Reminiscences of Washington
X. THE TAYLOR ADMINISTRATION, 1849, 1850.
GENERAL TAYLOR was elected president as an “ available ” candidate. The whigs, in nominating him rather than Webster or Clay, surrendered their good repute of fidelity, threw off all pretense of principle, and supported the hero of Buena Vista “ as the only means ” — so said Mr. Winthrop — “of averting the present policy of the country.” His defeated competitors for the nomination were naturally much chagrined, for their ambition had not been weakened by age, or disheartened by defeat, while their credulity had only been increased with their years. Mr. Clay had confidently expected to be nominated until the result came upon him like a clap of thunder in a clear sky ; and he not only denounced the action of the convention, but was severe in his criticisms upon his former lieutenant, John J. Crittenden, for what he had done to bring it about. Mr. Webster was equally forcible in his denunciation of treacherous friends at the convention, and, while his pecuniary necessities forced him to accept a considerable sum of money from the whig state committee of Massachusetts, in payment for one of his oracular speeches advocating the election of Taylor, he did not hesitate to say that there was “ no man more firmly of opinion that such a nomination was not fit to be made.”
General Taylor was, of all the men who have filled the presidential chair by the choice of the people, the one least competent to perform its duties, he had been placed before his countrymen as a candidate, in spite of his repeated avowals of incapacity, inexperience, and repugnance to all civil duties. Although sixty-four years of ago, he had never exercised the right of suffrage, and he was well aware that he was elected because of his military prowess. But no sooner did he learn that he had been chosen than he displayed the same invincible courage, practical sense, and indomitable energy of purpose in the discharge of his new and arduous civil duties which had characterized his military career.
The president elect was fortunate in having as a companion, counselor, and friend Colonel William Wallace Bliss, who had served as his chief of staff in the Mexican campaign, and who became the husband of his favorite daughter, Miss Betty. Colonel Bliss was the son of Captain Bliss, of the regular army, and after having been reared in the State of New York he was graduated at West Point, where he served afterwards for some years as acting professor of mathematics. He thus acquired a pedagogical manner and studious habits, but he was sagacious and energetic, unacquainted with the crooked paths of politics, and unwilling to submit to arrogant Southern dictation.
On his way to Washington from his Louisiana plantation, General Taylor visited Frankfort, and personally invited Mr. John J. Crittenden, then governor of Kentucky, to become his secretary of state. Governor Crittenden, embarrassed by the return of Henry Clay to the senate, declined, and General Taylor then telegraphed to Mr. John M. Clayton, of Delaware, tendering him the position, which that gentleman promptly accepted. The Southern whigs had selected Mr. William C. Rives, — the man who, as Mr. Webster said, “ could ride with all his personal friends in an omnibus,” — but the president elect did not fancy his impracticable conservatism.
Mr. Abbott Lawrence, who had contributed largely to the expenditures during the presidential campaign, solicited the appointment of secretary of the treasury, and was offered the navy department, which he declined. Mr. Thomas Butler King, of Georgia, had desired this place, but Mr. Robert Toombs, supported by Representative Stephens and Senator Dawson, succeeded in having Mr. George W. Crawford, of that State, appointed secretary of war.
Mr. William M. Meredith, of Pennsylvania, was rather forced upon General Taylor as secretary of the treasury, by Mr. Clayton and other whigs; not only on account of his acknowledged talents, but to exclude objectionable Pennsylvanians, among them Mr. Josiah Randall, the man who, more than any other, had contributed to the nomination and election of the general. A contest between Messrs. Corwin and Vinton, of Ohio, for a seat in the cabinet was settled by the appointment of Mr. Thomas Ewing, of that State, as secretary of the interior; and Mr. Jacob Collamer, of Vermont, who had been an unsuccessful competitor with Mr. Upham for a seat in the senate, and had been recommended by the legislature as attorneygeneral, was made postmaster-general.
General Taylor had intended to appoint Mr. William Ballard Preston, of Virginia, as attorney-general, although several whig congressmen had expressed their disapprobation of the selection. Finally, Senator Archer, of Virginia, called and asked if there were any foundation for the report that his friend Preston was to be made attorney-general. “ Yes ! ” answered General Taylor. “ I have determined to appoint him.” “ Are you aware, general,” said the senator, “that the attorney-general must represent the government in the supreme court?” “Of course!” responded the general. “ But do you know that he must there meet Daniel Webster, Reverdy Johnson, and other leading lawyers? ” “ Certainly. What of that?” “ Nothing, general, except that they will make a - fool of your attorney-general.” The Virginia senator then took his leave, and the next; morning’s papers contained the announcement that, the president had decided to appoint his friend Mr. Preston secretary of the navy, and Mr. Reverdy Johnson attorney-general. Ridicule had secured the desired result.
Mrs. Taylor regretted the election of her husband, and came to Washington with a heavy heart. She was a native of Calvert County, Maryland, and was born on the estate where the father of Mrs. John Quincy Adams had formerly resided. Her father, Mr. Walter Smith, was an independent and highly respectable farmer, and her brother, Major Richard Smith, of the marine corps, was well remembered at Washington for his gallant bearing and his social qualities. The eldest daughter of General Taylor had married Mr. Jefferson Davis, of Mississippi, then a subaltern officer of dragoons, against the wishes of her father, who would not for years exchange a word with his son-in-law. After her death, Mr. Davis served in the Mexican war as colonel of a regiment of Mississippi riflemen, and his gallantry at the battle of Monterey removed the existing prejudice, and secured for him the cordial thanks of General Taylor, who was in command. General Taylor’s second daughter was the wife of Dr. Wood, of the army, who was at that time stationed at Baltimore, as was General Taylor’s brother, Colonel Taylor. Mrs. Taylor, with her younger daughter, Mrs. Bliss, went directly from Louisiana to Baltimore, some weeks prior to the inauguration. They broke up housekeeping at Baton Rouge before they left there, and took with them William Oldham, a faithful .colored man, who had been the body-servant of General Taylor for many years, the parade-horse “ old Whitey,” which he had ridden in the Mexican campaign, and a favorite dog.
President Polk called upon General Taylor soon after his arrival at Washington, and invited him and Mr. Fillmore to dine at the White House, — an invitation which was accepted. General Cass also called to pay his respects to his successful competitor, and as he entered the room General Taylor advanced, grasped his hand, and shook it cordially. General Cass, who had not at first recognized the president elect, exclaimed, “ You had the advantage of me ! That ’s twice you’ve had the advantage of me ! ” “That’s true,” said General Taylor; “but you know the battle is not always to the strong!" “ That’s a fact,” replied General Cass, and then the two had a very friendly chat. Just before General Cass left the room, a gentleman introduced himself to him, remarking, “ I was on the stump as a democrat, and in every State in which I spoke you had a majority.” “ My good friend,” said General Cass, “ I am very much obliged to you ; but I wish you had stumped in two or three States more.”
General Taylor was inaugurated on Monday, March 5th. He was escorted from Willard’s Hotel by an imposing procession, headed by twelve volunteer companies. The president elect rode in an open carriage, drawn by four gray horses, and he was joined at the Irving House by President Polk, who sat at his right hand. One hundred young gentlemen, residents of the District of Columbia, formed a body-guard, and kept the crowd from pressing around the president’s carriage. Then came the “ Rough and Ready ” clubs of Washington, Georgetown, Alexandria, and Baltimore, with banners, badges, and music, while the students of the Jesuits’ college brought up the rear.
The personal appearance of General Taylor, as he read his inaugural address from a platform erected in front of the eastern portico of the Capitol, was not imposing. His figure was somewhat portly, and his logs were short; his thin, gray hair was unbrushed ; his whiskers were of the military cut then prescribed; his features were weatherbronzed and care-furrowed; and he read almost inaudibly. It was evident, however, that he was a popular favorite, and when he had concluded, the vociferous cheering of the assembled thousands was echoed by the firing of cannon and the music of the bands.
The inaugural message showed that General Taylor regarded the Union as in danger, and that he intended to use every possible exertion for its preservation. Mr. Calhoun had requested, through Mr. Clayton, that nothing should be said in the inaugural on this subject, which had prompted the addition of a paragraph, in which the incoming president declared that a dissolution of the Union would be the greatest of calamities, and went on to say, “ Whatever dangers may threaten it, I shall stand by it, and maintain it in its integrity, to the full extent of the obligations imposed and the power conferred upon me by the constitution.”
There were three inauguration balls at night, — one in a temporary building annexed to the city hall, one at Mr. Rives’s Jackson Hall, and one at Carusi’s saloon. President Taylor, accompanied by Colonel and Mrs. Bliss, attended them all, going last to the ball at the city hall, where the diplomatic corps were present, wearing their court suits. The Count do Bodisco wore the uniform of an imperial chamberlain, with the insignia of a number of orders of knighthood, while his beautiful wife appeared in the dress which she had worn when she was presented to the Czar, the year previous. It was of white satin embroidered with gold, and over it she wore a crimson velvet “ polonaise,” with a sweeping train, also embroidered with gold, while her crimson velvet head-dress was resplendent with diamonds.
When the bachelor ex-secretary of state came forward with a number of his fair friends, to present them to the president, General Taylor remarked, “Ah, Mr. Buchanan, you always pick out the prettiest ladies ! ” “ Why, Mr.
President,” was the courtly reply, “ I know that your tastes and mine agree in that respect.” “ Yes,” said General Taylor; “ but I have been so long among Indians and Mexicans that I hardly know how to behave myself, surrounded by so many lovely women.”
President Taylor, although a Southerner by birth and a slave-owner, took prompt steps to thwart the schemes of Mr. Calhoun and his fellow conspirators. Military officers were promptly ordered to California, Utah, and New Mexico, which had no governments but lynch law ; and the people of the last-named province, which had been settled two hundred years before Texas asserted her independence, were assured that her domain would be guaranteed by the United States against the claim of the Lone Star State.
The horde of whig office - seekers which invaded Washington after the inauguration of President Taylor recalled the saying of John Randolph, when it was asserted that the patronage of the federal government was overrated: ”I know,” said the sarcastic Virginian, “ that it may be overrated; I know that we cannot give to those who apply offices equal to their expectations; and I also know that with one bone I can call five hundred dogs.” The democratic motto that “to the victors belong the spoils ” was adopted by the Taylor administration. Unexceptionable men wore removed from office, that their places might be filled with officers of Rough and Ready clubs, or partisan orators. Democratic collectors of customs, postmasters, surveyors, marshals, tide-waiters, and even keepers of lighthouses were replaced by whigs, who were thus rewarded for their fabulous services. Veterans like General Armstrong and even the gifted Hawthorne were “ rotated ” from the offices which they held, without mercy. In the postoffice department alone, where Mr. Fitz Henry Warren, as assistant postmastergeneral, worked the political guillotine, there were 3406 removals during the first year of the Taylor administration, besides many hundred clerks and employees in the post-offices of the larger cities.
In the dispensation of “ patronage ” there was a display of shameless nepotism. A brother-in-law of Senator Webster was made navy agent at New York. Sons of Senators Crittenden, Clay, and Davis received important appointments abroad, and the son-in-law of Senator Calhoun was retained in the diplomatic service. Two sons-in law of Senator Benton were offered high places. A nephew of Senator Truman Smith was made one of the United States judges in Minnesota, and a nephew of Secretary Clayton was made purser at the Washington navy yard. The pledge of the president, that he had “no friends to reward” was apparently forgotten, and he was hedged in by a little circle of executive councilors, who urged him to listen to no other than their suggestions.
While the administration was profligate in its abuse of patronage, the conduct of several of the secretaries was such as to give the president great uneasiness as he became acquainted with what was going on. It, was asserted that Secretary Ewing, of the interior department, had overturned the decisions of his predecessors, long acquiesced in, and that he had reopened and allowed obsolete claims, paying large sums as principal and interest without any specific authority of law. The Barron pension claim, the Chickasaw claim, the De la Francia claim, and others were but a part of the long catalogue of these raids upon the public treasury.
The Galphin claim was, however, the most barefaced robbery of the nation’s funds ever made under the auspices of a cabinet officer. In 1848, on the last night of the session, a bill had been smuggled through Congress, providing for the payment of a claim brought by the heirs of George Galphin, an Indian trader, for the destruction of his property in 1773. The State of Georgia had never acknowledged the claim, but on the contrary had repudiated it in every form ; nor could any good reason be given why the United States should be liable for it. Congress, however, ordered the payment of an unnamed sum, and Secretary Walker paid the principal claimed, — $43,518,—leaving the demand for the interest as a legacy to the Taylor administration. Of this sum, Mr. Crawford, the claimant’s attorney, received one half; and after he became secretary of war the interest was allowed, amounting to $191,352, of which he also received one half, making his whole receipts for principal and interest about $115,000. The lawyers in Congress declared that the secretary acted professionally, but others censured him severely. Mr. James Brooks, the editor of the New York Express, then a whig member of the house, denounced Secretary Crawford’s action as unwarrantable. He contended that the principal was never due from the United States, and he cited the authority of Attorneys-General Wirt, Legaré, and Crittenden to show that the interest was illegally paid. Judge Cartter, then a representative from Ohio, was severe in his comments on the monstrous corruption of the allowance of interest, the payment of which he said that he disliked, “both as an exaction on the part of the capitalist, and on account of its origin with the Jews, who killed the Saviour ” !
A commission for the payment of claims arising from the war with Mexico was another source of corruption. Fraudulent claims were trumped up, and forced through the commission by leading whigs, some of them occupants of seats in Congress. This indecent practice of pressing unfounded and rejected claims before commissions or the executive departments by lawyers who are senators or representatives did not originate with the Taylor administration, but it received an impulse under it that was a serious infliction on the country, and alarmingly detrimental to the public interest. When those elected to make laws are employed, for high fees, to supplicate secretaries, auditors, and commissioners for worthless claims, and when those officials require these lawyers, in their legislative capacity, to grant them improper favors, the door for collusion is flung widely open between them. No species of bribery can be more corrupting than that by which the public treasury is made thus indirectly to pay legislators for bad laws and official delinquency.
President Taylor offered the place of secretary to the Mexican - claims commission to Dr. Charles Davis, who had practiced his profession in Mexico for fourteen years before the war, and had joined the general’s staff as interpreter, rendering important services. The cabinet, however, decided to conciliate Senator Benton by giving the place to one of his sons-in-law, who was notoriously unfit for it, and the president had to apologize to Dr. Davis for having broken his promise. The doctor, incensed by this treatment, revenged himself by showing that the commission was beguiled into the allowance of a fraudulent claim to a dentist named Gardner, for damages to the works of a silvermine which existed only in his imagination. A commissioner sent to Mexico exposed the fraud, and Gardner was tried and convicted, but escaped punishment by committing suicide. The trial revealed the fact that leading Washington bankers and prominent whig politicians had secured a large share of the proceeds of this ingenious swindle. The cabinet officers originally were confined to their legitimate duties, and as advisers were consulted only on measures of importance. Nothing was heard, in those early days of the republic, of sessions of the executive board to consider appointments which the constitution and the laws confided to the president alone. But the Taylor cabinet usurped this power, giving the president the casting vote at their meetings, where enemies were punished and friends rewarded, while the executive was transformed into a directory.
Socially, President Taylor enjoyed himself, and he used to take morning walks through the streets of Washington, wearing a high black silk hat perched on the back of his head, and a suit of black broadcloth much too large for him, but made in obedience to his orders, that he might be comfortable. Mrs. Taylor used to sit patiently all day in her room, plying her knitting-needles, and occasionally, it was said, smoking her pipe. Mrs. Bliss was an excellent housekeeper, and the introduction of gas into the Executive Mansion, with new furniture and carpets, enabled her to give it a more creditable appearance. It was said that she did the honors of the establishment“ with the artlessness of a rustic belle and the grace of a duchess.”
The thirty-first Congress, which met on the first Monday in the December following the inauguration of President Taylor, contained many statesmen. Webster, Clay, Calhoun, Benton, Jeff Davis, Douglas, Dickinson, Hamlin, Hale, Corwin, Houston, Seward, Chase, and Berrien were among the sixty senators, while many names of national prominence were to be found upon the roll of two hundred and thirty representatives. The organization of the house was a difficult task ; nine “ free-soil ” or antislavery whigs from the North and six “state-rights ” or pro-slavery whigs from the South refusing to vote for that accomplished gentleman, Mr. Robert C. Winthrop, who was the whig candidate for speaker. On the first, ballot, Howell Cobb, of Georgia, had 103 votes, against 96 votes for Robert C. Winthrop, 8 votes for David Wilmot, 6 votes for Meredith P. Gentry, 2 votes for Horace Mann, and a number of scattering votes. The tellers announced that there was no choice, and the balloting was continued, day after day, amid great and increasing excitement. After the thirty-ninth ballot, Mr. Winthrop withdrew from the protracted contest, expressing his belief that the peace and safety of the Union demanded that an organization of some sort should be effected without delay.
The Southern whigs who had opposed Mr. Winthrop were vehement and passionate in their denunciation of the North. “ The time has come,” said Mr. Toombs, his black, uncombed hair standing out from his massive head as if charged with electricity, his eyes glowing like coals of fire, and his sentences rattling forth like volleys of musketry, — “ the time has come,” said he, “ when I shall not only utter my opinions, but make them the basis of my political action here. I do not, then, hesitate to avow before this house and the country, and in the presence of the living God, that if, by your legislation, you seek to drive us from the territories of California and New Mexico, and to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, I am for disunion ; and if my physical courage be equal to the maintenance of my convictions of right and duty I will devote all I am and all I have on earth to its consummation.”
These inflammatory remarks provoked replies, and after a heated debate Mr. Duer, of New York, remarked that he “ would never, under any circumstances, vote to put a man in the speaker’s chair who would, in any event, advocate or sanction a dissolution of the Union.” This brought a dozen Southerners to their feet, with angry exclamations, and Mr. Bayly, of Virginia, who was near Mr. Duer, said, “ There are no disunionists.” “There are!” exclaimed Mr. Duer. “ Name one ! ” shouted Mr. Bayly. At that moment Mr. Meade, of Virginia, rose, and passed directly before Mr. Duer, who pointed to him and shouted, “ There’s one ! ” “It is false! ” replied Mr. Meade, angrily. “You lie, sir!” responded Mr. Duer, in tones which rang through the hall; and, drawing himself up, he stood unmoved, while his political friends and foes clustered angrily about him, talking and gesticulating. Fortunately Mr. Nathan Sergeant, who was the sergeant-at-arms, was in his seat, and he immediately came to the side of Mr. Duer, bearing aloft the “ mace,” which is the symbol of the authority of the house. Quiet was restored, and Mr. Duer then apologized to the house for having been provoked into the use of the unparliamentary expression, but justified himself by referring to a speech which Mr. Meade had just made and printed, which contained disunion sentiments. Mr. Meade promptly challenged Mr. Duer, who showed no indisposition to fight; but with some difficulty friends secured an amicable settlement of the quarrel.
Finally, after three weeks of angry recrimination, it was voted that a plurality should elect, and on the .sixty-second ballot Mr. Howell Cobb, of Georgia, having received 102 votes against 100 votes for Mr. Winthrop, was declared the speaker of the house. He did not have that sense of personal dignity and importance which belonged to Sir John Falstaff by reason of his knighthood, but he displayed the same rich exuberance of animal enjoyment, the same roguish twinkle of the eye, and the same indolence which characterized the fat knight.
President Taylor’s first and only message to Congress was transmitted on the Monday following the organization of the house, December 24th, and the printed copies first distributed contained the sentence, “ We are at peace with all the nations of the world, and the rest of mankind.” Other copies were soon printed, in which the corrected sentence read, “ We are at peace with all the nations of the world, and seek to maintain our cherished relations of amity with them.” The blunder caused much diversion among the democrats, and greatly annoyed Colonel Bliss, who, as the president’s private secretary, had superintended the publication of the message.
Meanwhile, Henry Clay had reappeared at Washington as a senator from Kentucky, and occupied his old quarters at the National Hotel, which belonged to one of his many devoted friends, Mr. Calvert, of Maryland. Although in his seventy-third year, he was apparently hale and hearty. His head, bald on the top, was fringed with long iron-gray hair, his lofty forehead was arched and expansive, his cheeks somewhat sunken, his nose thin, and his wide mouth wreathed in genial smiles. He always was dressed in black, and from a high black satin stock, which enveloped his long neck, emerged a huge white shirt collar, which reached to his ears. He mingled in society, generally kissing the prettiest girls wherever he went; and he enjoyed a quiet game of cards in his own room, with a glass of toddy made from Bourbon County whisky.
At the commencement of the session Mr. Clay requested that he might be excused from service on any of the standing committees of the senate, and his wish was granted. It was not long, however, before he evinced a desire to reënter the arena of debate, as a leader of the whig party, but not as a follower of President Taylor. Presenting a series of resolutions which would consolidate the settlement of the eight different questions involving slavery, then before Congress, into what he expected would prove a lasting compromise, Mr. Clay moved their reference to a select committee of thirteen, with instructions to report them in one bill. The committee was authorized, but not without opposition, and Mr. Webster’s vote secured for Mr. Clay the chairmanship. A general compromise bill was speedily prepared, and the “ battle of the giants ” was commenced; Clay, Webster, and Calhoun engaging for the last time in a gladiatorial strife, which exhibited the off-hand, genial eloquence of the Kentuckian, the ponderous strength of the Massachusetts senator, and the concentrated energies of South Carolina’s favorite son. Mr. Clay was the leader in the debate, which extended over seven months, and during that time he was ever on the alert; sometimes delivering a long argument, sometimes eloquently replying to other senators, and sometimes suggesting points to some one who was to speak on his side. Indignant at the treatment which he had received from the whig party, he stood unsubdued, and so far from retreating from those who had deserted him he intended to make the Taylor administration recall its pledges, break its promises, and become national, or pro-slavery, whigs.
Mr. Webster was equally grieved and saddened by the recreancy and faithlessness of Massachusetts men who had in years past professed friendship for him, but of whose machinations against him he had obtained proof during the preceding autumn. He also ascertained that, to use the words of Mr. Choate, “ the attention of the public mind began to be drawn a little more directly to the great question of human freedom and human slavery. If he responded to the beatings of the New England heart, and resisted the aggressions and usurpations of the slave power, he would have to follow the lead of the abolitionists, for whom he had always expressed a profound contempt. Dejected and depressed, Mr. Webster would then have been glad to take the mission to England, and thug terminate his career of public service ; but he was defeated by the claims of Mr. Abbott Lawrence, who had recently been disappointed in not receiving the appointment of secretary of the treasury, and who refused to to be comforted unless he could be the successor of George Bancroft at the court of St. James.
Thaddeus Stevens and Joshua R. Giddings asserted, after the decease of Mr. Webster, that he prepared a speech, the manuscript of which they read, which was a powerful exposition and vindication of Northern sentiment upon the compromise measures, especially the fugitive-slave bill. He was doubtless induced to “ change front” by pledges of Southern support for the presidency, but he is reported by Theodore Parker as having said to a fellow-senator, on the morning of the 7th of March, “I have my doubts that the speech I am going to make will ruin me.” He should have remembered that he had himself said of the Emperor Napoleon, “ His victories and his triumphs crumbled to atoms, and mouldered to dry ashes in his grasp, because he violated the general sense of justice of mankind.”
The truculent Mr. Benton headed the opposition in the senate to the compromise measures, and on one occasion he provoked Mr. Henry S. Foote, then a senator from Mississippi, into the use of some sarcastic comments in reply. At first Mr. Benton appeared somewhat surprised that any one should have the audacity thus to criticise what he had thought proper to say, but he soon manifested signs of excitement, and at last he sprang to his feet, knocked over his curule chair, and started for Mr. Foote’s desk. The dapper little Mississippian, seeing the burly Missourian striding towards him with evidently hostile intentions, suspended his remarks, and retreated to the secretary’s desk, where he drew a five-barreled revolver, cocked it, and stood at bay.
The two Senators Dodge, father and son, endeavored to arrest Mr. Benton’s progress, but he struggled forward, shouting, “ Let me pass ! Don’t stop me ! Let the assassin fire ! Only cowards go armed ! I have no weapon ! Let the assassin fire ! ” Vice-President Fillmore pounded his table with his mallet, and loudly called for order. A number of senators left their seats, some clustering around Mr. Foote, while others obstructed the passage of Mr. Benton, who finally permitted his friends to lead him to his seat, exclaiming as he went, “ Let the assassin fire ! I scorn to carry weapons ! ” Mr. Dickinson, of New York, took the revolver from Mr. Foote, uncocked it, and locked it in his desk. Then, as order had been partially restored, he mildly inquired of the vicepresident what the question was before the senate.
Up jumped Mr. Benton again, and said, in a boisterous tone, " This is not going to pass off in this way. I ask senators to take immediate action on what has happened. A pistol has been drawn, sir ! It has been aimed at me, sir! I demand the immediate action of this body, sir! ” Mr. Mangum, to placate the excited senator, introduced a resolution appointing a committee to investigate the occurrence, which was passed. The committee examined witnesses, and made a report, condemning the occurrence, and expressing the hope that their censure of the attempt would be a sufficient rebuke and a warning not unheeded in the future.
Mr. Calhoun’s health had gradually failed, and at last he was supported into the senate-chamber, wrapped in flannels like the great Chatham, and requested that his friend, Senator Mason, might read some remarks which he had prepared. The request was of course granted, and while Mr. Mason read the defiant pronunciamiento, its author sat wrapped in his cloak, his eyes glowing with meteor-like brilliancy, as he glanced at senators upon whom he desired to have certain passages make an impression. When Mr, Mason had concluded, Mr. Calhoun was supported from the senate, and went back to his lodgings at Mr. Hill’s boarding-house, afterwards known as the Old Capitol, to die.
An unpublished letter from Mr. R. M. T. Hunter, a Virginia senator, gives some interesting facts concerning Mr. Calhoun’s last moments, and the views at that time of the Southern magnates. “ Mr. Calhoun’s death,” wrote Mr. Hunter, “ was eminently simple, calm, and unaffected,—no display or pretension, nothing for stage effect. He knew that his mortal sickness was upon him, but he did not expect to die so soon. The evening before his death he had his mail read to him, commented upon some of the letters, and directed his son to clear up his table, as was his wont every night. In the night, when he found he was dying, he directed his son to pack up his papers and watch, and to give his pencil to his son Andrew. When speech left him he still showed consciousness by signs; and, beckoning to his son, squeezed his hand and expired, without pain and without fear. He had always said to me previously and to others through his sickness that he had no apprehensions of death ; that it was an event in relation to which he felt that he had no right to entertain a wish. He was a man of few quotations, but one which he often used to me was that there was ‘ the same Providence on the fatal as the natal hour.’ He was not consulted as to his birth, nor did he believe that his wishes ought to weigh or even exist as to his death : such I suppose to have been his meaning. He had a greater faith in his abstractions, one and all, than any other man I ever saw, and this was his abstraction (as I think) about death.”
“ But,” Mr. Hunter went on to say, “ you must not whisper it to any one: I believe that he died under the firm impression that the South was ' betrayed ’ and gone. Indeed, he told me it was ‘ betrayed ’ the last time I ever saw him. Do not mention this, however. One of the last things he ever said to Judge Butler was, ‘ Don’t despond, judge ; never despond ! ’ And if we mean to fight the battle we must not despond; or, if we do, we must not let the people see it until all is manifestly useless. Clay’s course and Foote’s eternal talk about compromise have done more to let down the tone of Southern feeling than everything else put together. Had Clay not taken the course he did, and had Foote and every Southern man forborne to press compromises on those who talked of nothing of the sort themselves, we might have gotten, I think, a fair compromise: say, the line of 36.30 through to the Pacific, with a recognition of slavery south of that line. Such, at least, is my opinion. Buchanan would have been willing to agree to this, I believe, and I think I know others in the North who would have agreed to the same. The North would not have severed the Union sooner than submit to such a proposition.”
Mr. Calhoun’s death elicited glowing eulogies in both houses of Congress, but the most impressive was that of Henry Clay. Evidently standing on the brink of his own grave, he went on to say, “ I was his senior, Mr. President, in years, — in nothing else. According to the course of nature, I ought to have preceded him. It has been decreed otherwise ; but I know that I shall linger here only a short time, and shall soon follow him.”
Mr. Jefferson Davis aspired to the leadership of the South after the death of Mr. Calhoun, and talked openly of disunion. “Let the sections,” said he, in the senate-chamber, “part, like the patriarchs of old, and let peace and goodwill subsist among their descendants. Let no wound be inflicted which time cannot heal. Let the flag of our Union be folded up entire, the thirteen stripes recording the original size of our family, untorn by the unholy struggles of civil war; its constellation to remain undimmed, and speaking to those who come after us of the growth and prosperity of the family whilst it remained united. Unmutilated let it lie among the archives of the republic, until some future day, when wiser counsels shall prevail, when men shall have been sobered in the school of adversity, again to be unfurled over the continent-wide republic.”
Yet when Mr. John P. Hale presented a petition praying for a peaceful dissolution of the Union, Mr. Davis objected to its reception. “ When we come into this chamber, Mr. President,” said he, “ the first duty which the constitution requires of us is to go to your table, and to swear before Almighty God that we will support the constitution. Well, sir, what are we called upon to do ? To support that instrument, which we have sworn to support ? No, sir ! No, sir! We are called upon to destroy it, and I am not prepared for a step of that description.”
Mr. Hale, who, with Mr. Salmon P. Chase, was not named on any of the committees of the senate, was a constant target for the attacks of the Southerners ; but the keenest shafts of satire made no more impression upon him than musket-balls do upon the hide of a rhinoceros. One day, when Senator Clemens had asserted that the Union was virtually dissolved, Mr. Hale said, “If this is not a matter too serious for pleasant illustration, let me give you one. Once in my life, in the capacity of justice of the peace, — for I held that office before I was senator, — I was called on to officiate in uniting a couple in the bonds of matrimony. They came up, and I made short work of it. I asked the man if he would take the woman whom he held by the hand to be his wedded wife; and he replied, 'To be sure I will. I came here to do that very thing.’ I then put the question to the lady whether she would have the man for her husband. And when she answered in the affirmative, I told them they were man and wife then. She looked up with apparent astonishment, and inquired, ' Is that all ? ’ 'Yes,’ said I, ‘ that is all.’ ' Well,’ said she,
‘ it is not such a mighty affair as I expected it to be, after all! ’ If this Union is already dissolved, it has produced less commotion in the act than I expected.”
General Cass, then a senator from Michigan, was very restive under the sharp thrusts which Mr. Hale occasionally gave him ; thinking, doubtless, that they would injure his chances for a nomination by the national democratic convention in 1851. The general, then approaching seventy years of age, enjoyed robust health and possessed rare powers of endurance, which he attributed to his never having used ardent spirits or tobacco. His early investments in real estate at Detroit had made him a millionaire, and it was his boast that he had never foreclosed a mortgage or sued a debtor. He was always attentive to the interests of his constituents, but he never introduced a measure of national importance into the senate unless it was territorial — or, as Mr. Calhoun called it, squatter — sovereignty. The credit of this was taken from him by Mr. Douglas, and it doubtless did more to precipitate the rebellion than any other political theory ever broached in Congress.
Another total-abstinence senator was General Sam Houston,—a large, imposing-looking man, who wore a waistcoat made from the skin of some wild beast, dressed with the hair on, and who generally occupied himself during the sessions of the senate in whittling small sticks of soft pine wood, which the sergeant-at-arms procured for him. His life had been one of romantic adventure. After having served with distinction under General Jackson in the Creek war, he had become a lawyer, and then governor of the State of Tennessee. Soon after his inauguration he had married an accomplished young lady, to whom he one day intimated, in jest, that she apparently cared more for a former lover than she did for him. “You are correct,” said she, earnestly. “ I love Mr. Nickerson’s little finger better than I do your whole body.” Words ensued, and the next day Houston resigned his governorship, went into the Cherokee country west of the Arkansas River, adopted Indian costume, and became an Indian trader. He was the best customer supplied from his own whisky-barrel until, one day, after a prolonged debauch, he heard from a Texas Indian that the Mexicans had taken up arms against their revolted province. A friend agreeing to accompany him, he cast off his Indian attire, again dressed like a white man, and never drank a drop of any intoxicating beverage afterwards. Arriving in Texas at a critical moment, his gallantry was soon conspicuous, and in due time he was sent to Washington as United States senator.
General Houston was very angry with those Southern senators who opposed the passage of a resolution permitting Father Theobald Mathew, the “ apostle of temperance,” to occupy a seat within the bar of the senate during the period of his sojourn at Washington. The opposition was headed by Senator Jefferson Davis, who declared, and who reiterated the assertion, that, had he the power, he would exclude every abolitionist, foreign and domestic, from the senate chamber.
It Father Mathew could have persuaded some of the congressmen who were then wrangling over the compromise measures to take the total-abstinence pledge, many disgraceful scenes would have been avoided. British parliamentary history chronicles the eating-room of the old House of Commons, where one Bellamy supplied chops, steaks, and port wine to manly legislators at the commencement of the present century, and there had been a similar “ refectory ” in the basement of the house wing of the Capitol, until Mr. Speaker Winthrop, by virtue of his prerogative, abolished the sale of liquors at its bar. Thenceforth the quality of the food served degenerated, and the refectory was not much patronized by the representatives, whose gastronomic and bibulous wants were gratuitously purveyed for by avowed lobbyists, who advanced their interests by judicious distributions of “ ham-and-cham.” The senators retained their lunch-room, — a small, circular apartment, known as “the hole in the wall;” and it was generally understood that in some of the committee-rooms there were closets well supplied with creature comforts.
Among other measures which were liberally lobbied was a bill rewarding the discoverer of the anæsthetic properties of sulphuric ether, which enabled surgeons to perform operations without pain. Large sums of money were expended at Washington by the agents of each of the three alleged discoverers who sought the award. The financial backer of one of these claimants, who occupied a position of trust in a Massachusetts railroad corporation, gradually stole some fifty thousand dollars from the company, which was disbursed in lobbying at Washington, under the delusive hope that an appropriation of one hundred thousand dollars would soon be carried, from which restoration could be made. The corporation, fearing that it might jeopardize the passage of the appropriation, did not bring the defaulter to punishment; but he had ceased to be honest, and a few years afterwards he was sentenced to the penitentiary for robbing the mails.
Another hospitable and generous lobby was at work, in Congress and out of it, advocating a renewal of the letters patent originally given in 1828 to William Woodworth, for a planing-machine. These letters patent were for fourteen years, and there had been two successive renewals for seven years each, the interest of the patentee in the last one having been sold by him for one hundred thousand dollars. It was now proposed that the patent be again renewed, and as such a renewal would have been worth at least a hundred thousand dollars, the advocates of the measure were lavish in their expenditures. Mr. Seward, who was one of the retained counsel for the patent, had declined to serve on the committee on patents, and he declared, on the floor of the senate, that he had so declined because he was not willing to make his public duties even seem to come in collision with any private duties that he might previously have assumed.
Mr. Seward entered the senate when General Taylor was inaugurated as president, and soon became the directing spirit of the administration, although Colonel Bullit, who had been brought from Louisiana to edit The Republic, President Taylor’s recognized organ, spoke of him only with supercilious contempt. Senator Foote sought reputation by insulting him in public, and was himself taunted by Mr. Calhoun with the disreputable fact of intimacy with him in private. The newly elected senator from New York persisted in maintaining amicable relations with his revilers, and quietly controlled the immense patronage of his State, none of which was shared by the friends of VicePresident Fillmore. He was not at heart a reformer ; he probably cared but little whether the negro was a slave or a freeman; but he sought his own political advancement by advocating in turn anti-masonry and abolitionism, — by politically coquetting with Archbishop Hughes, of the Roman Catholic church, and Henry Wilson, a leading know-nothing. Personally he was honest, but he was always surrounded by intriguers and tricksters, some of whose nests he would aid in feathering. The most unscrupulous lobbyists that have ever haunted the Capitol were devoted adherents of William H. Seward.
Mr. Buchanan had not shed many tears over the defeat of his rival, General Cass, and he retired from the department of state to his rural home, called Wheatland, where he began at an early day to secure strength in the national nominating convention of 1851 ; asserting continually that he was indifferent on the subject. Yet at the same time he was industriously corresponding with politicians in different sections of the country, and he was especially attentive to Mr. Henry A. Wise, with whose aid he hoped to secure the votes of the delegates from Virginia in the next national democratic convention.
Mr. Wise, recalling the time when he was a power behind the throne of John Tyler, encouraged Mr. Buchanan to bid for Southern support, and intimated a readiness to “ coach ” him so as to make him a favorite in the slave States. His counsels were kindly taken, and in return Mr. Buchanan wrote to the fiery “Lord of Accomac,” in his most precise handwriting: “ Acquire more character for prudence and moderation, and under the blessing of Heaven you may be almost anything in this country which you desire. There is no man living whose success in public and in private life would afford me more sincere pleasure than your own. You have every advantage. All you have to do is to go straight ahead, without unnecessarily treading upon other people’s toes. I know you will think, if you don’t say, What impudence it is for this childless old bachelor of sixty years of age to undertake to give me advice ! Why don’t he mind his own business ? General Jackson once told me that he knew a man in Tennessee who had got rich by minding his own business ; but still I urged him, and at last with success, which he never regretted.”
President Taylor saw General Scott on the second Sunday after his inauguration, at St. John’s Episcopal church, and, not having met with him since the Mexican war, determined to evince by his reception of him that he bore no malice for what had occurred, and that, however much he might have felt when all his regular troops were taken from him, he was willing to forget it. The president, accordingly, waited after the congregation was dismissed, and then met General Scott in the most friendly manner, shaking him cordially by the hand, and inviting him to call at the White House. On the following day General Scott came, and sent up his card. Two gentlemen were with the president when it was received, and instead of inviting the general to climb the stairs to his office he told the messenger to show him into his private parlor below, and to say that he would join him with the least possible delay. Within five minutes the president went down ; but General Scott was not in the parlor, and the messenger said that, after having waited a minute or two, he had petulantly left. The next day the general went to New York, without seeing or making another attempt to see the president.
The officers of the exploring expedition in the South Seas had brought home a small botanical collection, made during their voyage, which was at first kept in a greenhouse temporarily erected in the inner court of the Department of the Interior building. In 1850, an appropriation was made for the erection of a greenhouse for the reception of this collection of plants, on a public reservation near the Capitol, and this became the National Botanical Garden. The gratuitous supply, every spring, of boxes of plants to congressmen, and the distribution of bouquets among their female relatives and friends during the fashionable season, has never failed to secure the necessary annual appropriations from the treasury.
The distribution of plants and seeds to congressmen for their favored constituents has made it an equally easy matter for the commissioner of agriculture to obtain liberal appropriations for his department, and the publication of enormous editions of his reports. The first of these reports was issued by Edmund Burke, while he was commissioner of patents, during the Polk administration. On the incoming of the Taylor administration, Mr. Burke was succeeded by Thomas Ewbank, of New York city, and Congress made an appropriation of $3500 for the collection of agricultural statistics, with an additional $1000 for defraying the expenses of chemical analyses of vegetable substances produced and used for the food of man and animals in the United States. When Mr. Ewbank’s report appeared, the Southern congressmen were — to quote the words used by Senator Jefferson Davis in debate, amazed to find that it was preceded by what he termed “ an introduction by Horace Greeley, a philosopher and philanthropist of the strong abolition type.”“ The very fact,” he continued, “ that Mr. Greeley was employed to write the introduction is sufficient to damn the work with me, and render it worthless in my estimation.”
Congress had been induced by Mr. Crutehett to make an appropriation for the erection of illuminating-gas works at the Capitol, from which a supply was to be furnished for lighting the interior of the building, and for a large lantern on the top of a mast planted on the dome. It was claimed that this lantern would light up the Capitol grounds and the avenues radiating therefrom; but it failed to do so, and high winds soon began to sway it to and fro, endangering the stability of the dome. Mr. Crutehett was asked to remove it, but he declined, saying that the appropriation had been voted to him for its erection, and not for its removal; so Congress had to vote more money to have it taken down. Gas was thenceforth procured from the Washington Company for lighting the Capitol, the public buildings, and Pennsylvania Avenue, and in order to secure the liberal appropriations necessary, no charge was made, for many years, for the gas used by those senators and representatives who occupied houses at Washington.
The congressmen not only provided for their wants and comfort, but secured a respectable burial-place in case they should be called from life. Appropriations were made for the enlargement and improvement of the Washington parish burial-ground, and those senators and representatives who died during a session were honored by the erection of a monument, whether their remains were interred beneath it, or were taken to their former homes. Many great and good men are interred there, including distinguished representatives of foreign powers; and among the monuments erected by the federal government is that of Push-ma-ta-ha, a Choctaw chief, who died of croup while engaged in making a treaty with President Monroe. On its base is inscribed his last request, — “ When I am gone, let the big guns be fired over me,” — which was religiously complied with.
Formerly, a congressional funeral was a source of great profit to the sergeantat-arms of the house to which the deceased had belonged, as the undertakers and livery-stable keepers “ divided ” the profits on their exorbitant charges. Each congressional mourner received a pair of black kid gloves, which he put into his pocket, and generally exchanged the next day for others more serviceable ; while the officiating chaplains were decked with large black scarfs, each one of which contained silk enough to make an apron for the recipient’s wife. Although these funeral abuses have been reformed, a practice has since grown up of publishing in book form the eulogiums over departed congressmen, illustrated with portraits engraved on steel, at a cost of several thousand dollars.
“Beau” Hickman, so called, began during the Taylor administration to rank himself among the celebrities of Washington. He was a middle-aged man, who professed to belong to one of the first families of Virginia, and to have squandered a considerable estate at the gaming-table, but to have retained his fondness for dress. His attire was generally somewhat threadbare, but scrupulously clean ; his black kid gloves fitted well, although the worse for wear ; an eye-glass dangled from a black ribbon around his neck ; and in cold weather he sported a Spanish circular cloak, with one end thrown over his shoulder. The beau was accustomed to frequent the lobbies of the hotels, and when he saw a stranger conversing with any Washington man whose name he knew, he would shamble up and say to the resident, “ Your friend undoubtedly desires an introduction to me ? ” The stranger would bow assent, be introduced, and the beau would then coolly ask him to pay a dollar for the privilege of what he termed “an initiation.” This was thought by some to be very amusing, especially by the long - haired students from Virginia colleges. It was the beau’s entire stock of wit and his only visible means of support, although it was hinted that be was always ready to pilot strangers to gambling-houses, and that the gamesters contributed to his support when he found but few victims to be initiated. His face was a perfect mask, and he never betrayed any emotion, even when rudely repulsed, or made the hero of some fabulous adventure by a newspaper correspondent in want of a paragraph.
Queen Victoria accredited as her minister plenipotentiary to President Taylor the Right Honorable Sir Henry Lytton Bulwer, an accomplished diplomate, slender and apparently in illhealth. He was afterwards, for many years, the British minister at Constantinople, where he defeated the machinations of Russia, and held in cunning hand the tangled thread of that delicate puzzle, the Eastern question. His private secretary while he was at Washington was his nephew, Mr. Robert Bulwer (a son of the novelist), who has since won renown as Lord Lytton, Viceroy of India, and as the author of charming poems signed Owen Meredith.
The secretaries and attachés of the foreign legations at Washington are an important feature in fashionable society there. Some of them, who have by their abilities and their energies risen from comparatively obscure positions at home, and who have political and diplomatic aspirations, are hard workers, and send to their respective governments really valuable reports upon our industrial interests, finances, etc. But the larger and the younger portion of the members of the " corps ” are either novices who are taking their first lessons in diplomacy, or the needy scions of aristocratic families in search of lucrative matrimonial alliances. They have little or nothing to do, but they play their parts as gravely as if the welfare of the nations which they respectively represent rested upon their individual shoulders, and they occupy their abundant leisure in the small cares of society.
The bitter political discussions at the Capitol during the first six months of 1850 prevented much social enjoyment. There were the customary receptions at the White House and “hops” at the hotels, but few large parties were given. Tea-parties were numerous, at which a succession of colored waiters carried trays heaped with different varieties of home-made cakes and tarts, from which the beaux supplied the belles, and at the same time ministered to their own wants, balancing a well-loaded plate on one knee, while they held a cup and saucer, replete with fragrant decoctions from the Chinese plant “ which cheers, but not inebriates.”
The reigning belles were the queenlike widow Ashley, of Missouri, who afterwards married Senator Crittenden, and her beautiful daughter, who became the wife of Mr. Cabell, of Florida. Mrs. Frémont and her sisters made the home of their father, Colonel Benton, very attractive; General Cass’s daughter, who afterwards married the Dutch minister, had returned from Paris with many rare works of art; and the proscribed freesoilers met with a hearty welcome at the house of Dr. Bailey, the editor of The New Era, where Miss Dodge, afterwards better known as Gail Hamilton, passed her first winter in Washington.
The diplomatic circles were excited by the proceedings connected with the will of General Kosciuszko, the Polish patriot, who bad left an estate in the hands of ex-President Jefferson, as his trustee. Mr. Jefferson declined to accept the trust, and after some litigation it was found that Ivoseiuszko had made a subsequent will. His heirs employed Mr. Gaspard Tochman, a Polish exile, whose home estate had been confiscated, and who was at that time a practicing lawyer in New York, to conduct the suit. M. de Bodisco, the Russian minister, unwilling that a political enemy of his imperial master should derive any pecuniary advantage from the case, wrote to Poland, advising the Kosciuszko heirs to revoke the power of attorney given to Tochman, and to appoint a new agent. They did so, and sent to the United States Captain Ladislaus Wankowitz, a grand-nephew of Ivoseiuszko, to attend to the matter personally. Soon after Wankowitz’s arrival at Washington, he was induced to reappoint Tochman as the attorney of the heirs, and to associate with him Mr. Reverdy Johnson. For this act of contumacy, the estate of Wankowitz in Poland, valued at $60,000, was confiscated, and he was forced to accept an $800 clerkship in one of the departments for a livelihood.
On the evening of the 4th of July, a large party was given by Mr. Robert C. Winthrop to his gentlemen friends, without distinction of party or locality. At the supper-table, Mr. Winthrop had at his right hand Vice-President Fillmore. and at his left hand Mr. Speaker Cobb. Webster and Foote, Benton and Horace Mann ; the members elect from California, with Clingman and Venable, who were trying to keep them out, were seen in genial companionship. Most of the cabinet and the president’s private secretary, Colonel Bliss, were there, side by side with those who proposed to impeach them. The only drawback to the general enjoyment of the occasion was the understanding that it was the farewell entertainment of Mr. Winthrop, who had given so many evidences of his unselfish patriotism and eminent ability, and whose large experience in public affairs should have entitled him to the continued confidence of the people of Massachusetts.
President Taylor was absent, and Colonel Bliss apologized for his nonattendance, saying that he was somewhat indisposed. That day the old hero had sat in the sun at the Washington Monument, during a long address by Senator Foote, and a tedious supplementary harangue by George Washington Parke Custis. While thus exposed to the midsummer heat for nearly three hours, he had drank freely of ice-water, and on his return to the White House he had found a basket of cherries, of which he partook heartily, drinking at the same time several goblets full of iced milk. After dinner he again feasted on cherries and iced milk, against the protestations of Dr. Witherspoon, who was his guest. When it was time to go to Mr. Winthrop’s he felt ill, and soon afterwards he was seized with a violent attack of cholera morbus.
This was on Thursday, but he did not consider himself dangerously ill until Sunday, when he said to his physician, “ In two days I shall be a dead man.” Eminent physicians were called in, but they could not arrest the bilious fever which supervened. His mind was clear, and on Tuesday morning he said to one of the physicians at his bedside, “ You have fought a good fight, but you cannot make a stand.” Soon afterwards he murmured, “ I have endeavored to do my duty,” and peacefully breathed his last. The announcement of the sad event startled the nation, whose standard he had so often borne to victory.