- Reluctant Reformer: Nathan Sanford in the Era of the Early Republic by Ann Sandford
Seemingly inadvertently, independent scholar Ann Sandford has produced in this biography of her relative Nathan Sanford a portrait of the frustrations of life as a truly second-rate American politician. Sanford pursued his ambitions across decades via the law and politics, but even according to the evidence compiled by this biographer eager to prove that Sanford “deserves recognition and our attention,” he never acquired the prominence or influence he hoped for (3).
Sanford was born on Long Island in 1777, and his long public career stretched from New York City to the state capital in Albany to the nation’s capital. The intensity of his ambition as a young man was revealed when he “dropped the first ‘d’ in his surname”—originally [End Page 348] Sandford—“to save time” (18). His rising legal practice and Jeffersonian loyalties led to an appointment in 1803 as United States Attorney for New York. This launched a political life that lasted until 1831 and included service as a state legislator, two non-consecutive terms as a United States senator from New York, delegate to New York’s state constitutional convention in 1821, and Chancellor of New York.
Sandford’s biography very closely follows Sanford’s interests at the various stages of his career. It is based on careful research in archival sources and local histories. As a result, the book offers extensive discussions of property law, the ins and outs of local and state-level New York politics, political economy, the politics of race and slavery, white manhood suffrage, and so forth. But the book’s angle of vision rarely rises much beyond that provided by Sanford’s papers. A chapter on the Missouri Crisis, for instance, exemplifies the book’s scope when it tells us about Sanford’s role in and reaction to that crisis but nothing new about the crisis itself. Throughout, carefully researched passages ultimately illuminate Sanford’s life rather than something larger.
Another result of this narrow focus is that this book makes no deliberate historiographical contributions. For all the depth of her primary source research, Sandford draws unsystematically on secondary sources for supplementary information rather than engaging with their interpretations. While legal historians or historians of political economy may well learn some things from this book given Sandford’s detailed research on such themes, the book makes no attempt to add anything other than detail to any historiography. As such this biography neither uses Sanford’s life to shed light on his times, nor a broad view of those times to shed light on his life.
That said, this volume offers a poignant story in its way, albeit one the author does not seem to have meant to tell. The human story that emerges is one of an ambitious man who never achieved the public influence or personal success he desired. A representative episode arises during the New York state constitutional convention of 1821, where Sanford took decided stands on the fraught intersection of race and the franchise. Those stands emerged in his votes rather than his speeches because his longtime lung ailment rendered him “inaudible” when he addressed the assembly (90). Physical limitations, therefore, placed Sanford among the lesser lights in “keeping their views, but not their votes, on race to themselves” (100). Moreover, his framework for reforming New York’s suffrage rules went down in defeat as the likes of Martin Van [End Page 349] Buren moved the votes in another direction. Only when Sanford accepted that direction as a compromise with his own did he vote for it.
I suspect Sandford did not mean to tell a tale of frustration because she ends her lengthy discussion of the constitutional convention by emphasizing Sanford’s “contributions” to its outcome (107). She repeats her insistence on Sanford’s influence on other issues on which he took an ineffectual stand throughout his career. Yet “Would-Be Reformer” might have been a better...