Great Leaders and National Issues of 1896/Chapter 8/Carlisle
John Griffin Carlisle
Secretary of the Treasury—Great Advocate of Sound Money
John Griffin Carlisle was born September 5, 1834, in Campbell (now Kenton) county, Kentucky. His father, Lilbon H. Carlisle, was a farmer in a small way, who inherited a portion of the Carlisle farm, situated a few miles from Covington. The family originally came from Virginia.
John Griffin was a studious boy, but considered indolent. He did not take kindly to manual labor, but was fond of books. He attended the public schools and received few educational advantages. That he improved his time is proved by the fact that while he was in his teens he was a successful teacher, but he had made up his mind to become a lawyer, and in 1855 he entered as a law student the office of John W. Stevenson, at Covington. The father of Stevenson was Speaker of the House of Representatives and the son afterwards became Governor of Kentucky and United States Senator.
In 1858, at the age of twenty-three, Carlisle was admitted to the bar. He quickly demonstrated that he was the possessor of a powerful and logical mind, and his success was assured from the first. In the following year, he was elected to the lower House of the Kentucky Legislature. During the civil war, Mr. Carlisle was a Union man, though, as he states, not an aggressive one. He practiced his profession while the fighting was going on.
In 1866 he was elected State Senator and resigned in 1871, during a second term, to become Lieutenant-Governor. Five years later, he was elected to the National House of Representatives, and was Speaker from 1883 to 1889. He remained in the House until 1890, when he was chosen United States Senator, to succeed Senator Beck, who had died. This office he resigned at the solicitation of President Cleveland, whose Cabinet he entered in March, 1893, as Secretary of the Treasury.
Such in brief is the public career of this distinguished son of Kentucky, a gentleman who to-day is one of the most remarkable men and influential politicians in the Union. The appropriateness of his selection by President Cleveland was recognized in every quarter, for from Mr. Carlisle's first appearance in Congress, in 1879, he was accepted as authority on finance, and was the most successful leader that the Democrats have had since the war. The legislation of the three Houses over which he presided was unusually creditable. In the Fifty-first Congress, he succeeded in so weakening protectionist opposition that the Mills bill was passed, though his party had been unable to unite on the Morrison bill.
It was Mr. Carlisle's report which in 1879 resulted in the revision of the excise laws and an equitable system of taxation. In 1881 he introduced an amendment which limited the power of the national banks to surrender circulation and protected the Treasury and the business of the country from the assaults which have been made by banks whenever there was a threatened reduction in the interest on the public bonds held by them.
Mr. Carlisle is six feet in height, with smooth-shaven face, bright blue eyes, and his appearance suggests that of a prelate of the Roman Catholic Church. He is the pink of courtesy, and has been seen to give up his seat in a street car to a colored woman with as much grace as the late General Jo Johnston showed upon similar occasions. His voice is pleasant, and he is an attentive listener, with a heart so kind that his break-down when Speaker was caused by his constant efforts to help the members who came to consult him regarding their bills. If he is lacking in one thing, it seems to be the power to refuse a favor, through his dread of hurting the applicant's feelings or doing him an injustice. All such persons reap the penalty of their open-heartedness, and Secretary Carlisle is to-day a poor man, far different from many who have held public office.
The story is told of him that when a blubbering Kentuckian, as he called himself, begged for enough money to take himself and family home, after they had been robbed, the Secretary handed him fifty dollars. A half hour later, the same man and half a dozen drunken companions rode past the Secretary's house, whooping and enjoying themselves to their fullest bent.
Some of the Secretary's habits are not to be commended. He takes no exercise whatever. If his carriage does not call for him, he boards the street car for his home. It has been said that the only possible exercise he gets is when the street car is so full that he has to hang fast to a strap.
His Most Remarkable Characteristic
But the most remarkable characteristic of Secretary Carlisle remains to be mentioned. It is his wonderful mental grasp of complicated questions, a power which seems to be in the nature of intuition. He will run through a mass of papers and extract the kernel, when other lawyers have only begun their investigation. He will sit toying with a pack of cards and play solitaire, without making an error in the game and dictate the most important letters. After fifty such letters have been written he will listen to their re-reading, and, if a single word has been inadvertently changed, he will detect it as quick as a flash. His skill in this respect is almost incredible. Major McKinley once remarked of him that he never had a clouded thought, and the facetious Senator Joe Blackburn said:
“Carlisle is not entitled to half as much credit as I am. What I know I have had to study, dig, grub, and toil for. Carlisle knows four times as much as I do. He has all the wisdom of the ancients and the moderns packed away in his head, and whenever he opens his mouth great things and good things naturally roll out of it. He isn't entitled to any credit for them. He can't help it. He was born that way.”
Secretary Carlisle has long been the confidential adviser and intimate friend of President Cleveland. He has a charming home and is devoted to it. He was married January 15, 1857, to Miss Mary Jane Goodson, belonging to a prominent family of Kentucky. His son, Lilbon Logan, is his private secretary and is unmarried. His other son, William K., is married and has two or three small children with him at his home in the West. Both sons are bright and successful lawyers. Mrs. Carlisle is her husband's helpmate, looking after his health, not always a slight matter, and giving her aid and counsel in many important matters, while the husband, with all his wisdom and ability, fully appreciates the inestimable service which such a wife is often able to render even in questions of public affairs and of state matters.