The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz/Volume Three/10 1869-1870
|←Volume Three: Chapter IX: The Presidential Election of 1868 — The Senate||The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz by
Volume Three: Chapter X: 1869-1870
|A Sketch of Carl Schurz's Political Career 1869-1906→|
|This is the last chapter that Carl Schurz wrote. The rest of Volume Three was filled out by Frederic Bancroft and William A. Dunning's A Sketch of Carl Schurz's Political Career 1869-1906.|
I REMEMBER vividly the feelings which almost oppressed me as I first sat down in my chair in the Senate chamber. Now I had actually reached the most exalted public position to which my boldest dreams of ambition had hardly dared to aspire. I was still a young man, just forty. Little more than sixteen years had elapsed since I had landed on these shores, a homeless waif saved from the wreck of a revolutionary movement in Europe. Then I was enfolded in the generous hospitality of the American people opening to me, as freely as to its own children, the great opportunities of the new world. And here I was now, a member of the highest law-making body of the greatest of republics. Should I ever be able fully to pay my debt of gratitude to this country, and to justify the honors that had been heaped upon me? To accomplish this, my conception of duty could not be pitched too high. I recorded a vow in my own heart that I would at least honestly endeavor to fulfill that duty; that I would conscientiously adhere to the principle salus populi suprema lex; that I would never be a sycophant of power nor a flatterer of the multitude; that, if need be, I would stand up alone for my conviction of truth and right; and that there would be no personal sacrifice too great for my devotion to the Republic.
My first official duty was to witness, with the Senate, the inauguration of General Grant as President of the United States. I stood near the same spot from which, eight years before, I had witnessed the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln — a remarkable contrast, — then the anxious patriot, in the hour of stress, with pathetic tenderness appealing to the wayward children of the nation, now the victorious soldier speaking in the name of the restored national authority. General Grant's inaugural address, evidently his own work, was somewhat crude in style, but breathed a rugged honesty of purpose. With particular rigor it emphasized our obligations to the national creditor — in striking contrast to Mr. Johnson's last annual message, which had stopped little short of advising downright repudiation. On the whole, General Grant's accession to the presidency was welcomed by almost everybody with a sense of relief. It put an end to the unseemly, not to say scandalous, brawl between the executive and the legislative branches of the National Government, which at times came near threatening the peace of the country. It was justly expected to restore the Government to its proper dignity and to furnish, if not a brilliant, at least a highly decent and efficient business administration. As General Grant had really not owed his nomination to any set of politicians, nor even, strictly speaking, to his identification with a political party, he enjoyed an independence of position which gave him peculiarly favorable possibilities for emancipating the public service from the grasp of the spoils politician, and the friends of civil service reform looked up to him with great hope.
His personal popularity was then at its meridian. The great services he had rendered to the country as a soldier received unstinted appreciation. With regard to him the Republic was certainly not ungrateful. Citizens of every rank or condition vied with one another in manifesting their sense of thankful obligation to him by showering upon him presents as well as praise. Everybody wished him well — even his political opponents, who remembered the generosity of his treatment of the defeated enemy, and who were sympathetically touched by the winged word he had sent forth: "Let us have peace!" It was well known that, like General Zachary Taylor, he entered upon the high duties of the presidency without any political experience; but there was widespread, if not general, confidence that his native good sense would guide him aright, or, if that should ever fail, the best of the wisdom and patriotism of the land would be sympathetically at his elbow to help him over his troubles. Thus everything apparently tended to smooth his path, and a period of comparative political quiet seemed to be in prospect.
Considering General Grant's past career, such anticipations were apt to be somewhat oversanguine, for it was not unnatural that in the absolute absence of political experience he should not only have had much to learn concerning the nature, and conduct of civil government, but that he should also have had much to unlearn of the mental habits and the ways of thinking he had acquired in the exercise of large, indeed, almost unlimited, military command. This was strikingly illustrated by some remarkable incidents.
ALEXANDER T. STEWART
As usual the nominations made by the President for Cabinet offices were promptly ratified by the Senate without being referred to any committee. But after this had been done, it was remembered and reported to President Grant, that one of the nominees so confirmed, Mr. A. T. Stewart, of New York, whom President Grant had selected for the Secretaryship of the Treasury, as a person engaged in commerce, was disqualified by one of the oldest laws on the statute book — in fact, the act of September 2, 1789, establishing the Treasury Department. That this law, which provided that the Treasury Department, having the administration of the custom houses under its control, should not have at its head a merchant or importer in active business, was an entirely proper, indeed, a necessary one, had never been questioned. The next morning, March 6th, I had occasion to call upon President Grant for the purpose of presenting to him a congratulatory message from certain citizens of St. Louis. I found him alone engaged in writing something on a half sheet of note paper. "Mr. President," I said, "I see you are busy, and I do not wish to interrupt you. My business can wait." "Never mind," he answered, "I am only writing a message to the Senate." My business was quickly disposed of, and I withdrew. In the course of that day's session of the Senate a message from the President was brought in, by which, after quoting the statute of September 2, 1789, the President "asked that Mr. Stewart be exempted by joint resolution of the two Houses of Congress from the operation of the law" which stood in Mr. Stewart's way. There were some signs of surprise among Senators when the message was read, but Mr. Sherman at once "asked unanimous consent to introduce a bill" in accordance with the President's wish. But Mr. Sumner objected to the immediate consideration thereof because of its great importance. This stopped further proceedings, and the bill was laid on the table never to be heard of again. However, the President's message had evidently made an impression, and there was forthwith a little council held in the cloakroom which agreed that some Senator should without delay go to see Mr. Elihu B. Washburne, the new Secretary of State, who was General Grant's intimate friend and who was urgently to be asked to suggest to the President that, while there was now perfect good feeling all round, it would be prudent for him to drop Mr. Stewart and to abstain from demanding the suspension or the repeal of good laws which he found in his way. Whether Mr. Washburne did carry this admonition to President Grant, I do not know. Probably he did; for Mr. Stewart was promptly dropped. Mr. Boutwell, of Massachusetts, was made Secretary of the Treasury in Mr. Stewart's place, and the repeal or suspension of the old law was never again heard of.
So this incident passed over harmless. But the cloak-room of the Senate, where Senators amused one another with the gossip of the day, continued to buzz with anecdotes about President Grant's curious notions of the nature and functions of civil government. One of those anecdotes told by a Senator who was considered one of the best lawyers in that body, and one of the most jealous of the character of his profession, was particularly significant. He heard a rumor that President Grant was about to remove a Federal judge in one of the Territories of the United States. The Senator happened to know that judge as a lawyer of excellent ability and uncommon fitness for the bench, and he went to the President to remonstrate against so extreme a measure as the removal of a judge unless there were cogent reasons for it connected with the administration of the office. President Grant admitted, that as far as he knew, there was no allegation of the unfitness of the judge as a judge, "but," he added, "the Governor of the Territory writes me that he cannot get along with that judge at all, and is very anxious to be rid of him; and, I think, the Governor is entitled to have control of his staff." The Senator closed his story by saying that he found it to be a delicate as well as a difficult job to make the great General in the chair of the President of the United States understand how different the relations between a territorial governor and a Federal judge were from those between a military commander and his staff officers. The anecdote was received by the listeners with a laugh, but the mirth was not far from head-shaking apprehension. However, there being sincere and perfect good will on both sides, things went on pleasantly in the expectation that the military hero at the head of the government would learn what he needed to know, and that the men in political places of power would treat him with due consideration and fairness.
It was a few days later when I met President Grant at an evening reception given by Colonel Forney, the Secretary of the Senate. I was somewhat surprised when I saw the President coming toward me from the opposite side of the room, saying: "Senator, you have not called to see me at the White House for some time, and I have been wanting to speak to you." All I could say in response was that I was very sorry to have missed a conversation I might have had with him, but that I knew him to be a busy man who should not be robbed of his time by merely conventional visits. He repeated that he wished very much to see me. Would I not call upon him at my earliest convenience some evening? I put myself at once at his service, and went to the White House the next night. He received me in the library room and invited me to sit with him on a sofa. He plunged forthwith into the subject he had at heart. "I hear you are a member of the Senate Committee that has the San Domingo treaty under consideration," he said, "and I wish you would support that treaty. Won't you do that?" I thought it would be best not to resort to any circumlocution in answering so point-blank a summons, but to be entirely frank. I said I would be sincerely happy to act with his administration whenever and wherever I conscientiously could, but in this case, I was sorry to confess, I was not able to do as he wished, because I was profoundly convinced it would be against the best interests of the Republic. Then I gave him some of my dominant reasons; in short, acquisition and possession of such tropical countries with indigestible, unassimilable populations would be highly obnoxious to the nature of our republican system of government; it would greatly aggravate the racial problems we had already to contend with; those tropical islands would, owing to their climatic conditions, never be predominantly settled by people of Germanic blood; this federative republic could not without dangerously vitiating its vital principles, undertake to govern them by force, while the populations inhabiting them could not be trusted with a share in governing our country; to the difficulties we had under existing circumstances to struggle with in our Southern States, much greater and more enduring difficulties would be added; and for all this the plan offered absolutely no compensating advantages. Moreover, the conversations I had had with Senators convinced me, that the treaty had no chance to receive the two-thirds vote necessary for its confirmation, and I sincerely regretted to see his administration expose itself to a defeat which, as I thought, was inevitable.
I spoke with the verve of sincere conviction, and at first the President listened to me with evident interest, looking at me as if the objections to the treaty which I expressed were quite new to him and made an impression upon his mind. But after a little while I noticed that his eyes wandered about the room, and I became doubtful whether he listened to me at all. When I had stopped, he sat silent for a minute or two. I, of course, sat silent too, waiting for him to speak. At last he said in a perfectly calm tone as if nothing had happened: "Well, I hope you will at least vote for the confirmation of Mr. Jones, whom I have selected for a foreign mission."
I was very much taken aback by this turn of the conversation. Who was Mr. Jones? If the President had sent his nomination into the Senate it had escaped me. I had not heard of a Mr. Jones as a nominee for a foreign mission. What could I say? The President's request that I should vote for Mr. Jones sounded so child-like and guileless, at the same time implying an apprehension that I might not vote for the confirmation of Mr. Jones, which he had evidently much at heart, that I was sincerely sorry that I could not promptly answer "Yes." I should have been happy to please the President. But I had to tell him the truth. So I gathered myself together and replied that I knew nothing of Mr. Jones, either by personal knowledge or by report; that it was the duty of the Committee on Foreign Relations to inquire into the qualifications for diplomatic service of the persons nominated for foreign missions and to report accordingly to the Senate, and that if Mr. Jones was found to possess those qualifications, it would give me the most genuine pleasure to vote for him. — This closed the conference.
A few days later there was a meeting of the Committee on Foreign Relations. After having disposed of some other business, Charles Sumner, its chairman, said in his usual grave tone: "Here is the President's nomination of Mr. Jones for the mission to Brussels. Can any member of the Committee give us any information concerning Mr. Jones?" There was a moment's silence. Then Senator Morton, of Indiana, a sarcastic smile flickering over his face — I see him now before me — replied: "Well, Mr. Jones is about the most elegant gentleman that ever presided over a livery stable." The whole committee, except Mr. Sumner, broke out in a laugh. Sumner, with unbroken gravity, asked whether any other member of the Committee could give any further information. There was none. Whereupon Mr. Sumner suggested that the nomination be laid over for further inquiry, which was done.
At a subsequent meeting the Committee took up the case of Mr. Jones again. It was a matter of real embarrassment to every one of us. We all wished to avoid hurting the feelings of President Grant. There had been no malice in Senator Morton's remark about the elegant gentleman presiding over a livery stable. Morton was one of the staunchest administration men, but he simply could not resist the humor of the occasion. I do not recollect what the result of the "further inquiry" was. I have a vague impression that Mr. Jones turned out to be in some way connected with the street-car lines in Chicago, and to have had much to do with horses, which was supposed to be the link of sympathy between him and President Grant. However reluctant the Committee was to wound the President's feelings in so personal a matter, yet it did not think it consistent with its sense of duty and dignity positively to recommend to the Senate to confirm the nomination of Mr. Jones. It, therefore, if I remember rightly, reported it back to the Senate without any recommendation, whereupon the Senate indulgently ratified it.