Publication Date


Degree Program

Department of History

Degree Type

Master of Arts


George Nicholas Sanders' involvement in regional, national, and international affairs in the mid-nineteenth century significantly shaped the history and unique character of America, as perceived by both Americans and Europeans. Sanders influenced the course of national political events not by idealistic leadership but by active participation. No one has yet written a biography on George N. Sanders, even though he played a prominent role in the annexation of Texas, Young America, presidential elections, diplomatic affairs, and in the Confederacy. Historians often ignored or slighted him because he tended to wield his influence behind-the-scenes. Hence, Sanders' true significance was often masked by the accomplishments and failures of more notable figures. Nevertheless, through Sanders' own words, as well as the letters and journals of presidents, statesmen, patriots, and family members, Sanders' activities and personality emerges. Born in Lexington in 1812 and raised in Carroll County, Kentucky, Sanders first entered national politics by organizing a meeting to promote Texas annexation and requesting presidential candidates to express publicly their position on the issue. In 1844, James K. Polk capitalized on this opportunity by supporting annexation and winning the presidency. Then in 1845, Sanders moved to New York to enter into politics and business. He became a leader of Young America, the progressive faction of the Democratic party, and also editor of the Democratic Review. His goal was to promote Stephen A. Douglas for president in 1852. Instead, Franklin Pierce won the Democratic nomination and ultimately the presidency, and he subsequently appointed Sanders Consul-General to London. In 1854, the Senate failed to confirm Sanders' appointment, voting 49 to 10 against him. His bizarre behavior, acrimonious criticism of political opponents, and close friendship with the European revolutionaries had alienated too many politicians. During the Civil War Sanders became a Confederate agent. In 1864, after numerous business ventures, he joined the secret service operation in Canada. Sanders was instrumental in organizing the St. Albans raid in Vermont and the abortive Niagara peace conference, two seemingly contradictory projects. Both were designed to achieve a favorable end to the war for the South. Finally, on May 2, 1865, President Johnson issued a $25,000 reward for his arrest in connection with Abraham Lincoln's assassination. The charges were ultimately dropped, but Sanders had probably encouraged John Wilkes Booth, although he was ultimately able to absolve the Confederacy of any blame in the plot. Sanders possessed vigor and charm, traits which won him many devoted friends. Therefore, he was capable of manipulating other people to achieve his own goals. Although Sanders was largely motivated by self-interest, he was never politically or financially successful. Despite his failures, in the mid-1800s Sanders exerted influence in national affairs, usually in the background of more prominent individuals.


History | United States History