and not only that, to venture to Ticonderoga in 1775 and then in 1798 into the very wilds of northern Maine to help settle the boundary with British Canada during the Adams administration.  When he was governor in 1807 he had to go to Cambridge to participate in a ceremony at the chapel.  He had to go on to a temporary stage but two people were talking, not noticing him, so he tried to make his way up the steps by hoisting himself up by the railing in a very narrow space—it was not enough, one of his legs still could not support the weight, he twisted around to use the other one and fell flat on his back right at the edge of the stage in front of everyone.  Some people rushed up to help him get up but he refused their help and got up on his own, bowing to the crowd as he proceeded to his seat.  

Consider that story for a second.  A young Federalist at Harvard left us that account, and to him it made Sullivan seem ridiculous.  How could the dignity of the governor’s office be compromised by someone with this kind of physical problem.  But to Sullivan’s followers, and to us, his insistence on pulling himself up from the stage in front of everyone, and then bowing as if nothing had happened, is a sign of supreme moral strength, evidence of the dignity of the individual—the strength of a proud character.  What matters is the man, not the position.  Here is the ethos of Jeffersonian Republicanism—something our young wiseguy could not see, but which we recognize quite easily.

Sulllivan’s other set of obstacles had to do with his personal life.  He made a good marriage while starting out as a lawyer, to HettyOdiorne, a daughter of one of the first families of New Hampshire, but in 1786, after bearing seven children, she died of a sudden illness at the family’s home in Boston’s Bowdoin Square.  Sullivan tells us that she served the family breakfast, seemed hale and hearty, and then fell ill and was dead after nine hours.  He told his friend Rufus King that if he did not have to care for the younger children his most earnest wish would be to join her in the grave, and feared that there would be no more happiness for him in this life.  As if that were not bad enough, only a few months later, during Shays Rebellion, his oldest son, James Jr.,  died of an illness contracted while he was helping to restore order with the militia in dreadfully cold conditions in northern Middlesex County—after his 15 year old sister Hetty had spent an afternoon making cartridges for him---all this after one brother was presumably lost at sea, and another brother, Daniel Sullivan, after whom Sullivan Maine was named, in active service against the British along the Maine coast, was captured in Hancock County, taken to Castine, sent to a hellish British prison hulk in New York Harbor, the infamous Jersey, where he sickened and died.  Another son, Bant Sullivan, would come home one day in 1806, walk upstairs and kill himself, apparently over a disappointed love affair.  Through it all he persevered, perhaps because something about his physical determination translated into a certain emotional strength as well.

One story unites these two sets of obstacles.  Sullivan’s oldest son was the brilliant William Sullivan, who for many years presided over one of Boston’s most prestigious addresses on Chestnut Street on Beacon Hill.  Sullivan was an ardent Federalist, so ardent that he and his father were periodically estranged.  Everyone of course knew this.  In 1803 William Sullivan gave the annual Fourth of July oration to the assembled residents of the town.  It was full of vicious attacks on the Republican Party.  At the end of it, it was time for the toasts.  Dr. Charles Jarvis, a radical Republican whose politics were to the left of Sullivan’s, raised his glass to “the speaker of the day—a degenerate plant of a strange vine.”  To many the phrase “strange vine” could only mean Sullivan, with his physical lameness—and for the rest of this life, Sullivan was often referred to in the Federalist press as “the strange vine.”

There was in other words much to admire about Sullivan, and when you look at Gilbert Stuart’s portrait you can make out something of the personality that helped him endure all this, the hint of a smile, some hidden merriment, maybe a little spark of Ireland in the last year of his life.  But now it is time to turn to his ideas, which to me make up a coherent and liberal body of thought that to me make Sullivan quite a modern figure.  This did not mean he was not an artful politician.  He was, to the frustration of his Federalist foes.  He very early on attached himself to the Hancock faction in Massachusetts politics and served as what we might call his hatchet man, going after Hancock’s foes in the Bowdoin faction with a freedom that Hancock himself could not use.  He rose in political life in part as a result of the friends he made, and he had a very modern ability to situate himself pretty close at all times to the political center in Massachusetts—when he was governor, in fact, charged with the unpleasant task of enforcing Jefferson’s embargo, he infuriated the president by freely handing out trading licenses so that Boston would not be hurt any more than it needed to be.  But that did not mean he lacked principles.  In fact, at a time when men like John Adams, who heartily disliked Sullivan, continued to insist that society would always  be divided into social hierarchies, Sullivan pressed for policies that would free up the latent energies of every person, and this was the one common denominator in all of his major ideas and projects.

For example, he supported the French Revolution and continued to do so even after the Terror had turned many Americans against it, especially the faction just beginning to be called Federalists.  When the arch Conservative David Osgood, minister of the Congregational church at Medford, launched a biting harangue against the Revolution, Sullivan responded with a lengthy pamphlet insisting that “the arts are protected and encouraged in France—that the sciences are extending—that agriculture is at a higher pitch than ever—that private property is secure and the people more happy there now than they ever were before”---the people as a whole, of course, not the nobility.Moreover, he took to the Independent Chronicle to support the cause of Irish liberty against the English.  Listen to what he says in response to an editor in Philadelphia, who insisted that the poor in America were worse off than the poor in Ireland:

That did not mean he had any sympathy for mob violence—one thing that separated him from the more radical members of Jefferson’s party was that Sullivan thought that once you had permanent representative institutions, there was no longer any point to direct crowd action.  During the agitation against Jay’s Treaty, Sullivan had voted to condemn the treaty along with most Republicans in the town, but in September of 1795, when men like Jarvis encouraged the young men of the town to break windows and threaten merchants, generally terrorizing people by bearing poles topped with watermelons, lit up like jack-o-lanterns, hideously carved with the likeness of John Jay, when much of Boston seemed to be in the hands of the mob, Sullivan bravely made his way to Liberty Square, a block south of State Street, where a great bonfire was building, and as attorney general read the riot act and demanded that everyone go home.  There was no police force then—it was just Sullivan and the sheriff.  Sullivan had done his best to establish a modern town government for Boston, with a mayor and a permanent constabulary, but he was always voted down (Boston would not have this until 1822).So he was almost all alone.  Much of the crowd did disperse, but some of them angrily attacked Sullivan and literally knocked him down.  Public revulsion over what had happened to him was one of the reasons the riots stopped—Governor Adams did not lift a finger to help, terming the events a mere “watermelon frolic,” which is how it has come down to history.

But more important than this, in 1793 Sullivan used his influence with Hancock to get a state charter for the Middlesex Canal Company, with himself as first president and driving force.  That charter allowed the company to acquire land through eminent domain—the first major example in America of eminent domain being used for a general economic development project.  A canal running 27 miles from the Merrimack River to Boston—emptying into the Charles near what is now Sullivan Square—dropping about 100 feet from north to south--would lead to the kind of economic development that would benefit everyone—as long as you did not live in Newburyport, at the mouth of the Merrimack.  Sullivan and his fellow stockholders would spend half a million dollars building the canal, and they never made any profit on it—but almost everyone else did well.  With the canal, tanners and Woburn could get cheaper timber for tanning leather.  With the canal, farmers in Billerica could cheaply sell their hay in Boston, in Haymarket Square, where hundreds of cart horses went to feed.  With the canal, there was a good reason to build mills in Lowell, for access to Boston markets was quick and cheap, and Boston merchants could buy items abroad knowing that it would be cheap and quick to get them into inland markets in New Hampshire.  The mills of Lowell would be built from Medford and Somerville going north, and Quincy Market and the new state hospital would be built with Chelmsford Granite going south, even as the technology of canal building pioneered by engineers like Sullivan’s friend Loammi Baldwin would be put to use later in the Erie Canal and in the construction of the railroads—including the Boston and Lowell RR, which would put the Middlesex Canal out of business by the early 1850s.  All boats were lifted by the Middlesex Canal—brickmakers, farmers, tanners, merchants, those in the construction trade, down to the kids who would get paid a few pennies a piece for every muskrat they killed in the canal---and more than this, the average person now had a cheap leisure time activity they could use without owning and keeping a horse, for two generations of Bostonians grew up enjoying excursion trips up to Horn Pond in Woburn, through Somerville and Medford and Winchester, often, appropriately enough, on a ship known as the Governor Sullivan.  “Slowly moved the laden boat through the still water,” wrote one gushing traveler, “through smiling hedgerows, patches of woodlands, under low bridges and past pleasant villages, with delicious glimpses all around of charming, romantic and pastoral scenery.”  Everything was fine until there was a thunderstorm, and then it could get pretty miserable, especially if they person leading the mules did not know what they were doing—but at least you never had to worry about darkness, because the boats never ran at night—one of the reasons the trains were eventually going to put it out of business.

Of course Sullivan was the man to organize the Middlesex Canal, for he was from Maine, where transportation problems were a fact of life.  No wonder he worked hard to get the legislature to promote the first bridge over the Piscataqua at Portsmouth, no wonder that he led efforts to build what became the Craigie Bridge between Cambridge and the West End of Boston, and no wonder he helped lead the efforts to build the South Boston Bridge, which would make old Dorchester Heights, always a rural stretch of land where Bostonians would sometimes go to engage in lawn bowling, into modern South Boston.  Many old time Bostonians disliked the idea, including left wing adversaries like Charles Jarvis and in the infamous Ben Austin—they thought the main beneficiaries were going to be land speculators.  But Sullivan was willing to pay that price if people of moderate income stood the chance of getting a better place to live.

These were all good economic developments, infrastructure that gave the average person a chance to work hard and succeed.  What he did not like was financial speculation, where one depended on currency or stock manipulations to get rich quick.  That kind of wealth, for Sullivan, was harmful.  “There is a natural propensity for men to want to attain rich by any means other than work, and there happens to be a rage at the present day for acquiring wealth by accident,” he wrote.  “Many are disposed to lay aside their usual occupations and pursue chance as the only object of human adoration.”  This he thought was bad for personal morals and bad for the community, because it separated those who happened to strike it rich from those who worked hard and failed to make as much money as their lazy neighbors.  If you develop a skill and apply yourself, you help yourself and the  people around you; if you just bet on this or that stock, you get rich without helping anyone but yourself.    So he proposed that Massachusetts should create one state bank, in which all citizens could buy shares—one bank, supported by public credit, and only one bank, in which all deposits would be safe and loans and bills backed by solid cash, so that no one would be tempted to borrow more than they could pay back.  With all citizens able to own shares, the elite would no longer have special access to credit: “it is intended to preserve the equal rights of all citizens, to protect the poor from the rich and the weak from the powerful.”

There was also the question of slavery.  In 1781, a year after the adoption of the Massachusetts Constitution, Sullivan was sitting on the state Supreme Judicial Court.  In that year, a slave named Quock Walker escaped from a man named Nathaniel Jennison who purported to be his master.  Walker found refuge with the Caldwell family—his former owners--but Jennison found him there and beat him severely.  Walker then sued Jennison for damages from assault and battery.  If Walker was a slave, he could not maintain the suit; if he was not a slave, he could.  The case had a long and complex journey, through two separate trials, until finally the state indicted Jennison for assault and brought the case before the SJC.  There was no opinion in the case, but we know that Sullivan forcefully argued that the Constitution of 1780, which he had helped draft, contained provisions that were inconsistent with slavery.  Not only did he insist that Walker could not be a slave, he also wrote to influential Virginians, urging them to at least gradually abolish slavery in their own state.  This was one of the few things he had in common with his Federalist son William, who on a trip through Virginia had written very astutely about the economic costs of slavery.

Both Sullivan and his son recognized that among other things, slavery defied the basic law of labor, which is that you should be rewarded for hard work.  Why should a slave work hard?  He or she received no fair return.  A slave had no reason not to be idle aside from the fear of the lash—and in free people, idleness was something Sullivan detested, because if you did honestly work diligently it meant you did not care what your fellow man thought of you.  In 1801, Boston was transfixed by a sensational murder case.  Young Jason Fairbanks of Dedham had fallen in love with the beautiful Betsy Fales, who lived on her father’s estate on the Charles River.  But Jason was a reader and a dreamer, who did not apply himself to learning a trade or profession.  Mr. Fairbanks would never let Betsy marry him, so Jason wanted to run off with her.  He met her by the river—she refused his proposal—he pulled out a knife and repeatedly stabbed her, claiming later that she had killed herself out of love for him, a love that could never be owing to the family’s opposition.  Harrison Gray Otis, representing Jason at the murder trial, insisted that these were star-crossed, Romantic lovers and Jason was innocent.  Women swooned over him.  Sullivan, as Attorney General, insisted that not only did all the forensic evidence suggest that Betsy could not have stabbed herself from these certain angles, but also Jason’s fury was easily explained.  He had been idle, he had not ever tried to work, and with no ambition for success, he had become an “unrestrained, licentious profligate.”  The jury agreed and Jason was eventually hanged on Dedham Common.

More unusually for the period, Sullivan was a persistent opponent of capital punishment.  After Shay’s Rebellion, the conflict that took the life of one of his sons, Sullivan was instrumental in persuading his ally Governor Hancock not to sign the perpetrators’ death warrants, commuting their sentences instead.  “I very much doubt the right of any civil government to take a man’s life for any purpose whatsoever,” he wrote, reasoning that in a free society, the government can only do what the people have given it the right to do.  Since no man may lawfully kill himself, it follows that government cannot have that right either; and it was simply wrong and immoral for any man to want to hasten the way to God’s judgment seat for any of their fellow men.  Anyway, he insisted, there was no point to the death penalty.  People committed capital crimes anyway, and they were even more likely to commit such crimes in states where the death penalty was common—in New York, for example, which had capital punishment for theft, the crime rate was higher than in Massachusetts, where that crime was not capital.  The same argument is made today against the death penalty.

But most surprisingly of all, Sullivan was an early promoter of women’s rights, perhaps in part because he was lucky enough to have two happy marriages, one to HettyOdiorne, and the other to Martha Langdon, wife of the first senator from New Hampshire.  Linda Kerber has written well about his.  Sullivan believed that there was no good reason for women to be subjected to their husbands, that they deserved equal education with men and should own property on the same conditions as men, and in a case involving title to land confiscated by the state during the Revolution, he insisted that all provisions in the Massachusetts Constitution should apply to women as well as men, that they were citizens fully as competent as men since they were reasoning creatures, just as men were, and that marriage should be a wholly equal partnership between equal reasoning creatures.