05 May 2016

Research, Research, Research...

by Brian Thornton

So last week I went to New York for the Edgars, and took the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. I was staying at the Grand Hyatt, just four blocks from the New York Public Library's famous central branch, and so I took the opportunity to do some research on a cache of papers the NYPL now owns.

The collection I needed to look at were from the personal papers of John C. Spencer–a career politician from western New York state served in President John Tyler's cabinet, first as War secretary, then as Treasury secretary. The son of a speaker of the New York state assembly, Spencer was more than just the scion of a political dynasty. In fact he was a man of letters, and instrumental in shaping the first American publication of Alexis de Tocqueville's seminal work, Democracy in America.

He was also the father of Midshipman Phillip Spencer–a drunken wastrel drummed out of two different colleges before he turned 16–and the only U.S. naval officer hanged for mutiny.
John Canfield Spencer
 When the U.S.S. Somers, the ship from whose yard arm his son had been hanged at sea a month earlier pulled into New York harbor, Spencer attempted to have the captain, one Alexander Slidell MacKenzie (brother of future Louisiana senator and eventual Confederate peace commissioner John Slidell), put on trial for murder in connection with the death of his son.

MacKenzie requested and got a summary court martial in front of a jury composed entirely of navy captains (who would never convict him). He was acquitted, and double jeopardy attached, thus Spencer's attempts to get MacKenzie arraigned on a murder charge in a New York court ultimately came to nothing.

(On an interesting side note, MacKenzie's first lieutenant was a fellow named Guert Gansevoort. Gansevoort was a native New Yorker, who told his first cousin about the whole affair. That cousin, the writer Herman Melville, later fictionalized the story of the Somers Affair in his novella Billy Budd.)

The man responsible for (reluctantly) granting MacKenzie's request was Spencer's colleague in Tyler's cabinet, Naval secretary Abel P. Upshur. To say that this turn of events made things awkward between the two men was an understatement. They actually came to blows during a cabinet meeting, with Upshur breaking a stool over Spencer's head.

So John C. Spencer, a complex man, with an interesting story. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what I'd already learned about him before getting access to his personal papers last week. Tune in next time to see what I learned about this fascinating man here:

The Brooke Russell Astor Reading Room–Repository of a cache of John C. Spencer's personal papers.


  1. A fascinating sidelight on the genesis of Billy Budd!

  2. I knew there'd be a connection to the USS Princeton! Abel Upshur is back; Keep us posted!

  3. Funny, a few hours ago, I was telling a friend about press gangs. I'd largely forgotten Billy Budd and the ironically named Rights of Man as it metaphorically sails away.

    Our school library contained a number of sea stories such as Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast. I certainly don't recall which Billy Budd edition I'd read, so it was good to make a review.

    I look forward to the next installment.

  4. I envy your opportunity to enjoy the NYPL, buddy. And that's a fascinating bit of history!


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