All Biographies

You are here: Home >                                                                                    

Caleb Cushing


CALEB CUSHING, eminent as an orator, jurist and politician, was born at Salisbury, Mass., January 17th, 1800, - being the son of Captain John N. Cushing, an enterprising ship-owner of that town, and descended from an old colonial family largely represented in official positions of trust. Fitting for college at the public schools of his native town, he graduated from Harvard College, in 1817, when he gave the salutatory oration; and was a student of Cambridge law-school in 1818. In 1819, he delivered the annual poem before the Phi Beta. Kappa Society; and, as candidate for the degree of A. M., pronounced an oration on the durability of the Federal Union. He was also appointed tutor in mathematics and natural philosophy at Harvard, which position he held until July, 1821, signalizing his resignation with a truly eloquent farewell address, strongly indicative of his own ambitious temperament. The addresses which he delivered before debating clubs, etc., at this time, show him to have been strongly impressed with the political grandeur of the Federal Union, and with intense devotion to its highest aims and welfare. In 1822 he was admitted to the Essex bar, and, in 1825, his political career began by his election as representative to the State Legislature from Newburyport, where he had commenced the practice of his profession. In the next year he was seated in the State Senate: published a " History of Newburyport," and a " Treatise on the Practical Principles of Political Economy," having previously translated from the French, a work on " Maritime Contracts for Letting to Hire". He also pronounced a eulogy on Jefferson and Adams, in Newburyport, about this time; took an active part in the politics of the day (as a republican), and carried on a large and successful law practice until 1829. Meanwhile he had been a candidate for Congress, from the Essex district of Massachusetts, but was defeated through the prejudice excited by an unjust charge which was made against hire, of recommending himself as a suitable incumbent, in the columns of the Boston Patriot. Shortly after this check to his aspirations, he made a European tour, (1829–1832) with his accomplished wife, the daughter of Hon. John Wilde of Boston, whom he had married in 1824, and who was the authoress of two volumes of " Letters Descriptive of Public Monuments, Scenery and Manners in France and Spain," published in 1832, after their return to America. During the same year, also, Mr. Cushing issued his " Reminiscences of Spain—the Country, its People, History and Monuments," in two volumes ; and with it another work in two volumes entitled "A Review, Historical and Political, of the late Revolution in France," etc., and, also pronounced an admirable oration at Newburyport. In 1834 he addressed the American Institute of Instruction; delivered a eulogy on Lafayette, at Dover, New Hampshire, and wrote a reply to Cooper the novelist. These evidences of his mental power, together with his high character as a lawyer and a man, fully justified the choice of the good people of his adopted town, in electing him as their representative, in 1833 and '34, in the State, where he augumented his reputation by his speech (which was afterwards published) on the currency and public deposits. Again, in 1835, he ran for Congress, and was this time successful—retaining his seat by repeated re-elections until 1843. 'While there his literary inclinations were by no means obscured by his interest in national politics, as was evidenced by his frequent contributions to the North American Review; his tasteful articles on the legal and social condition of women; his review of "Boccaccio; " essays on Columbus and Americus Vespucci, and an oration before the Literary Societies of Amherst College, August 22, 1836, on "Popular Eloquence, and its Power in our Republic." Another oration, delivered at Springfield, Massachusetts, on the 4th of July, 1839,—shortly after the acquisition of Louisiana in a manner deemed by many to be a flagrant violation of the constitution,—forcibly urged the necessity of repressing an undue national ambition; while an oration delivered the same year before the Phi Beta Kappa Society, at Cambridge, on the "Errors of Popular Reformers," displayed great ability and ready rhetorical powers. In Congress he was ever alive and alert to the interests of his constituents, and to what he deemed important national measures. His speeches were dignified, vigorous and effective, characterized by purity of style and depth of reflection. On all subjects he could speak sensibly and effectively, in a manner that betrayed diligence of study and preparation. One of his most effective displays of oratory was his answer, in the winter session of 1836, to an outrageously abusive speech of Ben Hardin, of Kentucky, wherein he alluded to the cod-fishery, wooden-nutmeg and tin peddling of New England, whose people, he said, could see a dollar with the naked eye afar off as through a telescope.

The debate gave rise in part to an excellent article in the North American Review, entitled "Misconceptions of the New England Character," which was ascribed to Mr. Cushing's pen. In the early part of his Congressional career, he was a Whig;—was in 1840, an earnest advocate for Harrison's election to the Presidency, which he materially aided by writing a life of the old hero, which was largely circulated throughout the country. 

On Harrison's decease, Mr. Cushing, with Wise of Virginia, and others, openly espoused the measures of the Tyler administration, and he has since been generally identified with the Democratic party,—his Congressional career being distinguished by unusual application to public business, eloquence, and parliamentary accomplishments of a high order—making his influence felt not only on the floor, but in the deliberations of committees, caucuses, etc., and he had occasion to make many voluminous reports and submit them for legislative action. In 1843, he was three times nominated by President Tyler as Secretary of the Treasury, being each time rejected by the Senate; and, in July, 1843, was appointed United States Commissioner to China: sailed in the steam-frigate Missouri, which was burned off Gibraltar, in August of that year—but fortunately rescued all his official papers from destruction—and without awaiting any farther instructions from the Government, proceeded directly to China (via Egypt and India), and within six months had successfully negotiated a treaty, which was signed at Wanghia, July 3, 1844, and finally ratified between the two great powers, December 31,1845.

Mr. Cushing, having thus enjoyed the honor of being the first foreigner who ever negotiated with "The Son of Heaven," upon equal terms, and having secured for his country an honorable standing in the great Celestial Empire, returned home via Mexico, having made almost a complete circuit of the globe, by land and sea, within a belt of forty degrees, in the period of less than one year—during which time, also, he had prepared and forwarded to the National Institute, at Washington, a highly valuable article on the peculiar geographical and unique physical characteristics of Egypt. In 1846 he was chosen to represent Newbury port in the State Legislature.

War having been declared against Mexico, Mr. Cushing warmly advocated it in the face of a strong opposition by the people of the State, and when an appropriation of $20,000 for the equipment of volunteers was refused by the Legislature, he advanced the money himself; was shortly after chosen Colonel of the Massachusetts regiment; a few months later (April, 1847 was appointed a Brigadier-general, and was in command of the Virginia, South Carolina and Mississippi volunteer regiments in the front of the line at Buena Vista, under General Taylor. He was afterwards transferred, at his own request, to the arm) under General Scott, under whom he served until the peace.

While in the service, in 1847, he was the Democratic candidate for the Governorship of Massachusetts, but was defeated and was also one of three officers appointed as a Court of Inquiry on Generals Scott, Worth and Pillow. On returning again to private life, General Cushing was elected (for the sixth time) to the State Legislature, as a representative for Newburyport, and was the life and soul of that body, actively opposing the election of Sumner as United States Senator, as well as the coalition of the democratic and free-soil parties. In 1850 and 1851 he was chosen mayor of the newly incorporated city of Newburyport by an almost unanimous vote, and a feature in the city charter, probably adopted at his suggestion, was, that the mayor should receive no salary. As mayor he displayed the same jealous care for the best interests of the municipality which he had done for those of the Union, and was exceedingly popular with men of all parties.

His interest in literary and educational matters never flagged and he was a member of the Board of Overseers of Harvard College, and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1852 he received the merited compliment of LL.D. from his Alma Mater, and the same year was appointed an Associate Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, and filled the position with his usual marked ability until 1853, when he was nominated by President Pierce as United States Attorney General, from which office he retired in 1857. In this arduous position, notwithstanding the great number and complicated nature of the novel questions (arising, to a large extent, from the expansion of the national domain) submitted for his consideration, the duties were never more thoroughly and ably performed than by him. His opinions, as legal adviser to the cabinet, have been published, and though voluminous and covering a far wider range of topics than had fallen to the lot of his predecessors to decide upon, are in no respect surpassed. 

In 1857, '53 and '59, he again served in the State Legislature. In July, 1860, he was president of the Democratic Convention at Charleston, South Carolina, and in December of the same year, when the occupancy of Fort Sumter by United States troops under Major Robert Anderson had deeply intensified the hostility of the South toward the North, Mr. Cushing was dispatched to Charleston by President Buchanan, as a commissioner or confidential agent of the Executive.  His object, so far as its nature transpired, was a proffer on the part of Mr. Buchanan designed to postpone the inevitable outbreak of hostilities between the Secessionists and the Federal Government, until the close of his administration—then but a few weeks distant. General Cushing, who, a few months previous, had been in Charleston as a delegate (Anti-Douglas) to and president of the Democratic National Convention, found the "cold shoulder" turned to him, and left the city, after a five hours' stay, convinced that the South were dreadfully in earnest, and his report was understood to have been the theme of a stormy and protracted Cabinet meeting.

 In July, 1866, he was appointed one of three jurists to revise and codify the Laws of the United States, a work on which he has since been engaged, though not to the exclusion of other duties, public and private. His vast legal and general learning, and his independence of party trammels, of late years, have made him a valuable consellor for the Government in all international questions. He had some share in the construction of the rejected Santo Domingo Treaty; and a large part in the preparation of the protocol of the Treaty of Washington as well as in the subsequent statement of our case, while he was also retained as one of the American Counsel before the Commissioners at Geneva.

Caleb Cushing has always had the reputation of being too ambitious; yet his aspirations seem ever, from youth to mature to have been inseparably interwoven with his desires for the welfare and glory of his country, and his motives are well expressed by the following remark from one of those defences which have been forced from him, at times, by the shafts of malice: "I am yet to be informed what there is culpable in a pure and single-hearted ambition, with a willingness, when called, to enter the career of public service, which the republican institutions of our happy country open to all its citizens, to the low alike with the lofty." And a political opponent once said of him, there was "no fear that he would ever use any other than means worthy of his elevated character to push himself" to distinction. Apropos of the expression "push" in this connection we may be allowed to quote the good-natured epigram on General Cushing, from the pen of the late accomplished Newburyport poetess, Miss Hannah F. Gould :

"Lay aside all ye dead,
For in the next bed 
Reposes the body of Cushing;
lie has elbowed his way
Through the world, as they say,
And, though dead, he still may be pushing."
The General's reply to this was as witty as gallant :

"Here lies one whose wit,
Without wounding, could hit,
And green be the turf that's above her; 
Having sent every beau
To the regions below,
She has gone down herself, for a lover."


Source: Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872  

Related Links:


Access Genealogy
One of the largest websites online providing free genealogy. A must see for Native American research!

Find Your Ancestors at SurnameWeb
The oldest, most complete listings of surnames and related websites online.

Free Family Tree
Family Tree Guide is a quick, simple and free way for you to share your family history. Within minutes, you can have a dynamically driven website that creatively portrays your family tree.

Free Genealogy Charts
These free genealogy charts will enable you to begin development of a notebook in which you can track your ancestry as you research it.

Copyright, 2005-2010 by Webified Development all rights reserved.