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Francis Preston Blair
Blair c. 1870
Francis Preston Blair Sr.
April 12, 1791
|Died||October 18, 1876
Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.
|Alma mater||Transylvania University|
|Known for||Founder of the Republican Party|
|Hampton Roads Conference (1865)|
Eliza Violet Gist (m. 1812)
|Children||5 (incl. Montgomery, Elizabeth, and Francis Jr.)|
Francis Preston Blair Sr. (April 12, 1791 – October 18, 1876) was an American journalist, newspaper editor, and influential figure in national politics advising several U.S. presidents across party lines.
Blair was an early member of the Democratic Party, and a strong supporter of President Andrew Jackson, having helped him win Kentucky in the 1828 presidential election. From 1831 to 1845, Blair worked as Editor-in-Chief of the Washington Globe, which served as the primary propaganda instrument for the Democratic Party, and was largely successful. Blair was an influential advisor to President Jackson, and served prominently in a group of unofficial advisors and assistants known as the "Kitchen Cabinet".
Blair, despite being a slaveholder from Kentucky, eventually came to oppose the expansion of slavery into western territories. He supported the Free Soil Party ticket of Martin Van Buren and Charles Francis Adams Sr. in the 1848 presidential election. In 1854, in opposition to the Kansas–Nebraska Act, he left the Democratic Party and helped establish the Republican Party. Blair served as an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War. In 1861, he was sent by Lincoln to offer command of a large Union army to Colonel Robert E. Lee, who declined, and instead joined the Confederacy. Blair also helped organize the Hampton Roads Conference of 1865, a failed attempt to end the war.
After the Union victory, Blair became disillusioned with Radical Reconstruction, a policy promoted by many members of the Republican Party. He eventually left the party and rejoined the Democrats. His son, Francis Preston Blair Jr., was the party's nominee for vice president on a losing ticket in the 1868 election. Blair died in 1876 at age 85.
Early life and career
Blair was born at Abingdon, Virginia to James Blair, a lawyer who became an Attorney General of Kentucky, and Elizabeth Smith. Raised in Frankfort, Kentucky and referred to as Preston by the family members, he graduated from Transylvania University with honors in 1811. He studied law, was admitted to the bar in 1817 but did not practice due to a vocal defect. He took to journalism, and became a contributor to Amos Kendall's paper, the Frankfort's Argus. During the social and financial turmoil caused by the Panic of 1819, Blair joined the so-called Relief Party of Kentucky. He participated in Old Court – New Court controversy in Kentucky being a president of the public Bank of the Commonwealth that opened in May 1821 to provide relief for debtors but was denied charter after Kentucky Court of Appeals backed by the United States 7th Circuit Court of Appeals declared already started relief measures unconstitutional. In 1824, Blair served as a clerk of new, alternative to existing state court of appeals vigorously establishing its authority.
As an ardent follower of Andrew Jackson, he helped him to carry Kentucky during the 1828 presidential election. In 1830, he was made editor of The Washington Globe, the recognized organ of the Jacksonian democracy. In this capacity, and as a member of Jackson’s unofficial advisory council, the so-called "Kitchen Cabinet", he exerted a powerful influence on national politics. The Washington Globe newspaper was the administration's voice until 1841, and the chief Democratic organ until 1845, when Blair ceased to be its editor. He partnered with John C. Rives, and started a printing house receiving profitable orders from Capitol Hill, including publishing the proceedings of Congress in The Congressional Globe, the precursor of the Congressional Record. During his time in Washington serving Jackson, Blair acquired in 1836 what later became known as the Blair House at Washington, D.C.
Blair backed James K. Polk during 1844 presidential election, however, he did not establish a good rapport with Polk and was forced to sell his interest in the The Washington Globe. In 1848, he actively supported Martin Van Buren, the Free Soil candidate, for the presidency. Next, in 1852, Blair supported Franklin Pierce, but became disillusioned in his administration after Pierce backed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. With other anti-slavery, free-soil Democrats, Blair helped to organize the new Republican Party, and presided at its 1856 preliminary convention at Pittsburgh on February 22, 1856, forging a party block out of discordant elements of Whigs, abolitionists, free-soilers and nativists. He used his political experience, influence and persuasion to create a momentum for a new party.
At the 1856 Republican National Convention, he was influential in securing the nomination of John C. Frémont, who was married to Jessie Benton Frémont, a daughter of his old friend, Thomas Hart Benton, for the presidency. At the 1860 Republican convention, he, as delegate at large from Maryland, initially supported Edward Bates for the 1860 presidential nomination. When it became clear that Bates would not succeed, Blair supported the nomination of Abraham Lincoln.
The elder Blair took it upon himself to advise Lincoln, and both of his sons, Francis Blair, who became a Union general, and Montgomery Blair, who joined the Lincoln's cabinet, were president's trusted associates. On April 17, 1861, just three days after the surrender of Fort Sumter, Lincoln asked Francis Blair to convey his offer to Colonel Robert E. Lee to command the Union Army. The next day, Lee visited Blair across Lafayette Square from the White House. Lee blunted Blair’s offer of the Union command by saying: "Mr. Blair, I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned the four millions of slaves at the South, I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native State?"
After Lincoln's re-election in 1864, Blair thought that his former close personal relations with the Confederate leaders, including Jefferson Davis, might aid in bringing about a cessation of hostilities, and with Lincoln's consent went unofficially two times to Richmond and induced President Davis to appoint commissioners including Alexander H. Stephens to confer with representatives of the United States. This political maneuvering resulted in the futile Hampton Roads Conference of February 3, 1865.
During the Reconstruction Era, Blair advocated a speedily reunification without placing much burden on the Southern states and spoke against the Radical Republicans' Reconstruction policies in the South. He became a political ally of President Andrew Johnson, and eventually rejoined the Democratic Party.
Preston Blair permanently established his residence in Washington, D.C. after acquiring in 1836 a brick dwelling on 1651 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, which became known first as the Blair’s House and then simply, Blair House. In 1840, Blair, and perhaps his daughter Elizabeth, encountered a "mica-flecked" spring in the vicinity of Seventh Street Pike, now Acorn Park on Blair Mill Rd. off the renamed Georgia Avenue in Montgomery County, Maryland. He liked the location at present day East West Highway and Newell Street, Silver Spring, Maryland, so much that he bought the surrounding land and built in 1849 a spacious summer home, which he called The Silver Spring. His son James, a naval officer, and his wife Mary lived in a two-story cottage on the estate eventually naming it, The Moorings. Blair's other son, Montgomery, built a summer house for his family nearby, calling it, Falkland; it was burned down in 1864 during a Confederate raid by General Jubal Early. Gen. Early denied any personal involvement with Falkland's destruction and took credit for saving The Crystal Spring from plunder.
In 1854, Blair gave his Washington, D.C. house to his son Montgomery and permanently settled at The Silver Spring. After his death, his daughter Elisabeth inherited the house for her lifetime.
Even though he held slaves as servants in his household, Blair became convinced after the Mexican–American War that slavery should not be extended beyond where it was currently allowed. By 1862, Blair had told his slaves that they could "go when they wished"; he later said that "all but one declined the privilege," choosing to stay on as servants.
After the Civil War, Blair placed all his political hopes and aspirations with his son, Francis "Frank" Blair who was in 1868 the Democratic vice-presidential candidate and in 1871 became a U.S. Senator. In 1875, Frank died and Blair died a year later at his estate at Silver Spring, Maryland, at the age of 85.
Francis married Eliza Violet Gist on July 21, 1812. He had three sons, Montgomery Blair (1813–1883), James L. Blair (1819-1852) and Francis "Frank" Preston Blair, Jr. (1821–1875), and two daughters, Juliet Blair (1816-1819) and Elizabeth Blair (1818-1906). Montgomery and Francis became prominent in American politics. His third son James, who participated as a midshipman in Antarctica's exploration and was later was commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, made his fortune during the California Gold Rush, but died at the early age. Blair's daughter, Elizabeth married Rear Admiral Samuel Phillips Lee and was a close friend of Mary Todd Lincoln. His nephew, Benjamin Gratz Brown (1826–1885) was also politically inclined, becoming a U.S. Senator and Missouri Governor. His grandson, Blair Lee I (1857-1954) became a U.S. Senator from Maryland.
As editor of The Washington Globe newspaper for fifteen years and publisher of The Congressional Globe, Preston Blair became an influential political figure of the Jacksonian Era, and served as an unofficial adviser to presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. By idealizing in his writing republicanism and democracy as national ideals, he contributed to growing at the time popular spirit of Americanism. Blair held to his political capital during Van Buren's presidency, but then started to loose his political influence as pro-slavery wing of the Democratic Party was gaining more power.
In response, after briefly supporting the Free Soil party, he helped to launch the new Republican party in 1854. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he personally conveyed Lincoln’s offer to Robert E. Lee to command all the Union armies, which Lee rejected. During the war, Blair served as unofficial political adviser to Lincoln. After Lincoln’s re-election, Blair organized the abortive Hampton Roads Conference, where peace terms were discussed with the Confederates, but no substantial issues resolved. He opposed the radical congressional Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War.
Professor of American History from Miami University, William Ernest Smith wrote in 1933, that Francis Preston Blair and his two sons, Francis and Montgomery, "are representatives of a longer period of influence in American politics than any other family except the Adams family." Two of Blair's three sons, Montgomery Blair and Francis Preston Blair, Jr. were prominent in American politics; his daughter, Elizabeth Blair Lee, was Mary Todd Lincoln's confidante. Blair's Washington, D.C., residence with its rich history withstood the test of time and currently is a part of the President's Guest House complex.
The city of Silver Spring, Maryland took its name from Blair's estate. Out of three houses connected to the Blairs at Silver Spring, only the house of James Blair survived. Violet Blair Janin, a daughter of James and Mary Blair, designated the house in her will for the public use and renamed it from the Moorings to Jesup Blair House in honor of her brother. It is currently located in the center of 14.5-acre Blair Park at Silver Springs and is administered by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
In 1885, a new school at 635 I Street, NE was renamed the "Blair School" In honor of Francis P. Blair, Sr. The school was closed prior to 1978 when the building became the home of Blair House, a large Transitional Rehabilitation housing facility.
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