On June 19 — now a national holiday celebrating Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when slavery finally ended in the United States — the final round of the U.S. Open Championship will be played at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. Known to few is a historical connection between the club and one of America’s most important documents, the Emancipation Proclamation. President Abraham Lincoln issued this executive order in 1863, setting in motion the abolition of slavery.
That connection is George Sewall Boutwell, born in 1818 in a Brookline farmhouse whose foundation exists today as part of the Jaques Room of the club’s clubhouse. Boutwell’s father, Sewall, managed a farm owned by Dr. William Spooner on land that would become The Country Club in 1882, with the golf course constructed in the 1890s. As for George, who attended “common schools” and never went to college, he would have a remarkable 60-year career as Massachusetts governor, congressman, and senator, as well as Secretary of the Treasury for President Ulysses Grant. Importantly, for our story, he served as Commissioner of Internal Revenue under Lincoln.
At a low point for the Union during the Civil War, Boutwell arrived in Washington in the summer of 1862 to organize the revenue bureau. Over the next few months, he would play a pivotal role as trusted friend and adviser to Lincoln in publicly calling for the abolition of slavery at a time when the president had to be cautious about alienating Northern public opinion regarding the Union’s wartime objectives.
On a sweltering August day, Boutwell and Lincoln appeared together at a public rally attended by 10,000 people on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol building. Speaking just after the president, Boutwell sparked cheers from the crowd and positive coverage in Northern newspapers when he declared, “We shall never crush the rebellion until we crush slavery.”
This was something Lincoln could not yet say. As president, his stated aim was to preserve the Union and make sure border states such as Kentucky and Maryland didn’t desert the Union for the Confederacy. The next day, The New York Herald noted that all but one of the speeches reflected Lincoln’s policy “to prosecute the war for the Union, to crush out the rebellion first, and attend to other matters [slavery] afterward.” The one single “exception [was] the speech of Governor Boutwell.”
The Boston Evening Transcript applauded “Gov. Boutwell’s strong emancipation speech,” while The Evening Post in New York reported that Boutwell “described the real causes of the rebellion” and how the Union could never be restored until slavery “had been eternally removed.”
In the weeks following, when Boutwell met with the Lincoln at the White House to discuss the work of collecting taxes for the Union war effort, he would urge the president to publicly make the abolition of slavery a central aim of the war. In late August, shortly after the Union defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Boutwell told Lincoln that “emancipation seemed the only way out of our troubles.”
Three weeks later, after Union armies blunted the Confederate advance into Maryland at the battle of Antietam and sent Gen. Robert E. Lee’s forces back across the Potomac River, Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, to take effect on Jan. 1, 1863.
In the years following, as congressman from Massachusetts’ 7th District, Boutwell would help write the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, which provide for “equal protection under the law” and Black voting rights. In the 1870s, as senator, he chaired a select committee investigating the Ku Klux Klan and White supremacist violence against Black people during the Mississippi state election campaign of 1875.
Boutwell’s devotion to civil rights and racial equality continued up to his death in 1905 at age 87 at his home of 70 years in Groton, Massachusetts, now open to the public as the Groton History Center.
Eight years later, in 1913, the club hosted its first U.S. Open Championship, made famous by the playoff victory of 20-year-old amateur Francis Ouimet over British stars Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, which helped spark America’s golf boom in the early 20th century. That tournament was also memorable for the participation of John Matthew Shippen Jr., America’s first Black professional golfer and the son of an enslaved father set free by the abolition of slavery. Shippen first played in the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in 1896 at 16, tying for fifth place, and by 1913 he was the head pro at the exclusive Maidstone Club in Easthampton on Long Island.
Shippen played in six U.S. Open championships and finished his career in 1960 as head pro at America’s first Black country club in New Jersey, The Shady Rest Golf and Country Club in Scotch Plains. A pioneer in efforts to desegregate American golf, Shippen was awarded a posthumous membership in the PGA of America in 2009, and his work is promoted today by the John Shippen Memorial Golf Foundation.
In 1913, Shippen was the first Black American golfer to participate in a tournament at The Country Club, walking fairways where George Boutwell had been born a century before. In their very different ways, the two men worked to redeem America’s promise of racial equality and opportunity, a struggle that continues today, a century later.
Jeffrey Boutwell, a native of Winchester, Massachusetts, and a distant cousin of George S. Boutwell, is the author of the forthcoming, “Redeeming America’s Promise: George S. Boutwell and the Politics of Race, Money, and Power, 1818-1905.”