Massachusetts

George Sewall Boutwell Warns Against Empire (Or Does He?)

On May 2, 1879, The Hon. George Sewall Boutwell was offering “a thousand acres of land in Groton, Mass., to negro exodus people.”

George Stalwart Boutwell

George Stalwart Boutwell

Though the offer was apparently not accepted, it was typical of George Boutwell, a champion of equality for African-Americans and of fairness for oppressed people around the world.

He had a long and distinguished political career as the first commissioner of Internal Revenue under President Abraham Lincoln. secretary of the Treasury under President Ulysses S. Grant, and U.S. senator and representative from, and governor of, Massachusetts.

On Jan. 18, 1866, he gave a speech before the U.S. House of Representatives arguing African Americans should have the right to vote in Washington, D.C. He said that by emancipating black people “we recognized their manhood, ” and as a result, they should have the right to vote. He argued the government is better if it includes everyone.

The unity of sentiment in the loyal states was due to the fact that every man felt that the government was his own.

Chestnuts and Oxen

George Boutwell was born January 28, 1818, in Brookline, Mass. He grew up on the family farm in Lunenberg, Mass.,  and attended public school until the age of 17. During summers he picked chestnuts and tended oxen. After he graduated he worked as a clerk and storekeeper in Groton, Mass. At 18 he began studying law with a lawyer whose office was above his shop. But he didn’t gain admission to the bar until he was 44.

He started his political career as a pension agent for Revolutionary War widows and traveled to Washington, D.C. There he met an enslaved African-American woman whose youngest son was sold to a buyer in Louisiana.

His conversation with her transformed him into an ardent abolitionist. He strongly supported Abraham Lincoln and helped found the Republican Party.

Boutwell as Treasury Secretary got along well with President Grant. He persuaded him to support the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act. The bill allowed suspension of the writ of habeas corpus to fight white supremacist groups during Reconstruction. Grant wasn’t sure if he should support the bill. Boutwell, however, told him how African Americans were terrorized, tortured and murdered in the South. Grant decided to support the bill, and it passed.

Boutwell believed continued oppression of African-Americans would cause social unrest and violence. In his memoir, Reminiscences of 60 Years in Public Affairs, Boutwell wrote,

The Dorr War in Rhode Island and the struggles in Kansas, are instances of the danger of attempting to found a social order upon an unjust or unequal system for the distribution of political power.

Anti-Imperialism

In the late 1890s, Boutwell grew disenchanted with the imperialism of President William McKinley. He left the Republican Party after the annexation of the Philippines and became the first president of the American Anti-Imperialist League.

A quote attributed to him — and sometimes to Henry David Thoreau — turns out to have been written by the novelist Taylor Caldwell. 

Every ambitious would-be empire clarions it abroad that she is conquering the world to bring it peace, security and freedom, and is sacrificing her sons only for the most noble and humanitarian purposes.

That is a lie, and it is an ancient lie, yet generations still rise and believe it! If America ever does seek Empire, and most nations do, then planned reforms in our domestic life will be abandoned, States Rights will be abolished in order to impose a centralized government upon us for the purpose of internal repudiation of freedom, and adventures abroad.

The American Dream will then die—on battlefields all over the world—and a nation conceived in liberty will destroy liberty for Americans and impose tyranny on subject nations.

Whoever said it, it still has relevance.

George Sewall Boutwell died February 27, 1905. Half a century earlier he had built a home in Groton. His daughter Georgianna donated it to the Groton Historical Society. The Gov. George S. Boutwell House opens in the summer as a museum.

This story last updated in 2022.

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