The Cyclopædia of American Biography/Belmont, Perry

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The Cyclopædia of American Biography  (1918) 
James E. Homans, editor
Belmont, Perry

BELMONT, Perry, lawyer, b. in New York City, 28 Dec, 1851, son of August and Caroline Slidell (Perry) Belmont. His father (1816-90), a native of Alzey, Alsace, was a son of Simon Belmont, who long held the office of commissioner by appointment of Napoleon I. He came to New York in 1837, founded the firm of August Belmont and Company, and was thereafter prominently identified with the life and affairs of the metropolis. For six years (1844-50) he was Austrian consul-general at New York, and then entering the diplomatic service of the United States, was appointed, in 1853, chargé d'affaires at The Hague, and in 1854 became minister resident. After four years of distinguished service, for which he received the thanks of his government, he returned to New York. During his business career Mr. Belmont was identified with some of the most important events in the history of finance, and was long the accredited representative of powerful interests at home and abroad. In politics he was equally prominent, having been chairman of the National Democratic Committee from 1860 to 1872, and, after his resignation from the office, continuing a potent factor in national affairs. His wife was a daughter of Commodore Matthew Galbraith Perry, who in 1854 negotiated the memorable treaty with Japan which opened the ports of the Island Empire to the commerce of the world. Perry Belmont was educated in the schools of his native city, and at a military academy at Hamden, Conn., was graduated A.B. from Harvard University in 1872, and completed the course in the Columbia Law School in 1876. On his admission to the bar he became a member of the firm of Vinton, Belmont and Frelinghuysen, with which he was associated until 1886. He was elected representative in Congress from the First Congressional District, composed of Suffolk, Queens, and Richmond Counties, in 1880, and served during four consecutive terms, until 1888, when he resigned to become minister to Spain. During his first term he was a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives, and came into national prominence through his able cross-examination of the Hon. James G. Blaine, former Secretary of State, who had testified on charges of complicity with a syndicate of American capitalists, supposed to have been interested in the government's efforts to mediate in the clash between Chili and Peru. The exposure of the effects of Mr. Blaine's policy of interference in the internal affairs of South American states resulted in its reversal by the Arthur administration. The various propositions for interoceanic transit across the Isthmus were advocated, exclusively, during the eight years of Mr. Belmont's service, before the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House. Ferdinand de Lesseps, himself, presented his plan to the Committee for the Panama Canal, the Nicaragua project by its promoters, the Eads Ship Railway scheme by Mr. Eads himself, the Tehuantepec Canal by its advocates. Mr. Belmont, chiefly on the ground that the political responsibilities of the proposed exclusive guarantee on the part of the United States of the neutrality and free use by all maritime powers of an interoceanic highway across the Isthmus, were not sufficiently taken into consideration, strenuously opposed all these projects in the committee and on the floor of the House. He maintained that under such conditions to open a new arm of the sea to the free use of the maritime nations of the world would impose upon us the obligations of a military power of the first rank. And he, also, pointed out that at that time the sovereignty of the United States did not extend its jurisdiction over any part of the Isthmus. Since the Panama Canal became an actuality, Mr. Belmont, in accordance with the views expressed by him in Congress, is now one of the chief advocates of a powerful navy of the first rank, and of equal and universal military service on the part of every American citizen. “The size of our Navy,” he says in the “Navy League Magazine,” “is not a naval but is a diplomatic question and should be determined in accordance with our policy in regard to the Isthmus and other features of our foreign policy.” In defining the obligations of an exclusive guarantee of neutrality, 11 Dec, 1882, he said, in a report to the House: “The responsibility of guaranteeing the neutrality of a canal, either at Panama or at Nicaragua, is certainly American. It may be that such responsibility is not exclusively ‘American’ in the sense of repelling all other States on this Continent other than the United States of Anierica, but it manifestly is ‘American’ in that it includes the United States of America, Mexico, the States of Central America, the United States of Colombia, and the States of South America. If in the growth of the United States of America the dominion of the Union were to extend southward from California, New Mexico, and Texas to the Isthmus of Darien, there would not be any serious question as to whose would be the right, duty, and obligation to police a canal at Panama or Nicaragua, and to guarantee the neutrality thereof whenever the United States saw fit to be neutral between other belligerent powers engaged in war.” Under Mr. Belmont's leadership, 28 Feb., 1885, the Committee on Foreign Affairs of which he was chairman recommended to the House the adoption of a resolution expressing its emphatic dissent from the policy of the Arthur administration in providing for the participation in the so-called Congo Conference. The resolution offered by Mr. Belmont was “That the House of Representatives, heedful of the admonitions of Washington, and faithful to the neutral policy of separation and peace which our situation and the wisdom of a free people have hitherto enabled us to maintain, hereby explicitly declares its dissent from the act of the President of the United States in accepting the invitation of Germany and France to participate in the International Conference at Berlin.” In submitting to Congress his reasons controlling his action upon that important question, Mr. Belmont said, on 28 Feb., 1885: “What was desired, as we now clearly see, by assembling the Conference at Berlin, was to define the jurisdiction in Africa of the International African Association, or of France, or of Portugal, or of some other power, or to reconcile the rivalries and conflicting claims of each and all, in order that the rights of the aboriginal and uncivilized tribes may be respected; slavery and slave labor be prevented; facilities afforded in Africa for Christian missionaries of all nations; fair and equal access to the Congo region; a limit to all charges and taxes on foreign trade, and all offensive monopolies excluded. Certainly all those are desirable objects. But at least for us in the United States they are, when worked out in Berlin for Africa, European objects. The promotion of our export trade has come to be a subject of national importance to which the attention of our government is beginning to be directed. But can the promotion of that trade be better accomplished by an international European conference, or by commercial treaties, or by our own domestic legislation, aided when necessary by navigation conventions?” President Cleveland's Inaugural Address contained a declaration similar to Mr. Belmont's resolution, and one of the first acts of Secretary Bayard was the withdrawal from the Senate of the protocols resulting from the Berlin Conference. On 26 April, 1886, Mr. Belmont as chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs presented a unanimous report in favor of a bill, H.R. 6520, Forty-ninth Congress, previously introduced by him, a most complete measure drafted in co-operation with the State Department, for the reorganization and reform of the consular service. The purpose of the bill was to put that service on a salaried basis, establishing the principle of the merit system. This bill formed the basis of a similar bill introduced in 1895 by Senator Morgan, chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate. Though Congress failed to enact either of these bills, President Cleveland, in an executive order, 20 Sept., 1895, carried out some of their purposes, and in a message to Congress said: “It is not assumed that this system will prove a full measure of consular reform. It is quite probable that actual experience will show particulars in which the order already issued may be amended and demonstrate that for the best results appropriate legislation by Congress is imperatively required.” Troublesome questions had long been pending in regard to Canadian fisheries, when on 23 Feb., 1887, Mr. Belmont, as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, presented to the House what became known as the Canadian Non-intercourse Bill which had the support of the Administration, and, on its enactment, conferred on the President discretionary power to “prohibit vessels bearing the British flag and coming from such Canadian ports from entering the ports of the United States,” and by proclamation “forbid the entrance to the United States of all merchandise coming by land from the Provinces of British North America” — referring to the transit of merchandise in bond. Until Congress had taken the action referred to the British government seemed to have regarded the fisheries question as rather of minor importance and of local interest chiefly in Massachusetts, but its national aspects being thus made evident the way was paved for the advent of Joseph Chamberlain in Washington when a modus vivendi satisfactory to both governments was finally established. On 18 Jan., 1887, Mr. Belmont introduced a joint resolution securing its adoption and cordially accepting the invitation of the French Republic to officially take part in an exhibition to commemorate in 1889 the events of the French Revolution of 1789, the fall of the Bastile and of the monarchy. The governments of the great powers of Europe did not and could not well accept such an invitation, and they limited their participation to commercial and trade relations in the exhibition. Its success was of great political importance to the government of the French Republic, at that time menaced by the conspiracies of General Boulanger and the royalists. Mr. Belmont's speech in Congress was emphatic in affirming the confidence of our government in the permanence of republic government in France. In recognition of his services to the Republic, the president of the French Republic conferred upon Mr. Belmont the decoration of Commander of the Legion of Honor, which he was unable to accept until after his service in Congress and as minister to Spain had ended. The French government again tendered it to him, at that time, and he then accepted it. In 1885 he was appointed chairman of the committee, serving in this capacity until his resignation three years later to accept appointment as minister to Spain. He was delegate to the Democratic National Conventions of 1892, to the Chicago and Indianapolis Democratic Conventions of 1896, 1900, 1904, and in 1912 as a delegate from New York secured the platform declaration in favor of a strong navy and the establishment of a Council of National Defense. In his professional practice Mr. Belmont was retained in several prominent cases, notably in the suit of the Pensacola Company vs. the Western Union Telegraph Company, before the U. S. Supreme Court. In this connection he won the memorable decision that since telegraphy is an instrumentality of commerce, it falls under the commerce clause of the Constitution defining the powers of Congress to regulate commerce with foreign nations and between the States of the Union (96 Otto). This decision forms a precedent of immense importance in subsequent legislation and the numerous cases arising under the administration of federal laws for the regulation of business. Mr. Belmont's name will be long remembered as that of the originator of the movement for the abolition of the secrecy of party funds by securing publication of all contributions to and expenditures of national, congressional, State, and local party committees, and of all political committees. Such publication is now required by legal enactments, both by federal and State legislation, and has contributed very greatly to the purification of politics and has been instrumental in preventing the purchase and sale of public offices. In February, 1905, his forcible paper on the subject appeared in “The North American Review,” forming the initial impetus to the movement which has since become nation-wide. Upon its publication the National Campaign Publicity Association was formed, of which he was chosen president. The New York State Campaign Publicity Association was also then organized, Mr. Belmont becoming its president. As a direct result the legislature of New York passed a stringent and effective law in the following year. Mr. Belmont also headed the committee which framed the Congressional Bill of 1906 requiring publication of all contributions, national and congressional. At the meeting of the Democratic National Committee, 12 Dec, 1907, called to select the place for holding the nominating convention in the approaching presidential election, an unusual departure from the ordinary procedure occurred in the adoption of a resolution commending the work of National Publicity Law Associations, and declaring “that the thanks of the committee and of the Democratic party, so far as the committee can tender them, be extended to the Hon. Perry Belmont, of New York, for his earnest and faithful advocacy of the principles involved in the resolution just adopted by the committee.” At the following National Convention, the Democratic party adopted in its platform a comprehensive resolution declaring in detail its approval of the movement to secure campaign fund publicity by federal and State legislation. Owing almost entirely to his able and vigorous advocacy of the movement fiifteen States adopted laws requiring publicity for campaign contributions and expenditures by political committees, and of expenditures incurred in presidential and congressional elections, and others have since followed, making the reform of national significance. Mr. Belmont's activities in the cause had its origin during the presidential campaign of 1904 when he was serving as a member of the New York Democratic State Committee. Reference was made by him to the practice of presidents and directors of great insurance and other corporations of contributing secretly to party funds which were, in fact, the property of the policy-holders and stockholders of these institutions. The amounts required having outgrown all reasonable proportions members of political organizations as well as managers of corporations having knowledge and experience of conditions that have become intolerable and were threatening widespread corruption were the first to welcome a remedy. A measure to supplement the New York Statute of 1890 limiting its requirements to the publication of expenditures of candidates only was accordingly prepared by a legislative committee composed of lawyers and representative men of both the great political parties. As originally framed, it provided that political campaign committees should not only account for their expenditures and for money received, but should also specify the sources of such contributions and the involved liabilities and expectations; that written and detailed vouchers for all expenditures should be obtained and preserved; that the contributions should be made and recorded in the true name of the contributor, and that every person, directly or indirectly, paying or contributing money or valuable aid to election, except to a candidate, or a political committee or member thereof, or to an authorized agent, should file a statement setting forth all such receipts and expenditures with the Secretary of State. Although the measure failed of passage in the New York legislature of 1905, the work of the committee had served to arouse public sentiment, and the success of the movement was assured. Even at the time of apparent failure, Mr. Belmont received encouraging letters published at the time from Judge Gray, of Delaware, Carl Schurz, Edward M. Shepard, Samuel Gompers, Francis Lynde Stetson, John E. Parsons, and other influential citizens. At a public meeting of the New York Campaign Publicity Association on 20 Nov., 1905, the membership was augmented by such leaders in public affairs as Oscar S. Straus, Col. George Harvey, Charles A. Towne, and G. W. Wickersham. On this occasion a committee was appointed, including Charles A. Gardiner, chairman, John F. Dillon, ex-Governor Frank E. Black, Francis Lynde Stetson, John S. Crosby, John Ford, Edward Mitchell, John G. Milburn, DeLancey Nicoll, and Martin V. Littleton, which redrafted the bill. It was accorded a hearing by the judiciary committees of the State senate and assembly in January, 1906, and was soon after passed and promptly signed by the governor. It was pointed out at a meeting of the national organization at Washington, when the committees on campaign publicity measures of fifteen or twenty States were present, that the bill presented to the New York legislature by the publicity organization embodied the most practical and effective features of that form of legislation then under consideration by the several States. In 1905 the National Campaign Publicity Bill Organization, with Mr. Belmont as permanent president, was formed at Washington, which was the immediate outgrowth of the New York State Publicity Law Organization. Its membership included ex-President Cleveland, former Judge of the Court of Appeals Alton B. Parker, the presidents of almost every university in the country, the governors of most of the States, and many other distinguished men who now continue to be members of the association. The bill which was introduced into the House of Representatives on 12 Jan., 1906, by Hon. Samuel W. McCall, and known as the McCall Bill, became a law 25 June, 1910, and a second McCall bill more in accord with the far-reaching purposes of Mr. Belmont and his associates was enacted 14 Aug., 1911. The abolition of the secrecy of party funds before and after elections through publicity laws is an idea originating and developed in our own country; it is not embodied in the legislation of any others. Mr. Belmont repeatedly pointed out that it is not penal legislation as are corrupt practices acts. A higher standard has been established, by the enactment of federal and State publicity laws, than prevails elsewhere. Secrecy of party funds still exists as a serious menace to the English party system, under which many instances of the purchase and sale of titles and peerages, carrying with them legislative power, are tolerated. With us a complete revolution or change in the point of view was brought about. Formerly, public sentiment in the United States had been satisfied by corrupt practice acts, designed to affect candidates and operating only at the close of their election campaigns. In 1882 Mr. Belmont secured the appointment of a select committee to inquire into the decline of the American foreign carrying trade. Out of investigation and report of that committee grew the establishment of the standing committee of the House on Merchant Marine. For this service he received the thanks of the Maritime Association of the Port of New York. In recognition of his services for the relief of shipping from some of its burdens, including a repeal of tonnage dues, Mr. Belmont received the thanks of the ocean steamship companies. He also secured passage of the resolution authorizing the President to call an International Conference to establish a common Prime Meridian, so important to navigation. Another important service of Mr. Belmont was securing, in 1888, the passage of the bill to provide for an International Marine conference which was held in Washington, October, 1889, for the protection of commerce and the safety of human life. It was at this conference that a more effective system of signaling was adopted, the International Code of Flag Signals revised, the employment of national vessels for the removal of dangerous wrecks from the pathway of shipping agreed upon, and the steamship lanes were established. Mr. Belmont has for a number of years taken an active part in the movement to give members of the Presidential Cabinet seats on the floor of both branches of Congress, with the privilege to take part in the discussion of matters which might arise affecting the business of their department and duty to be imposed by Congress to give verbal information in regard to such department affairs. Mr. Belmont is convinced that the welfare of the country would be served by such a change. That his conviction is shared by many other public men who have given the subject earnest study is shown by the records in Washington. As early as 1865 Congressman Pendleton, of Ohio, presented it in the House of Representatives. Mr. Pendleton afterward became U. S. Senator and in 1883 a resolution favoring granting of the privilege of the floor to Cabinet members was presented in the Senate by him. A favorable report was signed by Allison, of Iowa; Blaine, of Maine; Ingalls, of Kansas; O. H. Platt, of Connecticut; Voorhees, of Indiana, and M. C. Butler, of South Carolina. In his message in 1912 President Taft advocated an amendment to the rules that would admit his Cabinet to the debates in Congress and gave cogent reasons for his indorsement of the project. In a striking address before the American Club of Paris, 2 July, 1914, Mr. Belmont opened by saying that “the presence of members of the Cabinet in Congress is not suggested by the parliamentary systems of other governments. Those systems, in their fundamental principles, are so different from ours as to be hardly a safe guide for us. The suggestion belongs to the development of our own laws and must be discussed within its capacity of adjustment to our American system. We Americans have reached the point when we are asking ourselves do we or do we not want executive supremacy to assert itself with increasing emphasis, and has it gradually developed to such a degree as to require an effort, in order to restore the equilibrium between the executive and legislative departments of the governments.” He declared that the inquiry was non-partisan and impersonal, and that “equal non-partisan and impersonal is the proposed plan to enlarge the intercourse between these two great departments, providing, through a mere change in the rules of procedure, for the presence in Congress of members of the Cabinet — the heads of executive departments created by Congress to whom new duties can be assigned. No encroachment by the legislative branch upon the constitutional privileges of the President or of his Cabinet is suggested, and no invasion by the Executive of the jurisdiction of the legislative branch; nor does it involve any modification of the constitutional distribution and separation of the functions of the three departments of our government, its distinctive and characteristic feature. Nor would such a change in the rules of procedure interfere with the existing methods of communication, by written reports or by the personal presence before congressional committees of members of the Cabinet and subordinate chiefs of bureaus of the executive departments. The subjects rise immeasurably above party interests. Democrats and Republicans can unite in promoting this movement for better administrative and legislative methods.” Referring to the increasing personal influence of the President in controlling the law-making branch of the government, Mr. Belmont said in a letter to the National Security League's Congress in Washington, January, 1917: “Much has happened recently in confirmation of the great advantages of the proposed effort to minimize, without the slightest change of our Constitution, the dangers of personal government; that the President be not enabled to initiate personal policies, of which the consequence even so great and powerful a nation as ours might have cause to regret. The Executive may advocate a policy which Congress opposes and the absence of authorized means of oral communication may prevent the establishment of the harmony of action necessary for the public welfare. When, on the contrary, there exists an agreement between the Legislature and Executive branches, an intercourse resulting from a common purpose would be promoted by free oral communication.” It was on 4 March, 1916, that Mr. Belmont addressed a communication to the Vice-President, Marshall, which the latter laid before the Senate and was printed in the “Congressional Record” on 25 March, 1916, of which the salient paragraphs were as follows: “That the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Navy, the Attorney-General, the Postmaster-General, the Secretary of Agriculture, the Secretary of Commerce, the Secretary of Labor shall be entitled to occupy seats on the floor of the Senate and House of Representatives, with the right to participate in debate on matters relating to the business of their respective departments, under such rules as may be prescribed by the Senate and House respectively. That the said Secretaries, the Attorney-General, and the Postmaster-General shall attend the sessions of the Senate on the opening of the sittings on Tuesday and Friday of each week, and the sessions of the House of Representatives on the opening of the sittings on Monday and Thursday of each week, to give information asked by resolution or in reply to questions which may be propounded to them under the rules of the Senate and the House; and the Senate and the House may, by standing orders, dispense with the attendance of one or more of said officers on either of said days. The proposed legislation would confer a privilege at the same time imposing a duty on the heads of the departments, who, it must be remembered, are the creations of Congress and therefore not mere adjuncts of the President. The privilege is a voluntary attendance to take part in debate under established rules. The duty is to give direct oral information under compulsory attendance. The law organizing the Treasury may be accepted as a solution of this question. Congress, in creating the office of Secretary of the Treasury, declared that the Secretary shall make report and give information to either branch of the Legislature, either in person or in writing, respecting all matters which shall appertain to his office, as either House may require. The relation of the Executive Department and Congress engaged the attention of the men who formed the Confederate government, and they modeled its constitution and laws upou those of the Federal government. Long experience of the Federal system suggested to them in framing their provisional and permanent constitution as well that to allow the members of the Cabinet seats on the floor of their congress would be an improvement. They, therefore, preserved the existing provision of our Constitution distributing the functions of government, and after the words ‘and no person holding any office under the Confederate States shall be a member of either house during his continuance in office,’ they introduced the following clause: ‘But Congress may by law grant to the principal officers in each of the Executive departments a seat upon the floor of either house, with the privilege of discussing any measures appertaining to his department.’ ” Mr. Belmont is forceful and aggressive, stubborn in the advocacy of any movement which he is convinced is for the public good, and uncompromising in his advocacy. He is possessed of character, energy, and the ability to convince others. His public record has been effective in a marked degree. During the Spanish War of 1898 he served as inspector general of the First Division of the Second Army Corps, on the staff of Maj.-Gen. M. C. Butler. In 1917 he again offered his services, and was commissioned an officer in the reserve corps, detailed to the remount service. He is vice-president of the Army League, a director of the Navy League, an active member of both organizations. He holds membership in the Knickerbocker, Union, Metropolitan, Manhattan, New York Yacht, and Jockey Clubs; is president of the United Hunts Racing Association, and member of the Metropolitan, University, Army and Navy Clubs, Washington; and the Marlborough Club of London. Mr. Belmont married, in New York in 1899, Jessie Robbins, daughter of Daniel C. Robbins, of Brooklyn, N. Y.


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