Forgotten Wellesley Citizens: Josiah Gardner Abbott

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on November 13, 2014. 

Josiah Gardner Abbott (1814 - 1891) Source: Men of Progress (1896)

Josiah Gardner Abbott (1814 – 1891)
Source: Men of Progress (1896)

Abbott, Arlington, Belvedere, Caroline, Fletcher, Franklin, and Livermore.

You would think with all of those street and place names in Wellesley Hills, the subject of this article, Josiah Gardner Abbott, wouldn’t be a complete unknown.

After all, everyday we drive along roads named for his wife, Caroline (Livermore) Abbott, two of his sons, Fletcher and Franklin, as well as the locations of his family’s winter residence on Arlington Street in Back Bay and their first home on Stackpole Street (the original name of Clovelly Road) in the Belvidere section of Lowell.

This lack of familiarity doesn’t mean, however, that Josiah Abbott wasn’t worth remembering. In fact, he was one of the most distinguished lawyers in the entire Commonwealth during the mid-19th Century, so much so that he routinely was nominated for judgeships for the State Superior and Supreme Courts.

(Perhaps Abbott could have better cemented his legacy had he not turned down these offers or resigned soon after accepting them. Society certainly admires judges more than lawyers. But who could blame him given the extreme discrepancy in their salaries? Why settle for $3000 in income as a Suffolk County Superior Court Judge when you’re able to earn $29,000 — in 1858 dollars, mind you — as a litigator?)

Despite all this success in the courtroom, Abbott’s greatest claim to fame actually came in the political arena.

A staunch Democrat, he had dabbled in politics for nearly four decades — serving in the Massachusetts Legislature and then running unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate against Republican stalwart Charles Sumner (twice) — before he finally reached the national stage with his election to the House of Representatives in 1874.

Josiah Abbott’s stature was elevated even further when he was selected as one of fifteen members of the bipartisan Electoral Commission that was to decide the outcome of the 1876 Presidential Election between Samuel Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes.

Needless to say, this wasn’t just some ordinary election. Only a decade removed from the Civil War, there was still very strong tension between the Republicans (controlling the North and the West) and the Democrats (dominating the South). Southern Democrats, in particular, were looking for any opportunity to split once again from the Union.

So the entire nation was on edge when it was revealed that contested elections in four states left 20 electoral votes undeclared. The lead held by Tilden, the Democratic nominee, over his Republican counterpart, Hayes — a mere 19 votes — was therefore not insurmountable.

Unfortunately for Abbott and the Democrats, the Electoral Commission would end up voting 8 to 7 (entirely along party lines) to award all 20 electoral votes to Hayes and thus hand the Presidency to the Republican Party.

Democrats throughout the nation were outraged over this decision, believing that the Republicans stole the election. Some called for violence against “Rutherfraud” supporters. Even the Democratic minority on the Commission went so far as to write an address — penned entirely by Abbott — that protested the decision.

This address, however, wasn’t published largely because Abbott believed that it would be detrimental to the future of the Democratic Party and could even threaten the stability of the nation. It was a difficult, yet noble and patriotic decision. Although Abbott was ridiculed in the media, he may have very well prevented a second Civil War.

That event more or less marked the end of the political career of Josiah Abbott. After a third unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1877, he retired to his 53-room mansion on Linden Street — known as “The Hundreds” — until his death in 1891. (The house was later razed to make way for Kirkland Circle.)

Three years later, his children began developing a large swath of woodlands he had owned into the Belvedere Estates. And despite their best efforts to weave their family’s names and legacy into the fabric of that neighborhood, remembrance of the powerful Josiah Gardner Abbott quickly faded into oblivion.

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