“The most active spirit in the dissenting group”: Universalism, Democracy, and Anti-slavery in the Hartford of John Milton Niles, 1816-1856.

“John Milton Niles (1787 –1856) of Hartford was a common school educated lawyer a newspaper editor and a two term US Senator. This spirited political organizer played a founding role in four Connecticut political parties: Tolerationist, Democratic, Free Soil, and Republican. He also published and edited the newspapers that carried the standard and brought out the faithful. Niles’s movement through these parties was not pell-mell; he plotted a consistent arc: opposition to the “established church” in the 1810s and 1820s; opposition to the privileges of “monster banks” in the 1830s, and to the “slave power” in the 1840s and 1850s. For Niles these “illegitimate authorities” had to be challenged by the political power of the “democracy.” This democracy’s enemy was always the same. It was “aristocracy”— whether of the spirit, of money, or of slavery— that sought to undermine popular rights, by gaining exclusive benefits from government. In addition to building political parties and their newspapers Niles is the acknowledged “main sparkplug” for the 1824 breakaway birth of First Independent Universalist Church of Hartford. paper explores how Niles’s embrace of these two “faiths” –Universalism and democracy– merged with an uncommon clarity that is evident in his social vision and in the political struggles he led in antebellum Hartford.
Niles’s public life began in 1816 with his founding of the Hartford Times. Disestablishment of the taxpayer-supported Congregationalist Church was the aim of his successful editorial exertions during the election of 1817. When Universalist efforts to gain a respectable place within the Second Congregational Church polity bore little fruit Niles initiated a bold break and led 60 families to create the First Independent Universalist Church in 1824. Adversity continued when the Connecticut Supreme Court held, in 1829, they could not give testimony in courts of law. They “did not believe in a future state of rewards and punishments,” so were “not accountable to God” and could not be relied upon to provide “competent testimony.” Democrats, led by Niles, worked to overturn the decision and finally did so by statute in 1833 when they became majority party in the General Assembly. Universalist progressivism and the anti-bank, anti-monopoly workingmen’s movements were closely related in 1830s New England. Niles corresponded with other prominent Universalist editor politicians in the lead of these “radical workies.” His first term in the US Senate came at the height of this “bank war” and he rose to the top of Jacksonian Washington and a place in the cabinet of Martin Van Buren. Niles’s returned to the US Senate in 1844 just in time to play a leading role in the sectional crisis over the future of slavery. Moral arguments about progress, legal arguments about the federal constitution, and political arguments about democracy are all evident in Niles’s many antislavery speeches, editorials, and personal letters. We see how his Universalist faith, egalitarian temperament, and hostility to “aristocracy” combined to produce an antislavery appeal of great potency.”