THE POLK ADMINISTRATION, 1845-1849).
JAMES KNOX POLK was inaugurated as the eleventh president of the United States on the 4th of March, 1845, a rainy, unpleasant day. Had any method of contesting a presidential election been provided by the constitution or the laws, the fraudulent means by which his election was secured would have been brought forward to prevent his taking his seat. But the constitution had made no such provision, and Congress had not been disposed to interfere ; so Mr. Polk was duly inaugurated, with great pomp, under the direction of the dominant party. A prominent place was assigned in the inaugural procession for the democratic associations of Washington and other cities, including the pugilistic Empire Club from New York, led by Captain Isaiah Rynders.
The chief marshal of the procession having issued an order that no carriages should enter the Capitol grounds, the diplomates were forced to alight at a side gate in the rain, and to walk through the mud to the senate entrance, damaging their feathered chapeaux and their embroidered uniforms, to their great displeasure. Conspicuous in the group around the president when Chief-Justice Taney administered the oath of office was Vice-President Dallas, tall, erect, and dignified, with long snow-white hair falling over his shoulders.
President Polk was nearly fifty years of age when he was inaugurated, and was no novice in public life, having served for fourteen consecutive years in Congress, and for two years as governor of the State of Tennessee. He was a spare man, of unpretending appearance and middle stature, with a rather small head, a full, angular brow, penetrating dark gray eyes, and a firm mouth, His hair, which he wore long and brushed back behind his ears, was touched with silver when he entered the White House, and gray when he left it. He was a worthy and well-qualified member of the fraternity of free-masons and a believer in the creed of the Methodists, although, out of deference to the religious opinions of his wife, he attended worship with her at the Rev. Mr. Sprole’s Presbyterian Church. Calm, cold, and intrepid in his moral character, he was ignorant of the beauty of moral uprightness in the conduct of public affairs, — ambitious of power, and successful in the pursuit of it. He was very methodical and remarkably industrious, always finding time to listen patiently to the stories of those who came to him as petitioners of patronage and place. But his arduous labors impaired his health and shortened his life. Before his term of office had half expired, his friends were pained to witness his shortened and enfeebled step, and the air of languor and exhaustion which sat upon him.
Mrs. Polk was a strict Presbyterian, and she shunned what she regarded as “ the vanities of the world ” whenever it was possible for her to do so. She did not possess the queenly grace of Mrs. Madison, or the warm-hearted hospitality of Mrs. Tyler, but she presided over the White House with great dignity. She was of medium height and size, with very black hair, dark eyes and complexion, and formal yet graceful deportment. At the inauguration of her husband she wore a black silk dress, a long black velvet cloak with a deep cape, trimmed with fringe and tassels, and a purple velvet bonnet, trimmed with satin ribbon. She would not permit dancing at the White House, but she did all in her power to render the administration of Mr. Polk popular. One morning a lady found her reading. i: I have many books presented to me by the writers,” said she, “ and I try to read them all; at present this is not possible; but this evening the author of this book dines with the president, and I could not be so unkind as to appear wholly ignorant and unmindful of his gift.” At one of her evening receptions a gentleman remarked, “ Madam, you have a very genteel assemblage to-night.” “ Sir,” replied Mrs. Polk, with perfect good humor, but very significantly, “ I never have seen it otherwise.”
John C. Calhoun had expected to remain in the cabinet as secretary of state, and he did not hesitate to say that he was sacrificed to appease the wrath of Mr. Van Buren. Accordingly James Buchanan became Mr. Polk’s secretary of state, and Mr. Calhoun soon returned to the Capitol as a senator from South Carolina, to engineer the extension of slavery, free-trade, and state sovereignty. His appearance indicated that he was over threescore years of age. Bushy eyebrows overshadowed deep blue eyes, which gleamed like stars ; his furrowed forehead and gaunt cheeks showed great mental activity and care, and his thin lips had the melancholy look seen in the portraits of Dante. His long, coarse hair had become gray, and he wore it brushed back in masses from his high forehead. One morning, as he was sitting for his portrait in the studio of Mr. Kellogg, he said to the writer of these reminiscences, “ I have always endeavored to dress with a simplicity that would not attract notice, and I have succeeded, with the exception of my hair. When I wore it short the letter-writers used always to have something to say about it, and now that it is long I fear that it attracts equal attention.” Speaking of autographs, he remarked that his original handwriting was round and clear, but that when he was at the Litchfield law school his haste in taking notes changed it. It was then as erratic and bold as were his movements in the days of nullification.
Mr. Buchanan was then in the prime of life, and his stalwart frame, fair complexion, light blue eyes, courtly manners, and scrupulously neat attire prompted an English visitor — Mrs. Maury — to say that he resembled a British nobleman of the past generation, when the grave and dignified bearing of men in power was regarded as an essential attribute of their office. Although a bachelor, he kept house on F Street, next to the abode of John Quincy Adams, where his accomplished niece presided at his hospitable board. He faithfully carried out the foreign policy of President Polk, but never let pass an opportunity for advancing his claims to the succession, with refreshing humility. In a heretofore unpublished letter, written to a friend, he alluded to a prediction that he would be the next president, and went on to say, “ I or any other man may disappear from the political arena without producing a ripple upon the surface of the deep and strong current which is sweeping the country to its destiny. Nothing has prevented me from removing myself from the list of future candidates for the presidency, except the injury this might do to the democratic cause in Pennsylvania. On this subject I am resolved, and whenever it may be proper I shall make known my resolution. Nothing on earth could induce me again to accept a cabinet appointment.” Yet never did a wily politician more industriously plot and plan to secure a nomination than Mr. Buchanan did, in his still-hunt for the presidency.
President Polk, anxious to placate his defeated rival, Mr. Van Buren, tendered the appointment of secretary of the treasury to Silas Wright, who declined it, having recently been elected governor of the State of New York, but recommended for the position Mr. A. C. Flagg.
Governor Marcy, who represented the anti-Van Buren faction of the New York democracy, objected to the appointment of Mr. Flagg, and then to the appointment of Mr. George Bancroft, the historian. Finally, Robert J. Walker, who had been a senator from Mississippi, and who was a believer in the British doctrine of free-trade, was made secretary of the treasury. Governor Marcy, a known friend of the South and a man of determined character, was appointed secretary of war. Mr. Bancroft was appointed secretary of the navy, and Cave Johnson, of Tennessee, postmaster general. John Y. Mason, of Virginia, who had been the secretary of the navy in Tyler’s cabinet, was retained by Polk as his attorney-general, having made earnest appeals that he might not be disturbed. He wrote to an influential friend at Washington that he desired to remain in office on account of his financial wants. “ Imprudence amounting to infatuation,” he went on to say, “ while in Congress, embarrassed me, and I am barely recovering from it. The place is congenial to my feelings, and the salary will assist Virginia land and negroes in educating six daughters. Although I still own a large estate, and am perfectly temperate in my habits, I have felt that the folly of my conduct in another respect may have led to the report that I was a sot, — an unfounded rumor, which originated in a Richmond paper.”
While President Polk endeavored to gratify each of the component factions of the democratic party in the composition of his cabinet, he ruthlessly deposed the veteran Francis P. Blair from the editorship of the Globe, to gratify the chivalry of South Carolina, who made it the only condition upon which he could receive the electoral vote of their State, then in the hands of the General Assembly, and controlled by the politicians. The Globe ceased to be the editorial organ of the administration, and “Father” Ritchie, who had for many years edited the Richmond Inquirer, was invited to Washington, where he established the Union, which became the mouth-piece of President Polk. “ The Globe,” says Colonel Benton, “ was sold and was paid for: it was paid for out of public money, — the same fifty thousand dollars which were removed to the village bank at Middletown, in the interior of Pennsylvania.” “ Three annual installments made the payment, and the treasury did not reclaim the money for three years.” Colonel Benton may certainly be regarded as excellent authority.
In the contest among the democrats for the federal offices, woman made her first appearance in the struggle for the spoils. The widow of Senator Linn, of Missouri, became an applicant for the St. Louis post-office, and she secured a large collection of autographic recommendations from democratic magnates. But Colonel Benton, whose home residence was at St. Louis, claimed that in accordance with the recognized usage he was entitled to name the postmaster there, and he preferred to have one of his political followers appointed. The voice of “ Old Hickory,” however, was more potential than that of “ Old Bullion,” and the personal intercession of General Jackson made “Young Hickory ” appoint Mrs. Linn postmistress at St. Louis. Elated with her success, Mrs. Linn was thenceforth active in advancing the political interests of her friends, and among those for whom her persistent efforts secured places was the Rev. Mr. Milburn, who, nearly blind and very poor, was elected chaplain to the house of representatives.
Another gifted woman, Mrs. Alexander Hamilton, secured the passage of an appropriation for the publication and purchase of her illustrious husband’s papers, which she had carefully preserved in fifty-seven folio volumes. She was a daughter of General Schuyler, of New York, whose gallant services during the war of the Revolution have become a part of our national honor. With a slight figure and apparently a feeble organization, she approached fourscore and ten years with an almost total exemption from disease, notwithstanding the severe misfortunes which had overcast her life in its prime. Her eldest son, Philip, and then her distinguished husband fell martyrs to the so-called code of honor, but her unshaken piety, her gentle courage, and her cheerfulness upheld by the forces of the mind the natural weakness of the body. She guarded her husband’s memory with jealous care, and was always ready to purchase, at an exorbitant price, stray copies of his celebrated pamphlet, in which he avowed his infidelity to her rather than expose himself to a charge of official misconduct.
The Oregon question had been bequeathed to President Polk by his predecessor. He had been elected on the platform of “ the whole of Oregon or none ! ” and “ 54.40 or fight ” was the euphonious alliteration, the war-cry, of the democratic party in the contest which it had gained. Mr. Polk recommended an application of the Monroe doctrine to Oregon in his inaugural message, yet it is well known that he did not intend to act upon his own recommendation. He sent Mr. Louis McLane, of Maryland, to London to negotiate a treaty for the final settlement of the Oregon question ; and that minister plenipotentiary stated on his return, at a public dinner at New York city, that the adoption of the forty-ninth parallel of latitude had always appeared to him to be a practicable basis for an honorable adjustment of existing difficulties. In negotiating a treaty on this basis, Mr. McLane went on to say, he felt that he was but representing the policy of his government, and faithfully promoting the intentions and the wishes of the president. The treaty thus negotiated was in due time ratified, and “ 54.40 ” was abandoned without the promised “ fight.”
It was a difficult task, however, to reconcile some of the democratic leaders from the Western States,—a vigorous section of the republic that felt the daring of battle and the confidence of victory over an ancient foe more than the commercial States on the Atlantic coast, which always fear the disastrous effect of war. In the debate in the senate, after it had been diplomatically intimated by the courteous Senator Haywood, of North Carolina, that the United States would fall back on the fortyninth parallel, the most discontented speakers were Senators Benton, Allen, and Hannegan. Colonel Benton, whose egotism had grown with his years, imperiously denounced the partial abandonment of what he styled “ the country of the Columbia.” Mr. Allen, having vociferously undertaken to show that the Southern senators had acted in bad faith on the annexation of Texas, and were disposed to do so again on the Oregon question, was sharply answered by Calhoun and McDuffie. Mr. Hannegan, in a highly excited harangue, declared that “if the president should surrender the banner which was put into his hands by the Baltimore convention, he would prove himself recreant to his professions, recreant to the party, and recreant to the country. If it were true, the president would be doomed to an infamy so profound, a damnation so deep, that the trumpet call of the resurrection could never reach him.”
The excitement produced by the threatened war with Great Britain on the Oregon question prepared the public mind for the hostilities with Mexico, another troublesome legacy inherited from John Tyler by the Polk administration. The first step was to send an “ army of occupation ” to the frontier, commanded by Brevet Brigadier-General Zachary Taylor. He was a Southerner by birth and by education, — a planter who worked his own slaves, and a soldier who had never any fault to find with his profession except that promotion came slowly in times of peace. He refused to march into the enemy’s country until positively ordered to do so, and was finally told that he “need not wait for directions from Washington to carry out what he might deem proper to be done.” He obeyed orders, and soon demonstrated what he thought should be done on the bloody fields of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. Had the government supported the gallant hero who thus fought two pitched battles and terminated a campaign, he would have continued his victorious march, and soon reached the halls of the Montezumas in triumph. But the people began to talk of General Taylor as worthy of the highest office in their gift, and President Polk began to cripple him ; not successfully, however, until after he had forced the garrison of Monterey to capitulate, and had won his crowning victory at Buena Vista.
President Polk, who had meanwhile given “ aid and comfort ” to the enemy by permitting the return of General Santa Anna, withdrew the best troops from General Taylor’s army, and placed them, with reinforcements, under the command of Major-General Scott, whose march from Vera Cruz to the city of Mexico won for him the applause of his countrymen and of the great generals of Europe. But Mr. Polk endeavored to degrade the men whose military skill and daring had almost miraculously saved the arms of their country from disgrace by persuading Congress to create the office of lieutenant-general. Had this been done, he would have commissioned Thomas Hart Benton, who would have outranked Major-Generals Scott and Taylor, who had been assailed in Congress by the president’s right-hand supporters — Orlando B. Ficklin, of Illinois, and Jacob Thompson, of Mississippi — as unfit to conduct the war with advantage to the democratic party.
To the more intelligent portion of the United States the war with Mexico was repulsive, and the manner in which it was used for the advancement of democratic politicians was revolting; but very few forgot their allegiance to their country in the face of the enemy. Congress, repeatedly appealed to by the president, voted men and money without stint, to secure the national success and to maintain the national honor. Whig States which — like Massachusetts — had no sympathy for the war, contributed the bravest of their sons, but it was noticeable that the contracts for military supplies and the charter of vessels for transportation were almost invariably made with democrats. Indeed, some of them must have regretted the declaration of peace ; nor was it many years before they again came to the front, as contractors, charterers of vessels, discounters of officers’ pay-orders, quartermasters, commissaries, sutlers, and camp-followers. Many of those, at the North and at the South, who made small sums from their connection with the Mexican war amassed fortunes during the subsequent war of the rebellion.
The third important measure identified with the Polk administration was the repeal of the tariff act of 1842, and the enactment of another more decidedly in the interest of the British manufacturers. Although a majority of both houses were opposed to the bill, as was declared again and again in the prolonged debate which it occasioned, it was forced through Congress by the persistent efforts of President Polk, seconded by Mr. Robert J. Walker, his secretary of the treasury. They were aided by Mr. George Dwight, a Massachusetts whig, who was a bitter enemy of protection to home industry, and the reputed agent of the manufacturers and the exporters of Great Britain. He occupied a large parlor in one of the leading hotels at Washington during the sessions of Congress under the Polk administration, where he dispensed a generous although by no means indiscriminate hospitality, and his position as the agent of the British manufacturing and mercantile interests was well understood.
There were great changes in the membership of the United States senate at the commencement of the Polk administration. Webster and Calhoun and Clayton returned to the chairs which they had previously occupied; Crittenden took the place of Clay ; and Bright, Butler, Cass, Corwin, Douglas, Dix, Hale, Reverdy Johnson, Jefferson Davis, Houston, Hunter, Hamlin, and Mason were among the new senators. But Rufus Choate had returned to the practice of his profession, Silas Wright had been elected governor of the State of New York, Levi Woodbury had been placed upon the bench of the supreme court, James Buchanan and Robert J. Walker had been appointed members of the cabinet, and William R. King was minister to France. Archer, Berrien, Linn, Mangum, McDuffie, Rives, and Tallmadge had been retired to private life, and the walls of the senate chamber no longer echoed to their voices.
Mr. — or, as he was universally called, Tom — Corwin displayed great oratorical power in discussing the Mexican war. Calhoun, Hunter, Jefferson Davis, and Mason endeavored to silence him, but he good-naturedly turned the flank of one after the other. Taking up one of the quotations cited by Calhoun,— “ The child follows the condition of the mother,” — as a reason why slavery should be introduced into the territory acquired from Texas, he said, “ I think not one man of our complexion, of the Caucasian race, could be found quite willing to appreciate this admirable, philosophical, rational, Christian maxim. In Europe the crown follows the father, but under our law the chain follows the mother.” Mr. Corwin was at that time quite stout, and his clean-shaven swarthy cheeks hung flabbily in folds when his features were in repose. But when he spoke, every portion of his wonderful face was in expressive motion, from his forehead to his chin, inclusive. He possessed a rollicking, jovial voice, indicative of a large volume of vitality, and he never, for an instant, lost his temper in debate. The secret of his power consisted in the persistency with which he forced his convictions upon the senate. To his own mind those convictions were very clear, and to make others believe them he resorted to every fair and sometimes to unfair means. His humorous anecdotes were so many arguments, and the laugh they raised became a force in the direction he was leading the senate.
In the house of representatives were a number of able men, prominent among whom was the accomplished Robert C. Winthrop, who was elected speaker, and who was described as “ the rising glory of the whigs.” Massachusetts also had in her delegation John Quincy Adams, George Ashmun, Charles Hudson, Daniel P. King, and Horace Mann. Virginia had Thomas S. Bocock and William L. Goggin. Alabama had Henry W. Hilliard and George S. Houston. Connecticut had Truman Smith and James Dixon. New York had Horace Greeley, Washington Hunt, and William Duer. Pennsylvania had David Wilmot and the two Philadelphia Ingersolls. Ohio had Joshua R. Giddings, Robert C. Sehenck, and Samuel F. Vinton. Mississippi had Jacob Thompson. Georgia had A. H. Stephens, Robert Toombs, Howell Cobb, and Thomas Butler King. Indiana had Richard W. Thompson and Caleb B. Smith. Kentucky had Linn Boyd. Tennessee had Andrew Johnson and George W. Jones. Vermont had Jacob Collamer and George P. Marsh.
Among the Illinois delegation was “long John ” Wentworth, proud of his New Hampshire ancestry, and Abraham Lincoln, who made no mark as a legislator, but who established his reputation as a story-teller, and who was to be found every morning in the post-office of the house, charming a small audience with his quaint anecdotes. Among other incidents of his own life which he used to narrate was his military service in the Black Hawk war, when he was a captain of volunteers. He was mustered into service by Jefferson Davis, then a lieutenant of dragoons, stationed at Fort Dixon, which was near the present town of Dixon, Illinois, and was under the command of Colonel Zachary Taylor. Mr. Lincoln served only one term, and before its expiration he began to take steps for appointment as commissioner of the general land-office two years afterwards, should the wings then come into power. A number of prominent whig senators and representatives indorsed his application, but he was not successful.
Jefferson Davis was a representative from Mississippi until he resigned to accept the command of a regiment of riflemen, with which he rendered gallant service at Buena Vista, under his fatherin-law, General Taylor, with whom he was not at that time on speaking terms. In appearance, his erect bearing recalled his service as an officer of dragoons, while his square shoulders and muscular frame gave proof of a training at West Point. His high forehead was shaded by masses of dark hair, in which the silvery threads began to show; his eyes were a bluish-gray, his cheek-bones were prominent, his nose was aquiline, and he had a large, expressive mouth. He was an ardent supporter of state sovereignty and of Southern rights, and he was very severe on those congressmen from the slave-holding States who were advocates of the Union, especially Mr. A. H. Stephens, whom he denounced as “ the little pale star from Georgia.”
It was customary for the members of Congress to give what was called a Birth-Night Ball on the 22d of February, and each subscriber had the privilege of inviting two ladies to accompany him. The first one of these BirthNight Balls attended by President Polk was graced by the presence of General Felix Grundy McConnell, who represented the Talladega district of Alabama, and who was arrayed in a blue swallow-tailed coat, light cassimere pantaloons, and a scarlet waistcoat. His female acquaintances at Washington not being very numerous, he had invited two good-looking French milliner girls, from a shop in the lower story of the house in which he boarded, to accompany him. The young women were dressed as near to the Parisian style of ball dress as their means would permit, and the trio attracted much attention as they promenaded the hall. When the president arrived, the general marched directly to him, and exclaimed, in his stentorian voice, “ Mr. Polk, allow me the honor of introducing to you my beautiful young friend — Mamselle — Mamselle — Mamselle — parley vous Français — whose name I have forgotten ! ” Then turning to the other lady, he asked, “ Will you introduce your friend ? ” The president, seeing General Mac’s embarrassment, relieved him by shaking hands cordially with each of the young ladies, but he firmly declined joining them in a glass of champagne.
The reading of speeches in Congress, a custom which had been gradually introduced, became more general after Mr. Rives secured their publication, at the public expense, in the Congressional Globe. Almost every senator, representative, and delegate has since then felt himself called upon to rise, when any important question comes up, with the air of a Demosthenes, to take from his desk a pile of manuscript, which he had written or purchased, and to read it with great emphasis and with an occasional gesture. Few listen to these speech-readers, as they flounder on through page after page, but though their words sink unheeded in the Capitol, they rise the next day in typographical glory.
Mr. Buchanan, in a letter written about this time, which has never appeared in print, said, “ Congressional speeches have for some years past been gradually losing the character of debates, and assuming that of essays,—a most unfortunate change. They are losing all the freshness and power which the collision of able minds on important political questions never fails to produce, and degenerate into previously prepared lectures. Whoever will take up the reports of debates in the British Parliament, printed in the Times almost before the houses have adjourned, and compare them with our didactic essays, must be painfully struck with the contrast ; and yet I firmly believe that we have better speaking talent in this country than they have in England. The public taste is becoming vitiated, and the senator or representative who carefully writes out a political harangue in his closet, and delivers it in debate, and has it circulated in pamphlet form, acquires very unjustly a great reputation as a debater.”
The house exercised its “ privilege ” early in the Polk administration, and expelled Mr. William E. Robinson from the reporters’ seats on the floor, because he had humorously described the midday lunch of Mr. Sawyer, a member from Ohio, upon a chunk of bread and a sausage, in a letter to the New York Tribune. Mr. Robinson, who was some years afterwards elected a representative from the Brooklyn district, retreated to the ladies’ gallery, to which members had the privilege of introducing gentlemen, and the venerable John Quincy Adams repeatedly ascended the stone staircase to pass the obnoxious correspondent into the gallery. He continued to criticise the members from his exalted station until the close of the session, when he reviewed his contest with “ Sausage ” Sawyer and its consequences, and expressed his regret that " the last link ” was “ broken” that bound him to the house.
The “ war correspondent,” who has since performed important duties in every continent, was first found in the United States forces which conquered Mexico. It had previously been thought that war was the business of soldiers and of statesmen, and that the people had nothing to do with it except to shed their blood and to pay their taxes. But the United States army which invaded Mexico was accompanied by a corps of plucky and persevering correspondents, who kept those at home correctly posted about all that transpired. General Scott, jealous, irascible, and domineering, issued his celebrated “ Order No. 349,” but without avail. The correspondents not only continued to chronicle gallant acts, dashing off picturesque accounts of battles while the fighting was going on, but they criticised the conduct of manœuvring politicians at home and the petty tyrannies of officers in the field.
Mr. Robert Weir’s picture representing the Embarkation of the Pilgrims from Holland was completed and placed in the rotunda of the Capitol during the administration of President Polk. Originally driven from their English homes by religious persecution, they have embarked for the New World, seeking “ freedom to worship God.” The three most prominent figures on the deck of the Speedwell, waiting on a dark autumnal day for the turn of the tide to put out to sea, are Governor Carver, Elder Brewster, and Pastor Robinson ; each one dressed in a Geneva suit of black, and each one having a bald head, a gray beard, and a pale face, as if the three were painted from the same model. Then there is Miles Standish, who was, history informs us, a small man, but who is represented in the picture as a stalwart warrior, with tawny hair and scarlet hose, wearing his cuirass and carrying his sword, although there were no foes in that vicinity. A woman equally gigantic in size wears a fanciful green dress, while Dame White has a gown of striped satin, and Mistress Winslow stands on the verge of the ocean dressed like one of Rubens’s portraits of his mistresses. In the background are other men and women gayly attired, like the supernumeraries in a melodrama, and the picture fails to give an idea of the sincere yet bigoted exiles for conscience’ sake. The artist sacrificed historical truth that he might produce a picture full of strong effects. He received $10,000 for his work.
Mr. John Vanderlyn, who was commissioned to fill another of the then vacant panels of the rotunda, went immediately to Paris, where he spent several installments of his remuneration before he commenced his Landing of Columbus. He then employed a French artist, and hired the costumes worn in the opera of Ernani, so that the picture was finished “by the job.” Indeed, it might be called “raising the wind,” as any one will say who sees it, or the engraving of it which ornaments the reverse of the five-dollar notes now issued ; for the three flags borne by three of the original group of filibusters are blown outward in three different directions. Those familiar with the real ability which characterized Vanderlyn’s earlier works were sadly disappointed with his Landing of Columbus.
A third panel was filled with a picture— so called—of the Baptism of Pocahontas, by Mr. John G. Chapman. In catering to the pride of those who claimed to be descended from the first families of Virginia, Mr. Chapman had difficulties to contend with, probably more depressing than even the failing of inspiration which must attend the portrayal of an apocryphal ceremonial. The Baptism of Pocahontas is not only a libel on our respect, as a people, for historical truth, but its sole effect upon lovers of art is to excite ridicule.
Mr. Henry Inman, an artist of some reputation, received the commission to fill the fourth vacant panel, and went to Europe, where he was said to have made studies for his picture, and he had received three annual installments of $2000 each when he died. Mr. S. F. B. Morse, an impecunious artist, who afterwards became enriched by his connection with electric telegraphs, offered either to complete the work of Mr. Inman, or to paint a new picture, for the remaining $4000 ; but the offer was not accepted. In 1847, Congress, on the urgent solicitation of General Schenck, authorized the payment of this $4000, with $6000 more, to Mr. W. H. Powell, for a picture of De Soto discovering the Mississippi; and when the work was completed he received a further appropriation of $2000. De Soto, who had been for months journeying through the wilderness from Florida, appears in gorgeous attire, and recalls the well-known figure of Henry IV. entering Paris. In the foreground a group urging forward a cannon reminds one of a similar artillery movement in the Siege of Saragossa, while some voluptuously formed maidens (surely not Indians) are very like the damsels who figure in Horace Vernet’s Capture of the Smala, at Versailles. The whole picture, in short, is a plagiarized patchwork of generalities, absurd and incongruous, —badly drawn, gaudily colored, and as destitute of historic value as an act of Congress is of poetic feeling.
A group of statuary, by Luigi Persico (a protégé of Mr. Buchanan), placed on one of the two blockings on the sides of the steps leading up to the eastern portico of the Capitol, excited much attention. The original commission gave $12,000 for the group, but as much more was subsequently voted. The subject chosen by the artist was Columbus explaining the mysteries of the globe to a naked and crouching Indian woman. A very clever letter was written by Colonel Seaton, and published in his National Intelligencer, purporting to have come from this nude savage maiden, who thus protested against her forced appearance before the public in an immodest attitude and without apparel. The commission for the companion group of statues was given to Horatio Greenough, who called his work The Rescue. It has been described as a gigantic Scotchman endeavoring to break the back of a big Indian, while a woman holds a child, and a large dog looks peacefully on.
A notable social event, towards the close of President Polk’s administration, was the marriage of Colonel Benton’s daughter Sarah to Mr. Jacob, of Louisville, Kentucky. The bridegroom’s family was related to the Taylors and the Clays, so Henry Clay, who had been reëlected to the senate, was present, and escorted the bride to the supper-table. There was a large attendance of congressmen, diplomates, and officials, but the absence of officers of the army and navy, generally so prominent at a Washington entertainment, was noticeable. They were in Mexico.
Another interesting entertainment was given by Colonel Seaton, to the whig members of Congress, at his mansion on E Street. The first homage of nearly all, as they entered, was paid to John Quincy Adams, who sat upon a sofa, his form slightly bowed by time, his eyes weeping, and a calm seriousness in his expression. Daniel Webster was not present, having that day received intelligence of the death of his son Edward, major of the Massachusetts regiment, in Mexico, of camp fever, but Henry Clay was there, with kind words and pleasant smiles for all his friends. Crittenden, Corwin, and other whig senatorial paladins were present, and Mr. Speaker Winthrop — that perfect gentleman and able presiding officer — headed a host of talented representatives. Commodore Stockton and General Jones represented the army and navy, Erastus Brooks and Charles Lanman the press, Anson Burlingame the young political orators, Chester Harding and Healy the artists; and there, too, was Mr. Donahue, the “ Tim Linkinwater ” of Gales and Seaton, who for thirty years had kept their accounts. There was of course a sumptuous collation, with much drinking of healths and many pledges to the success of the whig cause.
This reunion at Colonel Seaton’s was on Friday night, February 18, 1848. The following Sunday John Quincy Adams attended public worship at the Capitol, and on Monday, the 21st, he was, as usual, in his seat when the house was called to order. During the preliminary business he was engaged in copying a poetical invocation to the muse of history for one of the officials, and he appeared to be in ordinarily good health. A resolve of thanks to the generals of the Mexican war came up, and the clerk had read, “ Resolved by the house that ” — when he was arrested by the cry of “ Look to Mr. Adams! ” Mr. David Fisher, of Ohio, who occupied the desk on Mr. Adams’s right, saw him rise, as if he intended to speak; then clutch his desk with a convulsive effort, and sink back into his chair. Mr. Fisher caught him in his arms, and in an instant Dr. Fries and Dr. Nes, both members, were at his side.
It was a solemn moment, for a cry went from more than one, “ Mr. Adams is dying!” It was thought that, like Pitt, he would give up the ghost, “ with harness on,” on the spot which his eloquence had hallowed. “ Stand back ! ” “ Give him air ! ” “ Remove him ! ”
Every one seemed panic-struck except Mr. Speaker Winthrop, who quietly adjourned the house, and had his insensible colleague removed on a sofa, — first into the rotunda, and then into the speaker’s room. Cupping, mustard poultices, and friction were resorted to, and about an hour after his attack Mr. Adams said, “ This is the last of earth, but I am composed.” He then fell into a slumber, from which he never awoke. Mrs. Adams and other relatives were with him, and among the visitors was Henry Clay, who stood for some time with the old patriarch’s hand clasped in his, and gazed intently on the calm but vacant countenance, his eyes filled with tears. Mr. Adams lingered until the evening of the 23d of February, when he breathed his last. The funeral services were very imposing, and a committee of one from each State accompanied the remains to Boston, where they lay in state at Faneuil Hall, and were then taken to Quincy for interment. The committee returned to Washington enthusiastic over the hospitalities extended to them while they were in Massachusetts.
Meanwhile the war with Mexico had disappointed President Polk and his administration. “ Instead of getting a peace through the restoration of Santa Anna,” says Colonel Benton, “ that formidable chieftain had to be vanquished and expelled before negotiations could be commenced. Taylor and Scott, whig generals, were making great military reputations, and when Messrs. Clifford and Sevier went to Mexico to negotiate a treaty, they found that one had been prepared and signed by Mr. N. P. Trist, a clerk in the department of state, who had been sent to ascertain how the land lay. Mr. Calhoun, availing himself of the opportunity afforded by the acquisition of new territory, undertook to establish the “ peculiar institution ” where it had never existed, and to make slavery national, not sectional.
When the national democratic convention met at Baltimore, in May, 1848, those delegates who did not indorse the doctrine advanced by Calhoun were not admitted. The result of this was the assembly of another convention at Buffalo, which nominated Martin Van Buren for president and Charles Francis Adams for vice-president, and adopted as a motto, “Free Speech, Free Soil, Free Labor, and Free Men.”
Mr. Webster had magnanimously supported Mr. Clay in 1844, but as the presidential contest of 1848 approached he gave his friends to understand that he expected their support and that he expected to receive the nomination. When asked whether Mr. Clay would again be in the field, Mr. Webster replied that John Quincy Adams had remarked to him some years before that “ Mr. Clay would be a candidate so long as he should receive a nomination from a majority of the people in the town of Lexington, Kentucky,” — and he believed it would prove true. The mere pleasure of being talked of as a candidate, Mr. Webster went on to say, was a positive gratification, which became necessary to many men, and grew stronger with their age. “ After all,” said he, “ what will Mr. Clay leave for future ages? His speeches contain nothing of permanent value, all relating to temporary topics, and never discussing fundamental principles. He is not an instructed statesman, and he has always kept the whig party subservient to his personal ambition.”
Mr. Clay was equally severe in his remarks concerning Mr. Webster, and the respective friends of these great men became embittered as the time for the nominating convention approached ; but they were all doomed to disappointment. The Northern delegates to the whig national convention might have nominated either Webster, Clay, Scott, or Corwin, as they had a majority of fifty-six over the delegates from the Southern States, and cast twenty-nine votes more than was necessary to choose a candidate. But they refused to unite on any one, and on the fourth ballot sixty-nine of them voted with the Southern whigs, and secured the nomination of Zachary Taylor. He was elected by the “ freesoilers ” in the State of New York, who attracted enough votes from the democratic ticket to secure the triumph of the whigs, and Martin Van Buren, who had been defeated by the Southern democrats, had the satisfaction of effecting their defeat.
Mr. Calhoun, soured by his successive failures, but not instructed by them, sought revenge. “ The last days of Mr. Polk’s administration,” says Colonel Benton, “ were witness to an ominous movement,—nothing less than nightly meetings of large numbers of members from the slave States, to consider the state of things between the North and the South; to show the aggressions and encroachments (as they were called) of the former upon the latter ; to show the incompatibility of their union; and to devise measures for the defense and protection of the South.”
Mr. Webster did not share in the general apprehension produced by these plottings. He was not, he said to Mr. Raymond, of New York, disposed to sit down in perfect despair, as Mr. Calhoun had done, and say that he could see no future for his country. Even if the annexation of all Mexico should take place, and a dissolution of the Union should be the result, still, said he, “ we of the North are on the safe side. We have the wealth, the numbers, the commerce, the enterprise. All the best elements of national power are on our side ; we are the strongest portion, and in the event of dissolution we must still constitute the great nation of the continent.”
General Taylor’s progress to Washington, after his election, was that of a conqueror, greeted as he passed along with enthusiasm and with affection. The people flocked to gaze upon his servicebronzed features, with many manifestations of respect, and the politicians found that he could not be made a tool for intrigue and for sectional strife. He was courteously welcomed to the White House by President Polk, who left the city of Washington soon after the expiration of his official term, “ an unhappy man, broken down in health ” by incessant labors, cares, anxieties, and failures. He returned to his home at Nashville, where he died on the 15th of June, 1849.