A Good Read from the September 2018 Newsletter

Election Excitement in 1840 

1840s black and white photo of East Street with building and a line of horses pulling wagons.
East St., looking west, showing the Clarks’ Brick Store and the Methodist Church with Town Room below. Photo by Dana Carpenter.

In a letter to the Poultney Journal from January 1886, Judge O. L. Ray reminisces about events and personalities when he was an 18 year old in Middletown. The letters exchanged between Ray, Journal Editor Barnes Frisbie, and others were excerpted and re-published in 2004 by historians Dawn Hance and Joann Nichols.

“In 1840 the election excitement in Middletown was very great. The political parties, Whig and Democrat, were about equally balanced. Two years before, the Whigs had elected their candidate, Jonathan Morgan, to the Legislature. The next year he was again the candidate, but was defeated, or ‘killed a yearling,’” as common parlance had it, by Merritt Clark, the choice of the Democrats. So, early in the spring of 1840 both parties began to strengthen and martial their forces for a trial at the September election. Every vacant house had a tenant by the first of June. The leaders of both parties left no stone unturned to strengthen their own and weaken the cause of their opponents. Some even went so far as to burn vacant buildings belonging to or under the control of the opposition, to prevent them from harboring imported voters. The importance of the presidential election was not lost sight of, but the determination to elect their favorite man for town representative was paramount to every other purpose. That year the Whigs nominated [Dr.] Eliakim Paul, and the Democrats their former standard bearer, Merritt Clark. Clark was a young man then, and very popular, while Paul had scarcely an enemy in town. I thought in the spring I knew every voter in town, but I noticed that many men with strange faces were swore [sic] in their votes at that election. There was a hot contest all day at the polls, to wit: the basement of the Methodist church at the corner of the graveyard. The crowd were [sic] expelled from the room at the time of counting by the election board. Joe Spalding was 80 years of age [Joseph Spaulding, Jr., was actually aged 73], a Whig and a cripple. They allowed him to remain in the room, while a perfect jam of men and boys hung around the windows outside. I need not say I was a Whig in sentiment, and though not a voter I was one of that outside crowd and anxious for the success of Paul. After waiting for a time which seemed an age, Spalding hobbled upon his staff to the window, raised it, his face beaming with joy, and said ‘Boys, we’ve got twice the majority we wanted. Paul is elected by two votes.’ A cheering went up that went to heaven, and for the next hour or two Albert [W.] Gray and his clerk, behind the counter at the [Valley] hotel, were the busiest men probably ever known in the town to that date.” – O.L. Ray  

Eliakim Paul (1798-1876), a doctor for many years, had previously represented Middletown in the Legislature 1829-1832 and continued 1840 -1842 after defeating Clark. He served again 1850-1853. He also served as town clerk 1847-1849. In his History of Middletown, p.128, Frisbie says Paul “will be remembered as one of the most useful citizens of his time.”

Merritt Clark (1803-1896) was born in Middletown, graduated from Middlebury College, and in 1825 built the brick store opposite the green which he operated with his brother Horace. He was town Representative to the Legislature 1832, ‘33, and ‘39. In 1841 he moved to Poultney where he served as cashier of the Bank of Poultney for more than forty years and where in 1848 he founded, with Horace, the Rutland & Washington Railroad, later sold to Jay Gould.

He represented Poultney in the Legislature for two years. He was a Rutland County Senator for four years, Democratic candidate for Congress in 1850, and for Governor in 1854 and ‘55.