FOR more than a generation, a period covering the most memorable events in American annals since we became a nation, I have been a quiet observer of men and things in Washington. I have seen Congresses and administrations come and go, the Union temporarily broken asunder and again united, and I have watched with keen Interest the revolutions in politics which have rapidly succeeded one another. Most of the public men of the last generation have been familiar figures to me. Asked to contribute my own impressions of men and events during this stirring and momentous period, I have not felt at liberty to decline. Preserving the rule of reticence as to living persons, I will endeavor to convey as frank and impartial an estimate of the characteristics of some public men of the past, whether in legislative, executive, or judicial life, as my experience and judgment permit. No other merit is claimed for these sketches than that they are the fruit of a candid observation and an experience somewhat prolonged.
WILLIAM PITT FESSENDEN.
Few of our public men have had a more marked and engaging personality than Senator William Pitt Fessenden of Maine. A great lawyer, an incorruptible patriot, a man of almost haughty independence, he left behind, at immeasurable distance, the rank and file of politicians. His small, fine, classically cut head and face, his feeble, dyspeptic body, his severe and quiet look, as of incessant pain overmastered by main force of will, united to mark a man cast in no common mould. His ripe judgment and wisdom brought to him in his later years the title of “ the Father of the Senate.” Even his faults, his somewhat irascible temper, his cool scorn of the weaklings and the fanatics of his party, the extreme literalness and almost narrowness of his unpoetic mind, and his habitual conservatism, which led him to cling to things established, even sometimes to established abuses, are rather remembered as salient traits of character than cited to his disparagement. He despised demagogues, and had a lifelong contempt for time - servers, sycophants, and bores.
When Fessenden first came to Washington, at the age of thirty-five, in the days of the great Whig victory of 1840, he was a young and ardent Whig, yet full of that even judgment and grasp of practical affairs which always rendered him an invaluable aid in the business of Congress. His first notable speech was on a proposed reduction of the army ; and it is significant that he began by opposing his party, whose watchword of " retrenchment and reform ” was to be carried out by cutting down the military force to a point which he deemed niggardly and insufficient. The new member was beard with wonder and some impatience, but his intellectual force was such as to give to his array of facts a weight which few new members ever command. Then he “ wore the rose of youth upon him,” and his straight, lithe figure, jet-black hair, piercing eye, and finely cut face, out of which intellect looked, made him one of the most admired men in the House. The Portland district, always until then Democratic, wished to send him back to Congress, but he obstinately declined ; for be had no patrimony, and felt obliged to cultivate his profession to enable him to educate his family, an end which was incompatible with serving in Congress. He toiled at the bar during the next ten years with rare zeal and success.
Elected to the Senate early in 1854, he bore a conspicuous part in the whole anti-slavery struggle, which began with the “ compromise ” measures of 1850, followed by the Kansas-Nebraska bill of Douglas, and ended with the extinction of slavery and the elevation of the negro to citizenship. He has often been criticised, and even fiercely denounced, as unduly conservative in the anti-slavery struggle. The charge is not sustained by a perusal of his speeches and his record. No more signal proof of his fidelity to freedom need be adduced than the fact that, after President Andrew Johnson had broken wholly with the party which brought him into power, Fessenden was chosen by his colleagues chairman of the important joint committee of both Houses on Reconstruction. As such, he wrote that able Report which, for clearness, terseness, and vigorous treatment of the great questions then still at issue, stands unsurpassed in the political literature of the time.
Fessenden’s manner and delivery as a speaker were almost unique in the Senate, where set speeches read from manuscript have been so common. He rarely used so much as a note of what he was to say, stood with easy grace in the aisle next to his seat, and talked in a quiet, almost conversational tone, but with clear, distinct utterance, and a precision of statement which marked his intellectual acuteness. He spoke often, but never at much length. Charles Sumner said of him that “ nobody could match him in immediate and incisive reply.”
His first speech in the Senate, March 3, 1854, on that revolutionary measure the Kansas-Nebraska bill, at once raised him to a front rank among the senatorial opponents of slavery extension. The little band of Senators who confronted the aggressive forces of the South, joined to the well-nigh compact democracy of the North, included Seward, Sumner, Chase, Wade, Everett, Hamlin, Fish, and Foot. Fessenden, as yet but little known on the stage of national affairs, made his maiden speech just before midnight, when the debate was about to be closed by Senator Douglas in behalf of the bill. With cool force of logic, he exposed the claim that the territories ought to be opened to slavery, notwithstanding their dedication to freedom by the compromise of 1820, and showed how the South had since secured the admission of four new slave states, while only the same number of free states had been admitted. Then he took up the compromise measures of 1850 (which he had vigorously opposed when the Whig National Convention of 1852 had indorsed them), and proceeded: —
“ It has been claimed for these compromise measures of 1850 that they satisfied all parties, and restored peace to a distracted country. All differences had been settled. We were a happy people. Suddenly, in the midst of this concord, comes a proposition to take from the free states just that which had been given for all these advantages which had accrued to the South, — to take the little that was allowed to the free states by the compromise of 1820. . . . If this is designed as a measure of peace, let me tell you that anything but peace you will have. If this restriction is repealed, as to that territory, it is not yet in the Union, and it never will come into the Union except with exclusion of slavery.”
This speech was heard by many Southerners, one of whom said to another as it proceeded, " What sort of a new Senator is this ? All his guns are doubleshotted.”
As chairman of the Senate committee on finance, which at that day had entire charge of all appropriations as well as of revenue measures, Mr. Fessenden stood virtually as the leader of the Senate, at the head of its most important committee. In this responsible position his sagacity and ability were so fully demonstrated that when Mr. Chase resigned the office of Secretary of the Treasury, in June, 1864, President Lincoln chose Mr. Fessenden as his successor. Scruples against accepting so onerous an office in his rather precarious state of health led him to decline, for he greatly preferred the Senate. But his reluctance was overborne by Mr. Lincoln’s good-humored pertinacity, and by the urgent expressions which came from all parts of the country, pressing him as the one fit man for the place.
Congress was about to adjourn, after a long and anxious and laborious session, in which he had borne the conspicuous and responsible part of leader in the Senate, where he had been charged with all revenue measures and the financial policy of the government. He was weary with daily and nightly labor, and had looked forward longingly to the accustomed rest of the summer vacation. He went to the White House one morning (it was five days before the adjournment) to confer with Mr. Lincoln as to the measures of legislation then in their final stages, and to consult as to a proper candidate to be proposed for the Treasury Department. It was all essential to secure some one who would command public confidence at such a critical juncture. Mr. Lincoln put his hand upon Fessenden’s shoulder and declared that he himself was that man. Surprised and almost confounded, the Senator told the President that he could not accept; that he was nearly worn out with the responsibilities and toils of the protracted session ; and that for him to assume the onerous duties of the Treasury in the burning heat of Washington, at such a moment, would be dangerous, if not suicidal. He could not, would not accept the office, for, aside from his frail health, he did not feel himself qualified for it. Mr. Lincoln replied with feeling and energy in a strong appeal to Fessenden’s patriotic impulses, with assurances that he had the confidence of the financial interests of the country, and that he should have the way smoothed by the aid of able lieutenants ; and closed by telling him that the nomination had already been sent to the Senate. In fact, Fessenden’s appointment had that day been unanimously confirmed.
He at once resolved to sink personal considerations, and to enter upon the office, with the proviso that he should be at liberty to withdraw whenever a fit successor should be found to relieve him. He himself said of it, “ I took the office reluctantly and as a matter of duty, and vacated it just as soon as I could.”
Secretary Chase, after the great victories which had attended the arms of the Union in preceding years, and aided by the eager and overwhelming patriotism of the country, had made a signal reputation by the marked success of the large popular loans negotiated during his administration. The price of gold — that infallible barometer of public confidence — had fallen, while the national revenues had steadily improved. But there came a time when the tide changed. In May and June, 1864, the slow progress of Grant’s army toward Richmond, the ineffective battles of the Wilderness, and the losses at Cold Harbor, with the delay of Sherman’s army in the movement upon Atlanta, had chilled the enthusiasm of the people, and had shaken their confidence in the early termination of the war. The result was seen in the financial situation quite as conspicuously as in the military. The government bonds, issued in ever increasing volume, went heavily. The willingness to invest slowly gave place to a feeling of distrust. A renewed attempt by Secretary Chase to secure a loan met with no response. Gold, which had hovered between 150 and 180, went up to 250 in June, 1864, and then to 285, the highest point reached during the entire period of the war. It was at this gloomy crisis, with the legaltender money of the government worth barely thirty-five cents on the dollar, with a new loan of fifty millions unsalable, with an eminent Secretary of the Treasury just resigning his office, with revenues totally inadequate to daily expenditures, with a great army in the field no longer scoring victories, and with doubt and distrust on every side, that Fessenden was called to take charge of the Treasury Department.
In this new and untried position Fessenden exhibited the same qualities of energy, foresight, and grasp of affairs which had marked his career in the Senate. As a notable evidence of the appreciation in which his distinguished character and services were held in the public mind, the price of gold, which had stood at 280, fell to 225 on the day that his acceptance of the Treasury appointment was announced. The press of the country joined its voice to that of capitalists and bankers in declaring that a great crisis had been averted.
But the situation was very far from reassuring. The expenditures were steadily in excess of the estimates which had been made for the year. Requisitions upon the Treasury, suspended because there was a lack of funds to meet them, had reached almost a hundred million dollars. The enormous scale upon which the armies of the Union were pushing the war in the South, under the lead of Grant and Sherman, had been unexampled in the history of modern warfare. The daily expenditure exceeded two million dollars, and sometimes reached two and a half millions. The depreciated greenback was a perpetual object-lesson and menace to the credit of the government.
Secretary Fessenden confronted this difficult situation with a courage which only an uncommonly strong man could have shown. He announced that no more paper money would be issued; but, with characteristic prudence, he did not put forth any declaration of an inflexible financial policy. He carefully watched developments, assuring the public creditors that temporary obligations would be met as soon as possible, that no new forms of indebtedness would be created, and that the discretionary power vested in him by law would be exerted to reduce the interest on the public debt. He asked the exhausted banks of New York for a loan of fifty millions ; but they were unable to respond at that time, as they had strained their resources to take up former issues of bonds. Then he offered all the six per cent gold bonds yet unsold, proposing to take compoundinterest notes in exchange at par ; and, though opposed by the banks, this policy was vindicated by almost doubling the subscriptions. The demands for army needs still increasing, an authorized loan at seven and three tenths per cent interest was offered, but met with only moderate success. Then, by Secretary Fessenden’s direction, the Treasury issued small denominations of the 7-30 bonds to the army paymasters, to be tendered to such officers and soldiers as chose to receive them in part payment of their overdue salaries. This met with much favor, and multitudes of brave and patriotic soldiers thus loaned their pay to the government, while fighting to preserve its integrity. Still there was a constantly yawning deficit between receipts and expenditures. Criticism of the Treasury policy was rife, and dictatorial leaders in the press and menacing letters from banking interests poured in on the new Secretary. He calmly went on his course, disregarding the claim for “more money ; ” well knowing that it was not more, but better money that was needed. Yet the subscriptions to the 7—30 loan had stopped ; the demand certificates of indebtedness had mounted to over two hundred and forty millions ; ninetytwo cents was their current value in the market. Mr. Fessenden strove to arrest this rapid depreciation, and suspended further issues of these certificates. He also withdrew the six per cent bonds, and appealed once more to the banks for a 7-30 loan. But when he found that thenresources were exhausted, he resolved to appeal to the people, and to popularize the loan by the aid of the same Philadelphia firm of bankers who in 1863 had succeeded in placing live hundred millions of six per cents at par. This plan met with great success; in the judgment of many, it saved the Treasury from bankruptcy. Nearly two hundred million dollars were secured. At the same time military victories revived drooping hopes, and fresh streams of money began to flow in through the operation of the amended tax-laws. Mr. Fessenden had a leading share in framing these, and their successful operation gratified him exceedingly.
He had still much labor to perform, however, before he could leave the Treasury. The war was yet in progress, and revenues for the ensuing year must be provided upon a scale at least as extensive as for the current one. He drew up a financial measure, which became a law March 3, 1865, providing for deficiencies by new authority for loans, and also empowering the Secretary to fund all forms of non-interest-bearing debt into a new form of bond: first into a five per cent issue, to run ten to forty years, at the option of the government; and then into four and four and a half per cents, after ten years from date of the first issue.
For this far-sighted and comprehensive policy of reducing debt, and thus at once cutting down expenses and strengthening incalculably the credit of the government, the country is largely indebted to Mr. Fessenden’s sagacity. Having now arrived at a point where he could safely and honorably lay down the burdens of his exacting administrative office, and having been reëlected by the legislature of Maine to a third full term in the Senate from the 4th of March, 1865, he again took his seat in that body. He resumed, by unanimous choice of his Republican colleagues, his post as chairman of the committee on finance.
Here the great and difficult problems involved in the reconstruction of civil government in the Southern states were added to the questions of financial policy which had formed so large a share of his senatorial and administrative responsibility. He was made chairman not only of the finance committee, but also of the important joint committee of both Houses of Congress on Reconstruction. The task of that committee of fifteen was one of almost unprecedented difficulty. It had to make thorough inquiry into the condition of all the lately seceded states ; to determine their actual status under the Constitution and public law; to define the powers of Congress over them as against their own autonomy ; and to frame such legislation as would insure peace, safety, and the permanent preservation of the Union. The situation was entirely anomalous, and taxed to the utmost the knowledge, the political skill, and the patriotism of those who confronted it. Mr. Fessenden’s Report, with accompanying bills, met with the acceptance of both Houses of Congress, and the measures of reconstruction proposed, which were the result of concessions of many conflicting opinions, became laws, including the recommendation to the states of a fourteenth constitutional amendment, fixing the basis of representation in Congress, and reducing it in the states in proportion to the exclusion by them from the elective franchise of any portion of their population. It also excluded from Congress and from federal office all the active participants in the rebellion, until relieved from disability by act of Congress ; declared the sacredness of the public debt, and prohibited the recognition of any debts or claims incurred in aid of the insurrection or for the emancipation of slaves. This far-reaching amendment was ratified by thirty-three states, and became a part of the Constitution.
Mr. Fessenden had a strong man’s indifference, which often amounted to contempt, for that public opinion which is manufactured by newspapers. The world’s notion of a particular course of conduct, the party’s notion of political necessity or expediency, had little importance in his eyes, when his own mind led him to a different conclusion.
As early as 1854, when catechised in the Senate upon the doctrine of instructions, he declared that a legislature had no right to instruct a Senator how he should vote. To him the post of Senator of the United States was a great trust, to be guarded jealously against all dictation or interference. When he came to pronounce his verdict in the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson, it was curious to see how like a disinterested critic or spectator he spoke. He appeared completely to have dismissed all political feeling, and to have judged the case solely with regard to the law and the evidence.
The almost unexampled political excitement of that time can be but imperfectly apprehended by those who were neither participants nor witnesses of its scenes. With an overwhelming majority in both Houses opposed to the President, with the public in the North against him in immense and almost vindictive preponderance, with his own obstinate, imprudent, and exasperating utterances against Congress itself, it required an independence of party spirit very rare in the members of representative bodies, to rise above the clamor of the time, and to pronounce a calm, judicial judgment. This, Fessenden, a Republican of the Republicans, did ; and in it he was joined by only seven out of forty-three of his colleagues belonging to that party. After a clear and searching review of the evidence, which he found insufficient to justify the removal of the President from office, he said : —
“ To the suggestion that popular opinion demands the conviction of the President on these charges, I reply that he is not now on trial before the people, but before the Senate. They have not taken an oath ‘ to do impartial justice, according to the Constitution and the laws.’ I have taken that oath. I cannot render judgment upon their convictions. The consequences which may follow either from conviction or acquittal are not for me to consider. . . . And I should consider myself undeserving the confidence of that just and intelligent people who imposed upon me this great responsibility, and unworthy a place among honorable men, if, for any fear of public reprobation, I should disregard the conviction of my judgment and my conscience.”
The acquittal of President Johnson, by failure of only one vote to make a two-thirds majority, was the signal for opening upon Mr. Fessenden the batteries of denunciation and abuse. He was threatened with political destruction, with being read out of the Republican party; but he defended his vote with signal ability, and ultimately gained more respect than opprobrium by the act. In the National Republican Convention which met two months later and nominated General Grant for the presidency, hot-headed resolutions denouncing Republican Senators who had voted against impeachment were laid upon the table. And the sober second thought of the public, as in the similar case of the condemnation of Charles Sumner by the Massachusetts legislature for his resolutions against perpetuating the names of victories over fellow citizens in the civil war, may be said to have reversed the judgment first hastily rendered under stress of popular excitement.
Mr. Fessenden was always a comprehensive reader. In the severely laborious later years of his life novels and whist were his favorite recreations of an evening. The stores of biography and of history in the Congressional Library were frequently drawn upon by him. The works of Swift, Dryden, Pope, and De Quincey were among his familiar readings, and he keenly appreciated the masterly History of Gibbon. Thackeray and Balzac, Dumas and Edgar Poe, he read with zest. Goethe also be read much, and among American books he had a special admiration for the historical works of Motley.
Senator Fessenden was for nearly ten years a member of the Committee on the Library of Congress, and while it occupied the long, narrow room on the west front of the Capitol it was his delight to browse at will among its stores. When the question of purchasing for the library of the United States the great historical collection of books, pamphlets, periodicals, and manuscripts of Peter Force came up, in 1866, he was an earnest advocate of its acquisition, and his influence in the library committee and in Congress was a potential factor in its favor. For some years during his senatorial term he was a regent of the Smithsonian Institution, an honor highly appreciated, and in his case well deserved.
Mr. Fessenden was one of the victims of the “National Hotel disease,” which in 1857, by its fatal results to some prominent men in Washington, caused such a horror throughout the country, and the effect of it probably remained in his system to the last and embittered his final hours. This once inexplicable mystery is now supposed to be clearly traced to arsenic. About eighty dead rats were found in a water-tank in a certain part of the hotel, most of which had been poisoned. Mr. Fessenden’s life, like those of some other public men who had their place of sojourn in that hostelry, was doubtless shortened by that most unfortunate calamity. He died at Portland, September 8, 1869, at the age of sixty-three.
The life of such a man as Peter Force, who died in Washington in 1868, at the ripe old age of seventy-seven years, was worth more to American letters and to human history than the lives of a score of the military generals and other notables whose names are so generally blazoned abroad. He lived for more than half a century in Washington, having gone thither in 1815 from New York. He found the capital a straggling village of wood, and saw it become a stately city of brick and marble. He filled many public and responsible positions, and he was for nine years editor and proprietor of a daily journal which enjoyed the confidence of Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams ; but it is not as mayor of Washington nor as an editor that he will he best remembered. His characteristic merit, which distinguishes him from the Ritchies, the Duff Greens, and the F. P. Blairs, who also bore an active part in political journalism at the national capital, is that he was more than a journalist, — he was an historian.
Born near Passaic Falls, N. J., on November 26, 1790 (his father, William Force, being a veteran of the Revolutionary War), Peter Force was by lineage, as well as by native tastes and talent, a worthy exponent of that branch of American history to which he dedicated so many years. Very early in life he evinced a zealous interest in historical investigations, and four years after coming to Washington he originated and published an annual of history, with statistical and official information of a varied character. The National Calendar and Annals of the United States, as he called it, antedated by ten years the publication of the old American Almanac, and was continuously published from 1820 to 1836, except the years 1825,1826, and 1827. In 1823 he established a newspaper, the National Journal, which was continued until 1831. This drew to its columns some noted contributors, among them John Quincy Adams. The high-minded conduct of this paper in doing justice to the opponents of the administration once led to a committee of the ruling party waiting upon Mr. Force, and asking him to permit them to edit or to revise the political columns, with a view to more thorough partisan effect. He drew himself up to his full height (he was six feet tall), and, with that dignity of bearing which sat so naturally upon him, said, “ I did not suppose that any gentleman would make such a proposition to me.”
Among Mr. Force’s publications of very great value to the students of American history were his series, in four volumes, octavo, of Historical Tracts. These were careful reprints of the rarest early pamphlets concerning America, long out of print, some of which could not be purchased, and others of which he could not afford to own; but he borrowed them from libraries for the purpose of reproducing them. “ Whenever,” said he, “ I found a little more money in my purse than I absolutely needed, I printed a volume of Tracts.” Many of the raris-simi of early American history or exploration thus owe to Peter Force their sole chance of preservation.
The series of American Archives, the great monumental work of his life, was published at intervals from 1837 to 1853. It embraces the period of American colonial history from March, 1774, to December, 1776, in nine stately folio volumes, printed in double columns, and most thoroughly indexed. These archives constitute a thesaurus of original information about the first two momentous years of the Revolutionary struggle, and especially concerning the Declaration of Independence and the early revolutionary action of the colonial assemblies, North and South, — of inestimable value. To this work, the bold conception of his own mind, to contain nothing less than the original fountains of American history, reproduced in systematic chronological order, he dedicated his long and useful life. For it he assembled, with keen, discriminating judgment and unwearied toil, that great collection of historical material, which now forms an invaluable part of the Congressional Library.
Nor was his literary and historical zeal by any means confined to the early history of America, He dignified and adorned his profession of printer by original authorship in many fields. He was profoundly interested in the annals of the art of printing, and the controversies over its true inventor. He gathered, by persistent search, a small library of incunabula, or books printed in the infancy of the art, representing every year from 1467 (his earliest blackletter imprint) up to 1500 and beyond. He studied the subject of arctic exploration, collecting all books published in that field, and himself writing upon it. He was the first to discover and publish, in the columns of the National Intelligencer, the true history of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence of May, 1775 ; proving by contemporaneous newspapers he had acquired that the true Resolutions were of date May 31, and that the so-called Mecklenburg Declaration of May 20,1775, was spurious.
The American Archives imposed upon Mr. Force a devoted, patient, assiduous life-labor, in one spot, surrounded by the continually growing collection of books, pamphlets, newspapers, manuscripts, maps, and engravings, which contributed to throw light upon some period of his inquiry. To say that his library alone filled his commodious house almost to overflowing ; that it embraced, besides the largest assemblage of books accumulated up to that time by a private citizen in this country, thirty thousand pamphlets and eight hundred volumes of newspapers : that it was rich in Revolutionary autographs, military papers, maps, portraits, and engravings; and that it embraced between forty and fifty thousand titles, — all this is to convey but a mechanical idea of the lifelong and unintermitted labor which Mr. Force expended upon his favorite subject. He began to collect American books long before the birth of the extensive and mostly undiscriminating mania of bookcollecting which of late years has become the rage, and he continued the unceasing pursuit until the very week before he was laid in his grave. He carried off prizes at book - auctions which no competitor had the nerve or the knowledge to dispute with him. He ransacked the bookshops of the United States, from Boston to Charleston, for rare volumes.
He had agents to pick up “ unconsidered trifles ” out of the garrets of New England housewives, and he read eagerly all the multifarious catalogues which swarmed in upon him, of books on sale in London and on the Continent. On one occasion he was a bidder against the United States for a large and valuable collection of bound pamphlets, the property of an early collector, which were brought to the hammer in Philadelphia. The Library of Congress had sent on a bid — a limited one — for the coveted volumes ; but Mr. Force’s order to his agent was peremptory, — “ Buy me those pamphlets in an unbroken lot.” They were bought. His purchases were often made at prices which would now seem fabulously cheap, yet he never boggled at a high price when once he was satisfied that he had an opportunity to procure a rare or unique volume. Thus, he used to tell how he had endeavored to buy two thin foolscap volumes containing Major-General Greene’s manuscript letters and dispatches during the Southern Revolutionary campaign of 1781-82. The price demanded was two hundred dollars. Mr. Force offered one hundred and fifty dollars, which was refused. He then offered fifty dollars for the privilege of making a copy ; this was also declined. Seeing that he could not otherwise possess himself of them, he wisely paid the two hundred dollars, and marched off with the precious volumes under his arm.
He carried away from an antiquarian bookseller in Boston the only file of Massachusetts Revolutionary newspapers which had been offered for sale in a quarter of a century, and when goodnaturedly reproached by some Yankee visitors for thus stripping New England, he conclusively replied, “ Why did n’t you buy them yourselves, then ? ” To the last he was untiring in his efforts to secure complete and unbroken files of all the Washington newspapers. These were carefully laid in piles day by day, after such perusal as he chose to give them, and the mass of journals thus accumulated, for thirty years or upwards, occupied nearly all the large basement of his house. His file of the planted Army Orders issued by the War Department was a marvel of completeness, and it was secured only by the same untiring vigilance which he applied to all matters connected with the increase of his library. With the weight of seventyfive winters on his shoulders, he would drag himself up to the War Department regularly, to claim from some officer who knew him and his passion the current additions to the printed series promulgated in all branches of the military service during the civil war. He thus obtained for his private collection — now become the historic heirloom of the American people — articles which librarians and other functionaries, trusting to official channels of communication alone, have sought in vain to gather.
It was my good fortune, in the closing years of his life, to see him daily, and in his company to go through all the more precious stores of his vast collection. At eight o’clock each morning I found him already immersed in work. No luxurious library furnishings, no glazed bookcases of walnut or mahogany, no easy-chairs inviting to soft repose or slumber, were there, but only plain rough pine shelves and pine tables, heaped and piled with books, pamphlets, and journals. Among them moved familiarly two or more cats and a favorite dog ; for the lonely scholar was fond of pets, as he was of children. He had near by bits of bread or broken meat or a saucer of milk, to feed his favorites in the intervals of his work.
As we went together through the various treasures of the collection, to enable me to make the needful notes for ray report to Congress, he had frequent anecdotes to tell, — how he had picked up many a rare volume or tract on neglected and dust-laden shelves or from street bookstalls, how he had competed at auction for a coveted volume and borne it away in triumph, how he had by mere accident completed an imperfect copy of Stith’s History of Virginia by finding in a heap of printed rubbish a missing signature, and how precious old pamphlets and early newspapers had been fished by him out of chests and barrels in the garrets of Virginia or Maryland.
In the rear of his workroom was a little garden, — now all built over by the brick edifice erected for the Washington Post, — in which he had planted trees, then grown to stately size, interspersed with grass and rose-bushes and box and tangled shrubbery. This green retreat, or thicket, he called his “ wilderness ” (and it had actually the wildness of nature, though begirt with busy streets), and here he walked when resting from his sedentary work.
His domestic life was singularly fortunate. He brought up and educated a family of seven well-gifted children, some of whom inherited the paternal zeal for historical investigation, and produced writings of recognized value.
The one supreme object which overshadowed all other objects with Peter Force was to amass the materials out of which a complete documentary history of the United States could be compiled. His work as an historiographer is known to comparatively few, since the great bulk and cost of the published volumes of his American Archives confine them chiefly to the large libraries of the country. The plan of the work comprised, in the language of its prospectus, “a collection of authentic records, state papers, debates, and letters, and other notices of public affairs ; the whole forming a documentary history of the origin and progress of the North American colonies, of the causes and accomplishment of the American Revolution, and of the Constitution and government of the United States to the final ratification thereof.”
His contract with the Department of State (executed in pursuance of an act of Congress) was to embrace about twenty folio volumes. He entered upon the work with such zeal that the fourth series, in six volumes, was completed and published in the seven years from 1837 to 1844. Three more volumes, forming the commencement of the fifth series, and bringing the history down to the close of 1776, were also printed, when Secretary of State Marcy arbitrarily stopped the work by withholding his approval of the contents of the volumes submitted to him for the continuation. This was in the year 1853; and this sudden and unlooked-for interruption of his cherished plans, and demolition of the fair and perfect historical edifice which was to be his lifelong labor and his monument, was a blow from which he never fully recovered It was not alone that he had entered upon a scale of expenditure for materials commensurate with the projected extent of the work; that he had procured, at great cost, thousands of pages of manuscript, copied from the original archives of the various colonies and those of the State Department; that he had amassed an enormous library of books and newspapers, which encroached so heavily upon his means that he was compelled to mortgage his property to meet his bills ; but it was the rude interruption of an important national work by those incompetent to judge of its true merits; it was the vexatious and unjust rescinding, by an officer of the government, of a contract to which Mr. Force had reason to believe that the faith of the government was pledged.
He was already past sixty years of age when this event happened. He never renewed his labor upon the Archives : the masses of manuscript remained untouched in the very spot where his work on them had been broken off; and he could never allude to the subject without some pardonable bitterness of feeling. Friends urged him to appeal to Congress, to try to prevail with new secretaries of state to renew the work, to sue for damages, to petition for relief. Not one of these things would he do. He had a sensitive pride of character joined to a true stoic loftiness of mind. He could suffer, but he could not beg. He never approached a member of Congress upon the subject, nor asked a favor where he might justly have claimed a right. He bore his heavy burdens manfully, cheered by no hope of recompense, struggling with debt, yet still laboring, day by day, amidst his books, and hospitably receiving and answering all persons who called upon him for information and historical aid. For this unrecompensed service, which became a constantly increasing tax upon his time, he got only thanks. He never made any overtures to sell his library to the government, nor did he, until two or three years before his death, entertain any idea of parting with it in his lifetime.
Many proposals had been made to him to buy his collection, either as a whole or by portions. Finally, in 1866, the matter was taken up in earnest by the Librarian of Congress, who shared in the strongest manner the conviction of those who knew its value, that it would be a national misfortune and disgrace if this great historical library should be dispersed ; and Mr. Force consented to part with the entire collection for the price that had been put upon it by persons who sought to buy it for New York, namely, one hundred thousand dollars. The press of the country warmly seconded the effort, and the appropriation went through Congress without a word of objection in either House, — a rare example of wise and liberal legislation effected on its own merits. Rutherford B. Hayes, at that time chairman of the library committee on the part of the House, took a zealous interest, as did the entire committee, in the object of securing this invaluable and unique collection. Many of its volumes are enriched with the notes of Mr. Force, correcting errors of date, citing pages of Panzer or other catalogues of incunabula, or referring to books or newspapers in which other sources of information are to be found.
The transfer of the library to the Capitol took place in the spring of 1867. It was watched with careful interest by its venerable owner, who was left to his desolated shedves, and often lamented that he never again felt at home without his old companions around him. He was made free of the Library of Congress, and invited to take a desk there and continue his studies ; but though he often came, he could not bring himself to sit down and work there.
He died January 23, 1868. His children erected a marble monument over his grave, on which is carved, above the name of Force, as a beautiful and appropriate device, a shelf of books bearing nine volumes inscribed “ American Archives,” with a civic crown of laurel. But his library, and his historical works, though unfinished, are his fitting monument, and these will preserve his name to the future ages of the great republic as that of a pure and unselfish patriot and student.
Ainsworth R. Spofford.