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Caleb Cushing was a lawyer, politician, diplomat, and statesman who served as attorney general of the United States under President Franklin Pierce. Cushing was the nation's first full-time attorney general; he is credited with institutionalizing and expanding the office.
Cushing was born January 17, 1800, in Salisbury, Massachusetts, descending from a family with roots in colonial Massachusetts. A gifted student, he tutored classmates in mathematics and philosophy, and he graduated from Harvard at the age of seventeen. He studied law in Boston and was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1821. The same year, he moved to Newburyport, Massachusetts, and established his first practice. Although he represented a number of clients and interests as a young lawyer, he spent most of his time in public service. Cushing also had a long-standing love of literature and devoted his free time to a variety of literary pursuits.
His political career began in 1825 when he was elected, as a Republican candidate, to the lower house of the Massachusetts Legislature; in 1826, he was elected to the state senate.
His formal writing career also began in 1826 with the publication of his first two books, History of the Town of Newburyport and The Practical Principles of Political Economy. Encouraged by interest in these texts and eager to develop his talent, Cushing resigned his state senate office and moved to Europe in 1829. He devoted the next two years to writing. His two-volume Historical and Political Review of the Late Revolution in France and his Reminiscences of Spain were published in 1833.
"The spirit of the Constitution, the sentiment of nationality, the feeling of emotion and Americanism, is the true Union, the only Union worth having, the only Union possible to keep."
Returning to the United States, Cushing ran for Congress in 1832. In his first effort, he was defeated—largely because of divisions within the Republican Party. In 1834 he was elected as a Whig candidate from the Essex North District of Massachusetts. He served the district in Congress for four consecutive terms. He also continued to write. His Growth and Territorial Progress in the United States was published in 1839.
In 1840 Cushing supported the successful candidacy of william h. harrison for president. To aid the campaign, he authored a biographical booklet called The Life of William H. Harrison. When Vice President John Tyler succeeded to the presidency after Harrison's death in 1841, Cushing was one of the few northern Whigs to support him. During the Tyler administration, a break in the Whig Party occurred, and Cushing became allied with the Democrats—making his third change of party affiliation in a decade. Cushing's support of Tyler was rewarded in 1843 with a nomination as secretary of the treasury. But, suspicious of his party hopping, the Senate would not confirm him. Nevertheless, several months later, he was confirmed by the Senate as the new U.S. commissioner to China.
During the early 1840s, U.S. traders had asked the U.S. government for help in easing the restrictive trade conditions in China. Congress responded by setting up a commission to negotiate a trade agreement with China's representatives; Cushing was selected to head the commission. His work in China, known as the Cushing Mission, resulted in the first trade treaty between China and the United States—the Treaty of Wanghia (Wangxia, Wangsia, Wang-Hsia), signed in 1844.
After completing his mission in China, Cushing returned to serve in the Massachusetts state legislature until the outbreak of the Mexican War. In 1847, he raised a volunteer regiment at his own expense and traveled to Mexico to participate in the conflict. He attained the rank of brigadier general.
While still in Mexico, Cushing was drafted as a gubernatorial candidate by Massachusetts's Democratic Party. He lost the election, and subsequent bids for the governor's seat in 1847 and 1848. He served a term in the Massachusetts state legislature from 1850 to 1852, and was then appointed an associate justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.
One year later, Cushing was named attorney general of the United States by President Pierce. Cushing had been a personal friend of the new president's for more than twenty years, and he was one of the most influential members of the Pierce cabinet. According to biographer Claude M. Fuess, "Cushing had a part in nearly every matter of significance arising during the next four years in Washington."
When Cushing accepted the job of attorney general, it was a part-time position with a substantially smaller salary than those of other cabinet positions. Cushing's appointment coincided with a move by Congress to increase the attorney general's salary, and to enforce a residency requirement that had been routinely ignored by previous appointees.
Cushing interpreted Congress's actions as a mandate to relinquish his private practice and serve as attorney general full-time. His decision to abandon his practice was controversial. The old tradition of continuing a private practice while in office was thought by many to be essential in maintaining sharp legal skills and keeping abreast of current law. In defense of his action, Cushing wrote,
Within the last few years … the condition of the country has undergone changes, occasioning a vast augmentation in the amount of administrative business … and it would not be possible now … for the Attorney General … to be frequently absent from the seat of government, attending to private professional pursuits, nor could he find much leisure to prepare and argue private causes even before the Supreme Court.
With the barriers of low pay and part-time status removed, the attorney general became an equal member of the cabinet, and the office became more visible and more constant than in previous administrations. The changes had the cumulative effect of stabilizing and institutionalizing the office.
As a full-time cabinet officer, Cushing had both the time and the personal inclination to be active in a broad range of government activities. He assumed responsibility for several functions previously overseen by the Secretary of State, such as pardons, legal and judicial appointments, and Extradition cases.
In keeping with his lifelong love of writing, Cushing wrote frequently about the office of attorney general and his duties and responsibilities. In an 1856 treatise on the office, Cushing described his role as the administrative head of the government's legal business. He also took his opinion-writing function seriously. An opinion, he wrote, "is in practice final and conclusive,—not only as respects the action of public officers in administrative matters … but also in questions of private right, inasmuch as parties, having concerns with the government, possess in general no means of bringing a controverted matter before the courts of law."
Following his term as attorney general, Cushing continued to play a conspicuous role in both local and national politics until the end of his life. He returned to the Massachusetts state legislature from 1857 to 1859. In 1860 he served as chairman of the Democratic National Convention in Charleston, South Carolina, but he gave loyal support to Republican President Abraham Lincoln and the Union during the Civil War.
In 1866 he was named to a commission charged with revising and codifying the laws of Congress. In 1868, he served on a diplomatic mission to Bogota, Colombia. And in 1872, he was appointed counsel for the United States at the Geneva conference for the settlement of the Alabama claims, where arbitrators determined the amount of the award in a dispute concerning the construction and release of confederate cruisers by Great Britain.
In 1873 he was nominated by President ulysses s. grant as chief justice of the Supreme Court. With the memory of the Civil War still fresh, Cushing's opponents questioned his cordial relations with Jefferson Davis (based upon his Democratic connections) and forced the withdrawal of his nomination. The Treaty of Washington, Cushing's last work—and said to be his most important—was published in 1873. In 1874, he was nominated and confirmed as minister to Spain; he finished his term abroad in 1877.
Cushing died at his Newburyport home on January 2, 1879, just two weeks short of his eightieth birthday.
Baker, Nancy V. 1992. Conflicting Loyalties: Law and Politics in the Attorney General's Office, 1789–1990. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.
Donahue, William J. 1982. The Caleb Cushing Mission.
Fuess, Claude Moore. 1965. The Life of Caleb Cushing. Reprint. Hamden, Conn.: Archon.
Hodgson, Sister Michael Catherine. 1955. Caleb Cushing, Attorney General of the United States, 1853–1957. Washington, D.C.: Catholic Univ. of America Press.
Welch, Richard E., Jr. 1957. "Caleb Cushing's Chinese Mission and the Treaty of Wanghia: A Review." Oregon Historical Quarterly 58 (December).