Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Blaine, James Gillespie

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Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography
Blaine, James Gillespie
Edition of 1900. Written by Charles Emory SmithSee also James G. Blaine on Wikipedia, and our Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography disclaimer. The 1891 edition gives the names of James G. Blaine's parents as Ephraim L. Blaine and Maria Gillespie. In addition, two sections of the 1891 edition are omitted here so coverage of Blaine's role as secretary of state in the Harrison administration could be added at the end without changing the length of the article.
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BLAINE, James Gillespie, statesman, b. in West Brownsville, Washington co., Pa., 31 Jan., 1830; d. in the city of Washington, D. C., 27 Jan., 1893. He was a second son. On his father's side he inherited the hardy and energetic qualities of the Scotch-Irish blood. His great-grandfather, Ephraim Blaine, b. 1741; d. 1804, bore an honorable part in the revolutionary struggle, was an officer of the Pennsylvania line, a trusted friend of Washington, and during the last four years of the war served as the commissary-general of the northern department of his command. Possessed of ample means, he drew largely from his own private purse and enlisted the contributions of various friends for the maintenance of the army through the severe and memorable winter at Valley Forge. From the Cumberland valley, where his ancestors had early settled and had been among the founders of Carlisle, Mr. Blaine's father removed to Washington co. in 1818. He had inherited what was a fortune in those days, and had large landed possessions in western Pennsylvania; but their mineral wealth had not then been developed, and though relieved from poverty he was not endowed with affluence, and a large family made a heavy drain on his means. He was a man of liberal education, and had travelled in Europe and South America before settling down in western Pennsylvania, where he served as prothonotary. Mr. Blaine's mother, a woman of superior intelligence and force of character, was a devout Catholic; but her son adhered to the Presbyterian convictions and communion of his paternal Scotch-Irish ancestry. The early education of Mr. Blaine was sedulously cultivated. He had the advantage of excellent teachers at his own home, and for a part of the year 1841 he was at school in Lancaster, Ohio, where he lived in the family of his relative, Thomas Ewing, then secretary of the treasury. In association with Thomas Ewing, Jr., afterward a member of congress, young Blaine began his preparation for college under the instruction of a thoroughly trained Englishman, William Lyons, brother of Lord Lyons, and at t he age of thirteen he entered Washington college in his native county, where he was graduated in 1847. It is said that when nine years old he was able to recite Plutarch's lives. He had a marked taste for historical studies, and excelled in literature and mathematics. In the literary society he displayed the political aptitude and capacity that distinguished his subsequent career. Some time after graduation he became a teacher in the western military institute, at Blue Lick Springs, Ky. Here he formed the acquaintance of Miss Harriet Stanwood, of Maine, who was connected with a seminary for young ladies at the neighboring town of Millersburg, and to whom within a few months he was married. He soon returned to Pennsylvania, where, after some study of the law, he became a teacher in the Pennsylvania institution for the blind at Philadelphia. The instruction was chiefly oral. The young teacher had charge of the higher classes in literature and science, and the principal has left a record that his “brilliant mental powers were exactly qualified to enlighten and instruct the interesting minds before him.” After an association of two years with this institution, he removed in 1854 to Augusta, Maine, where he has since made his home. Purchasing a half interest in the Kennebec “Journal,” he became its editor, his ready faculty and trenchant writing being peculiarly adapted to this field. He speedily made his impress, and within three years was a master spirit in the politics of the state.

He engaged in the movement for the formation of the republican party with all his energy, and his earnest and incisive discussion of the rising conflict between freedom and slavery attracted wide attention. In 1856 he was a delegate to the first republican national convention, which nominated Gen. Frémont for the presidency. His report at a public meeting on his return home, where he spoke at the outset with hesitation and embarrassment, and advanced to confident and fervid utterance, first illustrated his capacity on the platform and gave him standing as a public speaker. The next year he broadened his journalistic work by taking the editorship of the Portland “Advertiser”; but his editorial service ended when his parliamentary career began. In 1858 he was elected to the legislature, remaining a member through successive annual re-elections for four years, and serving the last two as speaker. At the beginning of the civil war Mr. Blaine gained distinction not only for his parliamentary skill, but for his forensic power in the debates that grew out of that crisis. The same year that he was elected to the legislature he became chairman of the state committee, a position which he continued to hold uninterruptedly for twenty years, and in which he led in shaping and directing every political campaign of his party in Maine.

In 1862 Mr. Blaine was elected to congress, where in one branch or the other he served for eighteen years. To the house he was chosen for seven successive terms. His growth in position and influence was rapid and unbroken. In his earlier years he made few elaborate addresses. During his first term his only extended speech was an argument in favor of the assumption of the state war debts by the general government, and in demonstration of the ability of the north to carry the war to a successful conclusion. But he gradually took an active part in the running discussions, and soon acquired high repute as a facile and effective debater. For this form of contention his ready resources and alert faculties were singularly fitted. He was bold in attack, quick in repartee, and apt in illustration. His close study of political history, his accurate knowledge of the record and relations of public men, and his unfailing memory, gave him great advantages. As a member of the committee on post-offices, he was largely instrumental in securing the introduction of the system of postal cars. He earnestly sustained all measures for the vigorous prosecution of the war, but sought to make them judicious and practical. In this spirit he supported the bill for a draft, but opposed absolute conscription. He contended that it should be relieved by provisions for commutation and substitution, and urged that an inexorable draft had never been resorted to but once, even under the absolutism of Napoleon. At the same time he enforced the duty of sustaining and strengthening the armies in the field by using all the resources of the nation, and strongly advocated the enrolment act. The measures for the reconstruction of the states that had been in rebellion largely engrossed the attention of congress from 1865 till 1869, and Mr. Blaine bore a prominent part in their discussion and in the work of framing them. The basis of representation upon which the states should be readmitted was the first question to be determined. Thaddeus Stevens, chairman of the committee on reconstruction, had proposed that representation should be apportioned according to the number of legal voters. Mr. Blaine strenuously objected to this proposition, and urged that population, instead of voters, should be the basis. He submitted a constitutional amendment providing that “representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which shall be included within this union according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by taking the whole number of persons, except those whose political rights or privileges are denied or abridged by the constitution of any state on account of race or color.” He advocated this plan on the ground that, while the other basis of voters would accomplish the object of preventing the south from securing representation for the blacks unless the blacks were made voters, yet it would make a radical change in the apportionment for the northern states where the ratio of voters to population differed very widely in different sections, varying from a minimum of 19 per cent. to a maximum of 58 per cent. The result of the discussion was a general abandonment of the theory that apportionment should be based on voters, and the 14th amendment to the constitution, as finally adopted, embodied Mr. Blaine's proposition in substance.

On 6 Feb., 1867, Mr. Stevens reported the reconstruction bill. It divided the states lately in rebellion into five military districts, and practically established military government therein. The civil tribunals were made subject to military control. While the majority evinced a readiness to accept the bill, Mr. Blaine declared his unwillingness to support any measure that would place the south under military government, if it did not at the same time prescribe the methods by which the people of a state could by their own action reëstablish civil government. He accordingly proposed an amendment providing that when any one of the late so-called confederate states should assent to the 14th amendment to the constitution and should establish equal and impartial suffrage without regard to race or color, and when congress should approve its action, it should be entitled to representation, and the provisions for military government should become inoperative. This proposition came to be known as the Blaine amendment. In advocating it, Mr. Blaine expressed the belief that the true interpretation of the election of 1800 was that, in addition to the proposed constitutional amendment — the 14th — impartial suffrage should be the basis of reconstruction, and he urged the wisdom of declaring the terms at once. The application of the previous question ruled out the Blaine amendment, but it was renewed in the senate and finally carried through both branches, and under it reconstruction was completed.

The theory that the public debt should be paid in greenbacks developed great strength in the summer of 1867 while Mr. Blaine was absent in Europe. On his return at the opening of the next session he made an extended speech against the doctrine, and was the first man in congress to give utterance to this opposition. The long unsettled question of protecting naturalized American citizens while abroad attracted special attention at this time. Costello, Warren, Burke, and other Irish-Americans had been arrested in England, on the charge of complicity in Fenian plots. Costello had made a speech in 1865 in New York, which was regarded as treasonable by the British government, and he was treated as a British subject and tried under an old law on this accusation. His plea of American citizenship was overruled, and he was convicted and sentenced to sixteen years' penal servitude. Mr. Blaine, who, with other American statesmen, resisted the English doctrine of perpetual allegiance, and maintained that a naturalized American was entitled to the same protection abroad that would be given to a native American, took active part in pressing these questions upon public attention, and, as the result of the agitation, Costello was released. The discussion of these cases led to the treaty of 1870, in which Great Britain abandoned the doctrine of “once a subject always a subject,” and accepted the American principle of equal rights and protection for adopted and for native citizens. Mr. Blaine was chosen speaker of the house of representatives in 1869, and served by successive reelections for six years. His administration of the speakership is commonly regarded as one of the most brilliant and successful in the annals of the house. He had rare aptitude and equipment for the duties of presiding officer; and his complete mastery of parliamentary law, his dexterity and physical endurance, his rapid despatch of business, and his firm and impartial spirit, were recognized on all sides. Though necessarily exercising a powerful influence upon the course of legislation, he seldom left the chair to mingle in the contests of the floor. On one of those rare occasions, in March, 1871, he had a sharp tilt with Gen. Butler, who had criticised him for being the author of the resolution providing for an investigation into alleged outrages perpetrated upon loyal citizens of the south, and for being chiefly instrumental in securing its adoption by the republican caucus. The political revulsion of 1874 placed the democrats in control of the house, and Mr. Blaine became the leader of the minority. The session preceding the presidential contest of 1876 was a period of stormy and vehement contention. A general amnesty bill was brought forward, removing the political disabilities of participants in the rebellion which had been imposed by the 14th amendment to the constitution. Mr. Blaine moved to amend by making an exception of Jefferson Davis, and supported the proposition in an impassioned speech. After asserting the great magnanimity of the government, and pointing out how far amnesty had already been carried, he defined the ground of his proposed exception. The reason was, not that Davis was the chief of the confederacy, but that, as Mr. Blaine affirmed, he was the author, “knowingly, deliberately, guiltily, and wilfully, of the gigantic murders and crimes of Andersonville.” In fiery words Mr. Blaine proceeded to declare that no military atrocities in history had exceeded those for which Davis was thus responsible. His outburst naturally produced deep excitement in the house and throughout the country. If Mr. Blaine's object as a political leader was to arouse partisan feeling and activity preparatory to the presidential struggle, he succeeded. An acrid debate followed. Benjamin H. Hill, of Georgia, assumed the lead on the other side, and not only defended Davis against the accusations, which he pronounced unfounded, but preferred similar charges against the treatment of southern prisoners in the north. In reply, Mr. Blaine turned upon Mr. Hill with the citation of a resolution introduced by him in the confederate senate, providing that every soldier or officer of the United States captured on the soil of the confederate states should be presumed to have come with intent to incite insurrection, and should suffer the penalty of death. This episode arrested universal attention, and gave Mr. Blaine a still stronger hold as a leader of his party.

He now became the subject of a violent personal assault. Charges were circulated that he had received $64,000 from the Union Pacific railroad company for some undefined services. On 24 April, 1876, he rose to a personal explanation in the house and made his answer. He produced letters from the officers of the company and from the bankers who were said to have negotiated the draft, in which they declared that there had never been any such transaction, and that Mr. Blaine had never received a dollar from the company. Mr. Blaine proceeded to add that the charge had reappeared in the form of an assertion that he had received bonds of the Little Rock and Fort Smith railroad as a gratuity, and that these bonds had been sold through the Union Pacific company for his benefit. To this he responded that he never had any such bonds except at the market price, and that, instead of deriving any profit from them, he had incurred a large pecuniary loss. A few days later another charge was made to the effect that he had received as a gift certain bonds of the Kansas Pacific railroad, and had been a party to a suit concerning them in the courts of Kansas. To this he answered by producing evidence that his name had been confounded with that of a brother, who was one of the early settlers of Kansas, and who had bought stock in the Kansas Pacific before Mr. Blaine had even been nominated for congress.

On 2 May a resolution was adopted in the house to investigate an alleged purchase by the Union Pacific railroad company, at an excessive price, of certain bonds of the Little Rock and Fort Smith railroad. It soon became evident that the investigation was aimed at Mr. Blaine. An extended business correspondence on his part with Warren Fisher, of Boston, running through years and relating to various transactions, had fallen into the hands of a clerk named Mulligan, and it was alleged that the production of this correspondence would confirm the imputations against Mr. Blaine. When Mulligan was summoned to Washington, Mr. Blaine possessed himself of the letters, together with a memorandum that contained a full index and abstract. On 5 June he rose to a personal explanation, and, after denying the power of the house to compel the production of his private papers, and his willingness to go to any extremity in defence of his rights, he declared his purpose to reserve nothing. Holding up the letters he exclaimed: “Thank God, I am not ashamed to show them. There is the very original package. And with some sense of humiliation, with a mortification I do not attempt to conceal, with a sense of outrage which I think any man in my position would feel, I invite the confidence of forty-four millions of my countrymen, while I read those letters from this desk.” The demonstration closed with a dramatic scene. Josiah Caldwell, one of the originators of the Little Rock and Fort Smith railroad, who had full knowledge of the whole transaction, was travelling in Europe, and both sides were seeking to communicate with him. After finishing the reading of the letters, Mr. Blaine turned to the chairman of the committee and demanded to know whether he had received any despatch from Mr. Caldwell. Receiving an evasive answer, Mr. Blaine asserted, as within his own knowledge, that the chairman had received such a despatch, “completely and absolutely exonerating me from this charge, and you have suppressed it.” A profound sensation was created, and Gen. Garfield said: “I have been a long time in congress, and never saw such a scene in the house.”

The republican national convention was now at hand, and Mr. Blaine was the most prominent candidate for the presidential nomination. He had a larger body of enthusiastic friends than any other leader of his party, and the stirring events of the past few months had intensified their devotion. On 11 June, the Sunday preceding the convention, just as he was entering church at Washington, he was prostrated with the extreme heat, and his illness for a time created wide apprehension. The advocates of his nomination, however, remained unshaken in their support. On the first ballot he received 285 votes out of a total of 754, the remainder being divided among Senator Morton, Sec. Bristow, Senator Conkling, Gov. Hayes, and several others. On the seventh ballot his vote rose to 351, lacking only 28 of a majority, but a union of the supporters of all the other candidates gave Gov. Hayes 384 and secured his nomination. Immediately after the convention, on the resignation of Senator Morrill to accept the secretaryship of the treasury, Mr. Blaine was appointed senator to fill the unexpired term, and in the following winter he was chosen by the legislature for the full ensuing term. In the senate he engaged in the discussion of current questions. He opposed the creation of the electoral commission for the settlement of the disputed presidential election of 1876, on the ground that congress did not itself possess the power that it proposed to confer on the commission. He held that President Hayes's southern policy surrendered too much of what had been gained through reconstruction, and contended that the validity of his own title involved the maintenance of the state governments in South Carolina and Louisiana, which rested on the same popular vote. On the currency question he always assumed a pronounced position. While still a member of the house, in February, 1876, he had made an elaborate speech on the national finances and against any perpetuation of an irredeemable paper currency, and soon after entering the senate, when the subject was brought forward, he took strong ground against the deterioration of the silver coinage. He strenuously opposed the Bland bill, and, when its passage was seen to be inevitable, sought to amend it by providing that the dollar should contain 425 grains of standard silver, instead of 412½ grains. He favored a bi-metallic currency, and equally resisted the adoption of the single gold standard and the depreciation of silver. Measures for the development and protection of American shipping early engaged his attention. In 1878 he advocated the establishment of a line of mail steamers to Brazil, and unhesitatingly urged the application of a subsidy to this object. On frequent occasions he recurred to the subject, contending that Great Britain and France had built up their commerce by liberal aid to steamship lines, and that a similar policy would produce similar results here. He argued that congress had endowed the railroad system with $500,000,000 of money, which had produced $5,000,000,000 to the country, and that the policy ought not to stop when it reached the sea.

In March, 1879, congress was deeply agitated by a conflict over the appropriation bills. The democrats, being in control of both houses, had refused to pass the necessary measures for the support of the government unless accompanied by a proviso prohibiting the presence of troops at any place where an election was being held. The republicans resisted this attempt, and, in consequence of the failure of the bills at the regular session, the president was compelled to call an extra session. Mr. Blaine was among the foremost in the senate in defending the executive prerogative and in opposing what he denounced as legislative coercion, He pointed out how few troops there were in all the states of the south, and said: “I take no risk in stating, I make bold to declare, that this issue on the troops being a false one, being one without foundation, conceals the true issue, which is simply to get rid of the federal presence at federal elections, to get rid of the civil power of the United States in the election of representatives to the congress of the United States.” He proceeded to characterize the proposition to withhold appropriations except upon the condition of executive compliance as revolutionary, saying: “I call it the audacity of revolution for any senator or representative, or any caucus of senators or representatives, to get together and say: ‘We will have this legislation, or we will stop the great departments of the government.’ ” The resistance was unsuccessful, and the army appropriation bill finally passed with the proviso. Mr. Blaine at all times defended the sanctity of the ballot, and in December, 1878, pending a resolution presented by himself for an inquiry into certain alleged frauds in the south, made a powerful plea as to the injustice wrought by a denial of the franchise to the blacks. When the attempt was made to override the plain result of the election of 1879 in Maine, and to set up a state government in defiance of the popular vote, Mr. Blaine took charge of the effort to establish the rightful government, and through his vigorous measures the scheme of usurpation was defeated and abandoned. On the Chinese question he early declared himself decidedly in favor of restricting their immigration. In a speech on 14 Feb., 1879, when the subject came before the senate, he argued that there were only two courses: that the Chinese must be excluded or fully admitted into the family of citizens; that the latter was as impracticable as it was dangerous; that they could not be assimilated with our people or institutions; and that it was a duty to protect the free laborer of America against the servile laborer of China.

As the presidential convention of 1880 approached, it was apparent that Mr. Blaine retained the same support that had adhered to him so tenaciously four years before. The contest developed into an earnest and prolonged struggle between his friends and those who advocated a third term for Gen. Grant. The convention, one of the most memorable in American history, lasted through six days, and there were thirty-six ballots. On the first the vote stood: Grant 304, Blaine 284, Sherman 93, Edmunds 34, Washburne 30, Windom 10, Garfield 1. On the final ballot the friends of Blaine and Sherman united on Gen. Garfield, who received 399 votes to 306 for Grant, and was nominated. On his election, Mr. Blaine was tendered and accepted the office of secretary of state. He remained at the head of the department less than ten months, and his effective administration was practically limited by the assassination of President Garfield to four. Within that period, however, he began several important undertakings. His foreign policy had two principal objects. The first was to secure and preserve peace throughout this continent. The second was to cultivate close commercial relations and increase our trade with the various countries of North and South America. The accomplishment of the first object was preliminary and essential to the attainment of the second, and, in order to promote it, he projected a peace congress to be held at Washington, to which all the independent powers of North and South America were to be invited. His plan contemplated the cultivation of such a friendly understanding on the part of the powers as would permanently avert the horrors of war either through the influence of pacific counsels or the acceptance of impartial arbitration. Incidentally, it assumed that the assembling of their representatives at Washington would open the way to such relations as would inure to the commercial advantage of this country. The project, though already determined, was delayed by the fatal shot at Garfield, and the letter of invitation was finally issued on 29 Nov., 1881, fixing 24 Nov., 1882, as the date for the proposed congress. On 19 Dec. Mr. Blaine retired from the cabinet, and within three weeks his successor had reversed his policy and the plan was abandoned, after the invitation had been accepted by all the American powers except two.

When Mr. Blaine entered the department of state, war was raging between Chili and Peru, and he sought to exercise the good offices of our government, first, for the restoration of peace, and, second, to mitigate the consequences of the crushing defeat sustained by Peru. Other efforts failing, he despatched William Henry Trescott on a special mission to offer the friendly services of the United States; but this attempt, like the one for the peace congress, was interrupted and frustrated by his retirement from the department. His brief service was also signalized by an important correspondence with the British government concerning the modification of the Clayton-Bulwer treaty, making formal proposal for the abrogation of certain clauses which were not in harmony with the rights of the United States as secured by convention with the Colombian republic, he urged that the treaty, by prohibiting the use of land forces and of fortifications, without any protection against superior naval power, practically conceded to Great Britain the control of any interoceanic canal that might be constructed across the isthmus, and he proposed that every part of the treaty which forbids the United States fortifying the canal and holding the political control of it in conjunction with the country in which it is located should be cancelled. To the answer of the British government that the treaty was an engagement which should be maintained and respected, Mr. Blaine replied that it could not be regarded as a conclusive determination of the question; that since its adoption it had been the subject of repeated negotiations between the two countries; that the British government had itself proposed to refer its doubtful clauses to arbitration; and that it had long been recognized as a source of increasing embarrassment. Throughout the correspondence Mr. Blaine insisted in the firmest tone that “it is the fixed purpose of the United States to consider the isthmus canal question as an American question, to be dealt with and decided by the American governments.”

Upon the retirement of Mr. Blaine from the state department in December, 1881, he was, for the first time in twenty-three years, out of public station. He soon entered upon the composition of an elaborate historical work entitled “Twenty Years of Congress,” of which the first 200 pages give a succinct review of the earlier political history of the country, followed by a more detailed narrative of the eventful period from Lincoln to Garfield. The first volume was published in April, 1884, and the second in January, 1886 (Norwich, Conn.). The work had a very wide sale, and secured general approval for its impartial spirit and brilliant style. When the republican national convention of 1884 met at Chicago, it was clear that Mr. Blaine had lost none of the hold upon the enthusiasm of his party. On the first ballot he received 334½ votes, President Arthur 278, Senator Edmunds 93, Senator Logan 63½, and the rest were scattering. His vote kept gaining till the fourth ballot, when he received 541 out of a total of 813 and was nominated. The canvass that followed was one of peculiar bitterness. Mr. Blaine took the stump in Ohio, Indiana, New York, and other states, and in a series of remarkable speeches, chiefly devoted to upholding the policy of protection to American industry, deepened the popular impression of his intellectual power. The election turned upon the result in New York, which was lost to Mr. Blaine by 1,047 votes, whereupon he promptly resumed the work upon his history, which had been interrupted by the canvass. After the result had been determined, he made, at his home in Augusta, a speech in which he arraigned the democratic party for carrying the election by suppressing the republican vote in the southern states, and cited the figures of the returns to show that, on an average, only one half or one third as many votes had been cast for each presidential elector or member of congress elected in the south as for each elected in the north. This speech had a startling effect, and attracted universal attention, though Mr. Blaine had set forth the same thing in a speech that he made in congress as long before that time as 11 Dec., 1878.

Mr. Blaine took an active part in the Maine canvass of 1886, opening it, 24 Aug., in a speech at Sebago Lake devoted chiefly to the questions of the fisheries, the tariff, and the third-party prohibition movement. The fishery controversy had acquired renewed interest and importance from recent seizures of American fishing-vessels on the Canadian coast, and Mr. Blaine reviewed its history at length, and sharply criticised the attitude and action of the administration. He presented the issue of protection against free-trade as the foremost one between the two parties; and, with regard to prohibition, insisted that there was no warrant or reason for a third-party movement in Maine, because the republican party had enacted and enforced a prohibitory law in that state. His succeeding speeches, continued throughout the canvass, followed the same line.

At the republican national convention at Chicago, in 1888, Mr. Blaine's name was prominently used in connection with the nomination, but he sent from Italy a telegraphic message positively declining to allow it to be so used. On the election of President Harrison, the nominee of the convention, Mr. Blaine was again called to the cabinet as secretary of state. He was active in forwarding the Pan-American congress, a conference of representatives of the independent governments of North and South America, held in Washington, and also gave his attention to the international conference for the adoption of regulations to govern vessels at sea. The McKinley tariff measure was supplemented, largely through his suggestions, by treaties of reciprocity with various nations, and he was also actively concerned in the diplomatic treatment of the seal-fishery dispute, the recognition of the newly organized Brazilian republic, the trouble with Italy over the lynching of alleged Italian subjects in New Orleans, the civil war in Chili, and a dispute with Spain regarding the rights of American missionaries in the Caroline islands.

On 4 June, 1892, Mr. Blaine suddenly resigned his portfolio, and three days later, at the republican national convention in Minneapolis, his name was once more conspicuous among those of the presidential candidates. His resignation caused much speculation, and many persons coupled it with his subsequent candidacy for the presidential nomination; but he himself gave as his reason that he desired to rest. His health now failed rapidly, and he took no more active interest in public life, his death following soon afterward.