Among the older names in Wilmington is that of Boutwell. There is a street named for the family, and a school bears the same name. For two centuries, the Boutwell house stood on what is now Boutwell Street. It was a tiny house with a gambrel roof on one end and a peaked roof on the other. The stairway to the second floor was outside the house.
Jonathan Boutwell was born into one of Reading’s oldest families in 1709. He married Elizabeth Foster in 1733 and settled in Wilmington.
Among the members of that family was George S. Boutwell, Jr., who had a distinguished career in politics. He was not born in that tiny house, but his father was. George Sewall Boutwell, Sr. was the son of Jonathan Boutwell, Jr., born March 12, 1798.
George S. Boutwell, who would become governor, was born in Brookline on Jan. 28, 1818. He taught school in Shirley before settling in Groton, where he was appointed postmaster in 1841. He was elected state representative in 1843, and became a prominent Democrat in state politics.
Boutwell served as governor of Massachusetts from 1851 to 1853. In 1855, he was appointed as secretary to the State Board of Education.
When the Republican Party was organized in the late 1850s, Boutwell changed parties.
In 1861, he attended a peace conference in Washington, D.C., a futile effort to avert the Civil War. In 1862, with the country at war, Boutwell served on the Military Commission in the War Department. That same year, President Abraham Lincoln asked him to organize the Internal Revenue Service, aappointing him as the first commissioner of Internal Revenue.
In 1863, he was elected to Congress, and remained there until 1869. He was one of seven Congressmen who prosecuted President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment in 1868. The impeachment failed by one vote in the Senate.
When Ulysses S. Grant was elected president, he appointed Boutwell as Secretary of the Treasury, the first seat in the Cabinet. Boutwell reorganized the department, improved the bookkeeping systems of the customs houses, and paid down the national debt. The Treasury Department took over the operation of the U.S. Mint and implemented changes in currency to prevent counterfeiting.
In the summer of 1869, two New York financeers, Jay Gould and James Fisk, tried to corner the gold market. But they needed someone to tip them off on government plans for selling gold. They turned to Grant’s brother-in-law, Abel Corbin, who was able to convince the president to appoint Gen. Daniel Butterfield as assisant treasurer. And Butterfield, swayed by a $10,000 bribe, agreed to tip them off.
Gould and Fisk began buying gold, raising the price. Boutwell figured out what was happening. Corbin sought to meet with Boutwell, but Boutwell refused. Corbin then alerted Gould that something was amiss. After writing to Grant asking him to stop Boutwell, Corbin sent a telegram to Gould.
It was supposed to say, “Letter delivered all right.” However, when the telegrapher copied it, he wrote, “Letter delivered. All right.”
Gould intensified his gold buying.
But the letter caused Grant to smell a rat. He told Corbin to cut his ties with Gould, but Corbin tipped Gould off. Gould started selling. Fisk, unaware of the tipoff, continued buying. On Sept. 24, 1869, the price of gold was between $160 and $162.
Grant authorized Boutwell to sell $4 million worth of gold and buy the same amount in bonds. Boutwell sent a telegram to Butterfield conveying the order. When the news hit, the price of gold went down to $133 in a matter of minutes.
Gould and Fisk managed to bail out, but the scheme was stopped. The move, though, caused a crash of the stock market and created financial woe for much of the country. An investigation was conducted, but the conspirators were able to avoid conviction. Grant’s reputation, though, was severely tarnished.
Boutwell held the position of Secretary of the Treasury until 1873, and implemented many reforms in the department. There have been three Coast Guard cutters named for him, the Coast Guard having been part of the Treasury Department until being made a part of Homeland Security.
In 1873, he was elected to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Henry Wilson, who had been elected vice president. He served in the Senate for four years, the balance of the Wilson term and was chairman of the Committee on Revision of Laws. After completing his Senate term, he was appointed by President Rutherford B. Hayes to codify and edit the Revised Statutes of the United States.
In later years, he practiced international and patent law, and wrote several books on taxation, education, politics and the economy. He died at his home in Groton, Massachusetts on Feb. 27, 1905.