When the Nation Was Young

By Antonia Petrash
Ann Sandford Kathryn Szoka

“Reluctant Reformer”
Ann Sandford
Excelsior Editions, $29.95

Can a family member be a dispassionate biographer, even when writing about a distant ancestor, or will the romance of family legend and lore lead to a loss of objectivity? 

Fortunately, Ann Sandford doesn’t seem to have suffered from this while writing “Reluctant Reformer: Nathan Sanford in the Era of the Early Republic,” a biography of her ancestor-cousin. She praises Sanford’s “courage and informed thinking,” while admitting to his “consummate ambition,” offering a nuanced portrait of a man who had a significant yet undervalued influence on the political and economic issues of the early years of our nation, issues such as universal suffrage, voter apathy, and political patronage, which still raise concerns today.

Ms. Sandford speculates about the reasons for the undervaluing of Sanford’s achievements: He never held an executive post, despite a penchant for detailed record keeping he left “no diaries with insightful observations,” and he suffered his entire adult life from a debilitating lung disease that curtailed his public speaking abilities when such abilities were prized. Yet he rose to prominence, presiding as a United States attorney for the District of New York and serving two terms in the U.S. Senate, making informed and morally upstanding decisions that were not always popular, but which the author asserts define his place in history as a “reluctant” reformer.

Nathan Sanford was born in 1777 in Bridgehampton. His father, Thomas, was a land surveyor and justice of the peace. His mother, Phebe Baker, claimed descendants from East Hampton dating to the mid-17th century. Thomas died in 1787, leaving a substantial inheritance. In 1791 Phebe married David Hedges, a dairyman and deacon of the Presbyterian Church in Bridgehampton. Both Nathan’s father and stepfather were successful businessmen, thus guaranteeing young Nathan the benefits of a rich, comprehensive education. 

But an additional benefit was his stepfather’s political prominence. David Hedges was frequently elected supervisor of the Town of Southampton, and represented Suffolk County in the State Legislature. This early exposure to both business and politics would not be lost on young Nathan and would inform his positions and decisions throughout his life.

Nathan studied at the Clinton Academy in East Hampton, Yale, and later the prestigious Litchfield School of Law in Connecticut. He was licensed to practice as an attorney in Manhattan in 1801, and there he established his own practice and was admitted as a “counselor” at the city’s court of common pleas. (He deleted the first “d” in his name purportedly to “save time.”)

Financially he prospered. Fees from his practice, his commissions as a notary public, and income from his inheritance allowed him to purchase a “dwelling house and lot” just north of Wall Street in Manhattan, and to marry Eliza Van Horne in 1801. In 1803 he was appointed by Thomas Jefferson as federal attorney for the District of New York, a prestigious and powerful position for one so young. The author’s detailed description of the cases Sanford handled as district attorney offers insight into how his career developed in the fiery political atmosphere of the new nation. He handled lawsuits involving conflicts on the high seas (conflicts that ultimately led to the War of 1812) and prosecuted bankruptcy cases and customs violations. 

He identified as a Republican and joined the Masons, through which he could solidify political and personal relationships with leaders in the city and state governments. At times his political motives seem contradictory. Outwardly he voiced concern over the morality of patronage, yet benefited from it himself in his appointments to political positions.

But he seemed to have a talent for judging when to stay above the political fray and when to become involved, understandingly attempting to position himself for the best advantage. For example, he was an early supporter of DeWitt Clinton when Clinton was mayor of New York in 1803, but when Clinton ran for president in 1812, Sanford joined Martin Van Buren in supporting James Madison. After two terms in the State Assembly, in 1815 Sanford was elected by the State Legislature to the U.S. Senate, with the support of his “dear friend” Martin Van Buren. (Senators were elected by state legislatures until 1913.)

Sanford was an effective senator. He supported military pensions, a standing army, and a viable navy. He insisted upon “accurate and timely public record keeping” and favored currency reform. He sought to protect American industries with tariffs, even if it meant increased prices for American consumers. Personally he was said to be a “good listener,” one who followed questions logically, considering the reasoning behind each question and statement.

Both Sanford’s father and stepfather were slaveholders; he was not. During his first term in the U.S. Senate he faced critical decisions regarding no less than the tumultuous Missouri Compromise. Through the author’s detailed account we are offered an inside seat at the historical battle that would divide the nation. Sanford opposed the expansion of slavery, and so voted against the Missouri Compromise, favoring instead a gradual emancipation of slaves in the new state of Missouri. Yet when these and other decisions didn’t go his way, he was able to compromise without losing his self-esteem or the respect of his peers. 

It was during his tenure as a delegate to the New York State Constitutional Convention in 1821 that he exhibited a strength of character that may have been his finest hour. In stirring prose he argued the merits of universal suffrage, including for black men, in his “call to Republican ideals” delivered from the convention floor:

“Here there is but one estate — the people. . . . The principle . . . is, that those who bear the [burdens] of the state, should choose those that rule it. There is no privilege given to property, as such; but those who contribute to the public support, we consider as entitled to share in the election of rulers.”

His life was not without controversy and sorrow. He was criticized for holding public office while continuing his own law practice, which some considered “greedy.” He lost two wives to complications of childbirth and a young son to a suspected case of cholera. Later in life he suffered from financial difficulties, and the chronic lung disease that plagued him finally claimed his life. He died in 1838.

One might argue that the author delves too deeply into the labyrinth of cases, decisions, and issues that Sanford handled. Admittedly, a devotion to historical study might lead to enhanced enjoyment of this book, but even non-historians will find it a rewarding read, for through Sanford’s story we learn more about the colorful history of our young nation itself.

Ann Sandford calls Nathan Sanford a reluctant reformer, but what she characterizes as reluctance might also be considered simply a deliberate caution. More important, through this eminently readable biography she does a most laudable service to her ancestor’s memory: A man who could not speak very loudly in public finally has his voice heard, loud and clear.


Antonia Petrash is the author of “Long Island and the Woman Suffrage Movement.” A retired library director, she lives in Glen Cove.

Ann Sandford, who lives in Sagaponack, is the author of “Grandfather Lived Here: The Transformation of Bridgehampton, New York, 1870 to 1970.” She will speak about “Reluctant Reformer” at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton on Jan. 27 at 11 a.m.

The Ezekiel Sandford house in Bridgehampton was built circa 1680 by Nathan Sanford’s great-grandfather. Sally Spanburgh