Recollections of Men and Things at Washington During the Third of a Century

By L. A. GOBRIGHT. Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen, and Haffelfinger.
THE newspaper has entered so deeply into Mr. Gobright’s soul, during his long career as editor, correspondent, or Congressional reporter at Washington, that he has not been able or willing to give his book much more proportion or coherence than appears in the make-up of a daily journal. One suspects that without his head-lines and his display-type he has a difficulty in distinguishing the trivial from the important in the multitude of events here recorded; but as the result is a uniform simplicity of statement, it is not to be lamented altogether; for it might have been just the reverse under the same conditions. As it is, these recollections of Washington life during the eventful period of time between the second administration of Jackson and the impeachment of Johnson, are very entertaining; and we should think that to the old-fashioned politicians stranded in every part of the country they would be exquisitely refreshing and delightful. To people who believe in the good old Jackson times, or Harrison times, or Taylor times, or Pierce times, or Buchanan times (these last have been made as good and old as the best and oldest by the great gulf of war and change that yawns between us and them), here is reading for a pleasant afternoon, and material for endless revery and interminable talk. And we think a younger generation will find Mr. Gobright’s book sufficiently interesting and profitable. It will help us to measure our advance ; and we may take heart for our later Congresses and administrations by contrasting them with those in which our so-called great men governed. These are not particularly pure or dignified or hopeful days in society or legislation at Washington ; but they are nearer the millennial period than the glorious epochs which we love to lament, as Mr. Gobright would tell us in so many words if he had “ space ” to philosophize, and as we may easily gather from his recollections without special help of his. He remembers how the Hon. Bail1ie Peyton of Tennessee said to a hapless witness before a committee of which he was a member, “You sha’n’t speak; you sha’n’t say one word while you are in this room ; if you do I will put you to death,” with curses and profane language ; and how Hon. Henry A. Wise, chairman of the same committee, declared in the House that he was prepared to kill this witness in a certain contingency; how honorable gentlemen frequently went out and fought duels with powder and wadding only ; how President Jackson had his nose pulled; how the Hon. Mr. Cilley was killed in a duel about nothing, at the third the ; how Mr. Van Buren, having received an immense cheese as a present, ordered it to be cut up and served to the guests at one of his receptions, and the crumbs got trodden into the East Room carpet and spoiled it; how General Harrison had to give up going to market because of the office-seekers, and was finally worried to death by them ; how Mr. Clay and Mr. King quarrelled in the Senate to the verge of the duello, and then explained and apologized, and Mr. Clay brought about the old cordial feeling by going up to Mr. King and saying, “ King, give us a pinch of your snuff”; how Senator Crittenden opposed the establishment of a police force of sixteen men in Mr. Tyler’s time as the first insidious step towards the formation of Praetorian bands; how Mr. Tyler received a box believed to contain an infernal machine, but really enclosing the model of a stove.
During Polk’s administration, Mr. Gobright recollects among many other things that a reporter for the New York Tribune was expelled from the House for describing the personal habits of Hon. Mr. Sawyer of Ohio, who every day ate a luncheon of Bologna sausage in the House, and wiped his fingers upon his clothes and his bald head ; and that “ among the members who repeatedly went all the way upstairs ” with this reporter, to introduce him into the ladies’ gallery, was John Quincy Adams. Mrs. Madison, the widow of President Madison, “ was a lady of elegant manners and passionately fond of snuff.” Offering Mr. Clay a pinch from her “splendid box,” she pulled out a bandanna handkerchief, with the words, “ ' Mr. Clay, this is for rough work,’ applying it at the same time to the proper place ; ‘and this,’ producing a fine lace handkerchief from another pocket, ‘ is my polisher.’ She suited the actions to the words, removing from her nose the remaining grains of snuff.” Mr. Toombs once spoke himself out of breath in the House, in defiance of the House rule against debate before the election of Speaker, and denounced the cries for order as “fiendish yells.” So late as 1850, Mr. Clay indulged in a bit of curious stage-business, exhibiting in the course of an argument for the Union a fragment of the coffin of Washington. Shortly after, General Taylor died of cholera morbus, having refused a bottle of cholera medicine offered him at one of his receptions by a young gentleman of Baltimore, who was almost crushed by the President’s rebuff, “I thank you, am much obliged to you, but I never take medicine, cholera or no cholera.” Mr. Foote of Mississippi had repeatedly offered very gross insults to Mr. Benton in the Senate, and at last drew a revolver upon him when he feared a personal assault. In Pierce’s time the Hon. Messrs. Cutting and Breckenridge went out to fight a duel, but were reconciled : Mr. Breckenridge said, “ Cutting, give me a chew of tobacco ! " and the statesmen renewed their friendship over the potent plug. Mr. Churchwell and Mr. Cullum had a misunderstanding in the House, and there vilified one another with very bitter and profane words ; Mr. Brooks murderously assaulted Mr. Sumner in the Senate Chamber, and was fined three hundred dollars for it; and Mr. Burlingame went all the way to Niagara Falls to fight Mr. Brooks, but Mr. Brooks refused to proceed to such geographical extremes, and no meeting took place. Hon. Mr. Herbert of California shot dead an Irish waiter at Willard’s Hotel, and was acquitted of murder. “ A personal controversy ” took place between Mr. Sherman of Ohio and Mr. Wright of Maryland; the former attempted to throw a handful of wafers into the face of the latter, who attempted to draw a pistol, but neither succeeded in his dark design. Mr. Grow of Pennsylvania and Mr. Keitt of South Carolina met at fisticuffs in the halls of legislation, in Mr. Buchanan’s time ; and two Southern gentlemen had an altercation, of which we must copy Mr. Gobright’s account entire, not only because it gives a sufficient and pleasing idea of his manner throughout the book, but also because it affords an amusing picture of the social life of the gentlemen who formerly governed the country as they governed their plantations : —
“ In February, 1858, there was a collision between Hon. James B. Clay of Kentucky, and General Cullum of Tennessee. Cullum entered the bar-room of Brown’s Hotel, where Clay, Hawkins, and Mason were standing. He proposed an old-fashioned Kentucky drink, in which all parties participated. Subsequently he commenced a conversation with Clay, stating he had removed from Kentucky to near the Hermitage, in Tennessee, where he bearded the lion in his den. He spoke of his long devotion to and admiration of Mr. Clay’s father, Henry Clay. Mr. Clay replied to General Cullum, that General Leslie Coombs had once, as Chickasaw ambassador, also bearded the lion in his den. This expression was supposed by some of the bystanders to be jocular, but was received by General Cullum as an insult. Clay disavowed such an intention. Cullum made a reply, accompanied with a menacing use of his finger, when Clay said he was not accustomed to be addressed in such a threatening manner. Cullum became more excited under the conviction that Clay intended to insult him, and characterized Clay as the apostate son of a noble sire. Clay said his physical condition was such as would prevent him from answering with a blow, but he could not resist proclaiming Cullum a damned scoundrel; whereupon Cullum drew back to strike him. The force of the blow was partially arrested by the spectators, but still reached Clay’s nose, and Caused it to bleed. Clay called on Senator Johnson, of Arkansas, to act as his friend, and a preliminary message was communicated to Cullum, of which acceptance was signified as soon as a competent second could be chosen. Efforts to reconcile the difficulty proving ineffectual, the parties left for the duelling-ground, accompanied by their respective friends. But before they got into fighting position, Senators Crittenden, Toombs, and Kennedy undertook the office of peacemakers, and the quarrel was settled thus: Clay disavowed any intention to insult Cullum, and Cullum apologized for the blow on Clay’s nose.”
We think our readers will agree with us that this is delicious : the somewhat gross good-fellowship, the obtuseness and impenetrability to a joke, the magniloquence, the pluck, the hot temper, and the easy reconciliation upon the interference of distinguished friends, appear to us charmingly and characteristically Southern. But there is rather too much sameness in these difficulties of Southern gentlemen; they are so apt to shake hands at last, and partake together of a pinch of snuff or a chew of tobacco. The only fatal duel which Mr. Gobright recollects is the Graves and Cillcy affair ; and Mr. Cilley was a Northern man. Mr. Pryor of Virginia would not meet Mr. Potter of Wisconsin, because the latter chose bowie-knives as the weapons, and bowie-knives were not genteel. Where words merely were concerned, the gentlemen from the South were not so particular ; they used the first that occurred to them. In fact they did not always consider bowie-knives so low ; Mr. Dawson of Louisiana carried one, and drew it upon Mr. Giddings during debate.
As one turns over the pages of Mr. Gobright’s gossiping book, a feeling of amazement that the old state of things could have endured so long as it did overcomes even the sense of shame with which one reads of all that bullying and browbeating on the Southern side, that truckling and meanness on the Northern side. All this is gone by now, however, and we arc fallen upon duller and far less picturesque times. No doubt there is enough that is amusing and mortifying in the proceedings of Congress and the conduct of the members; but the old plantation manners are obsolete. Wc fancy that it must cost Mr. Gobright a pang when he goes down to the capitol of a morning, and, looking in upon the national legislature, reflects that there is probably not a concealed weapon — not a revolver, not a bowie-knife — on the whole Congressional body; nothing more deadly, perhaps, than a latent purpose of plunder in any member. A journalist who has witnessed the beginning and the end of the slavery agitation in Congress, who has passed through four years’ war in the capital, and who has lived to report the assassination of our best President and the impeachment of our worst, must look forward to the future with grave doubts of its capacity to furnish so much good material for despatches ; and with the kindest feeling toward Mr. Gobright, we trust the future will justify any such misgiving.