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Broken Glass: Caleb Cushing and the Shattering of the Union (review)

From: The Journal of Military History
Volume 70, Number 3, July 2006
pp. 843-844 | 10.1353/jmh.2006.0148

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The Journal of Military History 70.3 (2006) 843-844

Broken Glass: Caleb Cushing and the Shattering of the Union. By John M. Belohlavek. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-87338-841-0. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xiv, 482. $65.00.

Massachusetts legislator and supreme court justice, four-term congressman, minister to China and Spain, Mexican War general, Franklin Pierce's attorney general, chairman of the 1860 Democratic conventions, participant in the resolution of the Alabama claims, authority on international and maritime law, scholar, author, and linguist, Caleb Cushing must nevertheless be the least known of the politicians influencing the course of mid-nineteenth- century America. In a thoroughly researched and comprehensive biography, Broken Glass, John Belohlavek corrects that oversight and gives due attention to a fascinating polymath who, in the swirl of American politics, held public offices as Whig, Democrat, and Republican.

That Cushing, born into a Federalist family, often changed parties helps explain why many partisan contemporaries and a few later historians charge him with a lack of principles and an excess of ambition. Though not fully denying either criticism, Belohlavek reveals what Cushing placed above party loyalty: allegiance to government, the Constitution, and the Union as agents of a territorial and commercial expansion that spread civilization and liberty.

Those commitments especially injured Cushing in his response to slavery. An early and open critic of the institution, he drew back from the Massachusetts Whig Party when abolitionists and free soilers gained the upper hand and advanced policies incompatible with the Constitution and that made it likely that Southern secession would shatter his beloved Union. Nor did he believe that Popular Sovereignty passed constitutional muster. Eventually defending slavery as a constitutionally protected state institution, Cushing gradually became the South's favorite New Englander, which led to his selection to chair the 1860 Democratic convention in Charleston and to his behind-the-scenes machinations seeking to reunite the shattered party lest Abraham Lincoln's election lead to secession. A more ambitious politician might better have adapted his love for the Union to the demands of New England voters and thereby secured his political base.

Despite his political past, Cushing later supported President Lincoln for the latter's moderation and their shared love of the Union, and he guided the Grant administration's response to the Alabama claims in a manner that both paved the way toward improved Anglo-American relations and achieved a breakthrough in international arbitration. When old political enemies blocked senatorial confirmation of Cushing's nomination as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, as minister to Spain he helped Grant peacefully resolve the Virginius affair.

Belohlavek deserves praise for a work of sound scholarship resurrecting an important American from undeserved obscurity and sometimes misguided criticism. Anyone studying mid-nineteenth-century American politics can profitably refer to Broken Glass for Cushing's role in the period's major events. The author's detailed and anecdotally rich treatment of Cushing's career may trouble a few readers but students of politics will surely be the beneficiaries of Broken Glass, a title based upon a contemporary observation that secession and civil war had shattered Cushing's earlier "free harmonious whole" into a "hundred brilliant particles" (p. 353). May be, though there is far more to Cushing than his role as chair of the 1860 Democratic convention. Important work still lay ahead of him.

James L. Abrahamson

Fearrington Village, North Carolina


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