Lebanon, Ohio , United States
|| July 29, 1794
|Died||December 18, 1865
Sep 21, 2015 10:15pm
|Info||Never in the history of American politics has there been such a riotous, rollicking campaign as that of 1840, when the Democrats were "sung and stung to death" by a fanfaronade of Whig oratory, spectacular parades, and noisy songs. In critical Ohio the chief campaign orator was Tom Corwin, "The Wagon Boy," nominated unanimously for governor by what was alleged to have been the largest convention ever held. Corwin not only won his own race but, acknowledged the official Democratic historian, "was the most powerful factor in General Har- rison's campaign for President." |
In 1840 Thomas Corwin was no newcomer to Buckeye politics. Although born in Bourbon County, Kentucky, July 29, 1794, he had lived in Lebanon, Ohio, since he was four. And he had politics with his meals as he listened to his father, Matthias, who served eleven terms in the Ohio House of Representatives, two as speaker. Young Tom's political career began as Warren County prosecuting attorney, 1818-28, and state legislator, 1821-23, 1829-30. In the next decade, when the Whigs produced only minority reports, he served five terms in congress. There his talent for sharp satire and witty debate made him, said one contemporary journalist, "the terror of the House." With a national reputation as a Whig spokesman by 1840, Corwin had joined the Harrison movement; and he had earned considerable nonpartisan support at home by congressional speeches on two popular issues, the Michigan boundary dispute and the Cumberland Road extension.
Although the Whigs promised only what Corwin called "great amendments in the administration of public affairs," it was enough to upset Wilson Shannon, the incumbent governor, who ran under the handicap of hard times. James Buchanan wrote President Van Buren from Ohio that "it would seem that the whole population have abandoned their ordinary business for the purpose of electioneering"; and Corwin later claimed, "I have made more than one hundred regular orations to the people this summer.... I have, first & last, addressed at least seven hundred thousand people, men, women, children, dogs, negroes & Demo- crats inclusive." However accurate this estimate may have been, Corwin did speak in almost every section of the state, winning the acclaim of even conservative critics, who called him "the most famous stump speaker of his time."
The Jeffersonians who wrote the Ohio constitution warily permitted the governor few executive powers, and Corwin laughingly described as his principal duties, "to appoint notaries public and pardon convicts in the penitentiary." Nevertheless, he enthusiastically sponsored a Whig prescription for the sickness resulting from the Panic of 1837: establishing a state bank, and rechartering the safest of existing banks, but with joint liability of all for the debts of any one, and restrictions upon their circulation and profits. The Democrats still ruled the upper house, how- ever, and Corwin's proposals were defeated in a crisis of inaction. As more banks failed and currency circulation contracted, Whig prestige shrank, and in 1841 the Democrats gained control of both houses and promptly enacted their own banking laws. Corwin, meanwhile, as one of the few lawyers outside the farmer-governor tradition, continued a sizable practice to supplement his $1,500 salary.
In 1842 Corwin foresaw an unfavorable season for Whiggery and declined to seek reelection; but when the convention nominated him by acclamation, he went unwillingly into the race. Since his party had never controlled the legislature, Corwin had to run not on the record but on promises. This weakness, plus the growing defection of antislavery Whigs to the Liberty party, let the "outs" back in by fewer than 4,000 votes, and the Wagon Boy suffered his only defeat in thirty-seven years of officeholding.
Though their national ticket was defeated in 1844, the Whigs carried Ohio, and Corwin was sent to the United States Senate. Here he was a powerful figure until his resignation in 1850 to become Fillmore's secretary of the treasury. Most notably, though he was not an "ultra" abolitionist, Corwin led the Whig opposition to the Mexican War, and gained popular support among many Whigs, peace-lovers, and antislavery men, who hoped he would be their presidential candidate in 1848. Rather than risk a party split, Corwin refused to lead these forces, and in a triumph of epaulettes, General Zachary Taylor was nominated. Again Corwin "ate and slept on the stump" throughout the successful campaign.
In 1853 Corwin retired from politics, returned to Lebanon, and resumed his lucrative law practice. Five years later, when the Republicans needed the popular orator, he was elected to congress from the seventh district, and reelected in 1860, after campaigning strenuously for Lincoln in a dozen states. In a final act of Whiggery, Corwin sought a compromise in the house committee of thirty-three, of which he was chairman. On the eve of Lincoln's inaugural, congress adopted the "Corwin Amend- ment," which would have made unconstitutional any interference with slavery where it existed. But it was too late; even Corwin admitted that "on both sides they are like bull-dogs eager for the fray."
To Lincoln the post of minister to Mexico was "perhaps the most interesting and important one within the whole circle of our inter- national relations," and Corwin, regarded as a friend by Mexicans since his polemics against the war in 1847, was a logical choice. He filled the post capably, besting the confederacy's Colonel John Pickett in the diplomatic duel which kept the prize of Mexico's friendship for the North during the war.
Tom Corwin, who lived until December 18, 1865, once facetiously proposed that his tombstone read: "Dearly beloved by his family; universally despised by Democrats; useful in life only to knaves and pretended friends." Except for the reference to Sarah Ross Corwin and their five children, Corwin was unfair to himself. It was true that throughout his career Democratic editors and campaigners singled Corwin out for their bitterest attacks, but this was not because they despised him. Rather it was evidence of their respect for one of the most effective stump speakers in the nation: that crusty old critic, John Quincy Adams, ranked Corwin among the leading Whig orators of his day; Rutherford B. Hayes heard him "far excelling anything that [Edward] Everett did"; Chauncey Depew remembered him as "probably the most brilliant speaker of the period immediately preceding the Civil War"; and Robert Ingersoll crowned him "king of the stump."
Stocky, swarthy, and physically dynamic, Tom Corwin was an im- pressive figure on the platform, and his skill in argument, combined with a keen wit, made him a leading spokesman for Whig doctrine: support the Union at all costs, oppose divisive movements, and compromise when necessary. When the Whig party could no longer sustain its strategy, Corwin gave his support, and his eloquence, to the Republicans. In one of the critical periods of American history, Ohio's Tom Corwin played a leading role. University of Virginia
J. JEFFERY AUER