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Son of Old Berwick

"James Sullivan, The Forgotten Founder"

by Daniel Breen, Lecturer of Legal Studies at Brandeis University and Professor of History at Newbury College, Boston, Massachusetts

November 20, 2014 Lecture of the Old Berwick Historical Society's Speaker Series

James Sullivan
James Sullivan (1744-1808)

The story of how James Sullivan came into the world is almost as interesting as his eventful career.  The story goes that his father, John Sullivan, a member of one of the leading families of Munster, decided at the age of 31 to leave Ireland when his family firmly opposed his plans to marry a certain girl that he wanted to marry, leading him to decide that if he could not have his way with the blessings of his family he would simply leave and go to America.  On the way he happened to meet a 9 year old girl named Margery Brown, who seemed lively and personable enough to lead John to take her on as a ward when his ship happened to land in York in the year 1723.  

For more about the Sullivan family, including location maps and photos in Berwick, please click here.

He was not particularly planning to live in the District of Maine, but since York was where the ship put in, John got off and made his way to Berwick, where his knowledge of Latin allowed himself to set up as a schoolmaster.  He married Margery, a woman known to have a scathing tongue, when she came of age and began attracting others suitors.  They proceeded to have six children, of whom James was the fourth son.  Just before James was born his father apparently left home for Boston, tired of his wife’s bad temper, but came back after a public apology from Margery printed in the Boston Evening Post, an apology that may or may not have been sincere.  John did come back and the two of them continued to live long lives together, Margery dying at the age of 87, and John living to 104 or 105, depending on what date we accept as his actual birthday.

Much of what we know about James Sullivan comes from an extravagantly hagiographic biography published just before the civil war by one of his grandsons, and for good reason covering two full volumes, for Sullivan led an unusually full and active public life—he would be a busy lawyer, periodic member of the legislature, judge of the Supreme Judicial Court, attorney general of Massachusetts for an all-time record 17 years, owner of a fine Bulfinch-designed mansion in what is now Downtown Crossing, and finally the first Jeffersonian governor of Massachusetts, in which capacity he died at the age of 64.  One of the most impressive things about him was that he managed to fulfill all of these duties despite more obstacles than the anyone should have to face.  But before we get to the obstacles, what were the assets that allowed him to be a force in Massachusetts political life for so long, and ultimately to become governor?   He had three things going for him:

First, he had unquestioned revolutionary credentials, at a time when you were unlikely to get anywhere in Massachusetts politics if you had had Tory sympathies.  His brother John was one of Washington’s most important generals, and when the army was gathering around Boston after Lexington and Concord, James had worked hard to get supplies down to Cambridge from the coast of Maine.  Moreover, he had served in the revolutionary provincial congress meeting illegally in Watertown; organized the defenses of Biddeford and what was then Falmouth after the British burned it; helped prosecute the infamous spy Benjamin Church; and led a commission to inspect Massachusetts troops at Fort Ticonderoga, during which trip he had the distinction of being briefly imprisoned by Benedict Arnold.  He spent much of the war on the Supreme Judicial Court, worrying endlessly about the money he was losing in depreciated state currency.  Second, he had genuine political gifts—he was never very far from whatever the moderate middle was in Massachusetts political life—always a Republican but never a radical one, like the leaders of the Boston crowds, always excoriated by leading Federalists, yet able when he had to to do business with them and compromise with them.  Third, and most important, he was from Maine, at a time when that was the fastest growing region of the state.  New residents attracted by the lands of Maine tended to be Republican in sympathies, and Sullivan was a natural candidate for them to support.  Federalists lambasted them as “squatters” and asked whether the state would be permitted to be ruled by “the squatters of Maine.”  Republicans turned that into a badge of pride.  The more Maine grew, the more Sullivan’s vote totals grew when he ran year after  year for Governor, until he finally won in 1807.  

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