Reminiscences of Washington
THE FILLMORE ADMINISTRATION, 1850-1803.
THE Collins line of ocean steamers applied to Congress for an addition to the subsidy already granted to it. Mr. Collins, a ship-owner, had previously built and run a line of sailing packets between New York and Liverpool, each vessel named after a distinguished actor. This “dramatic line,” as it was called, had been profitable, but Mr. Collins found that it was impossible to run his four magnificent steamers without incurring an average loss of seventeen thousand dollars a trip, and he appealed to Congress for aid. The Baltic, which was regarded as the finest steamer, came up the Potomac to Washington, and a succession of brilliant entertainments was given on board. “ Passes ” for passages across the Atlantic and back were lavishly distributed among congressmen and correspondents, and the subsidy was finally secured.
Several other considerable appropriations were lobbied through Congress by the united efforts of the especial friends of each one, which was called “ log-roll ing,” in allusion to the united action of residents of newly settled parts of the country in rolling together and burning large logs. One of these claims was brought forward by the officers of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, in Virginia, In 1789 the States of Virginia and Maryland had each advanced one hundred and twenty thousand dollars in aid of the erection of the necessary public buildings, on condition that the seat of government should be located on the Potomac River. No claim was made for this donation until 1850, when the legislature of Virginia was induced to present an application for reimbursement, to aid in the construction of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. There was no evidence that the money donated was a loan, nor had security of any kind been taken. It was also well known that the Federal government had made very liberal appropriations for the benefit of the city of Alexandria, before its retrocession to Virginia, but the claim was “put through” Congress without much debate.
Another venerable claim was presented, from the grandson of General Thomas Sumter, who asked the reimbursement of thirty-two loan-office certificates, amounting in all to about three thousand dollars, issued by the State of South Carolina in 1778 to his illustrious ancestor. Congress had passed laws again and again, calling upon those who held these state certificates of indebtedness to file them for adjustment, until 1825, when by statute the doors of the treasury were finally barred against them. There was no evidence that these claims had not been adjusted, and it was certain that General Sumter, who was a senator in Congress in 1811, had never asserted that either the United States or the State of South Carolina owed him a dollar.
New York had also a claim, which was industriously lobbied, but which was manifestly unjust. One Jethro Wood had obtained, in 1819, letters patent for the construction of cast-iron plows, and they had been extended, in 1832, for an additional period of fourteen years. His heirs, represented by two goodlooking, interesting young ladies and by a sharp attorney, sought, before the expiration of this extension, to have the patent again extended for seven years.
It was shown that cast-iron plows had been patented in Great Britain in 1742 by a Scotchman named Small, and that Thomas Jefferson had made scientific experiments with iron mould boards soon after the Revolution. But the pertinacious solicitations of the young ladies for congressional support were seconded by the importunities of the lobby, stimulated by pledges of money, to be paid from the quarter of a million of dollars which it was estimated a renewal of the patent would secure to Wood’s heirs. It was only after a sharp debate, in which the iniquity of the proposed extension of the patent was developed, that the subject was laid on the table.
One pleasant afternoon in March, Mr. Brown, of Mississippi, delivered a long speech in the house upon the politics of that State, in which he defended the state-rights party, and ridiculed the Union movement as unnecessary, no one then being in favor of either disunion or secession. This one of his colleagues, Mr. Wilcox, denied. “ Do you mean,” said Mr. Brown, “ to assert that what I have said is false ? ” “ If you say,” bravely responded Mr. Wilcox, “ that there was no party in Mississippi at the recent election in favor of secession or disunion, you say what is false ! ” The last word was echoed by a ringing slap from Brown’s open hand on the right cheek of Wilcox, who promptly returned the blow, and then the two men clinched each other, in a fierce struggle. Many of the members, leaving their seats, crowded around the combatants, while Mr. Seymour, of Connecticut, who temporarily occupied the chair, pounded with his mallet, shouting at the top of his voice, “ Order ! order ! ” The sergeant-at-arms was loudly called for, but he was absent, and before he could be found the parties had been separated. The speaker resumed the chair, and in a few moments the contestants, still flushed, apologized to the house,— not to each other. A duel was regarded as inevitable, but mutual friends intervened, and the next day it was formally announced in the house that the difficulty “ had been adjusted in a manner highly creditable to both parties, who again occupied the same position of friendship which had existed between them previous to the unpleasant affair of the day before.”
The “ mileage ” of Congressmen had grown to be a great abuse, each senator, representative, and delegate receiving eight dollars for every twenty miles traveled in going to and returning from Washington. When this rate was fixed, there were no railroads, and it was thought that the price of a day’s compensation would be a fair remuneration for a day’s journey, — twenty miles. Afterwards, steamboats and railroads quickened and cheapened inland travel, but lengthened the routes, and when the country on the Pacific slope came to be represented, a member of Congress from Oregon was entitled to $3452 mileage ; nor was this all. It appeared that at the close of the thirtieth Congress those senators who “ held over,” and took their seats in the executive session called to ratify the appointments made by President Taylor, received what was called constructive mileage, amounting in the aggregate to nearly forty thousand dollars. Only two senators refused to accept this unearned gratuity, which Mr. Toombs, of Georgia, stigmatized in the house as “ a standing degradation.”
Mr. Leutze, a talented artist, petitioned Congress to commission him to paint for the Capitol copies of his Washington Crossing the Delaware, and his Washington Rallying his Troops at Monmouth, but without success. Mr. Healey was equally unsuccessful with his proposition to paint two large historical paintings for the stairways of the extensions of the Capitol, one representing the Destruction of the Tea in Boston Harbor, and the other the Battle of Bunker Hill; but subsequently he received an order to paint the portraits of the presidents, which now grace the White House. Mr. Martin, a marine artist of recognized ability, also proposed in vain to paint two large pictures, one representing the famous action between the Constitution and the Guerrière, and the other the night combat between the Bon Homme Richard and the Serapis. Indeed, there have been scores of meritorious works of art offered to and declined by committees of Congress, which has expended large sums in the purchase of daubs disgraceful to the Capitol of the nation.
So with sculpture. Powers endeavored, without success, to obtain an order for his colossal statue of America, which was highly commended by competent judges, while Mr. Mills was liberally remunerated for his effigy of General Jackson balancing himself on a brass rocking-horse. Powers accepted the situation philosophically, and wrote to a friend, “ I do not complain of anything, for I know how the world goes, as the saying is, and I try to take it calmly and patiently ; holding out my net, like a fisherman, to catch salmon, shad, or pilchards, as they may come. If salmon, why then we can eat salmon ; if shad, why then the shad are good; but if pilchards, why then we can eat them, and bless God that we have a dinner at all.”
The public amusements at Washington during the administration of Mr. Fillmore were unusually varied. Jenny Lind sang in concert to a crowded house, Mr. Webster leading in the enthusiastic applause which followed her singing, and Lola Montez danced in her peculiar style to an audience equally large, but containing no ladies. Charlotte Cushman appeared as Meg Merrilies, Parodi and Dempster sang in concerts, Burton and Brougham convulsed their hearers with laughter, and Forrest appeared in tragedy, to the delight of his admirers. Col. John W. Forney tells a good story about a visit which he paid with Forrest to Henry Clay, soon after the passage of the compromise measure. The colonel unguardedly complimented a speech made by Senator Soulè, which made Mr. Clay’s eyes flash, and he proceeded to criticise him very severely, ending by saying, “He is nothing but an actor, sir, — a mere actor ! ” Then, suddenly recollecting the presence of the tragedian, he dropped his tone, and turning towards Mr. Forrest said, with a graceful gesture, “ I mean, my dear sir, a mere French actor ! ” The visitors soon afterward took their leave, and as they descended the stairs Forrest turned towards Forney and said, " Mr. Clay has proved, by the skill with which he can change his manner, and the grace with which he can make an apology, that he is a better actor than Soulé.”
Henry Clay breathed his last on the morning of June 29, 1852, in the room at the National Hotel which he had occupied since his trip to Havana. Unable to return to Ashland, he had sent for his son Thomas, who remained with him until his death. The funeral services were performed at the Capitol, and the remains were then escorted to their last resting-place near Lexington, Kentucky, by a joint committee of Congress. “ A noble heart ceased to beat forever, — a long life of brilliant and self-devoted public service was closed.”
The honors secured for Colonel Frémont by his father-in-law, Mr. Benton, for his path-findings across the Rocky Mountains inspired other young officers of the army, and some civilians, with a desire to follow his example. Returning to Washington, each one had wonderful tales of adventure to relate. Even the old travelers, who saw the phœnix expire in her odoriferous nest, whence the chick soon flew forth regenerated, or who found dead lions slain by the quills of some “ fretful porcupine,” or who knew that the stare of the basilisk was death, — even these, who saw unicorns graze and who heard mermaids sing, were veracious when compared with the explorers of railroad routes across the continent. Senator Jefferson Davis did much to encourage them by having their reports published in quarto form, with expensive illustrations, and Cornelius Wendell laid the foundation of his fortune by printing them as “ Pub. Docs.”
Another printer, the veteran Thomas Ritchie, was less fortunate, and was rescued from bankruptcy only by the passage of a joint resolution granting him additional compensation. He had been the companion and confidant of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, and had always stood by the democratic flag; so Congress refused to act the part of Shylock, and exact the pound of flesh called for by the contract under which he had agreed to do the public printing. Although then seventy-five years of age, Mr. Ritchie was as genial and vivacious in his temperament as a young man of thirty, and he possessed great physical endurance. But his opinion did not suit all of his party, and it was agreed, when the resolution for his relief was passed, that he should retire from the editorial control of The Union, then the democratic organ.
The National Era, edited by Dr. Gamaliel Bailey, was a source of great annoyance to the pro-slavery men, and on one occasion they excited an attack on his house by a drunken mob. Dr. Bailey was a small, slender man, with a noble head, and a countenance on which the beautiful attributes of his character were written. Taking his life in his hands, he went to his door-way, attended by his wife, and bravely faced the infuriated crowd. He denied that he had any agency in a recent attempt to secure the escape of a party of slaves to the North, and then called the attention of his hearers to the fact that at a public meeting of the citizens of Washington, not very long before that night, resolutions had been passed denouncing the French government for having fettered the press ; yet they were proposing to do in his case what their fellow-citizens had condemned when done by others. His remarks produced an effect, but the leaders of the mob raised the cry, “ Burn the Era office ! ” and a movement was made towards that building, when a well-known Washington lawyer, with Southern sympathies, sprang from Dr. Bailey’s doorsteps, and made an eloquent appeal in behalf of a free press, concluding with a proposition that the assemblage go to the house of the mayor of Washington and give him three cheers. This was done, and the mob then dispersed peaceably.
The ablest newspaper correspondent at Washington during the Fillmore administration was Mr. Erastus S. Brooks, one of the editors and proprietors of the New York Express. He was then in the prime of life, rather under the average height, with a large, well-balanced head, bright black eyes, and a swarthy complexion. What he did not know about what was going on in political circles, before and behind the scenes, was not worth knowing ; his industry was proverbial, and he was one of the first metropolitan correspondents to discard the didactic and pompous style which had been copied from the British essayists, and to write with a vigorous, graphic, and forcible pen. Washington correspondents in those days were neither eavesdroppers nor interviewers, but gentlemen, who had a recognized position in society which they never abused.
The Washington correspondents were always glad to see Major M. M. Noah, a veteran New York editor, who was also warmly welcomed by the politicians from his State, and by his Hebrew friends. Although advanced in years, he retained his portliness of form, activity of limb, vivacity of style, and benevolence of feature. It was better than a comedy to hear the major talk, after he had eaten a good dinner and washed it down with a few glasses of old madeira wine. He remembered Washington, Franklin, and other revolutionary worthies, and it is to be regretted that he never permanently recorded his varied and interesting reminiscences. Notwithstanding his long editorial service, during which he did so much towards advancing the political interests of others, he found himself in the decline of life in straitened circumstances.
Among other occasional correspondents was Aaron A. Sargent, afterwards a senator from California, who was a compositor in the printing-office where the debates of Congress were published. He was on intimate terms with the antislavery representatives, and accidentally learned that one of them, Mr. Singerland, of Albany, had got a correspondent named Stevens to write a letter on political matters, which he had signed, and sent home for publication as his own. An allusion in the epistle to the Rev. Mr. Slicer, a ranting pro-slavery Methodist, who was then chaplain of the senate, elicited a bitter reply from that gentleman, which appeared in The Union newspaper. Mr. Stevens, who was a man of ability, wrote an answer for Singerland to sign and publish, but it was so “ red hot,” to use a phrase of that time, that the congressman was afraid to assume the responsibility of it. While he was endeavoring to have it toned down, Mr. Sargent got hold of Stevens’s draught, signed Singerland’s name to it, and forwarded it to New York for publication. The second morning afterwards, Stevens went into Singerland’s room, and found him in great distress over a copy of the New York Tribune containing the letter over his signature. He upbraided Stevens, but was at last convinced by his protestations of innocence that he had not sent it, and concluded that it was Sargent. Fearing an assault from Parson Slicer, Singerland went that day to the Capitol by a circuitous route, and was relieved from his fright only when Giddings and other radicals complimented him on his manly letter.
President Fillmore’s receptions were always well attended, and they were the only large social gatherings then held at Washington, with the exception of occasional entertainments given by Mr. Crampton, who so ably represented Queen Victoria, — a noble specimen of the fine old English gentleman, whose hair was prematurely silvered by time. At these receptions one could see near together gallant officers of the army and “ colonels ” of the “ lobby engineer corps ; ” diplomates whose breasts blazed with decorations and “ chevaliers d’industrie ” without reputations; exquisites in full evening attire and frontiersmen in buckskin hunting suits ; Quakers with their hats on their heads and ladies with their dresses off their shoulders, — old and young, the good and the great, all contributing to make up a kaleidoscopic whirl of silks and broadcloths, epaulets and diamonds, that circled round the East Room to the music of the marine band.
There were " hops ” at the hotels, dinner-parties given by lobbyists at Boulanger’s restaurant, and many small social entertainments, to which only those who were politically in sympathy with the host were invited. As the time for holding the nominating conventions approached, many of the delegates visited Washington, where they received marked hospitality from the candidates who were there, and from the friends of all. The supporters of Judge Douglas were especially demonstrative, and their “ headquarters ” was famed for its abundant supply of whisky and cigars, and as a mint where there was a daily coinage of epigrams, witticisms, and quaint sayings which were circulated everywhere in Washington. Their merciless attacks on " ten-cent Jimmy ” Buchanan, and on Cass, whose reputation was beyond the C, proved fatal to the hopes of those veteran members of the party who deserved more considerate treatment. The friends of these “ old fogies ” determined in turn that Douglas should be slaughtered also, and great excitement prevailed at Washington for some weeks before the national democratic convention assembled at Baltimore.
The sessions of the convention were long and stormy, and it was on the thirty-fifth ballot that the name of General Franklin Pierce was brought forward, for the first time, by the Virginia delegation. Some other States voted for the New Hampshire brigadier, but it did not seem possible that he could be nominated, and the next day, on the forty-eighth ballot, Virginia gave her vote for Daniel S. Dickinson, of New York. It was received with great applause, but Mr. Dickinson, who was a delegate pledged to the support of Cass, was too honorable a man to accept what he thought belonged to his friend. Receiving permission to address the convention, he eloquently withdrew his own name, and pleaded so earnestly for the nomination of General Cass that he awakened the enthusiasm of the audience, and received a shower of bouquets from the ladies in the galleries, to which he gracefully alluded " as a rosebud in the wreath of his political destiny.”
The convention at last, on the fortyninth ballot, nominated General Pierce, — Purse, his friends called him, — a gentleman of courteous temper, highly agreeable manners, and convivial nature. He had served in the recent war with Mexico ; he had never given a vote or written a sentence that the straightest Southern democrat could wish to blot; and he was identified with the slave power, having denounced its enemies as the enemies of the constitution. William R. King, at that time president pro tem. of the senate, was nominated for vice-president, receiving every vote except the eleven given by the delegation from Illinois, which were for Jefferson Davis.
Cass and Douglas were at first much provoked by the action of the convention, but Buchanan gracefully accepted the situation. “ You judge me rightly,” he wrote to a Southern political friend, “ in believing that I have borne defeat with philosophy; it has not cost me a single pang. The support I received from the Old Dominion and her noble sisters of the South will be a source of satisfaction to me so long as I shall live. Still, when I see such a man as Hallett, of Boston, elevated to the rank of highpriest in the democratic church, I cannot avoid mortification. I have long observed him and such Yankees as he, who have never had any principle except the five loaves and two fishes. Rantoul and Hallett were a precious pair of democrats. I have a high opinion of Pierce, and he will make an excellent president, if surrounded by the proper influences ; but Heaven save us from the influences of Boston democracy ! The South are entitled to very great influence with him, and I hope will assert their rights in a proper manner. I shall aid them all in my power.” This was Mr. Buchanan’s first bid for the nomination which he secured in 1856.
Mr. Webster, meanwhile, felt and asserted that he was entitled to receive the whig nomination. More than thirty years of public service had made him the ablest and the most conspicuous member of his party then on the stage, and neither Fillmore nor Scott could compare with him in the amount and value of public services rendered. He had worked long, assiduously, and faithfully to deserve the honors of his party, and to qualify himself for the highest distinction that party could bestow upon him. He must receive its nomination now or never, as he was then upwards of sixty years of age, and his vigorous constitution had shown signs of decay. He engaged in the campaign, however, with the hope and the vigor of youth, writing letters to his friends, circulating large pamphlet editions of his speeches, and entertaining at his table those through whose influence he hoped to receive the Southern support necessary to secure his success.
President Fillmore, meanwhile, was quietly but steadily using the patronage of the Federal government to secure the election of delegates to the whig national convention friendly to his nomination. Mr. Webster counted on the support of the president’s friends, but he never received from Mr. Fillmore any pledges that it would be given. On the contrary, the leading office-holders asserted, weeks prior to the assembling of the convention, that the contest had already been narrowed down to a question between Fillmore and Scott. Mr. Seward’s friends were of the same opinion, and urged the support of Scott as the only way to defeat the nomination of Fillmore.
When the convention was organized, and proceeded to ballot, General Scott had one hundred and thirty-four votes, Mr. Fillmore one hundred and thirtythree, and Mr. Webster twenty - nine, every one of which was cast by a Northern delegate. Not a Southern votewas given to him, despite all the promises made, but Mr. Fillmore received the entire Southern strength. The balloting was continued for several days, without any change, and even the eloquence of Rufus Choate failed to secure the vote of a single Southern delegate for his cherished friend. Mr. Choate then went to Washington, hoping to move Mr. Fillmore ; but the president “ made no sign,” and Mr. Webster saw that the presidency, to which he had so long aspired, was to pass beyond his reach. He was saddened by the disappointment, and especially wounded when he was informed that Mr. Clay had advised the Southern delegates to support Mr. Fillmore.
A nomination was finally made on the fifty-third ballot, when twenty-eight delegates from Pennsylvania changed their votes from Fillmore to General Scott. That evening, a party of enthusiastic whigs at Washington, after serenading President Fillmore, marched to the residence of Mr. Webster. The band performed several patriotic airs, but some time elapsed before Mr. Webster appeared, wearing a long dressing-gown, and looking sad and weary. He said but a few words, making no allusion to General Scott, and when, in conclusion, he said that for one he should sleep well and rise with the lark the next morning, and bade them good-night, the serenaders retired as if they had had a funeral sermon preached to them. Thenceforth Mr. Webster was a disappointed, heartstricken man, and he retired to Marshfield, profoundly disgusted with the insincerity of politicians.
The nomination of General Scott gave the death-blow to the whig party, which had so long contributed to the peace and the glory of the United States. The name of whigs (derived from the Scotch word whiggamore, one who drives horses) was bestowed, in 1648, on an armed party which marched to Edinburgh to oppose Charles I.; and it was subsequently adopted in England by those who asserted the rights of the people in opposition to the prerogatives of royalty. In due time it crossed the Atlantic to the thirteen colonies which were struggling for their independence, and the defenders of popular rights called themselves whigs, while those who loyally adhered to the crown were denominated tories. Later, the name whig had been adopted by those who desired, while pursuing the paths of peace, justice, and national honor, to develop the industrial resources of the republic, to elevate the national reputation, and to command the respect and admiration of the world through the means of enterprise and honesty, private achievement and public virtue. Had its leaders possessed the courage to grapple with the slavery question and to present some scheme for gradual compensated emancipation, the whig party might have continued to direct our unmatched resources for national greatness, happiness, and glory.
Mr. Buchanan was unusually active in his opposition to the whig ticket. “ I should regard Scott’s election,” he wrote to a friend, “ as one of the greatest calamities which could befall the country. I know him well, and do not doubt either his patriotism or his integrity ; but he is vain beyond any man I have ever known ; and, what is remarkable in a vain man, he is obstinate and selfwilled and unyielding. His judgment, except in conducting a campaign in the field, is perverse and unsound ; and when, added to all this, we consider that, if elected at all, it will be under the auspices of Seward and his abolition associates, I fear for the fate of this Union.”
The whigs were greatly embarrassed by General Scott, who persisted in making campaign speeches, some of which did him great harm. Their mass-meetings proved failures, notably one on the battle-ground of Niagara, but they endeavored to atone for these discouraging events by a profuse distribution of popular literature. Large editions were circulated of a tract by Horace Greeley, entitled Why am I a Whig ? and of campaign lives of “ Old Chepultepec,” published in English, in French, and in German. But the people were no longer to be led by the spirit-stirring strains of the drum and fife, and General Scott received only the electoral votes of Massachusetts, Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee ; Pierce and King receiving two hundred and fifty-four votes against forty-one votes for Scott and Graham.
The intelligence of Daniel Webster’s death at Marshfield, a few days before the presidential election, created a decided sensation at Washington, where he was a general favorite. Those who attended the funeral saw his remains lying in the lower half of an iron coffin, beneath the shade of a large tree before the house. The body was dressed in a blue coat with gilt buttons, white vest, cravat, pantaloons, and gloves, and shoes with dark cloth gaiters. His hands rested upon his breast, and his features wore a sad smile familiar to those who had known him in his later years. The village pastor conducted the services, after which the upper half of the coffin was put on, and it was taken on a low platform car, drawn by two black horses, to the burial ground on the estate. On either side of the remains walked the pall-bearers selected by the deceased,— six sturdy, weather-bronzed farmer fishermen, who lived in the vicinity, — while General Pierce, the mayor of Boston, Edward Everett, Rufus Choate, and other distinguished personages followed as best they could. There were many evidences of grief among the thousands of Mr. Webster’s friends present, and yet death was for him a fortunate escape from trouble. He was painfully aware that he had forfeited the political confidence of the people of Massachusetts, and gained nothing by so doing; he had found that he could not receive a nomination, even from the party which he had so long served, for the presidential office he so much coveted; and his pecuniary embarrassments were very annoying. Neither could he, under the circumstances, have continued to hold an office under Mr. Fillmore, who, after his funeral, appointed Edward Everett as his successor in the department of state.
General Pierce received a severe blow after his election, a railroad accident depriving him of his only child, a promising boy, to whom he was devotedly attached. A week before the inauguration he escorted his sorrow-stricken wife to Baltimore, and then came to Washington, accompanied by his private secretary, Mr. Fletcher Webster. Mr. Fillmore received him cordially, and invited him to dine at the White House, where there was a reception given in his honor. An estimate of the character of the president elect was circulated that evening, as having been given to an itinerant lecturer who was stopping at a New Hampshire village inn by its landlord. “ What sort of a man is General Pierce ? ” “ Waal, up here, where everybody knows Frank Pierce, and where Frank Pierce knows everybody, he’s a pretty considerable fellow, I tell you. But come to spread him out over this whole country, I’m afraid that he ’ll be dreadful thin in some places.”