Six Months at the White House/XLVIII
About the first of June I received a call from the Hon. Horace Greeley, who was temporarily in Washington. Very near-sighted, his comments upon my work, then about half completed, were not particularly gratifying. He thought the steel likenesses in his book, "The American Conflict," were much better. I called his attention, among other points, to a newspaper introduced in the foreground of the picture, "symbolizing," I said, "the agency of the 'Press' in bringing about Emancipation;"--stating, at the same time, that this accessory was studied from a copy of the "Tribune." Upon this his face relaxed;--"I would not object," said he, 'to your putting in my letter to the President on that subject."
Knowing that he had not been friendly to the renomination of Mr. Lincoln, it occurred to me, in my simplicity, that if I could bring them together, an interview might result in clearing up what was, perhaps, a mutual misunderstanding of relative positions,--though I had never known Mr. Lincoln to mention the name of the editor of the "Tribune," otherwise than with profound respect. Leaving my visitor in front of the picture, I went to the President's office to inform him of the presence of Mr. G. in the house, thinking that he might deem it best, under the circumstances, to receive him below stairs. In this, however, I "reckoned without my host." He looked up quickly, as I mentioned the name, but recovering himself, said, with unusual blandness: "Please say to Mr. Greeley that I shall be very happy to see him, at his leisure."
I have been repeatedly asked to what extent Mr. Lincoln read the newspapers. It might have dampened the patriotic ardor of many ambitious editors, could they have known that their elaborate disquisitions, sent in such numbers to the White House, were usually appropriated by the servants, and rarely, or never, reached the one they were preeminently intended to enlighten as to his duty and policy. I recollect of but a single instance of newspaper reading on the part of the President, during the entire period of my intercourse with him. One evening, having occasion to go to the Private Secretary's office, supposing the rooms to be vacant, I came upon Mr. Lincoln, seated quietly by himself, for once engaged in looking over the contents of a journal, which he had casually taken up.
The Washington dailies,--the "Chronicle," "Republican," and "Star,"--were usually laid upon his table, and I think he was in the habit of glancing at the telegraphic reports of these; but rarely beyond this. All war news of importance, of course, reached him previous to its publication. He had, therefore, little occasion to consult newspapers on this account. The Private Secretaries, however, usually kept him informed of the principal subjects discussed editorially in the leading organs of the country.
The journals I became most familiar with, in the Secretaries' quarters, besides those mentioned, were the Philadelphia "Press" and "North American;" the Baltimore "American" and "Sun;" the New York "Tribune," "Evening Post," "Independent," "Times," "Herald," and "World;" the Albany "Evening Journal;" the Boston "Advertiser," "Journal," and "Transcript;" the Chicago "Tribune" and "Journal," (the latter valued chiefly for the letters of its war correspondent, B. F. Taylor); the St. Louis "Republican" and "Democrat;" and the Cincinnati "Gazette" and "Commercial."
Violent criticism, attacks, and denunciations coming either from radicals or conservatives, rarely ruffled the President, if they reached his ears. It must have been in connection with something of this kind, that he once told me this story. "Some years ago," said he, "a couple of 'emigrants,' fresh from the 'Emerald Isle,' seeking labor, were making their way toward the West. Coming suddenly, one evening, upon a pond of water, they were greeted with a grand chorus of bull-frogs,--a kind of music they had never before heard. "B-a-u-m!'--'B-a-u-m!' Overcome with terror, they clutched their 'shillelahs,' and crept cautiously forward, straining their eyes in every direction, to catch a glimpse of the enemy; but he was not to be found! At last a happy idea seized the foremost one,--he sprang to his companion and exclaimed; 'And sure, Jamie! it is my opinion it's nothing but a "noise!"'"
On a certain occasion, the President was induced by a committee of gentlemen to examine a newly invented "repeating" gun; the peculiarity of which was, that it prevented the escape of gas. After due inspection, he said: "Well, I believe this really does what it is represented to do. Now have any of you heard of any machine, or invention, for preventing the escape of 'gas' from newspaper establishments?"
One afternoon he came into the studio, while Mrs. Secretary Welles and a party of friends were viewing the picture. Mrs. Welles said that she "understood from the newspapers that the work was nearly completed; which appeared to be far from the truth." In reply, I made the common place remark, that the "papers" were not always "reliable." "That is to say, Mrs. Welles," broke in the President, "they ' lie,' and then they ' re-lie! '"
At one of the "levees," in the winter of 1864, during a lull in the hand-shaking, Mr. Lincoln was addressed by two lady friends, one of whom is the wife of a gentleman subsequently called into the Cabinet. Turning to them with a weary air, he remarked that it was a relief to have now and then those to talk to who had no favors to ask. The lady referred to is a radical,--a New Yorker by birth, but for many years a resident of the West. She replied, playfully, "Mr. President, I have one request to make." "Ah!" said he, at once looking grave. "Well, what is it?" "That you suppress the infamous 'Chicago Times,'" was the rejoinder. After a brief pause, Mr. Lincoln asked her if she had ever tried to imagine how she would have felt, in some former administration to which she was opposed, if her favorite newspaper had been seized by the government, and suppressed. The lady replied that it was not a parallel case; that in circumstances like those then existing, when the nation was struggling for its very life, such utterances as were daily put forth in that journal should be suppressed by the strong hand of authority; that the cause of loyalty and good government demanded it. "I fear you do not fully comprehend," returned the President, "the danger of abridging the liberties of the people. Nothing but the very sternest necessity can ever justify it. A government had better go to the very extreme of toleration, than to do aught that could be construed into an interference with, or to jeopardize in any degree, the common rights of its citizens."