Meet Daniel S. Dickinson, Statesman & Poet

A remarkable orator and honorable public servant - Part 1

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History Politics

In June of this year I had the pleasure of addressing the annual reunion of the Dickinson Family Association held at Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts. The Association is devoted to learning more about its members’ ancestors, such as the poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). My richly illustrated talk was on Daniel S. Dickinson (1800-1866) whom I had researched in connection with a book published in 2014. In his time, Dickinson had national fame. He brought great honor to his hometown, Binghamton, New York, which erected a statue of him in 1924 which still stands outside the Broome County courthouse.

Long forgotten is the fact that he may have become president in four consecutive elections:

  • 1852: if he had not rejected Virginia’s votes for him for the Democratic nomination
  • 1856: if he had not declined to be considered for the Democratic nomination
  • 1860: if the Democrats had been united and had nominated him
  • 1864: if his own New York delegation to the Union (Republican) Party convention and Lincoln had favored him over Andrew Johnson for vice president

Growing up on a homestead in an isolated area of New York, Dickinson was homeschooled. His subjects included Latin, math, and science. At age 20, he started teaching. At age 22, he married Lydia Knapp, age 19. Lydia was “quick to discover her husband’s talents, and urged him by every means in her power” to study law. Six years after they married, he was admitted to the bar.

Dickinson achieved great legal and political success at a young age – like New Yorker Theodore Roosevelt did 50 years later in the 1880s and 1890s. From 1834-1836 and in 1838 he was Village President of Binghamton, New York. From 1837-1841 he was New York State Senator. From 1843-1844 he was New York’s Lieutenant Governor. And from 1844-1851 he was U.S. Senator from New York.

Following the surrender of Fort Sumter on April 14, 1861, and Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers for military service, a “mass meeting” (the 19th century term for large gatherings/demonstrations) was held at Union Square in New York City on the afternoon of April 20, 1861. Dickinson traveled 200 miles that morning to arrive on time. There were five “stands” of several speakers each. At the stand from which Dickinson spoke, Major Robert Anderson, the recent commanding officer of Fort Sumter, also stood. Over 100,000 people were assembled. “The throng was so great that the square…could not contain it, and the crowd overflowed the side streets, while Broadway, from Fourteenth-street to the Battery was one surging mass of people.” (See the drawing of it in Harper’s Weekly of May 4, 1861.) Here is some of what Dickinson said; you should be able to recognize his oratorical power:

When the timid falter and the faithless fly —
when the skies lower,
the winds howl,
the storm descends,
and the tempest beats —
when the lightnings flash,
the thunders roar,
the waves dash,
and the good ship Union creaks and groans with the expiring throes of dissolution,
I will cling to her still
as the last refuge of hope from the fury of the storm
and if she goes down
I will go down with her, rather than survive to tell the story of her ignoble end.
I will rally round the star-spangled banner
so long as a single strip can be discovered,
or a single star shall shimmer from the surrounding darkness.

On the day before Lincoln was assassinated, Lincoln gave Dickinson — a “War Democrat,” that is a pro-Union Democrat — a recess appointment as United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. The incumbent represents the United States in all civil and criminal matters within his territory which includes Manhattan. It has always been a pre-eminent legal position. President Andrew Johnson subsequently nominated Dickinson formally for the position and the Senate confirmed him.

Turning to his family life: Dickinson and his wife had four children and adopted a niece. Beginning in 1841 Lydia became a near invalid, but she supported from the beginning her husband’s political career and would sometimes accompany him on his trips. In 1846 their eldest child, Virginia, died at age 20, three months after her wedding. Five years later their son, Manco, died, leaving his widow and two young children. Thus, in 1851, when Dickinson left the U.S. Senate to return to practicing law and to build his home in Binghamton, living in the home with him were five: his invalid wife, his youngest child (a daughter age 13), and the young widow of his son and their two young children.

Three years later, in October 1854, Dickinson addressed an audience in Delhi, New York, about the upcoming mid-term elections. Before launching into his evaluation of politics and candidates, he said, according to the October 5, 1854, issue of the New York Times, he had come to the town on legal business without any expectation of speaking.

He said he had not for some time appeared before the public upon political subjects…The most active part of his life had been devoted to the public service. When he entered upon it[,] his brow was ruddy with the glow of youth, and when he left it his head was whitened with the weight of years. When he returned to his home, at the expiration of about fifteen years, he had been bereaved of one-half the little household with which it had pleased Heaven to bless him—his domestic altar lights were nearly extinguished, and his private interests crippled by long neglect…He had learned to look upon political struggles with more of calm philosophy than partizan [sic] asperity…He said the only end and aim in political affairs worthy of the pursuit of an honorable mind was that of establishing sound principles; and that organizations [that is, political parties] for the mere purpose of obtaining office and place, were in the highest degree mean and discreditable…

In my next post I discuss Dickinson’s death and present his poem “For Lydia.”

 

[Note: For Part 2 of this brief series, Dickinson’s Poem “For Lydia,” click here: https://www.newoxfordreview.org/dickinsons-poem-for-lydia/]

 

James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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