Reminiscences of Washington
THE VAN BUREN ADMINISTRATION, 1837-1841.
WHILE the electoral votes for the eighth president of the United States were being counted, in the presence of the two houses of Congress, Senator Clay remarked to Vice-President Van Buren, with courteous significance, “It is a cloudy day, sir ! ”
“ The sun will shine on the 4th of March, sir ! ” was the Little Magician’s confident reply.
The prediction was fulfilled, for on his inaugural morning the sun shone brightly, and there was not a cloud to be seen in the clear sky. Washington was crowded with strangers from all parts of the country, and in anticipation of the time set for the ceremony great numbers began to direct their way at an early hour to the Capitol. Congregating before the eastern portico of the Capitol, the dense mass of humanity reminded those who had traveled abroad of the assembled multitude in front of St. Peter’s on Easter Sunday, waiting to receive the Papal blessing.
President Jackson and President-elect Van Buren were escorted from the White House to the Capitol by a volunteer brigade of cavalry and infantry, and by several democratic political organizations, marshaled by General Van Ness, who had a corps of mounted aids. General Jackson and his successor rode in an elegant phaeton, made of oak from the original timber of the frigate Constitution, which had one seat holding two persons, and a high driver’s box in front, bordered with a deep hammercloth. The unpainted wood was highly polished, and the fine grain was brought out by a coat of varnish, while on a panel on either side was a representation of “ Old Ironsides,” as the frigate was called, under full sail. The phaeton was drawn by General Jackson’s four iron-gray carriage-horses, with elaborate brass-mounted harness, and it was a very dashing turnout.
Arriving at the Capitol, General Jackson and Mr. Van Buren went to the Senate chamber, where they witnessed Colonel Johnson take his oath of office as vice-president. They then repaired to a platform erected over the steps of the eastern portico, followed by the diplomatic corps, the senators, and the principal executive officials. A cheer greeted the old hero, who had risen from a sick bed, against the protest of his physician, that he might grace the scene, and a smile of satisfaction lit up his wan, stern features as he stood leaning on his cane with one hand, and holding with the other his crape-bound white fur hat, while he acknowledged the compliment paid him by a succession of bows. Mr. Van Buren then advanced to the front of the platform, and with impressive dignity read in a clear, distinct voice his inaugural address. His manner and emphasis were excellent, yet the effect upon the multitude was not what might have been expected from so great a collection of men devoted to his support. The obvious cause was, that few of the half million could hear him at all, and that, notwithstanding the invitations to cheer, given at the close of every sentence by Marshal Van Ness, only feeble shouts responded to the wavings of the baton. When he had concluded Chief Justice Taney administered the oath of office, and no sooner had he reverentially kissed the Bible, as a pledge of his assent, than General Jackson advanced and shook him cordially by the hand. The other dignitaries on the platform followed with their congratulations, the populace at last cheered, and the bands played Hail to the Chief.
President Van Buren and ex-President Jackson were then escorted back to the White House, where for three hours a surging tide of humanity swept past the new chief magistrate, congratulating him on his inauguration. The assemblage was a promiscuous one, and the reception was as disorderly an affair as could well be imagined. At four o’clock in the afternoon, the members of the diplomatic corps called in a body, wearing their court-dresses, and Don Calderon, who was their dean, presented a congratulatory address. In his reply, Mr. Van,Buren made his only known lapsus linguœ by addressing them as the “ democratic corps.” It was not until after his attention had been called to the mistake that he corrected himself, and stated that he had intended to say “ diplomatic corps.” In the evening two inauguration balls were given.
Many strangers had been unable to find conveyances to take them away, and could not obtain tarrying-places. It was interesting, towards night-fall, to witness the gathering anxiety in many a decent man’s countenance as he went from boarding house to hotel, and from hotel to private residence, seeking lodgings in vain. Money seemed to be useless in Washington for once. It could indeed procure for the possessor the most luxurious dishes and the rarest beverages; but while the palate could be gratified, there was no rest for weary limbs. Beds ! beds ! beds ! was the general cry. Hundreds slept in the markethouse on bundles of hay, and a party of distinguished Bostonians passed the night in the chairs of a barber’s shop.
General Jackson remained but four days at the White House, and then left for Tennessee, relieved from the cares of his late station, and exhibiting an unwonted gayety of spirit. During the previous winter he had not expected to live until the conclusion of his term, and he could but feel buoyant and happy in finding himself sufficiently recovered to undertake the journey, with the prospect of enjoying some years at the Hermitage, in the midst of the agricultural occupations of which he was so fond. On the day of his departure he could not catch the melancholy contagion of his friends around him, who were oppressed with the thought of parting with him. He told one merry story after another, rallied his friends, and jocosely proposed a matrimonial connection to a member of his late cabinet whose eyes were filled with tears.
Mr. Van Buren was the first president who had not been born a British subject; yet he was at heart a monarchist, opposed to universal suffrage, and in favor of a strong central government, although he had reached his exalted position by loud professions of democracy. He endeavored to establish a personal intimacy with every one presented to him, and he ostensibly opened his heart for inspection. The tone of his voice was that of thorough frankness, accompanied by a pleasant smile, but a fixed expression at the corners of his mouth and the searching look of his keen eyes showed that he believed with Talleyrand that language was given to conceal thought.
President Van Buren’s wife (by birth Miss Hannah Hoes, of Columbia County, New York) had been dead nineteen years when he took possession of the White House, accompanied by his four sons, and presided over the official receptions and dinner-parties with his wellknown tact and politeness. In the November following his inauguration, his eldest son and private secretary, Colonel Abraham Van Buren (who was a graduate of the military academy at West Point, and who had served on the staff of General Worth), was married to Miss Angelica Singleton, a wealthy South Carolina lady, who had been educated at Philadelphia, and who had passed the preceding winter at Washington, in the family of her relative, Senator Preston. On the New Year’s Day succeeding the wedding, Mrs. Van Buren, assisted by the wives of the cabinet officers, received with her father-in-law, the president. Her rare accomplishments, superior education, beauty of face and figure, grace of manner, and vivacity in conversation insured social success. The White House was refurnished in the most expensive manner, and a code of etiquette was established which rivaled that of a German principality.
President Van Buren found himself saddled at the commencement of his administration with national financial embarrassments, bequeathed as a legacy by his “illustrious predecessor,” as he designated General Jackson in one of his messages. The destruction of the United States Bank had forced the transfer of the national funds, which it had held on deposit, to the state banks. They had loaned these funds on securities, often of doubtful value or worthless, and when the day of reckoning came general bankruptcy ensued. Manufacturers were obliged to discharge their workmen ; provisions were scarce and dear in the Atlantic States, because funds could not be obtained for the removal Eastward of the Western crops; and there was much actual distress in the large cities on the sea-coast. To quiet the popular clamor, the president convened Congress in an extra session, and in his message to that body, on its assembling, He proposed the establishment of an independent treasury, with sub-treasuries in different cities, for the safe-keeping of the public money, entirely separate from the banks.
The whigs opposed this independent treasury scheme, but, to the surprise of those with whom he had of late been politically affiliated, it received the cordial support of Mr. Calhoun. When Congress began to discuss tins measure, he became its champion in the senate, and soon “ locked horns ” with Mr. Clay, who led its opponents. The debate was continued session after session, and in time Messrs. Clay and Calhoun passed from their discussion of national finances into an acrimonious, reciprocal review of the acts, votes, and motions of each other during the preceding thirty years.
John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary that “ these oratorical encounters between Clay and Calhoun, are Lilliputian mimicry of the orations against Ctesiphon and the crown, or the debate of the second Philippic.” Others, equally competent to judge, and not prejudiced by jealousy, pronounced this personal debate the greatest oratorical contest that ever took place in the senate of the United States, not excepting the Webster and Hayne controversy, although that received greater publicity through judicious advertising. Mr. Benton was of this opinion, anti described the debate in his memoirs as abounding with exemplifications of all the different sorts of oratory of which each of the senatorial gladiators was master. “ On one side [Clay], declamation, impassioned eloquence, vehement invective, taunting sarcasm ; on the other [Calhoun], close reasoning, chaste narrative, clear statement, keen retort. There was no crying or blackguarding in it; nothing like the weeping scene between Fox and Burke, when the heart overflowed with bitterness at the recollection of former love, now gone forever; nor like the virulent one, when the gall, overflowing with bitterness, warned an ancient friend never to return as a spy to the camp which he had left as a deserter.”
In concluding this memorable debate, Mr. Calhoun denounced Mr. Clay for the part he had taken in the tariff compromise of 1833, and declared that in that contest the nullifiers were triumphant,— “they had the Kentucky senator on his back,—and that he [Mr. Calhoun] was his master then. Mr. Clay was evidently somewhat taken by surprise at this declaration, and he replied indignantly, giving a history of the tariff compromise alluded to, and clearly demonstrating that he had been actuated by patriotic motives in that controversy as a pacificator between the North and the South. Finally, Mr. Clay, drawing himself up to his full height, fixed his eyes upon Mr. Calhoun, and exclaimed in ringing tones and with a contemptuous gesture, “ He my master ! he my master! I would not own him for my slave ! ”
The financial condition of the country grew worse and worse. There was a total stagnation of business throughout the Union, and from every section came tidings of embarrassment, bankruptcy, and ruin. There were no available means for the purchase of Western produce and its transportation to the Atlantic markets, so it remained in the hands of the farmers, who could not dispose of it except at a great sacrifice. In Ohio, for example, pork was sold at three dollars a hundred pounds, and wheat at fifty cents per bushel, while the price of agricultural labor was but thirtyseven and a half cents a day. Amid this general distress, one class only remained unscathed by the blighting effects of the democratic financial policy: the president and his army of subordinate office - holders continued to receive their salaries in gold or silver. For this they obtained a premium on changing it into the paper currency in general circulation, and they were thus benefited in proportion as the people were embarrassed. This naturally caused great popular discontent, and aided in bringing about a great political uprising.
Among other evidences of the bitter and ferocious spirit which characterized political contests in those days was the duel between Mr. Cilley, of Maine, and Mr. Graves, of Kentucky, in which the former fell. Mr. Cilley, in a speech delivered in the house of representatives, criticised a charge of corruption brought against some unnamed congressman in a letter published in the New York Courier and Enquirer, over the signature of “ A Spy in Washington,” and indorsed in the editorial columns of that paper. Mr. James Watson Webb, the editor of the Courier and Enquirer, immediately visited Washington, and sent a challenge to Mr. Cilley by Mr. Graves, with whom he had but a slight acquaintance. Mr. Cilley declined to receive the hostile communication from Mr. Graves, without making any reflections on the personal character of Mr. Webb. Mr. Graves then felt himself bound, by the unwritten code of honor, to espouse the cause of Mr. Webb, and challenged Mr. Cilley himself. This challenge was accepted, and the preliminaries were arranged between Mr. Henry A. Wise, as the second of Mr. Graves, and Mr. George W. Jones, as the second of Mr. Cilley. Rifles were selected as the weapons, and Mr. Graves found difficulty in obtaining one, but was finally supplied by his friend Mr. Rives, of the Globe. The parties met, the ground was measured, and the combatants were placed; on the fourth fire Mr. Cilley fell, shot through the body, and died almost instantly. Mr. Graves, on seeing his antagonist fall, expressed a desire to render him some assistance, but was told by Mr. Jones, “ My friend is dead, sir ! ” Mr. Cilley, who left a wife and three young children, was a popular favorite, and his tragic end caused a great excitement all over the country. Mr. Wise was generally blamed for having instigated the fatal encounter ; certainly, he did not endeavor to prevent it.
Congress had its comedies as well as its tragedies, and the leading comedian was Thomas Corwin, a representative from Ohio, who was a type of early Western culture and a born humorist. He was a middle-sized, somewhat stout man, with pleasing manners, a fine head, sparkling hazel eyes, and a complexion so dark that on several occasions — as he used to narrate with great glee — he was supposed to be of African descent. “ There is no need of my working,” said he, for whenever I cannot support myself in Ohio, all I should have to do would be to cross the river, give myself up to a Kentucky negro-trader, be taken South, and sold for a field hand.” He always had a story ready to illustrate a subject of conversation, and the dry manner in which he enlivened his speeches by pungent witticisms, without a smile on his own stolid countenance, was irresistible. His greatest effort was a reply which he made to Mr. Crary, of Kentucky, who had undertaken to criticise the military ability of General Harrison. John Quincy Adams went over to Mr. Corwin’s desk, and advised him to reply; without success at first, Corwin saying that he was “ something like Balaam’s ass, — he could never speak unless kicked into it.” The next afternoon, however, he did reply, and his speech, as a model of humorous retort, has never since been equaled at the Capitol, His description of Mr. Crary as he appeared on parade as a militia general, and after the fatigues of a muster, when treating his brigade to water-melons and whisky at a country grocery store, as the ancient heroes assuaged their thirst from the skulls of their slaughtered enemies, was a delicious piece of satire. Then, turning to the history of General Harrison, Mr. Corwin gave an eloquent picture of his patriotic services with convincing force. No member of Congress ever received such personal discomfiture from a speech, and Mr. Crary never recovered from Corwin’s onslaught. Even at his home the farmers always offered him water-melons, in their season, accompanied by quotations from Corwin’s speech. He retired from public life an extinguished orator.
During the Van Buren administration Congress undertook to fill the four vacant panels in the rotunda of the Capitol, the other four being occupied by Colonel Trumbull’s paintings, representing revolutionary events. Contracts were entered into with John Vanderlyn, Henry Inman, Robert Weir, and John G. Chapman, each one of whom was to receive ten thousand dollars, payable in five installments, for a picture. Mr. Inman, after having received six thousand dollars, died, without having finished his picture, if indeed he ever commenced it. Mr. Chapman was the first to complete his work, The Baptism of Pocahontas, which has been generally condemned as an artistic failure and as a libel on historic truth. In catering to the pride of those who claimed to be descended from the Indian princess, who outranked the other first families of Virginia, Mr. Chapman had difficulties to contend with, more depressing, probably, than even the lack of inspiration which must have attended the portrayal of an apocryphal ceremonial.
The spirited bronze statue of Jefferson, by his admirer, the French sculptor David d’Angers, which Lieut. Uriah P. Levy had presented to Congress, but which had not been accepted, and had been denied a position in the Capitol, was reverentially taken in charge by two naturalized Irish citizens, staunch democrats, and placed on a small pedestal in front of the White House. One of them was the public gardener, Jemmy Maher, already alluded to in these reminiscences, and the other was John Foy, the keeper of the restaurant in the basement of the Capitol, famous for his witty sayings. Prominent among these bon mots was his encomium on Representative Dawson, of Louisiana, noted for his intemperate habits, the elaborate ruffles of his shirts, and his pompous strut. “ He came into me place,” said Foy, “ and after ateing a few oysters he flung down a Spanish dollar, saying, ‘ Nover mind the change, Mr. Foy : kape it for yourself.’ Ah ! There’s a paycock of a gintleman for you.”
An attempt was made to improve the condition of Pennsylvania Avenue, by giving the roadway a coating of finely broken stone, then known as macadamizing, after the English inventor, Captain MacAdam. The narrow-rimmed wheels used in this country failed to consolidate the pebbles into a firm mass, as was done by the broad tires used in England, and the roadway was compared by the wits to the stony roads of Arabia Petræa, and was only useful as an arsenal for belligerent boys. A few squares on the streets which intersected Pennsylvania Avenue were covered with buildings, and beyond them, northward, were the broad commons known as “ the slashes,” where Hibernian milk-maids kept their cows, and also reared large flocks of geese.
President Van Buren endeavored to restore the good feeling between the administration and Washington " society,” which had been ruptured during the political rule of General Jackson. He gave numerous entertainments at the White House, and used to attend those given by his cabinet, which was regarded as an innovation, as his predecessors had never accepted social invitations. Ex-President Adams, the widow of President Madison, and the widow of Alexander Hamilton each formed the centre of a pleasant coterie, and the president was open in the expression of his desire that the members of his cabinet and their principal subordinates should each give a series of dinner-parties and evening receptions during the successive sessions of Congress.
The dinner-parties were very much alike, and those who were in succession guests at different houses often saw the same table ornaments, and were served by the same waiters, while the fare was prepared by the same cook. The guests used to assemble in the parlor, which was almost invariably connected with the dining-room by large folding-doors. When the dinner was ready the foldingdoors were thrown open, and the table was revealed, covered with dishes and cut-glass ware. A watery compound called vegetable soup was invariably served, followed by boiled fish, over-done roast beef or mutton, roast fowl or game in their season, and a great variety of puddings, pies, cake, and ice-cream. The fish, meat, and fowl were carved and helped by the host, while the lady of the house distributed the vegetables, the pickles, and the dessert. Champagne, without ice, was sparingly supplied in long, slender glasses, but there was no lack of sound claret, and with the dessert several bottles of old madeira were generally produced by the host, who succinctly gave the age and history of each. The best madeira was that labeled “ the supreme court,” as their honors the justices used to make a direct importation every year, and sip it as they consulted over the cases before them, every day after their dinner, when the cloth had been removed. Some rare old specimens of this supreme - court wine can still be found in Washington wine-cellars.
At the evening parties the carpet was lifted from the room set apart for dancing, and the floor was chalked in colors to protect the dancers from slipping. The music was almost invariably a first and second violin, with flute and harp accompaniments. Light refreshments, such as water ices, lemonade, negus, and small cakes, were handed about on waiters between every two or three dances. The crowning glory of the entertainment, however, was the supper, which had been prepared under the supervision of the hostess, aided by some of her intimate friends, who had also loaned their china and silver ware. The table was covered with alamode beef, cold roast turkey, ducks, and chickens ; fried and stewed oysters, blanc mange, jellies, whips, floating-islands, candied oranges, and numerous varieties of tarts and cakes. Very often the young men, after having escorted the ladies to their respective homes, would meet again at some oyster-house, to go out on a lark, in imitation of the young English bloods in the favorite play of Tom and Jerry. Singing, or rather shouting, popular songs, they would break windows, wrench off knockers, call up doctors, and transpose sign-boards; nor was there a night-watchman to interfere with their roistering.
A decided sensation was created at Washington, during the Van Buren administration, by the appearance there of a handsome and well-educated Italian lady, who called herself America Vespucci, and claimed descent from the navigator who gave his name to this continent. Ex-President Adams and Daniel Webster became her especial friends, and she was soon a welcome guest in the best society. In a few weeks after her arrival, she presented a petition to Congress, asking, first, to be admitted to the rights of citizenship; and, secondly, to be given “ a corner of land ” out of the public domain of the country which bore the name of her ancestor. An adverse report, which was soon made, is one of the curiosities of congressional literature. It eulogized the petitioner as “a young, dignified, and graceful lady, with a mind of the highest intellectual culture, and a heart beating with all our own enthusiasm in the cause of America and human liberty.” The reasons why the prayer of the petitioner could not be granted were given, but she was commended to the generosity of the American people. “ The name of America— our country’s name—should be honored, respected, and cherished in the person of the interesting exile from whose ancestor we derive the great and glorious title.”
A subscription was immediately opened by Mr. Haight, the sergeant-at-arms of the senate, and judges, congressmen, and citizens vied with one another in their contributions. Just then it was whispered that Madame Vespucci had borne an unenviable reputation at Florence and at Paris, and had been induced by a pecuniary consideration to break off an intimacy with the Duke of Orleans, Louis Philippe’s oldest son, and come to Washington. Soon afterwards the duke’s younger brother, the Prince de Joinville, came to this country, and refused to recognize her, which virtually excluded her from reputable society. For some years subsequently she resided in luxurious seclusion with a wealthy citizen of New York, in the interior of that State, and after his death she returned to Paris.
Nearly a year before the presidential election of 1840, whig delegates from twenty-two States assembled in convention at Harrisburg, and nominated as their candidate William Henry Harrison, of Ohio, with John Tyler, of Virginia, for vice-president. These nominations were an enigma to the democratic friends of President Van Buren, and they unwisely lavished every opprobrious epithet upon them. General Harrison’s military fame, his humble pecuniary circumstances, and the log-cabin which formed a part of his rural residence were alternately made the theme of reproach and scurrilous attack. The louder this clamor became, and the more dastardly the attacks, the more ardently the whigs thronged to the banner of their chosen candidate. The sympathy, the generosity, and the patriotism of the nation were aroused and enlisted in the conflict.
The struggle was commenced at once in Congress, where the leading whigs cordially united in a decisive warfare on the democrats. General Harrison was eulogized as a second Cincinnatus, — plowman, citizen, and general, — and the sneering remark that he resided in a logcabin was adopted as a partisan watchword. The most notable speech was by Mr. Ogle, of Pennsylvania, who elaborately reviewed the expensive furniture, china, and glass-ware which had been imported for the White House by order of President Van Buren. He dwelt on the gorgeous splendor of the damask window-curtains ; the dazzling magnificence of the large mirrors, chandeliers, and candelabras ; the centre-tables, with their tops of Italian marble ; the satincovered chairs, tabourets, and divans ; the imperial carpets and rugs; and, above all, the service of silver, including a set of what he called gold spoons, although they were of silver-gilt. These costly decorations of the White House were described in detail, with many humorous comments, and then contrasted with the log-cabins of the West, where the only ornamentation, generally speaking, was a string of speckled bird’s eggs festooned about a looking-glass measuring eight by ten inches, and a fringed window-curtain of white cotton cloth.
This and similar speeches stimulated the people in their opposition to the administration which had persevered in forcing upon them a financial system injurious to the business interests of the country, and by midsummer at least one half of the voters in the country were actively engaged in the political campaign.
Log-cabins were raised everywhere for whig head-quarters, some of them of large size, and almost every voting precinct had its Tippecanoe club, with its choristers. For the first time the power of song was invoked to aid a presidential candidate, and immense editions of log-cabin song-hooks were sold. Many of these songs were parodies on familiar ballads, adapted to well-known tunes ; as, for example, one sung to Auld Lang Syne, the first verse of which ran thus: —
Who bravely did defend
Their lives and fortunes on the Thames,
The farmer of North Bend?
Chorus: The farmer of North Bend, my boys,
The. farmer of North Bend,
We ’ll give a right good hearty vote
To the farmer of North Bend.”
That fine old ballad, John Anderson, my Jo ! was changed into a campaign song, commencing, —
You’ve nullified the tariff laws, you’ve nullified your State;
You've nullified your party, John, and principles, you know,
And now you’ve nullified yourself, John C. Calhoun, my Jo! ”
One of the best compositions, the authorship of which was ascribed to George P. Morris, the editor of the New York Mirror, was a parody on The Old Oaken Bucket. The first verse ran, —
The time-honored days of our national pride;
When heroes and statesmen ennobled our story,
And boldly the foes of our country defied;
When victory hung o’er our flag, proudly waving,
And the battle was fought by the valiant and true,
For our homes and our loved ones, the enemies braving,
Oh, then stood the soldier of Tippecanoe, —
The iron - armed soldier, the true - hearted soldier,
The gallant old soldier of Tippecanoe.”
Mass conventions were held in the larger cities and in the central towns at the great West, attended by thousands, who came from the plow, the forge, the counter, and the desk, at a sacrifice of personal convenience and often at considerable expense, to give a hearty utterance to their deep-felt opposition to the party in power. Delegations to these conventions would often ride in carriages or on horseback twenty-five or thirty miles, camping out during the excursion. They carried banners, and often had a small log-cabin mounted on wheels, in which was a barrel of hard cider, the beverage of the campaign. On the day of the convention, and before the speaking, there was always a procession, in which the delegations sang and cheered as they marched along, while the music of their numerous bands aided in imparting enthusiasm.
The speaking was from a platform, over which floated the national flag, and on which were seated the invited guests, the local political magnates, the clergymen of the place, and generally a few revolutionary soldiers, who were greeted with loud applause. The principal orators during the campaign were Mr. Clay, Mr. Webster, Mr. Preston, Mr. Wise, Mr. Corwin, Mr. Ewing, Mr. Thompson, and scores of less noted names. General Harrison took the stump himself at several of the Westera gatherings, and spoke for over an hour on each occasion. His demeanor was that of a well-bred, well-educated, venerable Virginia gentleman, destitute of humor and fond of quoting from classic authors.
At that time many of the States voted for presidential electors on different days, which rendered the contest more exciting as it approached its close. There was no telegraphic communication, and there were but few lines of railroad, so that it was some time after a large State had voted before complete and correct returns could be received. At last, all the back townships had been heard from, and the exultant whigs were certain that they had elected their candidates by a popular majority of over one hundred thousand! Twenty States had given Harrison and Tyler two hundred and thirty-four electoral votes, while Van Buren and Johnson had received but sixty electoral votes in six States. The log-cabins were the scenes of great rejoicing over this unparalleled political victory, and the jubilant whigs sang louder than before : —