by Jeffrey Boutwell, Ph.D.
In 1835 at the age of 17, George Sewall Boutwell made the best decision of his life – he moved to Groton from the Boutwell family farm in Lunenburg. In responding to a help-wanted ad to work for Benjamin Dix, George would begin 70 years of living, working, and raising a family in Groton. Dix soon went bankrupt, but George moved on to become a partner in Henry Woods’ dry goods store on Main Street. A secure job plus the intellectual environment of Groton at the time, with Samuel Dana and Margaret Fuller among its notable residents, a thriving Lyceum and Groton Academy (now Lawrence Academy), and a local anti-Slavery societyestablished in 1834, all combined to give George the perfect launching pad for his political ambition.
George was first elected to the Groton school committee in 1839, then served several terms in the Massachusetts legislature before being elected Governor in 1851. During the Civil War, he was appointed by President Lincoln as the country’s first ever Commissioner of Internal Revenue, and then became Secretary of the Treasury to Ulysses Grant in 1869. One of the great stories from his tenure at Treasury was how he and President Grant foiled the ‘Black Friday’ gold manipulation scheme of Jay Gould and ‘Big Jim’ Fisk on Wall Street in September 1869.
From 1863 to 1869 George represented the Massachusetts Seventh District in Congress, where he helped frame the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, seeking to protect civil and voting rights for newly freed Blacks. In one of many striking parallels to our current politics, he served as one of seven House of Representatives impeachment managers in the Senate trial of President Andrew Johnson, where Johnson was acquitted by one vote.
In 1873, he became the junior Senator from Massachusetts, a distinction later shared by Henry Cabot Lodge and John F. Kennedy. In 1876, he led a special committee investigating white supremacist violence against Blacks and their white Republican supporters during the Mississippi state election campaign of 1875.
George never attended college or law school yet was asked by President Rutherford B. Hayes to take on the task of updating the entire United States legal code in 1878. In the 1880s and 1890s, continuing to commutembetween his home in Groton and Washington, D.C., George served on a number of international claims commissions that involved such colorful characters as ‘Champagne Charlie’ Heidsieck and Antonio Pelletier, the ‘last of the ocean slave traders.’
At the age of 80, remarkably enough, George in 1898 was asked to serve as President of the Anti-Imperialist League, working with such notables as Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain, Jane Addams, and Carl Schurz to oppose the annexationist
policies of William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt following the Spanish-American War.
From the book I’m writing about George, to be published in 2022 as Redeeming America’s Promise: George S. Boutwell and the Politics of Race, Money and Power, 1818-1905, I’ve learned additional fascinating details about him, such as his attempt as Governor to "democratize" Harvard College, which certainly didn’t win him any friends among the Boston Brahmins.
Speaking of which, with his "common school" background, George was also not a big fan of Lawrence Academy, even though his wife Sarah, daughter Georgianna ("Georgie"), and son Francis were all graduates of the school!
George Boutwell was a prolific writer and speaker, on topics from law and banking to education, economics and civil rights. When he died in 1905 and was buried in Groton’s "new" cemetery, he was memorialized even by those who had long opposed him on public policy issues, including the patricians Henry Cabot Lodge and Henry Adams. In seeking to "redeem America’s promise," he almost always put principle above party, as when he switched from the Democrats to the Republicans in the 1850s over the issue of slavery, only to switch back again in 1900 in opposition to McKinley’s annexation of the Philippines.
And it all started with a move to Groton in 1835.
Jeffrey will be speaking about George at the virtual annual meeting of the Groton Historical Society at 3 p.m. on Sunday, February 28.
[Jeffrey Boutwell shares a common ancestor with George – the indentured servant James Boutwell, who emigrated from England in 1632. Jeffrey lived in Groton from 1991 to 1995 and has great memories of working with Owen Shuman to raise funds for the new library addition, and with Jane Bouvier in producing folk and blues concerts at the high school Performing Arts Center.]