History of Ontario Co. & Its People

Vol. 1, Pub. 1911  Pg.  70 - 78

Thanks to Deborah Spencer for transcription of these pages.

 

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VII.  POLITICAL CRISES 

Ontario County in the War of 1812--Building of the Erie Canal--Western New York Rejoices at Completion of the Great Work--Abduction of William Morgan--Resulting Excitement in the “Infected District”--The Anti-Masonic Campaign--Francis Granger a Candidate for Governor.

 

Fortunately for him who would attempt to write political history, these are crises which rise above the dead level of office seeking and office getting. There were three of these that especially aroused the citizens of  Western New York in the first half century. First came the war of 1812, then the excitement over the abduction of MORGAN in 1826, and lastly the “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” campaign of  1840. 

Canandaigua was the uncomfortably near the frontier in the war of 1812. Judging from the newspapers of the day, the whole county must have been in a ferment. Alarm committees were organized in the various towns.  Troops were enlisted, it being mentioned that 90 recruits had been enrolled in one month “in the small town of Canandaigua,” and the village streets were the frequent scene of parades and other patriotic displays. On September 12, it is recorded that “a regiment of militia composed of 400 or 500 of the best blood of the country marched through the village,” also that four wagons loaded with arms and ammunition from the arsenal here had been dispatched to the front. In 1814 the local committee of safety, of which Thaddeus CHAPIN was  chairman and Myron HOLLEY secretary, reported that it had received and distributed $13,473.10 for the relief of sufferers on the Niagara frontier.  And in November of the same year, as a recognition of the fact that the war was over, a public dinner was given at Mr. BARNARD’s, in honor of Major General Peter B. PORTER, as a mark of the local appreciation of his services in protecting the frontier.

Peter B. PORTER may be fairly claimed as an Ontario county man.  He came to Canandaigua with his brother Augustus in 1795, or thereabouts, and remained a resident of the village until 1806, when he removed to Niagara Falls, in the territory then recently set off from Ontario and erected into the county of Genesee.  He had held the office of county clerk and was a member of Assembly from this county, and after his removal served two terms in Congress.  He was a major general of volunteers in 1813, and commanded at the defense of Black Rock, now Buffalo, in July of that year.  In 1815 he was offered, but declined, the post of Commander-in-Chief of the United States Army.  He was one of the commissioners under the treaty of Ghent, Secretary of State under Governor TOMPKINS, and Secretary of War in the cabinet of the younger ADAMS. 

Political feeling ran high in the years preceding, during, and following the war.  The Republicans, as the especial champions of President MADISON, freely taunted their Federal enemies with being traitors.  “The Friends of Peace” were accused of holding secret meetings.  A Middlesex convention is reported as having denounced certain ministers as “rebels against Heaven and traitors to their country,” because of having, as alleged, abused from their pulpit’s the chief magistrate and other government officials.  The Canandaigua Messenger charged that the Washington Benevolent Society of the village was a political club of the most bitter and violent enemies of our government and country,” and a society “composed of some of the most abandoned, desperate, and depraved political vagabonds in the country.” 

It is not strange, perhaps, that as one of the echoes of this fierce strife a suit was brought by Editor BEMIS of the Repository against John C. SPENCER, whom the plaintiff accused of being the author of an editorial in the Messenger referring to him as “a traitorous rascal.”  The incident was happily closed by the publication of a card in which Mr. SPENCER said that the offensive epithet was never intended to apply to Mr. BEMIS.   

That the elections of these earlier years were often exciting, and involved the pulling of wires, back room conferences, and quiet cooperation with State and National leaders, goes without the saying. 

The local election of 1812 resulted, as the Messenger, the Madison organ, said, in the “election of two Federal lawyers to represent this agricultural district in the councils of the Nation.”  But the paper assumed to take comfort in the fact that the district would be well represented in the “glib of tongue.”  The Congressman elect thus referred to were Samuel M. HOPKINS and Nathaniel W. HOWELL.  Stephen BATES and Chauncey LOOMIS were their unsuccessful Republican opponents. 

It was soon after the close of the war, in 1816, that the canal act was passed, and a distinguished Canandaiguan, Myron HOLLEY, was named as a member of the commission to carry the great project into execution.  The feeling in Western New York in favor of the proposed improvement was overwhelming, and upon its opening in October, 1825, pursuant to arrangements made at a meeting of citizens held in Blossom’s “long room,” a committee of prominent citizens, headed by Nathaniel W. HOWELL, intercepted the first boat through from Buffalo and presented the congratulations of the people here to its honored passengers.  Moreover a ball was given at the hotel in honor of the occasion and a national salute was fired from Arsenal hill. 

The next issue of the Ontario Messenger contained an advertisement of the “Merchants Line for Freight and Passage,” which announced that a boat belonging to that line “well fitted up for passengers and running night and day, with relays of horses every 12 miles, will leave Rochester for Albany every morning (Sundays excepted) at 7 o’clock, and every evening at 8 o’clock and will run through in less than five days, or at the rate of 60 miles every 24 hours.”  Think of that, ye people, who in this year of grace, 1911, complain that it takes as much as five hours to make that same trip from Rochester to Albany! 

The Erie canal was primarily designed as a means of transportation for the products of New York State farms as well as those of the Far West, and the plans of its projectors included the construction of a number of laterals or feeders.  One of these that was carried to completion was the Cayuga and Seneca canal, and another, for the building of which a company was incorporated in 1821 with a capital stock of $100,000, but which was never built, was to connect Canandaigua lake with the Erie at Palmyra.  Following the development of the railroad as a means of travel and transportation, this and other proposed extensions of the canal system were given up and later the laterals which had been constructed, excepting the Black River and the Cayuga and Seneca lines, were abandoned. 

In 1817 slavery was abolished in the State by legislative enactment, to take effect July 4, 1827, an act which probably somewhat affected Ontario, as the census just taken showed that the population of the county included 213 persons in bondage.  In 1819 Gideon GRANGER was elected as a Clintonian Senator from the Western district, and in 1820 John C. SPENCER was elected Speaker of the Assembly, the first and only time when that office has been held by an Ontario member.  The county then had seven members of Assembly, and included territory now embraced in Monroe, Yates and Wayne counties. 

The Western district contributed materially to the reelection of Governor DeWitt CLINTON in 1820 and in the years immediately succeeding made itself felt in the work of the Legislature by the election of Bowen WHITING and Francis GRANGER to the Assembly and of John C. SPENCER to the Senate.  They were all Clintonians and rendered efficient support to that great man, who, though the object of the most venomous opposition, gained for himself an enduring fame in the building of the Erie canal. 

Micah BROOKS, John PRICE, Philetus SWIFT, David SUTHERLAND and Joshua VanVLEET represented the county in the constitutional convention of 1821 and helped bring about the abolition of State lotteries, the extension of the elective franchise to all white taxpayers, ministers, veterans, and firemen, and to colored men possessing $250 worth of property, and the abolition of the council of appointment.  As an indication of the political methods or manners in vogue in Ontario county and elsewhere at this period, the following address, which appeared in a Canandaigua paper of 1825, is of interest: 

To the Electors of the County of Ontario:

Fellow Citizens:--Desirous of obtaining a situation that will enable me to earn the means of supporting a numerous family, I am induced to offer myself as a candidate for your suffrages at the ensuing election for the office of County Clerk. 

I am the less diffident in soliciting such an office from the consideration that the correct discharge of its duties does not require any peculiar experience or any legal or professional qualifications, and that the principal requisites are the faculty of writing a good hand and a faithful and punctual attention to the office. 

To the most zealous effort for the performance of these duties, my character, my necessities, and my gratitude to my fellow citizens, are the best pledges that can be given. 

Of my old friends the Farmers and Mechanics, to whom I am known, and of the electors generally, I respectfully solicit a cordial support. 

Punderson B. UNDERHILL.

Phelps, August 30, 1825. 

Mr. UNDERHILL was not elected clerk, but his failure to obtain the “situation” could not have been due to the publication of this card.  Self-nomination was the common way of bringing a person’s candidacy for office to public attention, and was resorted to by the most honored men in the community. 

The politics of Ontario county was never so stirred by any other event, either in the first or second half century, as it was by the Morgan abduction in 1826.  This took place on September 12, from the jail in Canandaigua, in which William MORGAN, a resident of Batavia, had been incarcerated on a trumped up charge of petit larceny.  MORGAN’s real offense consisted in the publication of a book which treacherously revealed the secrets of the Masonic order, and the incident of his arrest and abduction had no possible political bearing.  MORGAN disappeared never to be seen again by family or friends, and it came to be pretty generally believed that he had been drowned in the Niagara river. 

The trial and conviction for conspiracy and abduction of several members of the bar and other prominent Free Masons, and subsequent judicial proceedings, failed to allay excitement in the so-called “infected district,” because they failed to penetrate the mystery of MORGAN’s ultimate fate or adequately punish those responsible for his disappearance and suspected murder.  The Governor and Legislature were called upon to assist in the matter, and finally an act was passed, framed by the judiciary committee, of which Senator John C. SPENCER of Ontario county was chairman, and under which Daniel MOSLEY, of Onondaga, was made a special State agent with Mr. SPENCER as counsel, to probe the matter to the bottom. 

For three years the investigation was continued, but without practical result, and public feeling on the subject continued to extend and intensify. 

Those who had been prominent in efforts to bring the abductors and suspected murderers to justice never held that the Masonic fraternity as a whole was responsible for the outrage, but rather attributed it to over-zealous and unscrupulous members of the order, and they had not contemplated political action in the matter.  But at the town meetings in 1827, the citizens in some towns refused to vote for Masons as supervisors and justices of the peace, and the success of the Masons in defeating the reelection of Dr. Frederick F. BACKUS, as treasurer of the village of Rochester, because of his opposition to the order, resulted in a Monroe county convention of Anti-Masons in September, 1827, and the nomination and election in that county of Anti-Masonic candidates to the Assembly.  In the succeeding session, Francis GRANGER and Robert C. NICHOLAS of Ontario, and Morris F. SHEPPARD of Yates, although not nominated as such, became identified with the movement. 

The Anti-Masons early became open and zealous supporters of the candidacy of President ADAMS for reelection.  The Masons supported General JACKSON.  Mr. WEED and other influential Anti-Masons attempted to secure the nomination of Francis GRANGER for Governor by the National Republican or Adams State convention, but other counsel prevailed and Smith THOMPSON was nominated for the first place and Mr. GRANGER for Lieutenant-Governor.  The Anti-Masonic paper at Canandaigua denounced the nomination of Judge THOMPSON, and feeling ran so high that an Anti-Masonic convention was held at Utica, and Francis GRANGER was nominated for Governor.  Mr. GRANGER was thus placed in an embarrassing position.  Both nominations were from parties whose principles he supported and from political friends and associates.  Finally, in a characteristically frank and manly letter, he accepted the nomination of the National Republican  for Lieutenant-Governor and declined that of the Anti-Masons for Governor.  Solomon SOUTHWICK was thereupon placed in nomination by the Anti-Masons. 

The election, as an outcome of this three-sided contest, resulted in the choice of the Jackson or Democratic candidate, Martin VanBUREN.  The election of the following year, 1828, strengthened the Anti-Masonic party in the Legislature, John DICKSON, Walter HUBBELL, and Robert C. NICHOLAS being elected as its exponents from Ontario county. 

By 1832, the movement had become national in its extent, but the effort to unite the Anti-Masonic party with the National Republicans in favor of Henry CLAY for President failed, and, as a result, in the estimation of so good a judge as Thurlow WEED, Mr. CLAY was for a second time defeated of his supreme ambition.  William WIRT was the third-party Anti-Masonic candidate. 

In the meantime, in 1830, William H. SEWARD had come into public life as an Anti-Masonic State Senator from the 7th district.  Francis GRANGER of Ontario county was the Anti-Masonic candidate for Governor in that year, but Enos T. THROOP was elected by a majority of something over 8,000.  In Western and Central New York, Mr. GRANGER was largely in majority.  In 1832 he was again the Anti-Masonic candidate for Governor, and was again defeated at the polls, this time by the treachery of important interests in the Chenango valley, which were bound by all honorable considerations to his support. 

In the Legislature of 1832, Mr. GRANGER was a member of Assembly and the candidate of the 31 Anti-Masonic members for Speaker of that body, but was defeated by the Jackson Democratic candidate. 

With the presidential election of 1832, Anti-Masonry as a political force began to disintegrate.  The supposed necessity for the movement had been done away with by the quite general surrender of the charters of lodges of the Masonic order in Western New York, and in some other States.  In 1833 the election showed that Anti-Masonry had lost its hold.  The party was practically dissolved, and, under the lead of Mr. WEED, its elements, uniting with other forces opposed to the Jackson or Democratic party, largely assisted in the organization of what was to become the Whig party.

 

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