Francis Preston Blair

The American journalist and politician Francis Preston Blair (1791-1876) was a close adviser of President Andrew Jackson. Blair joined the antislavery movement and was active in the newly created Republican party throughout the Civil War.

Francis P. Blair was born on April 12, 1791, in Abingdon, Va., but he grew up and was educated in Kentucky. He graduated from Transylvania University in 1811, studied law, and was admitted to the bar in 1817, although he never practiced. As a young man, he was in poor health, and all of his life he was frail-looking and small, weighing little more than 100 pounds; he married Eliza Gist over her father's objection that she would be a widow in 6 months. Yet Blair proved to be a prodigious worker for 50 years thereafter.


Jacksonian Politics

His family was active in politics: his father had served as attorney general of Kentucky, and an uncle was governor of the state, when Blair was a young man. In the political battles in Kentucky over financial and judicial reform, Blair himself became associated with the Relief party and the New Court, both reform groups. He contributed political articles to the Argus of Western America, an influential paper in Frankfort, edited by his friend Amos Kendall, and he became clerk of the state circuit court and president of the Commonwealth Bank.

When Andrew Jackson was elected in 1828, Kendall went to Washington as an adviser, and Blair became the editor of the Argus. He produced powerful editorials defending Jacksonian policies and, upon Kendall's recommendation, Jackson brought him to the capital in 1830 to establish an administration newspaper, the Washington Globe. John C. Rives of Virginia joined him as business manager, and they made the Globe one of the most potent political organs in the country. In 1833 they made an important contribution to contemporary political education (and to later historians) by beginning publication of an impartial report of the daily proceedings in Congress, the Congressional Globe (today replaced by the government publication Congressional Record).

Blair and Jackson became good friends, and Blair's articles in the Globe were faithful expressions of the President's views. Blair would consult with Jackson in the White House, taking notes on scraps of paper held on his knees as the President spoke, then would hurry off to convert these into slashing editorials. Blair attacked Henry Clay's American Plan of protective tariffs and internal improvements, the U.S. Bank, and the nullification doctrines of John C. Calhoun's South Carolina; he advocated hard money and the interests of the "common man" against the men of wealth. His editorials charged the Whigs with trying to enlarge the rights of property so much "as to swallow up and annihilate those of persons" and pledged the Democratic party to preserve the rights of the people. He took satisfaction in being called a radical and told President Van Buren, "I feel myself to be a sort of Representative of the Mechanical Classes, the working people of all sorts …. "In 1837, when Van Buren asked Congress to establish an independent treasury, Blair called it "the boldest and highest stand ever taken by a Chief Magistrate in defense of the rights of the people… a second declaration of independence."

Blair worked for the nomination of Van Buren in 1844. But when James K. Polk was elected president, Blair offered to continue the Globe as the Democratic administration paper. Polk refused, fearing that the journalist was not friendly toward him. He was right. Blair referred to Polk's narrow, rigid mind, his pettiness, and his ungenerous attitude. Blair remarked in 1848 that the voters were indifferent about the election because they "had tried Tyler and Polk, and yet the country has not been materially hurt. If two such Presidents cannot injure the nation, nothing can!"


Antislavery Politics

Silver Spring, Blair's country home just outside Washington in Maryland, became the political mecca for Jacksonians during this period. However, Blair departed from many of his associates in 1848, when he supported the Free Soil cause. He had never been associated with abolitionism, but he said Van Buren's letters and speeches that year had converted him to the necessity of opposing the slave power. In 1852 he was prepared to back Thomas Hart Benton for the Free Soil nomination but later approved the Democrats' nomination of Franklin Pierce. When Pierce appointed "Southern radicals" to his Cabinet, Blair felt that Northern and moderate Democrats had been betrayed; and when the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Bill passed—opening up the territories to slavery—Blair was roused to fight. "I hope there will be honest patriots enough found to resist it," he said, "and that the present aggression will be rebuked. I am willing to devote the balance of my life to this object." He was then 63 years old. Stephen Douglas, in typical invective, called him "a good Democrat fallen into 'Black Republicanism."'

Blair was active in the Republican cause in 1856; and in 1860, although he would have preferred an "old Democrat," he joined vigorously in the campaign for Lincoln and became the new president's valued adviser. One of Blair's sons was the attorney general in Lincoln's Cabinet, and another was first a congressman from Missouri and then a brigadier general in the Civil War.

In 1864 Blair met privately with Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Va., in an attempt to end the war, and he arranged the futile Hampton Roads Conference of 1865. After the war he wanted the Union restored "as it was," and opposed the Radical Republican program for the South. His son Francis was the vice-presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket with Horatio Seymour in 1868, and in 1872 Blair supported Horace Greeley. The old Jacksonian unionist died on Oct. 18, 1876.


Further Reading on Francis Preston Blair

The only work that covers the life of Blair is William Ernest Smith, The Francis Preston Blair Family in Politics (2 vols., 1933), which provides something of a political history of the whole "middle period" of American history. Histories of the Jacksonian era, such as Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Jackson (1945), have much information on Blair. Studies of the pre—Civil War era and of the war and the Reconstruction period provide material on his later life. Writings by and about his associates are useful, such as the biographies of Andrew Jackson, and Thomas Hart Benton, Thirty Years' View (2 vols., 1854-1856; repr. 1968).

Additional Biography Sources

Smith, Elbert B., Francis Preston Blair, New York: Free Press, 1980.