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John Gorham Palfrey - The First Dean of Harvard Divinity School



"Having lived in Boston two years, ... not writing a line for any newspaper, nor seeking political associations of any kind, nor thinking of politics more than every tolerably well-informed person, ... I was elected by my fellow-citizens of that place to represent them in the General Court of the Commonwealth, for the years 1842 and 1843."
--A Letter to a Friend, 1850.

In 1841, Palfrey was elected as one of 35 Whig representatives from Boston to the Massachusetts General Court (the state legislature). He became chair of the House Standing Committee on Education and worked closely with Horace Mann, the secretary of the state Board of Education. In spite of his party's conservative economic policy, he was able to get legislation passed that continued support for the state teachers' schools and established libraries in each school district.

Though he had no trouble winning re-election in 1842, his party lost to the Democrats and his second term had several legislative disappointments. Instead of running again for the House in 1843, he sought a state appointment; when the Whigs regained control, he was appointed Secretary of the Commonwealth. In spite of his own financial situation (he was unable to find tenants for Hazelwood and the family could no longer afford to live in Boston), he kept his own salary constant while increasing those of his clerks. His duties were ceremonial (open the legislature, accompany the governor on trips) and record-keeping. His statistical tables set a new standard for Massachusetts, he organized the state's Revolutionary War records to facilitate answering pension claims, and he organized and indexed the 14,000 volumes and 40,000 pamphlets that comprised the state's printed records. He served as Secretary until 1847.


"He is a learned man. It is a feast to sit down and chat with him on any moral subject. ... He knows nothing about politicks, but is exceedingly interesting on morals, religion, and science. I am honored to call him my friend."
--Joshua Giddings, Letter to his wife, Jan. 30, 1848

Palfrey was elected in 1846 to serve (in 1847-48) as representative in the U.S. House of Representatives from the Fourth Congressional district. The Whig party was beginning to divide over the issue of slavery, but there were enough "conscience Whigs" in Middlesex County to elect him in a run-off election. By aligning himself with anti-slavery forces, Palfrey had alienated himself from many of the more conservative "cotton Whigs" in Boston who had previously supported him. In Washington, Palfrey was part of a small circle of anti-slavery congressmen (including Giddings) who met frequently.

"I do not believe it is good policy for the slaveholders to let their neighbors hear them talk of disunion. Unless I read very stupidly the signs of the times, it will not be the Union they will thus endanger, but the interest to which they would sacrifice it. If they insist that the Union and Slavery cannot live together, they may be taken at their word, but it is the union that must stand."
--Speech of Mr. Palfrey, of Massachusetts, on the Political Aspects of the Slave Question (1848)

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