Caleb Cushing

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Caleb Cushing
Caleb Cushing by Mathew B Brady.jpeg
United States Minister to Spain
In office
May 30, 1874 – April 9, 1877
President Franklin Pierce
Preceded by Daniel Sickles
Succeeded by James Lowell
23rd United States Attorney General
In office
March 7, 1853 – March 4, 1857
President Franklin Pierce
Preceded by John Crittenden
Succeeded by Jeremiah Black
United States Minister to China
In office
June 12, 1844 – August 27, 1844
President Franklin Pierce
Preceded by Position established
Succeeded by Alexander Everett
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 3rd district
In office
March 4, 1835 – March 4, 1843
Preceded by Gayton Osgood
Succeeded by Amos Abbott
Personal details
Born (1800-01-17)January 17, 1800
Salisbury, Massachusetts, U.S.
Died January 2, 1879(1879-01-02) (aged 78)
Newburyport, Massachusetts, U.S.
Political party Democratic-Republican (Before 1825)
National Republican (1825–1833)
Whig (1833–1847)
Democratic (1847–1879)
Spouse(s) Caroline Wilde
Alma mater Harvard University

Caleb Cushing (January 17, 1800 – January 2, 1879) was an American diplomat who served as a U.S. Congressman from Massachusetts and Attorney General under President Franklin Pierce.


Early life

Born in Salisbury, Massachusetts, in 1800, he was the son of John Newmarch Cushing, a wealthy shipbuilder and merchant, and of Lydia Dow, a delicate and sensitive woman from Seabrook, New Hampshire, who died when he was ten. The family moved across the Merrimack River to the prosperous shipping town of Newburyport in 1802. He entered Harvard University at the age of 13 and graduated in 1817. He was a teacher of mathematics there from 1820 to 1821, and was admitted to practice in the Massachusetts Court of Common Pleas in December, 1821. He began practicing law in Newburyport in 1824. There he attended the First Presbyterian Church.

On November 23, 1824, Cushing married Caroline Elizabeth Wilde, daughter of Judge Samuel Sumner Wilde, of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. His wife died about a decade later, leaving him childless and alone. He never married again.

State legislature

Cushing served as a Democratic-Republican member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1825, then entered the Massachusetts Senate in 1826, and returned to the House in 1828. Afterwards, he spent two years, from 1829 to 1831, in Europe. Upon his return, he again served in the lower house of the state legislature in 1833 and 1834. Then, in late 1834, he was elected a representative to Congress.

Washington career

Cushing served in Congress from 1835 until 1843 (the 24th, 25th, 26th and 27th Congresses). During the 27th Congress, he was chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Here the marked inconsistency characterizing his public life became manifest; for when John Tyler had become president, had been read out of the Whig party, and had vetoed Whig measures (including a tariff bill), for which Cushing had voted, Cushing first defended the vetoes and then voted again for the bills. In 1843 President Tyler nominated Cushing for U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, but the U.S. Senate refused to confirm him for this office. John Canfield Spencer was chosen instead.

Cushing was, however, appointed by President Tyler, later in the same year, to be commissioner and United States Ambassador to China, holding this position until March 4, 1845. In 1844 he negotiated the Treaty of Wang Hiya, the first treaty between China and the United States. While serving as commissioner to China he was also empowered to negotiate a treaty of navigation and commerce with Japan.

Return to Massachusetts

Caleb Cushing

In 1847, while again a representative in the Massachusetts state legislature, he introduced a bill appropriating money for the equipment of a regiment to serve in the Mexican–American War; although the bill was defeated, he raised the necessary funds privately.

He served in the Army during the Mexican War first as colonel of the 1st Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, of which he was placed in command on January 15, 1847. He was promoted to brigadier-general of volunteers on April 14 of the same year. He did not see combat during this conflict, and entered Mexico City with his reserve battalion several months after that city had been pacified. He was discharged from the Army on July 20, 1848.

In 1847 and again in 1848 the Democrats nominated him for Governor of Massachusetts, but on each occasion he was defeated at the polls. He was again a representative in the state legislature in 1851, was offered the position as Massachusetts Attorney General in 1851, but declined; and served as mayor of Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1851 and 1852. (He had written a major history of the town when he was 26 years old.)

He became an associate justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1852, and during the administration of President Franklin Pierce, from March 7, 1853, until March 3, 1857, was 23rd Attorney General of the United States. Cushing, a "doughface", i.e., a Northerner with Southern sympathies, supported the Dred Scott decision and to such a degree that Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, who wrote the decision, wrote Cushing a letter thanking him for his support.

In 1858, 1859, 1862, and 1863 he again served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

Also during this time, he founded the Cushing Land Agency in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin. The building it was housed in, now known as the Cushing Land Agency Building, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

1860 and the Civil War

In 1860 he presided over the Democratic National Convention, which met first at Charleston and later at Baltimore, until he joined those who seceded from the regular convention; he then presided also over the convention of the seceding delegates, who nominated John C. Breckinridge for the Presidency. Also in 1860 President James Buchanan sent him to Charleston as Confidential Commissioner to the Secessionists of South Carolina.

Despite having favored states' rights and opposed the abolition of slavery, during the American Civil War, he supported the Union. He was later appointed by President Andrew Johnson as one of three commissioners assigned to revise and codify the laws of the United States Congress. He served in that capacity from 1866 to 1870.

Return to diplomacy

In 1868, in concert with the Minister Resident to Colombia, Cushing was sent to Bogotá, Colombia, and worked to negotiate a right-of-way treaty for a ship canal across the Isthmus of Panama.

At the Geneva conference for the settlement of the Alabama claims in 1871–1872 he was one of the counsels appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant for the United States before the Geneva Tribunal of Arbitration on the Alabama claims.

Cushing's Chief Justice nomination

From January 6, 1874, to April 9, 1877, Cushing was Minister to Spain. He defused tensions over the Virginius Affair, and proved popular in the country.

Nomination to Supreme Court

On January 9, 1874, Grant nominated him for Chief Justice of the United States, but in spite of his great learning and eminence at the bar, his anti-war record and the feeling of distrust experienced by many members of the U.S. Senate on account of his inconsistency, aroused such vigorous opposition that his nomination was withdrawn on January 13, 1874.[citation needed]


An acute attack of erysipelas in July 1878 was a warning that his end was nearing. He died January 2, 1879, at Newburyport, Massachusetts, just 15 days shy before his 79th birthday, and is buried in Highland Cemetery in that city.[1]


The United States Revenue Cutter Caleb Cushing was named after Cushing. The Caleb Cushing served during the American Civil War and was destroyed by Confederate raiders during the Battle of Portland Harbor on June 27, 1863.


  • History and Present State of the Town of Newburyport, Mass. (1826)
  • Review of the late Revolution in France (1833)
  • Reminiscences of Spain (1833);
  • Oration on the Growth and Territorial Progress of the United States (1839)
  • Life and Public Services of William H. Harrison (1840)
  • The Treaty of Washington (1873)


  1. Caleb Cushing at


  •  Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). [ "Cushing, Caleb" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Belohlavek, John M. Broken Glass: Caleb Cushing & the Shattering of the Union (2005)
  • Fuess, Claude M. The Life of Caleb Cushing, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1923. (2 vols.)
  • Kuo, Ping Chia. "Caleb Cushing and the Treaty of Wanghia, 1844". The Journal of Modern History 5, no. 1 (1933): 34–54. Available through JSTOR.
  • Schurz, Carl. Wikisource-logo.svg Reminiscences. New York: McClure Publ. Co., 1907. Schurz reports his impressions of seeing Cushing, in an effort to discourage anti-slavery sentiment, speak at a "Conservative Union Meeting" at Faneuil Hall in Boston just before the Civil War (Volume II, Chapter IV, p. 162): "While speaking he turned his left shoulder to the audience, looking at his hearers askance, and with a squint, too, as it seemed to me, but I may have been mistaken. There was something like a cynical sneer in his manner of bringing out his sentences, which made him look like Mephistopheles alive, and I do not remember ever to have heard a public speaker who stirred in me so decided a disinclination to believe what he said. In later years I met him repeatedly at dinner tables which he enlivened with his large information, his wit, and his fund of anecdote. But I could never quite overcome the impression he had made upon me at that meeting. I could always listen to him with interest, but never with spontaneous confidence."

External links

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Gayton Osgood
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 3rd congressional district

Succeeded by
Amos Abbott
Diplomatic posts
New office United States Minister to China
Succeeded by
Alexander Everett
Preceded by
Daniel Sickles
United States Minister to Spain
Succeeded by
James Lowell
Party political offices
Preceded by
Isaac Davis
Democratic nominee for Governor of Massachusetts
1847, 1848
Succeeded by
George Boutwell
Legal offices
New seat Associate Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
Succeeded by
Pliny Merrick
Preceded by
John Crittenden
United States Attorney General
Succeeded by
Jeremiah Black
  1. REDIRECT Template:United States representatives from Massachusetts