Maritime log #28 – Capable Caleb Cushing Barely Missed Supreme Court

by Dyke Hendrickson, Custom House Maritime Museum Outreach Historian


Caleb Cushing was one of Newburyport’s key historical figures, and he almost made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. But unlike the recent nomination of Bret Cavanaugh, Cushing’s name was withdrawn in the face of opposition.

Cushing lived from 1800 to 1879, one of the most dynamic periods in this city’s history.

The family moved to Newburyport when he was about 2 and he grew up at 98 High St., which is now the Cushing Museum and home to the Museum of Old Newbury.

Cushing entered Harvard at 13 and graduated at 17. He was accepted to the bar at age 23, and in 1824 married Caroline Elizabeth Wilde, daughter of a judge on the state Supreme Judicial Court.

Cushing served in Congress from 1835-1843, and at one time was chair of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

He was a colonel in the war with Mexico (1846) and the first mayor of Newburyport (1851).

He was a judge on the state supreme court in 1852.

In 1853, President Franklin Pierce named him Attorney General.

He served from 1853-57, and he espoused views that today might be considered outside the mainstream. Cushing opposed abolition. An advocate of states’ rights, he supported the Dred Scott decision, which ruled that slaves were property and could be retrieved by owners, even in the North.

This has been called the worst Supreme Court decision in history.

Cushing supported the Union once the war started, but his anti-abolition feelings followed him.

President Ulysses Grant nominated Cushing for chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1874, but many members of Congress opposed him because of his initial anti-war views and his opposition to abolition.

Unlike the recent successful campaign of Cavanaugh, Cushing’s nomination was withdrawn. Cushing achieved much, but like many personalities in high places, he had made enemies.

His last federal office was as envoy to Spain from 1874 to 1877. He died here Jan. 2, 1879 and is buried at Highland Cemetery.

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Thanks. Dyke Hendrickson