Washington in Wartime

From the journal of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Mr. Emerson was invited by the Smithsonian Institution to deliver a lecture in Washington, on the last day of January, 1862. This was the occasion of the visit, the record of which is here presented. It is the only case in which he wrote in his journals so detailed a story of his experiences when away from home, except when in Europe. But this was during a great crisis in the nation’s life, and the persons whom he met were those upon whom the great responsibilities of the day rested.

In a lecture called “American Civilization” he urged emancipation of the slaves as the duty of the hour. It has been stated that President Lincoln and his Cabinet heard the lecture, but Mr. Spofford, the Librarian of Congress, who showed attentions to Mr. Emerson during his visit, told me that neither he nor either of President’s secretaries has any recollection that such was the case, and the Washington newspapers made no mention of their presence. The lecture was printed in the Atlantic Monthly for April, 1862. Later it was separated into the essay on the general theme “Civilization” printed in Society and Solitude, and the appeal for the political exigency of the moment, included in the Miscellanies, entitled “American Civilization.”

Edward W. Emerson

At Washington, 31 January, 1862.

31 January, 1 Feb., 2, and 3, saw Summer, who on the 2nd carried me to Mr. Chase, Mr. Bates, Mr. Stanton, Mr. Welles, Mr. Seward, Lord Lyons, and President Lincoln. The President impressed me more favorably than I had hoped. A frank, sincere, well-meaning man, with a lawyer’s habit of mind, good, clear statement of his fact, correct enough, not vulgar, as described; but with a sort of boyish cheerfulness, or that kind of sincerity and jolly good meaning that our class meetings on Commencement Days show, in telling our old stories over. When he has made his remark, he looks up at you with great satisfaction, and shows all his white teeth, and laughs. He argued to Sumner the whole case of Gordon, the slave-trader, point by point, and added that he was not quite satisfied yet, and meant to refresh his memory by looking again at the evidence. All this showed a fidelity and conscientiousness very honorable to him. When I was introduced to him, he said, “Oh, Mr. Emerson, I once heard you say in a lecture, that a Kentuckian seems to say by his air and manners, ‘Here am I; if you don’t like me, the worse for you.’”1

In the Treasury Building I saw in an upper room a number of people, say twenty to thirty, seated at long tables, all at work upon Treasury Notes, some cutting and some filling up, &c., but the quantity under their multitudinous operation looked like paper-hangings, and when I saw Mr. Chase, I told him I thought the public credit required the closing of that door on the promenaders of the gallery. Mr. Hooper told me that in the manufacture of a million notes (I think) $66. disappeared.

Mr. Stanton, who resembles Charles R. Train, though a heavier and better head and eye, made a good impression, as of an able, determined man, very impatient of his instruments, and, though he named nobody, I thought he had McClellan in mind. When somewhat was said of England, he said “England is to be met in Virginia. — ‘Mud’! O yes, but there has been mud before. Ah, the difficulty isn’t outside, — ’t is inside.” He had heard that Governor Andrew had come to the city to see him about the Butler-Andrew difficulty. “Well, why doesn’t he come here? If I could meet Governor Andrew under an umbrella at the corner of the street, we could settle that matter in five minutes, if he is the man I take him for. But I hear he is sitting on his dignity, and waiting for me to send for him, and, at that rate, for I learn there are seventy letters, I don’t know that anything can be done.” Both Sumner and I assured him that Governor Andrew was precisely the man to meet him cordially and sensibly, without parade and off hand.

Mr. Seward received us in his dingy State Department. We spoke as we entered the ante-room, or rather in the corridor, with Governor Andrew and Mr. Forbes,2 who were waiting. Sumner led me along, and upstairs and into the Secretary’s presence. He began, “Yes, I know Mr. Emerson. The President said yesterday, when I was going to tell him a story.” …

Well, with this extraordinary exordium, he proceeded to talk a little more, when Sumner said, “I met Governor Andrew waiting outside. Shan’t I call him in?” “O yes,” said Seward. Sumner went out and brought in him and Mr. Forbes. Mr. Seward took from the shelf a large half-smoked cigar, lighted and pulled at it. Sumner went into a corner, with Andrew; and Mr. Forbes seized the moment to say to the Secretary, that he saw there was an effort making to get Gordon, the slave-trader, pardoned. He hoped the Government would show to foreign nations that there was a change, and a new spirit in it, which would not deal with this crime as heretofore.3 Seward looked very cross and ugly at this; twisted his cigar about, and, I thought, twisted his nose also, and said coarsely, “Well, perhaps you would be willing to stand in his place,” or something like that, and rather surprised and disconcerted Mr. Forbes, but, Mr. Forbes seeing that, though we had risen to go, Sumner still talked with Andrew, went up to him, put his hands about him, and said, “don’t you see you are obstructing the public business?” or somewhat to that effect; and so, we made our adieus. Mr. Seward came up to me, and said, “Will you come and go to Church with me tomorrow, at a quarter past ten? and we will go home afterwards, and get some lunch or dinner.” I accepted. And Sumner then carried me into some of the chambers of the Department, into the office of Mr. Hunter, who has been chief clerk, I believe he said, for fourteen or fifteen years; into the Library, where Mr. Derby presided, and where I found Gurowski at his desk, growling; into the Chamber where the Treaties with foreign nations, some of them most sumptuously engrossed and bound, and inclosed, were shown us, as the Belgian treaty, — and a treaty with the French Republic signed by Bonaparte, countersigned by Talleyrand; — and, far richer than all, the Siamese Treaty, and presents, — Siamese, I think, not Japanese treaty, tied up with rich red silken ropes and tassels, and the sublime of tea-caddy style, written as on moonlight. Then, in another chamber, the Washington Papers, bought of Judge Washington by Congress for $20,000, were shown us. We opened several volumes to see the perfect method and clerical thoroughness with which Washington did all his work. I turned to the page on which the opinion of Marquis De Lafayette was given in answer to a requisition of the General; before the battle of Yorktown, vols. of original letters, &c., of Washington. All these inestimable books preserved in plain wooden cabinets here on the ground floor, not defended from fire; and any eager autograph-hunter might scale the windows, and carry them off.

We then went to Lord Lyons, and had a pleasant interview. He told us that the Queen had sent him the order of the Bath, &c., on which Sumner congratulated him.

Summer insisted on carrying me to Baron Gerolt, the dean of the Diplomatic Corps, as the oldest resident, saying that nothing could be more charming than he and his family, his daughters looking like pastel pictures, and he told me very pleasing anecdotes of his intercourse with the Baron. President Lincoln had said to Sumner, “If I could see Lord Lyons, I could show him in five minutes that I am heartily for peace.” Sumner had thought nothing could be more desirable, but it would not do to come between Seward and the President, nor to tell Seward, who would embroil them, nor to tell Lord Lyons, whom it would embarrass; so he had gone to Baron Gerolt, to state to him the President’s remark, and ask his counsel. The Baron was enchanted with the expression of the President, but afraid, with Sumner, it was impossible to put them (President and Lord Lyons) face to face, without grave impropriety and mischief. And Seward and Lyons, it seems, are strangers, and do not understand each other; whilst Lyons and Sumner are on the most confidential footing. Well, now that the prisoners are surrendered, Sumner went to Lyons, and told him what had passed, and he too was very much gratified with it, and thanked Sumner for not telling him before, as it would only have distressed him. Meantime, I did not see the Baron, who was ill in bed, nor the pastel daughters. We called on the Russian Minister, but he was not at home.

As Judge Chase had invited us to dine with him at 5 o’clock, we went thither, and saw his pretty daughter Kate, who alone with her father did the honors of the house. Mr. Chase said, “Slavery is not to be destroyed by a stroke, but in detail. I have twelve thousand boys (slaves) at Port Royal, whom I am organizing, and paying wages for their work, and teaching them to read, and to maintain themselves. I have no objection to put muskets in their hands by and by. I have two men, Mr. Reynolds and Edward L. Pierce, who are taking the care. And I want Congress to give me a little box of government, about as big as that escritoire (two or three officers, a superintendent, &c.), and I think we shall get on very well.” He and Sumner appeared to agree entirely in their counsels. They both held, that, as soon as a state seceded, it gave up its state organization, but did not thereby touch the national Government. The moment Arkansas or Mississippi seceded, they would have said, “Certainly, if you do not like your state Government, surrender it, and you lapse instantly into U.S. territory again;” and they would have sent immediately a territorial governor to the first foot of that land which they could reach, and have established U.S. power in the old form.

From Mr. Chase we went to General Fremont, but unhappily he had stepped out, and Mrs. Fremont detained us, “because he would surely step in again, in a few minutes.” She was excellent company, a musical indignation, a piece of good sense and good humor, but incessantly accusing the government of the vast wrong that had been done to the General. Mr. Senator Wade had read all their documents (Wade, the Chairman of the Join Committee of Inquiry of the two Houses), and had expressed himself, in terms more terse than elegant, to her on the outrage done to Fremont, and she sat wondering when the Report of the Committee was to burst like a shell on the government. She introduced me to Major Zagyoni, the captain of Fremont’s Body Guard, the hero of Springfield, Mo., a soldierly figure, who said, that “he was as well as his inactive life permitted.”

She showed me two letters of her son, who had once been designed for our Concord school, but when she came to find how much his reading, spelling, and writing had been neglected in his camp education, — for he could ride, and perform the sword exercise, but was a shocking bad writer, — she was afraid to send him among cultivated boys, and had sent him into Connecticut, where he had made already great progress. She showed me two of his letters in proof, one written at his first coming to school, very rude, and one later, showing great improvement.

The next morning, at quarter past ten, I visited Mr. Seward, in his library, who was writing, surrounded by his secretary and some stock brokers. After they were gone, I said, “you never came to Massachusetts.” “No,” he said, “I have neither had the power nor the inclination.” His father died early, and left him in the care not only of his own family, but of his cousin’s property, three fiduciary trusts, and he had much on his hands. Then he early saw, that whatever money he earned was slipping away from him, and he must put it in brick and stone, if he would keep it, and he had, later, obtained a tract of land in Chatauqua County, which, by care and attention, had become valuable, and all this had occupied him, until he came into public life, and for the last fifteen (?) years, he had been confined in Washington. Besides, Massachusetts was under a cotton aristocracy, and Mr. Webster worked for them; he did not like them, and had as much as he could do to fight the cotton aristocracy in his own state: so he had never gone thither.

On general politics, he said: “I am a peacemaker. I never work in another method. Men are so constituted that the possession of force makes the demonstration of force quite unnecessary. If I am six feet high and well proportioned, and my adversary is four feet high and well proportioned I need not strike him, — he will do as I say. On the day when the political power passed over to the free states, the fate of slavery was sealed. I saw it was only a question of time, and I have remained in that belief. I was not wise enough to foresee all that has happened since. But it is not important, all was then settled, and is turning out as I expected. All the incidents must follow, both at home and abroad. England and France are only incidents. There is no resisting this. The Supreme Court follows too. Grier and Wayne at this moment are just as loyal as any judges.”

But he spoke as if all was done by him, by the executive, and with little or no help from Congress. “They do nothing. Why, there are twelve points which I gave them, at the beginning of the session, on which I wished the action of the government legitimated, and they have not yet touched one of them. And I am liable for every one of all these parties whom I have touched in acting for the government. And the moment I go out of office, I shall put my property into the hands of my heirs, or it might all be taken from me by these people.”

He said, “A soldier in the Wisconsin regiment mutinied; his time was out, and he would go home. I ordered him to be arrested. I was presently summoned to appear before Judge —— of the Supreme Court, by the habeas corpus. I said, ‘Go instantly to Judge ——, and ask him whether he will give a decision for the Government; if he will, he may have the soldier, if he will not, the summons must be disobeyed.’ Judge —— answered, he would decide for the Government; and so I suffered the soldier to be sent to him. Well, this was against all law, but it was necessary. If we had done otherwise, all the regiments would have disbanded, and Washington been left without protection.”

We went to Church. I told him “I hoped he would not demoralize me; I was not much accustomed to churches, but trusted he would carry me to a safe place.” He said he attended Rev. Dr. Pyne’s Church. On the way, we met Governor Fish, who was also to go with him. Miss Seward, to whom I had been presented, accompanied us. I was a little awkward in finding my place in the Common Prayer-Book, and Mr. Seward was obliging in guiding me from time to time. But I had the old wonder come over me at the Egyptian stationariness of the English Church. The hopeless blind antiquity of life and thought—indicated alike by prayers and creed and sermon—was wonderful to see, and amid worshippers and in times like these. There was something exceptional, too, in the Doctor’s sermon. His church was all made up of Secessionists; he had remained loyal, they had all left him, and abused him in the papers: and in the sermon he represented his grief, and preached Jacobitish passive obedience to powers that be, as his defense.

In going out, Mr. Seward praised the sermon. I said that the Doctor did not seem to have read the Gospel according to San Francisco, or the Epistle to the Californians; he had not got quite down into these noisy times.

Mr. Seward said, “will you go and call on the President? I usually call on him at this hour.” Of course, I was glad to go.

We found in the President’s Chamber his two little sons, — boys of seven and eight years perhaps, — whom the barber was dressing and “whiskeying their hair,” as he said, not much to the apparent contentment of the boys, when the cologne got into their eyes. The eldest boy immediately told Mr. Seward, “he could not guess what they had got.” Mr. Seward “bet a quarter of a dollar that he could. — Was it a rabbit? was it a bird? was it a pig?” He guessed always wrong, and paid his quarter to the youngest, before the eldest declared it was a rabbit. But he sent away the mulatto to find the President, and the boys disappeared. The President came, and Mr. Seward said, “you have not been to Church to-day.” “No,” he said, “and, if he must make a frank confession, he had been reading for the first time Mr. Sumner’s speech (on the Trent affair).” Something was said of newspapers, and of the story that appeared in the journals, of some one who selected all the articles which Marcy should read, &c., &c. The President incidentally remarked, that for the N.Y. Herald, he certainly ought to be much obliged to it for the part it had taken for the Government in the Mason and Slidell business. Then Seward said somewhat to explain the apparent steady malignity of the London Times. It was all an affair of the great interests of markets. The great capitalists had got this or that stock: as soon as anything happens that affects their value, this value must be made real, and the Times must say just what is required to sell those values, &c., &c. The Government had little or no voice in the matter. “But what news to-day?” “Mr. Fox has sent none. Send for Mr. Fox.” The servant could not find Mr. Fox.

The President said, he had the most satisfactory communication from Lord Lyons; also had been notified by him, that he had received the order of the Bath. He, the President, had received two communications from the French Minister. France, on the moment of hearing of the surrender of the prisoners, had ordered a messages of gratification to be sent, without waiting to read the grounds; then, when the despatches had been read, had hastened to send a fresh message of thanks and gratulation. Spain also had sent a message of the same kind. He was glad of this that Spain had done. For he knew, that, though Cuba sympathized with Secession, Spain’s interest lay the other way. Spain knew that the Secessionists wished to conquer Cuba.

Mr. Seward told the President somewhat of Dr. Pyne’s sermon, and the President said, he intended to show his respect for him some time by going to hear him.

We left the President, and returned to Mr. Seward’s house. At dinner his two sons, Frederic, his private secretary, and William (I think), with Miss Seward, were present. Mr. Seward told the whole story of the conversation with the Duke of Newcastle. On seeing the absurd story in the English papers, he wrote to Thurlow Weed, to go to the Duke, and ask an explanation. Mr. Weed called on the Duke, who said, that he was exceedingly grieved that he had given publicity to the circumstance, but that the facts were substantially has they had been stated in the Times. “Now,” said Seward, “I will tell you the whole affair as it happened. When those people4 came here, I gave them a precise programme for their whole journey, which they exactly kept. If they went to the prairie, it was because I had so set it down; if they went to New York or to Boston, I had so directed; if they were received at the White House, instead of being sent to a hotel in Washington, I had so directed. I did not go to meet them at Philadelphia, or New York, or Boston, but kept away. But, at last, when they were ready to leave the country, I went to Albany, to dine with them at Governor Morgan’s. There were twenty-four or twenty-five at table, and there never were people more happy than they were. They were entirely gratified and thankful for all that had been done for them, and all the course of the tour. The conversation lapsed at table, as it will, into tête-à-tête, and I occasionally spoke across the table to the Duke, and said to him, that I had not joined them at Boston, or at New York: indeed, that, as there was always a certain jealousy of England, in the dominant democratic party, and I wished to serve them, and keep up the most friendly feeling in the country toward them, I had avoided going too much to them. Well, they all understood it, and we parted; both the Prince and the Duke expressed their gratitude and good feeling to me in language which I cannot repeat, it was so complimentary.”

Mr. Seward said, that his most intimate friend had been, for very many years, Mr. Thurlow Weed, of Albany. He was in the habit of fullest correspondence with him on all subjects, “and every year, on the first of January, Mr. Weed’s daughter has my last year’s letters bound up into a volume. And there they all lie, twelve volumes of my letters, on her centre table, open to all to read them who will.” In all this talk, Mr. Seward’s manner and face were so intelligent and amiable, that I who had thought him so ugly, the day before, now thought him positively handsome. Mr. —— told me, at Buffalo, that there was a time when he thought Mr. Seward was in danger of being only a moral demagogue, and (I think) was only saved from it by Mr. Weed’s influence.

At 6 o’clock, I obeyed Mrs. Hooper’s invitation, and went to dine (for the second time that day). I found Mr. Hooper and his son and daughters, Governor and Mrs. Andrew, and Mrs. Schuyler. Governor Andrew had much to say of Mr. Seward. He thought he surpassed all men in the bold attempt at gas-ing other people, and pulling wool over their eyes. He thought it very offensive. He might be a donkey, — a good many men are, — but he didn’t like to have a man by this practice show that he thought him one.” I told him that I had much better impressions of Mr. Seward, but I did not relate to him any conversations. Mrs. Schuyler, I found, had very friendly feelings towards Mr. Seward, and I found he had told her the same story about the Prince and Newcastle. She told me how much attached Talleyrand, when in this country, had been to her grandfather, General Hamilton; that, after his death, he had borrowed a miniature portrait of him of Mrs. Hamilton; that Mrs. Hamilton had begged him to bring it back to her, but he had refused, and had carried it with him to France; that when Colonel Burr was in Paris, he had written a note to Talleyrand, expressing his wish to call on him, and asking him to appoint an hour. Talleyrand did not wish to see him, but did not know how to decline it. So he wrote him a note, saying, that he was ready to see him when he should call, but he thought it proper to say, that the picture of Colonel Hamilton always hung in his cabinet. Burr never called.

I ought not to omit, that, when Sumner introduced me to Mr. Welles, Secretary of the Navy, and asked him if there were anything new? Mr. Welles said, “No, nothing of importance,” and then remarked, that he observed the journals censured him for sending vessels drawing too much water, in the Burnside expedition. Now, he said, this was not the fault of his department. “We (the Navy) only sent seventeen (I think) vessels in all the hundred sail; the War Department sent all the rest; he had nothing to do with them, and the over-drawing vessels were all storeships and transports, &c., of the War Department’s sending.”

I breakfasted at Mr. Robbins’s with Mr. Sherman of the Senate, and Colfax of the House. In talking with the last, he said, that Congress had not yet come up to the point of confiscating slaves of rebel masters, no, but only such as were engaged in military service. I said, “How is it possible Congress can be so slow?” He replied, “It is owing to the great social power here in Washington, of the Border States. They step into the place of the Southerners here, and wield the same power.”

When I told Sumner what Seward had said to me about England and the Duke of Newcastle, he replied, “He has not been frank with you. I have heard him utter the most hostile sentiments to England” …

Sumner showed me several English letters of much interest which he had just received from Bright, from the Duke of Argyll, from the Duchess of A., all relating to our politics, and pressing emancipation. Bright writes that thus far the English have not suffered from the war, but rather been benefitted by stopping manufacturing and clearing out their old stocks, and bringing their trade into a more healthy state. But, after a few months, they will be importunate for cotton. The Duchess of A. sent Seward some fine lines of Tennyson written at the request of Lord Dufferin for the tomb of his Mother.

The Architect of the Capitol is Mr. Walter of Boston.

I spent Sunday evening at the house of Charles Eames, late Minister to Venezuela, whom I knew many years since at the Carlton House, New York. At his house I found many new and some old acquaintances. Governor Fish, Governor Andrew, N. P. Willis, Gurowski, Mr. Nicolay, the President’s private secretary, and another young gentleman who shares, I believe, the same office and is also I was told a contributor to the Atlantic Monthly, but whose name I have forgotten.5 Young Robert Lincoln, the President’s son, was also there, and Leutze, the painter, who invited me to see his picture which he is painting for a panel in the Capitol, “The Emigration to the West.” No military people, I think, were present. And when I went home at a late hour I was vexed to have forgotten that Mr. Secretary Stanton had invited me to call on him at his house this evening.

I was delighted with the senate-chamber in the Capitol, and its approaches. I did not remember in France or in England that their legislative bodies were nobly housed. The staircases and surrounding chambers are sumptuous and beautiful. The structure is so large, that I needed a guide, and could not find my way out, after I left Spofford. It is the fault of the building that the new wings are built in a larger style, so that the columns of the centre look small. And the Capitol fronts the wrong way, its back being towards the present city of Washington. It was designed that the City should occupy the other slope, and face the Capitol. But the owners of the land held prices so high, that people bought the other side of the Capitol, and now the city is grown there.

In the Congressional Library I found Spofford assistant librarian. He told me, that, for the last twelve (?) years, it had been under Southern domination, and as under dead men. Thus the medical department was very large, and the Theological very large, whilst that of modern literature was very imperfect. There was no copy of the Atlantic Monthly, or of the Knickerbocker, none of the Tribune, or Times, or any N.Y. journal. There was no copy of the London Saturday Review taken, or any other live journal; but the London Court Journal, in a hundred volumes, duly bound. Nor was it possible now to mend matters, because no money could they get from Congress, though an appropriation had been voted.

  1. Mr. Lincoln quoted from a lecture called “Manners and Customs of New England,” one of a course given by Mr. Emerson in New York in February, 1843. The lectures were reported in the Weekly Tribune at the time.
  2. The patriotic and useful citizen, John Murray Forbes.
  3. The case of N. P. Gordon, captain of the slaveship Erie. About this time, Mr. Forbes, in a letter in the New York Evening Post, wrote, “Cannot we at least hang one of the pirates who have sacrificed such hecatombs of Africans? and thus hint to the civilized world that there has been a change of administration since slavers were protected, England bullied, and Cuba plotted against in the interest of slaveholders!” Gordon was executed in New York, February 2, 1862.
  4. The reference is to the then recent visit of the Prince of Wales to this country.
  5. Later, Mr. Emerson wrote, “Hay, probably,” above this clause.