William Abijah White
Whom no man can accuse of being anything but a true Republican (Dodge County Citizen)
From 1854 to 1856 William A. White was the chairman of the Republican State Central Committee in Wisconsin. Following the new party’s surprising early successes in the state’s 1854 legislative and congressional elections, White’s position might have been enviable. Instead, after the apparent success of efforts to finesse the support of the state’s anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic nativist movement late in 1855, the party’s uneasy coalitions began to dissolve. Early in the presidential election year of 1856, Sherman Booth, the Republican insider and controversial former editor of Milwaukee’s abolitionist Free Democrat, challenged the party to purge itself of nativist Know Nothing elements through a mass meeting or face the prospect of a separate election ticket. White and the central committee favored a convention of delegates.
White, a Harvard alumnus, lawyer and son of a wealthy Watertown (Massachusetts) family, was not without resources. He arrived in Madison in 1853 with a national reputation as a spokesman for the temperance and antislavery movements. Before moving to Wisconsin, White had been a frequent contributor to and for a time editor and publisher of temperance journals including the Excelsior, the New Englander, and the Washingtonian. He was also the brother-in-law of the New England poet James Russell Lowell, a leading crusader for national reform.
Although Booth was both an abolitionist editor and the central figure in Wisconsin’s test of the Fugitive Slave Act involving runaway slave Joshua Glover, White had for more than a decade been a close friend and associate of Frederick Douglass, the nation’s most prominent former slave and one of its most eloquent antislavery spokesmen. The friendship dated to 1843 when White and Douglass lectured together throughout Indiana and Illinois and shared repeated attacks by local mobs. Douglass credited White with shielding him from assault on more than one occasion and with saving his life during the tour. It was undoubtedly because of White that Douglass made extended speaking tours of Wisconsin in 1854 and 1856.
In addition, like Booth White was among the early organizers of Wisconsin’s Republicans. Within months of his arrival in Madison he was already serving as chairman of the party’s central committee and had the distinction of convening the first Dane County Republican mass convention in Madison’s Baptist church in October, 1854.
As he surveyed the threats to the nascent Republican party in 1856, White was aware that reform issues had been appropriated as a Know Nothing cause to assail among other things the growing numbers of German and Irish immigrants nationally and in Wisconsin.
Without renouncing his reformist ideals, late in 1855 White declared that for the state’s Republicans the debate over nativist elements in the party was merely a distraction and that the party would and could only focus itself on the “plain issue of freedom and slavery.” He announced early in 1856 that “I do not yield to Mr. Booth either in my zeal in the antislavery cause, or my opposition to the proscriptive course of the Know Nothings.” It was a position from which he could successfully challenge Booth’s bluff and maintain the unity of the party. The Dodge County Citizen sided with White, calling him “[a man] whom no man can accuse of being anything but a true Republican.” contributing to the state’s role in the election of Lincoln four years later.
The popular and now effective Republican organizer, White would not enjoy the fruits of his victory. In October, 1856, he disappeared during a visit to Milwaukee.
Fueled by the political tensions in the state, for seven months Wisconsin’s partisan newspapers enhanced their circulation amid speculations that White was the victim of foul play or had committed suicide over financial problems. It was not until the following May that his remains were located near the lake shore north of the city. With the discovery of White’s remains the State Journal condemned “opinions derogatory to the character of Mr. W.” In its annual Collections, the State Historical Society would write “We will not judge him upon our conjectures…we trustingly leave him to the mercy of his God.” No official ruling about White’s death was made.
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“City Matters,” Daily Sentinel, Milwaukee: May 4, 1857.
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Douglass, Frederick, “Letter to William A. White, July 30, 1846,” Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass v. I (ed. Philip Foner), New York: International Publishers, 1950
Fond du Lac Weekly Commonwealth, October 29, 1856.
“The Late William A. White,” Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin (III), Madison: Calkins & Webb, 1857.
McManus, Michael J., Political Abolitionism in Wisconsin, 1840-1861, Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1998.
“Mr. Booth and the Mass Convention,” Dodge County Citizen, Beaver Dam: April 2, 1856.
Palmer, Joseph, Necrology of Alumni of Harvard College: 1852-53 to 1862-63, Boston: John Wilson & Son, 1864.
“Republican Mass County Convention,” Daily State Journal, Madison: October 11, 1854.
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Daily Sentinel, Milwaukee: April 22, 1856.