Washington Reminiscences: Ii. Congressional Orators
AMONG congressional orators of distinctively Western type Thomas Corwin holds perhaps the foremost place. Born in Kentucky in 1794, he went in boyhood to the little village of Lebanon, Ohio, thirty miles north from Cincinnati, where he picked up a common school education and studied for the bar. His quick intelligence and address soon brought him a large practice. Elected to Congress in 1830 by the Whigs, he served ten years in the House, and was then chosen governor of Ohio. In 1844 he was elected to represent Ohio in the Senate of the United States, and in 1850 he was appointed Secretary of the Treasury by President Fillmore. Three years later he resumed the practice of his profession. He was again elected a Representative in Congress in 1858 and 1860, but resigned in 1861 to go as Minister to Mexico, whence he returned after the accession of Maximilian, and died at Washington December 18,1865.
Corwin very early evinced that native aptitude for oratory which gave him such distinction in later years. His intellectual faculty was keen, his grasp of principles firm, and his sense of humor, which made him a master of the art of ridicule, was delightfully spontaneous. In physical aspect he was large, though but of medium height, his complexion was notably swarthy, he had jet-black hair, and his eyes were dark. He had a mobility of feature that was marvelous, and I never saw the man in public life who could so surely throw a crowded audience into roars of laughter by apposite witty appeal, or anecdote set off by an irresistibly comic facial expression. This was perfectly natural with Corwin ; he never went in search of ancient and mouldy jokes, nor lugged in illustrations which did not fit his theme. Those who had heard him oftenest were the most eager to hear him again ; and they would watch expectantly the quick play of his twinkling eyes and the mercurial expression of his features, which gave warning beforehand of a comical interlude. Indeed, so marked were Corwin’s rare talents for amusing an audience that it was said if he had chosen a less serious profession he might have made one of the best comedians in the world. In personal appearance he resembled the late comedian William E. Burton.
But, great as were Corwin’s powers of humor, they were always kept subordinate, in his speeches, to the aim of convincing his audience. He carefully prepared the topics and the general outline of his speeches, relying upon his copious vocabulary for expression at the time of utterance. In Congress he spoke but rarely. He hated all display, and was the most modest, unassuming, and amiable of men. He had studied closely in early years the great law writers and the best books in modern history, and his retentive memory was stored with illustrations which led many to credit him with far wider learning than he actually possessed. He had a clear, cogent method of statement, using language so plain as to be comprehended by all. His style has been characterized as rhetorical rather than logical, and yet I have heard from him, in and out of Congress, some of the finest argumentative statements ever expressed. None who heard him speak could doubt the entire sincerity and deep conviction of the orator. To those who, misled by popular rumor of his facetious qualities, expected to hear only a jester, the grave earnestness and frequent solemnity of his appeals came in the nature of a surprise. In nearly all his speeches there were moments of intense strength. No crude and unconsidered speech ever fell from his lips, and he was free from that common vice of the stump orator, vociferation. His voice was one of rare compass and flexibility, soft, yet fulltoned, and he often changed from the higher notes to a confidential tone hardly above a whisper, with the varying exigencies of his subject.
The most remarkable of Senator Corwin’s public efforts was his famous speech on the Mexican war, on the 11th of February, 1847. This was in the midst of the campaign of invasion under Generals Scott and Taylor, which resulted in the capture of the Mexican capital and a peace dictated by the United States, with pecuniary indemnity and about seven hundred thousand square miles of territory added to our domain. The war was generally popular, the army was marching from victory to victory, and the few dissentient voices in Congress were drowned in the tumult of overbearing majorities which urged on the war. A bill for three million dollars and ten thousand more men to carry it forward was before the Senate. Corwin cherished a profound conviction that the government was wrong ; that in its origin and principles the Mexican war was wholly without justification; that the declaration by Congress that war existed by the act of Mexico was false ; and that the projected plundering of a weak government by the great republic would end in acquiring vast territories, which would lead to an embittered struggle between North and South for their possession, and would seriously imperil the Union. He took the unpopular side ; he boldly proclaimed what he deemed the right against the expediency of the hour ; he refused to vote money or men to prosecute the war ; and he calmly took all the odium which his course entailed, strong in the conscientious conviction that he had done his duty.
The result might have been foreseen : his speech, powerful as it was, was denounced from one end of the country to the other ; the dominant party poured out upon him all the vials of its wrath ; “ Tom Corwin ” was burned in effigy, execrated in public meetings, declared unpatriotic and anti-American. Yet it is difficult to see wherein he was more unpatriotic in uttering his condemnation of what he deemed an unjust war than was Lord Chatham when he declared on the floor of Parliament, “ I rejoice that America has resisted.”
Said a Southern newspaper, the Louisville Journal: “While reading this debate, we could not but feel that Mr. Corwin towered in the Senate like a giant among pygmies. He deliberately surveyed his ground, and duty made him brave the fires of persecution and the anathemas of party. The oft-repeated sophistries of slavery are trampled into dust by Mr. Corwin, with as much disdain as Mirabeau spurned and trampled on the formulas of royalty. When did falsehood ever receive a quietus more effectually than this mendicant plea of the ultras for more slave territory on account of their worn-out lands ? ”
It may be pertinent to recall, as a favorable specimen of the eloquence of Corwin at his best, one passage of this notable senatorial speech of fifty years ago :
“ I am somewhat at a loss to know on what plan of operations gentlemen having charge of this war intend to proceed. We hear much of the terror of your arms. The affrighted Mexican, it is said, when you shall have drenched his country in blood, will sue for peace, and thus you will indeed ‘ conquer peace.’ This is the heroic and savage tone in which we have heretofore been lectured by our friends on the other side of the chamber, especially by the Senator from Michigan [General Cass]. But suddenly the chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations comes to us with a smooth phrase of diplomacy, made potent by the gentle suasion of gold. The chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs calls for thirty millions of money and ten thousand regular troops ; these, we are assured, shall ‘ conquer peace.’ . . . Sir, I scarcely understand the meaning of all this myself. If we are to vindicate our rights by battles, in bloody fields of war, let us do it. If that is not the plan, then let us call back our armies into our own territory, and propose a treaty with Mexico, based upon the proposition that money is better for her, and land is better for us. Thus we can treat Mexico like an equal, and do honor to ourselves. But what is it you ask? You have taken from Mexico one fourth of her territory, and you now propose to run a line comprehending about another third, — and for what ? She has given you ample redress for every injury of which you have complained. She has submitted to the award of your commissioners, and up to the time of the rupture with Texas faithfully paid it. And for all that she has lost (not through or by you, but which loss has been your gain) what requital do we, her strong, rich, robust neighbor, make ? Do we send our missionaries there, ‘ to point the way to heaven’? Or do we send the schoolmasters to pour daylight into her dark places, to aid her infant strength to conquer freedom and reap the fruit of the independence herself alone had won ? No, no, none of this do we. But we send regiments, storm towns, and our colonels prate of liberty in the midst of solitudes their ravages have made.
“ In return, up comes your AngloSaxon gentleman, with the New Testament in one hand and a Bill of Rights in the other, — your evangelical colonel and law-practicing divine, Don Walter Colton, who gives up Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, quits the New Testament, and betakes him to Blackstone and Kent, is elected justice of the peace, takes military possession of California, and, instead of teaching the way of repentance and plan of salvation to the poor ignorant Celt, holds one of Colt’s pistols to his ear and says, ‘ Take trial by jury, or nine bullets in your head.’ ”
This remarkable speech, though quite ineffective as an attempt to stem the tide of war sentiment which was sweeping through the country, planted seeds of thought which germinated in after-years. It is notable that Mr. Corwin, in correcting the speech for the Congressional Globe, while he did not soften down any of its vigorous denunciations of the war and the administration which was waging it, corrected a good deal of the wit out of it by expanding some passages and omitting others. The speech as reported in the New York Tribune, just after delivery, by one of the most accurate of reporters, is far more fresh and incisive than the official report. Mr. Corwin, reversing the prevalent rule, did not write as well as he talked. One pointed and epigrammatic phrase at the expense of Walter Colton, a navy chaplain who made himself conspicuous in California before it was conquered from Mexico, describing him as “ your evangelical colonel and law-practicing divine,” is wholly omitted in the official report, though restored in the foregoing quotation.
One of the peculiar characteristics of Mr. Corwin’s speeches was the very frequent introduction of Scriptural phrases and illustrations. His early reading had included the Bible and Blackstone’s Commentaries, and the former must have made the deeper impression of the two. I have heard him, when defending a poor newspaper reporter in Cincinnati, charged before a United States court with aiding in the escape of a fugitive slave, after convulsing the court with merriment at his picture of “the majesty of the United States ” in hot pursuit of an unhappy negro making toward Canada as fast as his feet would carry him, turn the fun into solemn silence by apt allusions drawn from the golden rule and the Sermon on the Mount.
Corwin’s speech in the House in 1840, in reply to General Crary, of Michigan, who had attacked the military record of General Harrison, is still often referred to as a fine example of irony and sarcasm. It covered the unhappy Crary with ridicule, and even the sedate and serious John Quincy Adams, then in the House, alluded to the victim immediately afterward as “ the late Mr. Crary.” But there were in nearly every one of Corwin’s speeches some scintillations of wit or humor to enliven the ordinarily dull debates, and whenever he took the floor the members were sure to listen eagerly.
Speaking upon internal improvement of rivers, he said, “Your Constitution is a fish that can live and thrive in a little tide-creek which a thirsty mosquito would drink dry in a hot day.”
In ridiculing the Southern claim of the right to dissolve the Union if precluded from carrying slavery into New Mexico and adjacent territory, he described the great American desert as a “land in which no human creature could raise either corn or cotton, — a land wherein, for over a thousand miles, a buzzard would starve as he winged his flight, unless he took a lunch along with him.”
In the dark foreboding days of 186061, Mr. Corwin was honored by being chosen chairman of the Congressional Committee of Thirty-Three (one member from each state) upon the state of the Union and the perilous condition of the country. The election of Lincoln to the presidency in November, 1860, had alarmed the Southern states beyond measure. In spite of all assurances of Republican Congressmen and of the organs of Northern public opinion of the moderation likely to prevail in the course of the incoming administration, the agitation for breaking up the Union was diligently fomented from Maryland to Florida by political leaders and by the Southern press. Conventions were called and excitement grew, until the Southern secession fever had so alarmed the North as to bring on a financial panic, in which all values tumbled downward month by month. By the end of January, 1861, five Southern states had withdrawn their Senators and Representatives from Congress, and others were planning to secede. The Union seemed to be breaking in pieces day by day, and the seizure of the capital by insurgents was a topic of everyday discussion in Washington. A “ peace conference ” of more than one hundred members was in session there, elected from twenty-one states out of thirtythree, to recommend measures of agreement or pacification between the sections. In these critical circumstances, while the Crittenden Compromise was held back in the Senate, as reported by its Committee of Fifteen, Corwin reported from his committee a series of resolutions, which were passed by the heavy majority of 136 to 53, declaring that no sufficient cause for dissolution of the government existed; that it was its duty to enforce the laws, protect federal property, and preserve the Union ; that no authority to interfere with slavery existed; and recommending the states to repeal all obstructive laws, whether aimed at the Fugitive Slave Law at the North or at citizens deemed obnoxious at the South. Its final measure, proposing an amendment to the Constitution, declaring that no amendment should be made to that instrument giving Congress the power to abolish slavery, was also adopted by more than two-thirds majority, — 133 to 65. This amendment also passed the Senate March 2, 1861, by a majority of two thirds, twelve radical anti-slavery Senators only voting against it. It is instructive to note that just four years later Congress, by more than the same majority, recommended to the states an amendment to the Constitution prohibiting slavery, and that amendment was adopted.
HENRY WINTER DAVIS.
Henry Winter Davis, of Maryland, who died in 1865, at the early age of forty-eight, is to be reckoned among the more eloquent of congressional orators of recent times. He was a rare specimen of the scholar in politics, a variously gifted man, who brought into the House of Representatives the ripe fruit of a studious and laborious youth, devoted to jurisprudence, history, and literature. First elected in 1854 from a Baltimore district, he came into public life just when the issues which culminated in civil war were violently agitated, and he took so vigorous and influential a part in them that he became the acknowledged leader of the liberal party in Maryland. The position of that state — with a slave population of nearly one hundred thousand, with the ingrained conservatism of generations, with a proslavery policy ruling her legislation, lying on the border line between the seceding states and the loyal states of the North, with powerful interests and sympathies zealously enlisted with the South — was a most critical one. How near Maryland came to joining the Southern Confederacy is known to but few of the present generation. She was held back by the influence of the strong national sentiment inspired by a few patriotic leaders, of whom Henry Winter Davis was the foremost.
He spoke in the halls of legislation and upon the hustings, always in favor of the most vigorous and thorough measures for prosecuting the war against secession, and for ultimate emancipation. Denounced, vilified, threatened with assassination, he turned a deaf ear alike to the assaults of enemies and the timid counsels of friends, spurning all compromise, and with indomitable courage kept on his steadfast way. Born in a slave state, and himself in early years a slaveholder, he is to be reckoned among that honorable and high - minded band of Southern statesmen, including Washington, Jefferson, Henry, Madison, and others, who have left on record their abhorrence of human slavery. He lived to wield a strong influence in bringing about the abolition of slavery in Maryland by the adoption of the state Constitution of 1864, passed in the midst of the civil war, and the subsequent ratification of the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States, forever prohibiting slavery.
The advanced anti-slavery views of Davis led him to oppose, in Congress and elsewhere, the plan of Mr. Lincoln for compensated emancipation and colonization of the negroes; at a later date he was found even more radical than his party on the state reconstruction issues, and wrote, in 1864, the Wade-Davis manifesto, criticising the position of President Lincoln upon that question. But his opposition took no personal or permanent form, and he loyally supported Mr. Lincoln’s reëlection, making powerful speeches in advocacy of the Republican ticket.
The characteristics of Henry Winter Davis as an orator were so marked as always to hold the attention of his hearers. I heard him often in the House of Representatives, when the hush of absorbed listeners was such that even his lightest tones penetrated to the remotest corners of the galleries. He never read from manuscript, nor wrote out his speeches beforehand, trusting to a brief of topics or note of illustrations, and was thus free to impress his audience by the spontaneous utterance of his ideas, enforced by graceful gesture, and depending for choice of words upon his wellfurnished vocabulary. His finely modulated voice was singularly sweet, almost musical in its more effective tones, and in loftier passages rousing the hearer like the sound of a trumpet.
In person he was a graceful, attractive figure, slightly below the medium height, his well-knit frame without an ounce of superfluous flesh, his fine head and studious face showing a strong intellectual force. In personal intercourse he was reserved with most whom he met, gravely courteous rather than familiar; but he was a fascinating companion to friends, who were charmed by his sparkling conversation, bearing always the impress of a refined nature.
The literary merit of his speeches lay in their simplicity, force, and dialectic skill. He was sometimes classical, but never florid. His style was singularly chaste, free from that involved rhetoric and rambling inconsecutiveness which mark so many congressional efforts at oratory. He seldom used quotations, but when he did it was with the appositeness of a scholar. In his early years Tacitus and Gibbon were his favorite authors, and he delighted in translating into English the masterly and succinct chapters of the great Roman historian. To this exercise, and to the highly condensed and stately march of the style of Gibbon, may be ascribed a certain severity of taste, which prevented him from falling into the habit of diffuseness.
Another element of his success as an orator was his characteristic enthusiasm. A man of strong and sincere convictions, lofty aspiration, and earnest purpose, he threw into his public utterances all the energy of his nature. With him was no trimming, no half-hearted advocacy or opposition, none of that double-faced subserviency which discriminates the demagogue from the statesman. His yea was always yea, and his nay, nay, whether in speech or in vote. Such were his independence and self-reliance that they sometimes alienated personal friends and political allies ; but he believed in choosing his own path and following his own advice.
With an idea and a principle before him as clear as the sunlight, his indomitable will and singleness of purpose carried him forward to advocacy of an unpopular cause in the face of all opposition, He fought the battle of freedom in slaveholding Maryland with a moral courage that was sublime. Before great popular audiences in Baltimore and in the country towns he championed the cause of a free Constitution with a power of reasoning as persuasive as that with which he urged in Congress the amendment abolishing slavery. Sometimes his audiences, too large to be contained in any hall, would stand for more than an hour in the rain to listen to his arguments. While his speeches were always plain and clearly reasoned, he often had impassioned passages of appeal to patriotism and love of the Union. These were sometimes so powerful and affecting as to carry his audience to the highest pitch of enthusiasm. Under the inspiration of a great cause, and against opposition so strenuous and determined, all the energies of his nature were called forth. So effective with the people were his efforts, so irresistible were the arguments by which he bore down the sophistries of slavery, that he sent his hearers home convinced, or far advanced on the road to conviction, and in the end wrested a great moral and political victory from what seemed at the beginning only the forlorn hope of freedom.
It is rarely quite safe to attempt any illustration of an orator’s characteristic style, since so much depends upon the occasion, and upon the more complete context than can be given by quoting an isolated extract ; but an example of what may be called the cumulative statement, not infrequent in the utterances of Henry Winter Davis, may interest the reader. It is from a speech in the House of Representatives in 1864, when the great military struggle for the integrity of the Union was at its height: —
“ When exultant rebels shall sweep over the fortifications, and their bombshells shall crash against the dome of the Capitol; when the people — exhausted by taxation, wearied of sacrifices, drained of blood, betrayed by their rulers, deluded by demagogues into believing that peace is the way to union and submission the path to victory — shall throw down their arms before the advancing foe ; when vast chasms across every state shall make apparent to every eye, when too late to remedy it, that division from the South is anarchy at the North, and that peace without union is the end of the republic, — then the independence of the South will be an accomplished fact, and gentlemen may, without treason to the dead republic, rise in this migratory House, wherever it may then be in America, and declare themselves for recognizing their masters at the South rather than exterminating them. Until that day, in the name of the American nation, in the name of every house in the land where there is one dead for the holy cause, in the name of those who stand before us in the ranks of battle, in the name of the liberty our ancestors have confided to us, I devote to eternal execration the name of him who shall propose to destroy this blessed land rather than its enemies.
“ But until that time arrive it is the judgment of the American people that there shall be no compromise ; that ruin to ourselves or ruin to the Southern rebels are the only alternatives. It is only by resolutions of this kind that nations can rise above great dangers and overcome them in a crisis like this. . . . It is by such a resolve that the American people, coercing a reluctant government to draw the sword and stake the national existence on the integrity of the republic, are now anything but the fragments of a nation before the world, the scorn and hiss of every petty tyrant. It is because the people of the United States, rising to the height of the occasion, dedicated this generation to the sword, and pouring out the blood of their children as of no account, and avowing before high Heaven that there should be no end to this conflict but ruin absolute or absolute triumph, that we now are what we are ; that the banner of the republic, still pointing-onward, floats proudly in the face of the enemy ; that vast regions are reduced to obedience to the laws; and that a great host in armed array now presses with steady step into the dark regions of the rebellion. It is only by the earnest and abiding resolution of the people that whatever shall be our fate, it shall be grand as the American nation, worthy of that republic which first trod the path of empire, and made no peace but under the banners of victory, that the American people will survive in history.”
MATTHEW HALE CARPENTER.
Among the senatorial orators of recent years, Matthew Hale Carpenter, of Wisconsin, was ranked as one of the foremost. Contemporary in Congress with such speakers as Sumner, Conkling, Edmunds, Trumbull, Morton, Schurz, and Blaine, he was the peer in debate of any of his colleagues. Born in 1824 in Vermont, and studying for the bar in the office of Rufus Choate, young Carpenter, well convinced that in the West were the surest avenues to success in his profession, migrated to Wisconsin in 1848. He records that when he arrived at Beloit he had but seventy-five cents, and no visible means of support but a law library and his own brains. The library, too, quite large for that day, had been bought on credit, upon the volunteered guarantee of Choate to the Boston booksellers. Thus equipped, young Carpenter soon found clients, though much of his legal business was without fees. While in his earliest practice he charged a client a dollar for conducting a case, ten years later he received from a railroad capitalist six thousand dollars as annual fees for attending to his legal business. So speedily did his natural abilities, with untiring labor and a personal popularity which has rarely been equaled, raise him to the foremost rank in his profession.
The strong personality and intellectual force of Carpenter, with the great number of noted legal causes and political struggles in which he was associated, give a kind of dramatic interest to his career. His was a person of singular attractiveness. Tall, graceful, well proportioned, his massive head set upon broad shoulders and crowned with a heavy profusion of dark hair carelessly worn, his blue eyes full of spirit and humor, he at once impressed every one in his favor. His smile was perhaps the sunniest I ever saw, and his peculiar stride carried with it a breezy, confident air which marked the healthy, self-reliant man that he was. His manners in personal intercourse were charming. All who knew him testified to the ready freshness, variety, and exuberant wit of his conversation. With his graceful courtesy to women he was a universal favorite with them, and his fascinating speech and buoyant flow of spirits were often accompanied with a laugh so musical and hearty as to be fairly contagious in any circle. He was notable for the easy and confidential way in which he addressed his friends, and on his visits to the Library, to which he often resorted for aid, he would familiarly call me “ my son,” though I was but a little his junior in age.
Carpenter had a voice of wonderful sweetness and compass. I have heard him on many occasions when he put forth all his powers, and the varying impressions, from the softest tones when some tender sentiment caused his voice to vibrate with emotion, to the thrilling emphasis of his most powerful denunciation, dwelt long in memory. He was a natural orator, and the combined versatility and acuteness of his intellect were such that he charmed equally by the matter of his speeches and by their manner. Whether addressing a great popular audience (and it is said that he once spoke to forty thousand people at Chicago) or a court or a jury, where his arguments generally drew a crowd, or in the Senate at Washington, or in the Supreme Court room, where he very frequently appeared, Carpenter was always a magnet of attraction. As a lawyer, he was said by the almost unanimous judgment of men of his profession to have few equals and no superior. He was thoroughly familiar with the textbooks in jurisprudence, and with what is known as case - law. His clear and analytic brain grasped the principles that lay at the basis of every case, and his method was to pursue it through the precedents of the whole Library until he had thoroughly mastered it. Then, but not till then, he would rest.
Ex-Senator George F. Edmunds said of him, “ His arguments, both in the Senate and the courts, were unsurpassed for learning, logic, and eloquence.” Judge J. S. Black declared, “He was worthy to stand, as he did, at the head of the legal profession.” And Chief Justice Chase said of him, “ We regard that boy as one of the ablest jurists in the country. I am not the only justice on this bench who delights in his eloquence and his reasoning.” The expression referred to the fresh, youthful, jaunty air which Carpenter carried with him, though he was fully thirty-eight years of age when it was made. Into the grave and decorous presence of the Supreme Court he bore the easy, good-humored look and twinkle of the eyes which characterized him everywhere. He was a great favorite with all the members of the court, and was for years almost the only man who could be jocular and playful while conducting a case before them, without sacrifice of dignity or good taste. It is to be said that the justices of that tribunal, with all their gravity and learning, have been men who dearly loved a joke, and neither Marshall nor Taney, any more than Chase or Waite, rose superior to that weakness.
Carpenter was counsel in more important causes than any other lawyer in the West, and had his full share in that lucrative railway litigation which has made the fortunes of a few great lawyers. Yet he spent his money as freely as he earned it, telling the law students at Columbian University, “ Save money if you can, but how you are to do it must be learned of somebody besides me.” He was charitable and generous to a fault. His sympathies were acute, his heart always tender to the appeals of those in distress. Though making great sums every year, he usually had little money, and he left no large property to his family beyond a life insurance of fifty thousand dollars, and a fine library of five thousand volumes of law and six thousand of miscellaneous books. His taste for literature and his eagerness for learning of every kind were strong from very boyhood. Choate said of him, “ Young Carpenter was possessed of a passion for devouring books that was more than remarkable ; it amounted almost to a mania.” He had an innate love of work, and few who listened to his luminous and apparently spontaneous arguments (for he almost never wrote out a speech) were aware how much labor they had cost him. One of the busiest men in America, he yet found time to read, and he spent many hours in the Congressional Library digging out decisions and historical data for use. He had a power of absorption that would appear marvelous to the ordinary reader who plods through a book sentence by sentence. Carpenter seemed to read a sentence by one glance of the eye. In his later years he was so engrossed by professional studies and public speaking that he read less literature, but his mind was stored with many of the masterpieces of prose and poetry. For a year or two of his early life in Wisconsin he had been afflicted with blindness, and his friends had read to him the Bible, Shakespeare, and the poetry of Walter Scott. In after-years he could repeat the whole of The Lady of the Lake from memory.
In politics, Carpenter acted with the Democratic party in early years, and voted for Douglas in 1860. But the moment that the authority of the United States was resisted in the South he was the first noted Democrat in the West to range himself on the side of the government, and he went farther than the farthest in his zeal for emancipating the slaves and maintaining the Union. Elected to the Senate as a Republican in 1869, he served six years, was defeated in 1875 by a coalition of Democrats and bolting Republicans, and re-chosen Senator in 1879. In that body he at once took rank as one of the foremost of its able debaters, and his ready command of language, fullness of information, clear and incisive style, and distinct and pleasing utterance rendered his speeches almost uniformly effective.
He spoke often, but never without saying something which elucidated the subject before the Senate. He excelled in the perspicuous statement of a case. He was clear-headed, straightforward, sincere, and always thoroughly in earnest. As a constitutional lawyer, who had read much and thought deeply upon American institutions and our political history from the beginning, he opposed or defended measures according to his own independent judgment. He thus found himself not unfrequently opposed to his party. He pronounced some Republican measures unconstitutional, while on others he went beyond the radicalism even of Mr. Sumner.
His early attachment to the principles of Jeffersonian democracy led him, on many questions, to stand for state rights and against a consolidated or paternal government. He opposed the Bureau of Education, the Department of Agriculture, all propositions for a Labor Commission, railway monopoly, payment of Southern claims, amnesty to rebels, and civil service reform. He favored Chinese citizenship, increase of salaries (including “back pay”), the extension of the Ku-Klux act, and the franking privilege.
Elected in 1873 president pro tempore of the Senate, an honor due to his acknowledged abilities as a parliamentarian, he presided with impartiality, dignity, and unfailing courtesy. There were several acrimonious episodes during Carpenter’s service in the Senate, involving sharp interpellations with Senators Sumner, Morton, and Blaine, upon St. Domingo, the French arms question, and the public character of President Grant; but as public interest in these questions has passed away, it is not fitting to recall them here. The controversy over the New York Tribune’s publication of a treaty, surreptitiously obtained before its consideration by the Senate, brought a prodigious volume of obloquy and denunciation by newspapers upon Senator Carpenter, who was chairman of the committee upon whose report the Tribune correspondents were imprisoned by the Senate. He reciprocated the denunciations with sufficient violence, and was warned to drop the investigation, or the press “ would never rest until it had ruined him,”— meaning, no doubt, politically. The rancor thus engendered outlasted the efforts to discover the Senator whose name the reporters had refused to disclose.
It may be said of Senator Carpenter that while his great and admirable qualities brought him more devoted and enthusiastic friends than fall to the lot of most public men, he also stirred up animosities which were fomented and spread by many bitter enemies. Perhaps no Senator was ever pursued with more untiring denunciation, much of which was due to the bold independence, aggressiveness, and positive character of the man. Faults he had in abundance, but they were those of a man of a singularly ardent temperament, and will be viewed with the most charity by those who are duly conscious of their own.
I will give but a short specimen of Senator Carpenter’s forensic utterances. In December, 1869, he offered a resolution declaring that the thirty gunboats then fitting out by Spain in the ports of the United States, to be employed against the insurgents in Cuba, should not be allowed to depart from the United States during the continuance of the rebellion then in progress. It is interesting as exhibiting nearly the same unhappy condition regarding Cuba thirty years ago as has recently existed.
“ The Cubans are now struggling to throw off this unendurable tyranny. They have appealed to the God of battles in vindication of the inalienable right of man to self-government. Of the inhabitants within the district now controlled by the revolutionists, about one hundred and five thousand are capable of bearing arms. Of this number, from twenty to thirty thousand are now actually in military array, commanded by officers appointed by the Cuban republic, and but for the difficulty of obtaining arms the number which would instantly take the field would exceed those already under arms.
“ It is claimed and represented that a large district of the island, capable of exact delineation and geographical description, is held by the patriots, and can only be entered by the Spaniards by military force ; and that in this district there exists a regular government established by the Cubans, and which is in regular administration, except when disturbed by military operations ; that it has a constitution, a judicial force actually exercising the functions which pertain to the office of judge ; that it has a regular postal system, and that a vast majority of the inhabitants of this district pay habitual obedience to its commands; that it has a flag and an organized army ; that battles have been fought, towns besieged, and other acts of war committed by the Cubans under officers appointed by the new government ; that messages under flags of truce have been exchanged, and that regular warfare is now being carried on in the island to support the constitution of the republic of Cuba: and these facts have been shown by judicial proceedings hereafter to be mentioned.
“ The constitution of the young republic of Cuba emancipates all slaves, and the contest of arms now going on to support that constitution involves the liberty or slavery of all who were slaves when the war broke out. This feature appeals strongly to our sympathies, and constitutes an irresistible claim of right to our observing an honest neutrality, if we cannot aid the Cubans. And I beseech the learned Senator from Massachusetts, the chairman of our Committee on Foreign Relations [Senator Sumner], to whom this resolution may be referred, whose voice was clearest and sweetest of the chorus of liberty in the early morn, to lend his experienced ear to the cry of humanity that comes up from this island of the sea. The weight of his influence to-day might pluck another jewel from the crown of despotism, and release other thousands threatened with the master’s lash and rebelling against the clanking chain.
“ I cannot express how much I regret that some step has not already been taken upon this subject by that honorable and honored Senator. But there are truths so mighty that if men hold their peace the stones will cry out ; and it is the silence of that Senator that leads me now to address the Senate. We have happily escaped from the curse of human slavery ourselves, but as benevolence is stayed by no barrier of nature, acknowledges no limits of human dominion, we cannot, blameless, remain indifferent to such a contest within gunshot of our own shores.
“ Now, sir, I submit upon this state of facts, which the Cubans offer to establish by judicial evidence, a great wrong, or rather an unaccountable series of wrongs, has been committed by our government. We are solemnly bound by the law of nations properly construed, expressly pledged by our own declarations upon this subject, to stand entirely neutral between Spain and Cuba; but as the law has been administered, it has been a shield to Spain, a sword to Cuba. Liberty in Cuba is in the helplessness of infancy ; its life is feeble, its pulse low. I do not invoke your aid on behalf of Cuba ; I only ask that to be done the neglect of which would justly bring war upon ns, if Cuba had the strength to enforce her rights. As it is, whether the United States does its duty or violates its duty, Cuba is without remedy. But there is a bar, the bar of impartial history, before which all governments must stand; there is a God, and a great book in which the deeds of nations are written ; and there is retribution for every nation which, knowing its duty, does it not.”
On the delivery of this speech the Spanish authorities were quickly on the alert, and the warships to put down the Cuban revolt had sailed before Carpenter’s resolution came to a vote. But the influential press of the country took sides with the Senator, declaring that the incident redounded much more to his credit than to Sumner’s, who had vigorously opposed the resolution.
Senator Carpenter closed his career in the second year of his last senatorial term ; he died in Washington, February 24, 1881. He had been warned by his physicians nearly a year before that he would die of an incurable malady within a few months. With his habitual firmness, and cheerful to the last, he set his house in order.
Ainsworth R. Spofford.