The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz/Volume Two/3 Beginnings in Politics
WHEN we arrived in America, in May, 1856, the public mind seemed to be in a state of high political animation. The hotels and the railroad cars and the steamboat decks were buzzing with eager discussions of the slavery question and the impending presidential campaign, which were not seldom enlivened by bitter attacks from Democrats upon those who had left the Democratic party to join the new Republican organization, then entering upon its first national contest. Of that bitterness of partisan spirit I had already received a taste on the steamer which several months before had carried us to Europe. I met there a Democratic politician from one of the Western States who had been appointed by President Pierce as American Consul at one of the German ports. He seemed to be a good-natured, bright, and jovial person, and we had many pleasant walks on deck together. But when our conversation turned on American politics, his brows contracted, his eyes shot fire, and I remember distinctly the expression of malignant, hissing disgust with which that otherwise jolly good fellow would ejaculate: "Of all men the most contemptible is the Democrat who deserts his party to join the Black Republicans." He was evidently very much in earnest, and it puzzled me greatly how he could be.
My German neighbors in Watertown, Wisconsin, were almost all Democrats. As a rule, the foreign immigrants had drifted into the Democratic party, which presented itself to them as the protector of the political rights of the foreign-born population, while the Whigs were suspected of "nativistic" tendencies, hostile to the foreign born. Although these nativistic tendencies were in fact directed more against the Irish than against the Germans, the feeling that their rights were in danger was, at the time, much sharpened among the Germans, too, by brutal excesses that were being committed in various places against the foreign born by the rough element of the native population, and by the springing up of the "Know-nothing" organization, which was set on foot for the declared purpose of excluding the foreign born from participation in political power. The attachment of the foreign born, and among them the Germans, to the Democratic party was, therefore, not at all unnatural, and although the Germans were at heart opposed to slavery, yet their anxiety about their own rights outweighed, for the time, all other considerations, and served to keep them in the Democratic ranks. Sitting on a dry-goods box in front of one of the stores on the "Main Street" of Watertown, I had many an arduous, but, of course, good-natured talk on the political situation with groups of fellow-townsmen, without, however, at first accomplishing much more for the anti-slavery cause than that I occasionally called forth a serious shaking of heads or an admission that the slavery question was indeed a matter very much worth thinking about.
But what I read in the newspapers of the invasions of the Territory of Kansas by the pro-slavery "border ruffians" of Missouri, and of their high-handed and bloody attempts to subjugate the Free-State settlers there, deeply agitated me. In June, the national conventions of the great political parties were held. That of the Democrats met at Cincinnati, in its platform approved the opening of the Territories to slavery under the guise of "popular sovereignty," and nominated Buchanan and Breckinridge as its candidates; that of the young Republican party met at Philadelphia, in its platform demanded the exclusion of slavery from the Territories that had been dedicated to freedom, reaffirmed the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and nominated, as its standard-bearers, Frémont of California and Dayton of New Jersey. The Republican platform sounded to me like a bugle-call of liberty, and the name of Frémont, "the Pathfinder," surrounded by a halo of adventurous heroism, mightily stirred the imagination. Thus the old cause of human freedom was to be fought for on the soil of the new world. The great final decision seemed to be impending.
I was eager to take part in the contest. But at the same time a feeling came upon me that I was still sadly incompetent for the task. I had indeed studied the slavery question in its various aspects to the best of my ability. But every step in widening my knowledge painfully convinced me that I had very much more to learn. I had no experience in American politics. My acquaintance with public men was extremely limited. Would I not, when standing before the public, sometimes find myself speaking of things of which I knew very little or nothing? How could I expect to be able to answer the questions that might be put to me? While I was in that troubled state of mind, I was surprised by the visit of a gentleman I had never heard of. It was Mr. Harvey, a member of the State Senate of Wisconsin, one of the Republican leaders — (the same Mr. Harvey who subsequently was elected Governor of Wisconsin during the Civil War, and found his death in the Mississippi River when visiting Wisconsin troops in the field). I was very much astonished and felt myself greatly honored when I was told how distinguished a public man my visitor was. I found in him a gentleman of agreeable manners and persuasive address, and he told me in most winning tones that he had heard of me as a person of education sympathizing with the anti-slavery cause, and that he thought I could render valuable service in the pending campaign. I frankly revealed to him my mental trouble about the insufficiency of my equipment for such a task. He ventured to "guess" that I probably knew more about the question at issue than many of those who were publicly discussing it, and he asked me whether I would not make a little speech in German at a mass-meeting to be held in a few days at Jefferson, a country town near by. No, I could not think of it, for I was not prepared. Would I not, then, at least come and hear him speak at that meeting? Of course I would, with great pleasure. So I went, without the slightest anticipation of what was to happen. It was an open-air meeting, attended by a large crowd of country people. Mr. Harvey invited me to a seat on the platform and introduced me to the local magnates. He spoke with uncommon eloquence. His arguments were lucid, logical, and strong, and he closed with an exceedingly impressive peroration. When the applause following his speech had subsided, the chairman of the meeting coolly rose and said: "I have now the great pleasure of introducing Mr. Carl Schurz of Watertown, who has fought for human liberty in his native country and who has come to us to do the same in his adopted home, etc., etc. He will address his fellow citizens of German birth in their own native language." Well, well! I felt myself blush all over; but what could I do? I stammered a few initial words about the entirely unexpected honor, and then, for half an hour or more I blurted out what happened to come into my mind about the slavery question, about the significance of the decision to be rendered, and about the duty we had to perform as American citizens to this Republic, and as citizens of the world to mankind. After the first sentences the words came easily and my hearers seemed to be well pleased. This was my first political speech in America. The ice was broken. Mr. Harvey triumphed over my diffidence. Invitations to address meetings poured in upon me from all sides and kept me busy during the whole campaign.
I did not yet trust myself to make a public speech in English, and therefore in that campaign addressed only German audiences in their own language. But I gathered very valuable experiences in coming face to face with a great variety of human beings which gave me ample opportunity for studying their ways of thinking and the motives which would be likely to govern their action, and also for weighing the different available methods to reach their minds and hearts by argument and appeal. I met simple-minded farmers in little country schoolhouses or court-rooms, — men who so far had more or less passively followed the accustomed party lead, and were slow to change, but who honestly and earnestly meant to find out what was right and how to do it, and who sat before me with serious faces, not seldom with a puzzled expression when I happened to say something they had never thought of; men who would listen quietly without giving any sign of assent or dissent, except an occasional nod or shake of the head, and who, when, after the close of the speech, applause came forth, would join in it, sometimes heartily, sometimes with timid reticence, and sometimes not at all. I met quick-witted townspeople who had been more or less used to political activity and were acquainted with the current language of political discussion, and who would promptly grasp the point of an argument or the catch-words or battle-cries of party and instantly respond with applause or signs of disapproval. I met the ingrained partisans of the opposite creed who would, some from personal interest, some from mere traditional prejudice, stubbornly, close their ears and minds to every argument going against their side, and vociferously, not seldom with a sort of fanatical ferocity, resent and repel everything that seemed to threaten the power or prestige of their party, and who, in some instances, had established a sort of partisan lordship and sought to exercise a political terrorism over their neighbors.
Such persons would denounce me as an impudent young intruder who, having but recently come to this country, dared to invade the circle of their influence and to teach older citizens how to vote. They tried by all sorts of means, even by threats, to keep people away from my meetings. They interrupted my speeches by cat-calls and other disturbing noises. Occasionally they went even so far as to break the windows of the halls in which I spoke by throwing stones or other even more disagreeable missiles. Thus I had in my first campaign to meet party spirit in a form not only unfair but positively brutal. This disquieted me not a little. I was conscious of meaning no harm to anybody and of having no selfish ends in view. The cause I advocated seemed to me self-evidently right and just — the cause of liberty, of human rights, of free government, in which all men had a common and equal interest. I advocated that cause with arguments the correctness of which I was profoundly convinced of and which I thought must irresistibly appeal to the reason and the sense of justice and the patriotism of every fair-minded citizen. The same cause was advocated by a large number of high-minded and patriotic men who for this purpose had cut loose from their old party associations. The arguments brought forward by the other side appeared to my unsophisticated mind simply barbarous and revolting, direct insults to the spirit of the century, so far as they were intended to justify the institution of human slavery, or merely quibbling as they insisted upon constitutional obstacles to the exclusion of slavery from the Territories, or pusillanimous as they pictured the danger of disunion which any policy unfavorable to slavery would bring forth. That under such circumstances mere party spirit, unable to meet the advocates of right and justice and free government on the field of fair discussion, should with stubborn tenacity stick to party interest, defending it even with brutal violence, and showing itself capable of sacrificing to it the highest principles and the most precious goods of humanity — this struck me as monstrous, appalling, and in the highest degree dangerous to free institutions.
These impressions made me shape my speeches so that they were arguments for my cause, not for a party — or only in so far for my party as it was a means to further my cause — unceasingly admonishing my hearers not to be mere blind followers of any leadership, whatever its name might be, but to think for themselves, honestly seeking to discover what was right and best for the common welfare, not indeed to reject advice, but to weigh it and then courageously to do that which, according to their conscientiously formed convictions, would be most apt to serve the cause of justice and the true interests of the country. This injunction I constantly repeated in endless variations. Little did I foresee then what fateful part this way of thinking, which I then thought was the most natural for a public man, would play in my political career.
On the whole, the campaign of 1856 was to me a very happy experience while the contest was going on. There is an exhilarating inspiration in the consciousness of standing for a good cause, in being entirely right in one's fight, and of doing some service, be it ever so little. It belongs to the most genuine felicities of life; and that felicity I heartily enjoyed. How many votes I won for Frémont, I do not know. But I was so thoroughly convinced of the justice of my cause and of the truthfulness of my arguments that I thought I must have won many. I was so confident of the irresistible power of truth and justice on our side that I did not permit myself to entertain any doubt of Frémont's success. Indeed the result of the State elections in the so-called October States, especially in Pennsylvania and Indiana, was sufficient to stagger my sanguine assurance. Still, I could not, and did not, give up hope. Would not a redoubled effort in those October States give us the victory after all? How could such a cause as ours fail? Impossible! It could not be. And yet it did. When after the November election the returns had all come in — I would not abandon hope until I had seen them all — and our defeat was certain, I felt as if I had suffered an immeasurable personal misfortune. It was a stunning blow. Was not this like the disastrous breakdown of the great movement for popular government on the European continent in 1848? Was the democratic principle to collapse in America too? It took me some time to recover from my bewilderment and to recognize the fact that this was only the first battle in a long campaign, a campaign of many years; that we could hardly have expected the new party of liberty to be victorious in its first onset upon a splendidly organized and drilled force with all the influences of long habit and the power of the Government behind it, and that faithful and persistent effort on our part would surely give us the final triumph. And so my distress turned into a fervid longing for the next opportunity to do service.
I continued to like and enjoy the freshness, simplicity and buoyant freedom of Western life, and I was happy to find that Margaretha, who had grown up in surroundings so very different, not only accommodated herself to its condition, but entered into it with the most cheerful humor. Our place of residence was at that time a typical Western town in every sense — a business street pretty compactly built, filled with stores, work-shops, taverns and a few drinking-saloons; the dwellings somewhat scattered, most of them surrounded with little garden plots, with modest beginnings of ornamentation and arrangements for comfort. The population was a medley of various nationalities, native Americans from New York State or New England being few in comparison with the Germans, Irish, Bohemians, Danes, French. The German element predominated. There were no people among them that might have been called very poor, and only few that possessed more than a moderate share of wealth. The number of well-educated persons was not large, but there were none entirely illiterate. And as is usually the case in new settlements, there was no lack of quaint characters. All these elements mingled together on an equal and friendly footing, all hoping to rise in fortune and social advantages, none despairing because they had not as much as others, and everyone listened to who had anything sensible to say. There were few efforts at ambitious display. I remember only the wife of a well-to-do business man, a native American, who would appear on horseback dressed in a red velveteen riding habit and a gorgeously plumed hat, the horse's head being decorated with a wreath of flowers. She was good-naturedly laughed at and forgiven. We had a singing society to which everybody having a voice and a somewhat musical ear belonged. Rehearsals and concerts were held in a public hall and were directed by a local piano teacher. My wife, sister, and an aunt — the last educated in music — were all among the performers. I remember especially one of the concerts at which the air in the hall grew hot and, when the singers wished to moisten their lips, a boy appeared with a pail of water and a tin dipper which was handed around to the merry satisfaction of all. And when a traveling company of players honored the town with a visit, a stage was quickly improvised in the same hall, and everybody came to enjoy the spectacles which nobody was disposed to criticise unnecessarily, although some of us remembered that we had seen better things.
I had built a modest but pretty comfortable cottage on a little farm which I had bought in the outskirts of the town. My wife, being the kindest and loveliest of hostesses, made our house a sort of social center for the large circle of our relatives living near and a number of persons of agreeable conversation whom we had gathered around us. We were also sometimes visited by friends from the East. Thus we never lacked company, even during the hard Wisconsin winter; and aside from lively talks about politics, and philosophy, and the various news of the day, and personal affairs, we had social dinners and suppers, very informal and simple ones, to be sure, as well as evening parties with music, and sometimes with charades and living pictures. Even a masked ball was once ventured upon which was long remembered as a great success. While the dresses were not gorgeous, some of them were intentionally comical, and others no less comical by the seriousness of their ambition. The company enjoyed themselves so intensely that the dawn of day came unawares upon them, and, there having been a heavy snow-fall during the night, we had to carry the maskers back to their homes in installments on our big farm wagon, much to the amused astonishment of the townspeople who meanwhile had got out of their beds and saw the strange apparitions of knights, Turks, monks, harlequins, odalisks, shepherdesses, etc., pass by shivering in the morning frost.
Life in the small Western town naturally lacked a great many of the enjoyments which, in the older and larger cities, are furnished by accumulated wealth and advanced culture. But that lack was not grievously felt as a positive privation, in those young and youthful communities, even by persons who had seen much of the civilized world, if they only identified themselves with their surroundings sufficiently to take a sympathetic and active interest in the thinkings and doings of the persons with whom they came in contact. People flocked together from every point of the compass to find happiness in new conditions still to be formed, with conceits of often crude, but sometimes very striking originality — all busily scheming and striving to build up something better than they had found, animated with all sorts of ambitions, some of which were naturally doomed to disappointment, but such disappointments were usually followed by new hopes and new cheer. There were, of course, in that kind of society some things that might have been called rude and were not altogether palatable to a refined taste; but there was, on the other hand, no hard and fast and inviolable tradition, nothing discouragingly sterile and stagnant, but everywhere the exhilarating inspiration of an activity creating something, of growth, of endeavor upward. And this was to me, and to those with me, an ample compensation for the enjoyments of civilized life which we had to do without.
During the second summer I lived in that Western town we went through a financial crisis which swept over the whole country like a whirlwind — the crisis of 1857. In my immediate neighborhood the effects were very curious. Wisconsin like many other States was infected with "wild-cat banks" and their note issues. A considerable number of these banks broke and their notes became worthless. Money grew suddenly so scarce with us that a man possessing ten dollars in coin or in notes of a solvent bank might call himself a capitalist. Many of the ordinary transactions of daily life were actually carried on by barter — the exchange of products and other things of value. It was a favorite jest with us that we might have to ask our butcher to accept as payment a table and to return our change in the shape of chairs. Many of the business men of our little city became unable to meet their obligations and had to make assignments. Indeed, the making of assignments was so much the order of the day that men familiarly asked one another on the street whether they had already made, or when they were going to make theirs. Gradually all feeling of bashful embarassment, all shamefacedness about such things vanished, and bankruptcy appeared to be the natural condition of business men who owed any money. Nor was there any atmosphere of gloom about it in our community. As nobody had — or was permitted — to suffer as to his breakfast and dinner, the whole affair seemed rather to be taken as a freak of fortune, a huge joke for which nobody was responsible. To be sure, in the larger cities, and especially the great business-centers, the effects of the collapse were very serious. There was not only much commercial embarrassment of a disastrous nature and many sudden lapses from wealth to poverty, but among the laboring people, real distress and suffering. With us, too, many business men found themselves entangled in difficulties which in other surroundings would have gravely troubled them and made them put on long faces, but if any of our neighbors felt anxiety in secret, they did not express it in public. The general humor of the situation made everybody laugh, and whatever there may have been of concealed depression of spirits did not spread. Moreover the crisis did not last long. The relations between debtor and creditor in our community were presently adjusted, generally in an amicable manner, and after a little while the "time without money," as we called it, was remembered as an amusing episode.
One of the most interesting experiences of life in those young Western communities, with not a few of which I became well acquainted, was the observation of the educational influence exercised by active local self-government. I met there a great many foreign-born persons who in their native countries had been accustomed to look up to the government as a superior power which, in the order of the universe, was ordained to do everything — or nearly everything — for them, and to whose superhuman wisdom and indisputable authority they had to submit. Such people, of course, brought no conception of the working of democratic institutions with them, and there is sometimes much speculation on the part of our political philosophers as to how the new-comers can safely be entrusted here with any rights or privileges permitting them to participate in the functions of government. In point of fact, there will be very little, if any, serious trouble whenever such people are placed in a situation in which they will actually be obliged to take an active and responsible part in the government respecting those affairs which immediately concern them — things in which they are intimately interested. Plant such persons in communities which are still in an inchoate, formative state, where the management of the public business, in the directest possible way, visibly touches the home of every inhabitant, and where everybody feels himself imperatively called upon to give attention to it for the protection or promotion of his own interests, and people ever so little used to that sort of thing will take to democratic self-government as a duck takes to water. They may do so somewhat clumsily at first and make grievous mistakes, but those very mistakes with their disagreeable consequences will serve to sharpen the wits of those who desire to learn — which every person of average intelligence who feels himself responsible for his own interests, desires to do. In other words, practice upon one's own responsibility is the best — if not the only school of self-government. What is sometimes called the "art of self-government" is not learned by masses of people theoretically, nor even by the mere presentation of other people's experiences by way of instructive example. Practice is the only really effective teacher. Other methods of instruction will rather retard, if not altogether prevent, the development of the self-governing capacity because they will serve to weaken the sense of responsibility and self-reliance. This is the reason why there is not an instance in history of a people having been successfully taught to govern themselves, by a tutelary power acting upon the principle that its wards should not be given the power of self-government until they had shown themselves fit for it.
Such teaching of self-government by a superior authority is but seldom undertaken in good faith, the teacher usually not wishing to relinquish his power. But even when it is undertaken in good faith, the teacher is usually disinclined to recognize at any time that the pupil is able to stand on his own feet. And this for apparently good reason: for the pupil will either have no chance to demonstrate his capacity, or if he be permitted to experiment on a limited scale, he will, of course, make mistakes, and these mistakes will serve as proof of incapacity, while in fact the freedom to make mistakes and to suffer from their consequences is the very school in which he might receive the most effective instruction.
In discussing the merits of self-government we are apt to commit the error of claiming that self-government furnishes the best possible, that is the wisest and at the same time most economical kind of government, as to the practical administration of public affairs, for it does not. There is no doubt that a despot, if he be supremely wise, absolutely just, benevolent, and unselfish, would furnish a community, as far as the practical working of the administrative machinery goes, better government than the majority of the citizens subject to changeable currents of public opinion — in all things except one. But this one thing is of the highest importance. Self-government as an administrator is subject to criticism for many failures. But it is impossible to overestimate self-government as an educator. The foreign observer in America is at once struck by the fact that the average of intelligence, as that intelligence manifests itself in the spirit of inquiry, in the interest taken in a great variety of things, and in alertness of judgment, is much higher among the masses here than anywhere else. This is certainly not owing to any superiority of the public school system in this country — or, if such superiority exists, not to that alone — but rather to the fact that here the individual is constantly brought into interested contact with a greater variety of things, and is admitted to active participation in the exercise of functions which in other countries are left to the care of a superior authority. I have frequently been struck by the remarkable expansion of the horizon effected by a few years of American life, in the minds of immigrants who had come from somewhat benighted regions, and by the mental enterprise and keen discernment with which they took hold of problems which, in their comparatively torpid condition in their native countries, they had never thought of. It is true that, in our large cities with congested population, self-government as an educator does not always bring forth the most desirable results, partly owing to the circumstance that government, in its various branches, is there further removed from the individual, so that he comes into contact with it and exercises his influence upon it only through various, and sometimes questionable, intermediary agencies, which frequently exert a very demoralizing influence. But my observations and experiences in the young West, although no doubt I saw not a few things to be regretted, on the whole greatly strengthened my faith in the democratic principle. It was with a feeling of religious devotion that I took part in Fourth of July celebrations, the principal feature of which then consisted in the solemn reading of the Declaration of Independence before the assembled multitude, and the principal charm the anti-slavery cause had to me consisted in its purpose to make the principles proclaimed by that Declaration as true in the universality of practical application as they were true in theory. And there was the realization of the ideal I had brought with me from the luckless struggles for free government in my native land.
The years I spent on our farm in Watertown, Wisconsin, were, taking it all in all, very happy. Perhaps we, my wife and I, should not have liked Western life so much had we not been young. But we were young, — blessed with health and high spirits, enjoying heartily the simple pleasures of our existence; full of cheery hope for the future, always disposed to look at the bright or at least the humorous side of everything, and bent upon appreciating what we had instead of uselessly pining for what we had not. And the brightness and warmth of our sunshine was increased by the advent of a second daughter.
So I continued my study of law and of the political and social history and conditions of the country with the expectation of taking, before long, a position at the bar and of serving the good cause on the political field.
In the autumn of 1857, the Republicans of Watertown sent me as a delegate to the Republican State Convention that had to nominate candidates for the State offices. A great surprise awaited me there. I found that the leading party managers had selected me as the Republican candidate for the office of Lieutenant Governor. It was no doubt the work of my friend Senator Harvey. I cannot say that I was without ambition, and the nomination for the Lieutenant Governorship was an honorable distinction which I could not fail to appreciate. It flattered me greatly. But I was not at ease. I really did not desire official position at that time, and I seriously doubted my ability to discharge the duties of the place with credit. Moreover, I was not yet a citizen of the United States, lacking a few weeks of the five years required for the title to full citizenship. But I was told that I need not trouble myself about my fitness for the office, that its duties were not very exacting, and that I could easily acquire the knowledge of parliamentary law to enable me to preside over the State Senate. And as to the question of citizenship, there was nothing in the Constitution and the laws requiring that a candidate for such an office should be a full citizen; I would have my papers of citizenship when elected, and that was enough. I soon perceived that my nomination was intended as a bid to draw the German vote to the Republican party, and as it would serve the anti-slavery cause, if it had that effect, I accepted.
But I had my misgivings. Would not the nomination of a young and comparatively unknown new-comer for so conspicuous and honorable a place, while it might attract some German voters, displease many voters of American birth? Besides, the thought of making a campaign for my principles in which I had a personal stake as a candidate for office was uncomfortable. The campaign — at least my share in it — was not nearly as spirited as that of 1856, the Frémont campaign, had been. However, it was to me a good exercise, as I then made my first public speeches in English, the peroration of one of which, a somewhat florid piece of oratory, had the honor of being published in some Eastern papers. My misgivings were justified by the result. While the Republican candidate for the Governorship, Mr. Alexander Randall, was elected by a small majority, I was defeated by one hundred and seven votes. Of course, my defeat was a disappointment, but I did not take it much to heart. In fact I accepted it rather as something like a relief which would permit me to continue undisturbed my harmless and enjoyable life on my farm, among my family, my friends, and my books.
But it brought me an experience of a side in political life which at that period was still new to me. I had to learn what it is to be, or at least to be considered, "a man of influence." I thought it a duty of courtesy on my part to be present at Madison, the State capital of Wisconsin, at the inauguration of the new Governor and the opening of the Legislature, which had a Republican majority. No sooner had I arrived there than I was beset by a, to me, surprisingly large number of persons who wanted offices. Many of them told me that of all men I was the one whose aid would positively assure the success of their applications. According to them I had done valuable service to the Republican party; not only that, but I had suffered for it; the Republican party owed me something; it would not deny me anything that I might ask for, nothing could be more reasonable than that I should endorse their claims with strong recommendations, for they were my warm friends and would do anything for me; their fate was therefore absolutely in my hands — etc., etc. I was greatly puzzled. Most of my new "warm friends" were strangers to me, or mere casual acquaintances. I could not possibly judge their comparative merits, and there were several applicants for each place in sight. With the number of applicants grew my perplexity, for I was not yet used to being "a man of influence." Finally I hit upon an expedient. I invited each one of those who had approached me to meet me at my room in the hotel; but I invited them, without their knowing it, all to come at the same time. At the appointed hour, my room was crowded. My visitors who, no doubt, had wished and expected a private interview, were evidently surprised to find so large a company. When they were all assembled I addressed them in substance thus: "Gentlemen, you have done me the honor of asking me to recommend you for office. I am perfectly willing to do so. But there are several applicants for each place. Now, you are certainly all very worthy citizens, fully deserving what you seek. You will admit that I cannot make any invidious discrimination between you. All I can do, therefore, in justice and fairness, is to recommend you all for the places you seek upon a footing of perfect equality." After a moment of silent astonishment, one of them gravely suggested that such a kind of recommendation might not be worth much. Then there was a general laugh and the meeting, in apparent good humor, adjourned sine die. But I fear I made some enemies on that occasion. At any rate I hoped never to be considered "a man of influence" again; but that hope has proved vain.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN [IN 1858]
The year 1858 was one of great developments. It revealed Abraham Lincoln to the American people. The very atmosphere of the country was quivering with excitement. The famous Dred Scott decision, that political pronunciamento coming from the bench of the Federal Supreme Court, which the pro-slavery interest had expected finally to settle the burning question in its favor, only served to shake the moral prestige of the judiciary, and to make the slavery question more than it had been before, a question of power. In Kansas, civil war had been followed by shameless fraud and revolting intrigue. The Free State party there was steadily gaining in numbers and moral strength, but the Federal Administration used its power in the efforts to force slavery upon that Territory so openly and unscrupulously that several of its own officers refused to obey it, and Senator Douglas himself recoiled from the use that was being made of the weapons he had put into the hands of the slave power by his repeal of the Missouri Compromise and his doctrine of "Popular Sovereignty," according to which not Congress, but only the people of a Territory should have the power to exclude slavery therefrom.
STEPHEN A. DOUGLAS IN 1858
There is in our history no more striking example of a political leader falling a victim to his own contrivances. It was a tragedy of highest dramatic interest — Douglas vainly struggling in the coils of fate, or rather of his own doctrines. From 1851 to 1854 the slavery question seemed to be in a quiescent state. Indeed, the eternal antagonism between freedom and slavery was smouldering beneath the surface, but during one of those intervals of torpid conscience which sometimes occur between periods of excited struggle, the surface at least was comparatively calm. Multitudes of people who had felt strongly upon the subject enjoyed a sort of indolent relief in dismissing the slavery question from their thoughts. Then Douglas violently roused the public mind from its temporary lethargy by proposing, in his Nebraska Bill, to sweep away the legal barriers which had shielded certain Territories from the ingress of slavery on the until then unheard-of ground, that such prohibition was adverse to the spirit of the Constitution, and that according to the true principle of "Popular Sovereignty" the people of all the Territories should be left free to exclude slavery or to admit it even if, until then, it had been legally excluded. There was at the time no public call for so startling a measure. The American people had accepted the legal exclusion of slavery from certain Territories in good faith. Even the South — some scheming slavery-propagandists excepted — had acquiesced in it. Why did Douglas advance his disturbing measure? Did he do it, as his friends asserted, because he really thought he could thus put the slavery question to rest? Then he had dreadfully misjudged the character and temper of the American people; for nothing could have been more apt to fan the smouldering embers into a new and furious flame. Did he do it because he believed that so daring a bid for Southern favor as the opening of the Territories to the ingress of slavery was, would open to him an easy road to the presidency? Then he had disastrously miscalculated his chances, for he could not satisfy the greed of the slave-holders for an increase of power without irretrievably forfeiting the favor of the North.
The Dred Scott decision must have made him feel that the two horses he attempted to ride were going in directly opposite directions. That decision declared that Congress had no Constitutional power to prohibit slavery in the Territories and that the slave-holder had, therefore, under the Constitution a right to take his slaves into any Territory and keep them there. The slave-power concluded at once that then the slave-holder was, under the Constitution, entitled to a protection of that right, no matter whether the inhabitants of a Territory liked slavery or not. But what would then become of Douglas's boasted "Popular Sovereignty," which his adherents in the North tried to make people believe would work to keep slavery out of the Territories?
But this theoretical discussion was not all that pestered the "Little Giant." The pro-slavery interest attempted to smuggle Kansas into the Union as a Slave State under the notorious Lecompton Constitution, which had been framed by the pro-slavery minority in Kansas fraudulently organized as a "Convention," had not been submitted to a fair vote of the people, but had been eagerly welcomed by the pro-slavery cabal controlling the Buchanan Administration, and recommended to Congress for acceptance as the rightful constitution of Kansas. This attempt brought Douglas face to face with the question whether he would surrender his principle of "Popular Sovereignty" and the new State of Kansas to the slave-power and thus irretrievably ruin himself at the North, or repudiate the fraud by which Kansas was to be made a Slave State, and thus, just as irretrievably, forfeit the favor of the South, which he had hoped would lift him into the presidential chair. And it so happened that just at that time his term in the Senate expired and he had to appeal to the people of Illinois for a re-election. There he encountered the avenging angel in the person of Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln and Douglas had met in public debate before — that is, the Whigs, and later the Republicans of Illinois, had regarded Lincoln as the fittest man to answer Douglas's speeches on the stump, and he had acted as their spokesman. Only the preceding year, in 1857, when Douglas, in a speech delivered at Springfield, Illinois, had made an attempt to wriggle out of the dilemma in which the Dred Scott decision had entangled him, Lincoln had, a week later, before a popular meeting held at the same place, thrust the sword of his logic through Douglas's adroit sophistries, and incidentally pronounced his famous vindication of the Declaration of Independence which deserves well to be remembered in the presence of latter-day problems. "The assertion that 'all men are created equal' was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain, and it was placed in the Declaration not for that but for future use. Its authors meant it to be, as, thank God, it is now proving itself, a stumbling block to all those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism. They knew the proneness of prosperity to breed tyrants, and they meant when such should reappear in this fair land and commence their vocation, they should find left for them at least one nut hard to crack."
But these discussions had hardly attracted, beyond the boundaries of Illinois, the attention they merited. It was only when the Republican State Convention of Illinois, on the 16th of June, 1858, passed, by unanimous acclamation, a resolve declaring Abraham Lincoln to be "the first and only choice of the Republicans of Illinois for the United States Senate as the successor of Stephen A. Douglas," that the eyes of the whole American people were turned upon the combat between the two men as an action which gravely concerned them all.
It was, however, well known that Lincoln at the time did not have the sympathy and countenance of all Republicans in the country, nor even in his own State. There were some, and among them men of great name and influence, who thought that their party would be more benefited by clever political maneuvering than by a straightforward advocacy of its principles. In the course of my public career I have not seldom met men of ability who prided themselves so much upon their political cunning that they enjoyed those successes most which had been won by wily stratagem, and would, therefore, always prefer the tactics of crafty combination, covert flank-marches, and ambush warfare to the direct method of open appeal to the public conscience and understanding. I am far from saying that the Republicans who disapproved of the nomination of Lincoln against Douglas all belonged to this class. Many of them, such as Horace Greeley, no doubt believed that the anti-slavery cause would be best served by permitting Douglas to be re-elected to the Senate without opposition, since he had refused to follow the ultra-pro-slavery policy of the Buchanan administration, and his re-election would drive a wedge into the Democratic party to break it asunder. But it struck the minds of the more unsophisticated anti-slavery men that Republicans could not support Douglas for re-election without, in a great measure, condoning his conduct and sanctioning his principles, and without perilously demoralizing the anti-slavery movement. It would have been an unholy alliance with the man who but recently had been considered the arch enemy. It would thus have disgraced the virginity of the Republican party beyond the possibility of retrieval. It was a revolting idea to the class of men to which I instinctively belonged, and we, therefore, greeted with enthusiasm Lincoln's declaration before the convention which nominated him, that "our cause must be intrusted to and conducted by its own undoubted friends, those whose hands are free, whose hearts are in the work, who do care for the result." And we cheered his name to the echo when he challenged Douglas to a series of public debates before the assembled people at various places in Illinois. Douglas accepted the challenge. It was indeed the whole American people that listened to those debates. As I said in my "Essay on Abraham Lincoln," written many years afterwards, "the spectacle reminded one of those lays of ancient times telling us of two armies in battle array, standing still to see their two principal champions fight out the contested cause between the lines in single combat."
To be invited to serve as an aid — however humble — to one of those champions, I valued as a high honor; and that honor came to me unexpectedly. The Republican State Committee of Illinois asked me to make some speeches in their campaign, and, obeying that call, I found myself for the first time on a conspicuous field of political action. I was to appear first at a mass meeting in Chicago, and to speak in English. I took the matter very seriously, and resolved to do my best. I did not appeal to the sentimental sympathies of the audience by dilating upon the injustice and cruelties of the system and the suffering of the bondmen, but, in calm language, I sought to set forth the inherent incompatibility of slavery with free institutions of government, the inevitable and far-reaching conflicts which the existence of slavery in a democratic republic was bound to produce, and the necessity of destroying the political power of slavery in our republic if the democratic character of its institutions was to endure. The speech was not original as to its fundamental ideas; but its manner of treating the subject was largely received as something new, and it was published in full not only by the Chicago press but also by several Eastern papers — a distinction of which I was very proud. I then addressed several meetings, mostly German, in the interior of the State, in a similar strain. One of the appointments called me to Quincy on the day when one of the great debates between Lincoln and Douglas was to take place there, and on that occasion I was to meet Abraham Lincoln myself. On the evening before the day of the debate, I was on a railroad train bound for Quincy. The car in which I traveled was full of men who discussed the absorbing question with great animation. A member of the Republican State Committee accompanied me and sat by my side.
SCENE OF THE LINCOLN-DOUGLAS DEBATE AT QUINCY, ILLINOIS
This photograph, taken in 1862, shows at left the public square in which the debate took place.
All at once, after the train had left a way station, I observed a great commotion among my fellow-passengers, many of whom jumped from their seats and pressed eagerly around a tall man who had just entered the car. They addressed him in the most familiar style: "Hello, Abe! How are you?" and so on. And he responded in the same manner: "Good-evening, Ben! How are you, Joe? Glad to see you, Dick!" and there was much laughter at some things he said, which, in the confusion of voices, I could not understand. "Why," exclaimed my companion, the committee-man, "there's Lincoln himself!" He pressed through the crowd and introduced me to Abraham Lincoln, whom I then saw for the first time.
I must confess that I was somewhat startled by his appearance. There he stood, overtopping by several inches all those surrounding him. Although measuring something over six feet myself, I had, standing quite near to him, to throw my head backward in order to look into his eyes. That swarthy face with its strong features, its deep furrows, and its benignant, melancholy eyes, is now familiar to every American by numberless pictures. It may be said that the whole civilized world knows and loves it. At that time it was clean-shaven, and looked even more haggard and careworn than later when it was framed in whiskers.
On his head he wore a somewhat battered "stove-pipe" hat. His neck emerged, long and sinewy, from a white collar turned down over a thin black necktie. His lank, ungainly body was clad in a rusty black dress coat with sleeves that should have been longer; but his arms appeared so long that the sleeves of a "store" coat could hardly be expected to cover them all the way down to the wrists. His black trousers, too, permitted a very full view of his large feet. On his left arm he carried a gray woolen shawl, which evidently served him for an overcoat in chilly weather. His left hand held a cotton umbrella of the bulging kind, and also a black satchel that bore the marks of long and hard usage. His right he had kept free for hand-shaking, of which there was no end until everybody in the car seemed to be satisfied. I had seen, in Washington and in the West, several public men of rough appearance; but none whose looks seemed quite so uncouth, not to say grotesque, as Lincoln's.
He received me with an off-hand cordiality, like an old acquaintance, having been informed of what I was doing in the campaign, and we sat down together. In a somewhat high-pitched but pleasant voice he began to talk to me, telling me much about the points he and Douglas had made in the debates at different places, and about those he intended to make at Quincy on the morrow.
When, in a tone of perfect ingenuousness, he asked me — a young beginner in politics — what I thought about this and that, I should have felt myself very much honored by his confidence, had he permitted me to regard him as a great man. But he talked in so simple and familiar a strain, and his manner and homely phrase were so absolutely free from any semblance of self-consciousness or pretension to superiority, that I soon felt as if I had known him all my life and we had long been close friends. He interspersed our conversation with all sorts of quaint stories, each of which had a witty point applicable to the subject in hand, and not seldom concluding an argument in such a manner that nothing more was to be said. He seemed to enjoy his own jests in a childlike way, for his unusually sad-looking eyes would kindle with a merry twinkle, and he himself led in the laughter; and his laugh was so genuine, hearty, and contagious that nobody could fail to join in it.
When we arrived at Quincy, we found a large number of friends waiting for him, and there was much hand-shaking and many familiar salutations again. Then they got him into a carriage, much against his wish, for he said that he would prefer to "foot it to Browning's," an old friend's house, where he was to have supper and a quiet night. But the night was by no means quiet outside. The blare of brass bands and the shouts of enthusiastic, and not in all cases quite sober, Democrats and Republicans, cheering and hurrahing for their respective champions, did not cease until the small hours.
The next morning the country people began to stream into town for the great meeting, some singly, on foot or on horseback, or small parties of men and women, and even children, in buggies or farm wagons; while others were marshaled in solemn procession from outlying towns or districts with banners and drums, many of them headed by maidens in white with tricolored scarfs, who represented the Goddess of Liberty and the different States of the Union, and whose beauty was duly admired by everyone, including themselves. On the whole, the Democratic displays were much, more elaborate and gorgeous than those of the Republicans, and it was said that Douglas had plenty of money to spend for such things. He himself also traveled in what was called in those days "great style," with a secretary and servants and a numerous escort of somewhat loud companions, moving from place to place by special train with cars specially decorated for the occasion, all of which contrasted strongly with Lincoln's extremely modest simplicity. There was no end of cheering and shouting and jostling on the streets of Quincy that day. But in spite of the excitement created by the political contest, the crowds remained very good-natured, and the occasional jibes flung from one side to the other were uniformly received with a laugh.
The great debate took place in the afternoon on the open square, where a large, pine-board platform had been built for the committee of arrangements, the speakers, and the persons they wished to have with them. I thus was favored with a seat on that platform. In front of it many thousands of people were assembled, Republicans and Democrats standing peaceably together, only chaffing one another now and then in a good-tempered way.
As the champions arrived they were demonstratively cheered by their adherents. The presiding officer agreed upon by the two parties called the meeting to order and announced the program of proceedings. Mr. Lincoln was to open with an allowance of one hour, and Senator Douglas was to follow with a speech of one hour and a half, and Mr. Lincoln was to speak half an hour in conclusion. The first part of Mr. Lincoln's opening address was devoted to a refutation of some things Douglas had said at previous meetings. This refutation may, indeed, have been required for the settlement of disputed points, but it did not strike me as anything extraordinary, either in substance or in form. Neither had Mr. Lincoln any of those physical advantages which usually are thought to be very desirable, if not necessary, to the orator. His voice was not musical, rather high-keyed, and apt to turn into a shrill treble in moments of excitement; but it was not positively disagreeable. It had an exceedingly penetrating, far-reaching quality. The looks of the audience convinced me that every word he spoke was understood at the remotest edges of the vast assemblage. His gesture was awkward. He swung his long arms sometimes in a very ungraceful manner. Now and then he would, to give particular emphasis to a point, bend his knees and body with a sudden downward jerk, and then shoot up again with a vehemence that raised him to his tip-toes and made him look much taller than he really was — a manner of enlivening a speech which at that time was, and perhaps still is, not unusual in the West, but which he succeeded in avoiding at a later period.
There was, however, in all he said, a tone of earnest truthfulness, of elevated, noble sentiment, and of kindly sympathy, which added greatly to the strength of his argument, and became, as in the course of his speech he touched upon the moral side of the question in debate, powerfully impressive. Even when attacking his opponent with keen satire or invective, which, coming from any other speaker, would have sounded bitter and cruel, there was still a certain something in his utterance making his hearers feel that those thrusts came from a reluctant heart, and that he would much rather have treated his foe as a friend.
When Lincoln had sat down amid the enthusiastic plaudits of his adherents, I asked myself with some trepidation in my heart, "What will Douglas say now?" Lincoln's speech had struck me as very clear, logical, persuasive, convincing even, and very sympathetic, but not as an overwhelming argument. Douglas, I thought, might not be able to confute it, but by the cunning sophistry at his command, and by one of his forceful appeals to prejudice, he might succeed in neutralizing its effect. No more striking contrast could have been imagined than that between those two men as they appeared upon the platform. By the side of Lincoln's tall, lank, and ungainly form, Douglas stood almost like a dwarf, very short of stature, but square-shouldered and broad-chested, a massive head upon a strong neck, the very embodiment of force, combativeness, and staying power. I have drawn his portrait when describing my first impressions of Washington City, and I apprehend it was not a flattering one. On that stage at Quincy he looked rather natty and well groomed in excellently fitting broadcloth and shining linen. But his face seemed a little puffy, and it was said that he had been drinking hard with some boon companions either on his journey or after his arrival. The deep, horizontal wrinkle between his keen eyes was unusually dark and scowling. While he was listening to Lincoln's speech, a contemptuous smile now and then flitted across his lips, and when he rose, the tough parliamentary gladiator, he tossed his mane with an air of overbearing superiority, of threatening defiance, as if to say: "How dare anyone stand up against me?" As I looked at him, I detested him deeply; but my detestation was not free from an anxious dread as to what was to come. His voice, naturally a strong baritone, gave forth a hoarse and rough, at times even something like a barking, sound. His tone was, from the very start, angry, dictatorial, and insolent in the extreme. In one of his first sentences he charged Lincoln with "base insinuations," and then he went on in that style with a wrathful frown upon his brow, defiantly shaking his head, clenching his fists, and stamping his feet. No language seemed to be too offensive for him, and even inoffensive things he would sometimes bring out in a manner which sounded as if intended to be insulting; and thus he occasionally called forth, instead of applause from his friends, demonstrations of remonstrance from the opposition. But his sentences were well put together, his points strongly accentuated, his argumentation seemingly clear and plausible, his sophisms skillfully woven so as to throw the desired flood of darkness upon the subject and thus beguile the untutored mind, his appeals to prejudice unprincipled and reckless, but shrewdly aimed, and his invective vigorous and exceedingly trying to the temper of the assailed party. On the whole, his friends were well pleased with his performance, and rewarded him with vociferous cheers.
But then came Lincoln's closing speech of half an hour, which seemed completely to change the temper of the atmosphere. He replied to Douglas's arguments and attacks with rapid thrusts so deft and piercing, with humorous retort so quaint and pat, and with witty illustrations so clinching, and he did it all so good-naturedly, that the meeting, again and again, broke out in bursts of delight by which even many of his opponents were carried away, while the scowl on Douglas's face grew darker and darker.
Those who by way of historical study now read the printed report of that speech and of its pointed allusions to persons then in the public eye, and to the happenings of those days, will hardly appreciate the effect its delivery produced on the spot. But that has been the fate of many even far more famous oratorical feats, to which cold print never could do justice.
At that period Abraham Lincoln had, indeed, not yet risen to the wonderful elevation of sentiment and the grand beauty of diction which the whole world some years later came to admire in his Gettysburg speech, and still more in his second inaugural address. But there was in his debates with Douglas, which, as to their form at least, were largely extemporaneous, occasionally a flash of the same lofty moral inspiration; and all he said came out with the sympathetic persuasiveness of a thoroughly honest nature, which made the listener feel as if the speaker looked him straight in the eye and took him by the hand, saying: "My friend, what I tell you is my earnest conviction, and, I have no doubt, at heart you think so yourself."
When the debate at Quincy was over, the champions were heartily cheered by their partisans, the assemblage dissolved peaceably, the brass bands began to play again, several of them within hearing of one another, so as to fill the air with discordant sounds, and the country people, with their banners and their maidens in white, got in motion to return to their homes, each party, no doubt, as it usually happens in such cases, persuaded that the result of the day was in its favor. I took my leave of Mr. Lincoln and was not to meet him again until about twenty months later, and then on an occasion even more memorable. The result of the election in Illinois was unfavorable to Mr. Lincoln as a candidate for the Senate. Douglas did not, indeed, receive a majority of the popular vote, but owing to the apportionment of legislative districts, he won a majority in the new legislature. His return to the Senate was thus assured. But Lincoln was the real conqueror in another sense. His keen political foresight and his courageous leadership had secured to the anti-slavery cause an advantage which rendered its triumph in the next presidential election well-nigh certain. In the famous Freeport debate he had forced Douglas to make, in the most authoritative form and on so conspicuous an occasion that all the people could hear every word uttered, a declaration which rendered the disruption of his party inevitable. It was the declaration that, while the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision had asserted the Constitutional right of the slave-holder to hold his slaves as property in any Territory of the United States, yet the people of a Territory had the legal power, practically, to nullify that right by denying to slavery the necessary police protection — in other words, practically to exclude slavery by "unfriendly legislation." This was a jugglery which the slavery propagandists who formed the aggressive force of the Democratic party in the South would not only not accept, but would never forgive. With inexorable logic they argued that, if the Constitution gave the slave-holder the right to hold his slaves as property in the Territories of the United States, the Territorial legislatures were in duty bound not only to abstain from whatever might tend practically to defeat that right, but to make such laws as were required to protest him in the full enjoyment of it. Whoever refused to subscribe to that doctrine, was, in their eyes, an enemy of the South. And as to making such a man President, it would not be thought of. Thus the fate of Douglas as a candidate for the presidency was sealed. And as he could not accept that doctrine without utterly ruining himself at the North, and was therefore bound actively to resist it, the fate of the Democratic party was sealed, too.
Lincoln had clearly foreseen this; and when, on the night before the Freeport meeting, the Republican managers had tried to dissuade him from forcing the decisive declaration from Douglas, for the reason that Douglas by a plausible answer might win the election in Illinois and with it the Senatorship. Lincoln answered that "he was after larger game than the Senatorship; that Douglas could then never be President, and that the battle of 1860 was worth a hundred of this." The sureness of his outlook and the courageous firmness of his attitude in this crisis proved that Lincoln was not a mere follower of other men's minds, nor a mere advocate and agitator, but a real leader — a leader in the truest sense of the term. Of this I may have more to say hereafter.
I was deeply impressed by the democratic character of the spectacle I had witnessed in Illinois. On the whole it had strengthened my faith in the virtue of the democratic principle, although it had also made me more sensible of some of the dangers attending its practical realization. Here were two men, neither of whom had enjoyed any of the advantages of superior breeding or education. One of them, Lincoln, had in fact risen from home conditions so wretched that a faithful description of them severely taxes our credulity — conditions ordinarily apt to clog the intellect and to impede the development of all finer moral sensibilities. Neither of the two men had received any regular schooling calculated in any manner to prepare a person for the career of a statesman. Neither of them had in any sense been particularly favored by fortune. Neither of them had, in working his way upward from a low estate, any resource to draw on but his own native ability and spirit. But here they were, in positions before the country in which their ambitions could, without any overleaping, aim at the highest honors of the Republic. One of them, Douglas, had risen by rapid but regular political advancement to a Senatorship of the United States, and had, by his contact with the great world, acquired, if not the true refinement, at least some of the outward polish of "good society." His rise had been effected, perhaps, not altogether by blameless means, but at any rate mainly by the force of his own intellect and the exercise of his own energies. The other, Lincoln, had not been quite so successful in achieving official station, but he had won a singular influence over the minds of large numbers of people by the power of his own mind and the virtues of his own character — and this while the outward rusticity of his early life still clung to him, and was in a large sense a part of his being. Each one of them was truly a child of the people. Each had won his remarkable eminence because each had, in his way, by his own effort, deserved it. And these men now contended for the mastery by appealing to the intelligence and the patriotism of the people — the one, perhaps, largely by the arts of the demagogue, seeking to befog the popular understanding where he could not, to his advantage, honestly enlighten it; the other, perhaps, by candid truth-telling and grave appeals to conscience — but both by addressing themselves to the minds of the people, whose opinion, lawfully expressed, was by both recognized to be the only legitimate source of all power.
The only thing that troubled me in the admiring, reverential contemplation of this spectacle was not so much the thought that in these efforts to shape public opinion the arts of the demagogue and the appeal to prejudice or selfishness might now and then prove more potent than the word of the truth-teller or the appeal to conscience; it was rather the observation that, with many people, mere party spirit, the influence of party fellowship, the fear of partisan criticism, of party tyranny, overweighted every other influence or consideration in determining their political conduct. I believed this to be the case, not as if I had been disposed to attribute mean motives to all those who did not think as I did, but because various persons had frankly told me in private conversation that they could not deny the truth of what Mr. Lincoln and others on his side said, but that they belonged to the Democratic party and held themselves in duty bound to follow it, or that, if they voted against their party they would get into quarrels with their neighbors that would injure them socially or hurt them in their business. I heard this so often that it alarmed me as one of the most dangerous tendencies of our political life. That a conscientious citizen should be inclined to sacrifice to party attachment a diverging opinion on a matter of comparatively small importance, I could understand. But that, when face to face with so vital a question as that of slavery or freedom, a question portentously involving the whole future of the Republic, a free man charged with the solemn duty to contribute his vote to the decision of the common destiny, should close his ears to the voice of reason and stifle the best impulses of his moral nature, merely in obedience to the behest of party dictation, or from fear of partisan resentment, seemed to me monstrous — aye, almost criminal. I therefore devoted a part of almost every stump speech I made to a vigorous denunciation of that sort of party-serfdom and to an earnest exhortation admonishing my hearers to do their own political thinking and to act with courageous independence upon their honest convictions conscientiously formed.
Such exhortations were, of course, at the time mainly aimed against the Democratic party. But I soon found occasion to advocate their general and impartial application. As soon as my task in Illinois was finished, about a week before election day, I returned to Milwaukee, where a very animated contest was going on, and I was at once pressed into service. I plunged into the struggle with great alacrity. The object was to secure the election of the Republican candidate for Congress in the First Congressional district of Wisconsin, and to defeat certain Democratic candidates for municipal offices, who were accused of corrupt practices. The election was expected to depend mainly upon the "German vote" in Milwaukee. Until then a large majority of the Germans had supported the Democratic party for the reasons I have already set forth. But the local issue of "honest government" now helped greatly in shaking their party allegiance and thus in turning the tide. The result was a sweeping Republican victory. A fortnight after the election a public meeting was held to celebrate the event, at which, in response to some very laudatory remarks by other speakers concerning my share in the successful campaign, I made a speech which, in the collection of my addresses published in 1865, I entitled "Political Morals." In this speech I expressed with great emphasis my ideas of the relation between the individual citizen and his political party; and as those ideas, then somewhat impulsively uttered, have remained substantially unchanged throughout my long life, and have at various times determined my conduct in critical situations, and exposed me to much aspersion, and seriously affected my political fortunes, the reader of these reminiscences may kindly forgive the somewhat liberal quotations.
I called attention to the fact that the recent victory had been won by the votes of the citizens of German nativity who had formerly been on the other side. But I warned my Republican friends not to misunderstand its meaning. It was not a mere partisan victory, but a victory of political honesty over corruption; the victory of moral independence over moral servitude; of manhood over servile partisanship!
But the same Germans, after having shaken off the yoke of one party despotism, should not be ready to take upon their necks the yoke of another. I expressed the hope that they would follow the lead of political honesty, so long as it was true honesty that led them, and no longer, and that, if our party should lose its honesty and integrity of purpose, it would be struck down as it deserved. And in that case, my heart would behold with grief and sorrow its degradation, but it would have no tears for its defeat. . . .
"The decline of political morals is not owing to the more or less accidental circumstance that a number of corrupt men have risen to influence and power. The real cause is that the political action of the masses was not dictated and ruled by their consciences. . . . It is said that there are but few men who, however honest otherwise, can withstand the seductions of power. If this is true, what effect must it have upon political leaders when they see that, in point of principle and political practice, they can do with the masses whatever they please? When they find out that they will be obeyed and applauded whatever their command may be? That they may sell themselves and sell others without being rebuked? That they may even squander the money and rob the treasury of the people without being held to account? Nay, that their very depravity gives them a claim to protection by their party? Let me tell you that not only the politicians debauch the consciences of the people by contempt of principle, but that the masses demoralize the politicians by culpable indulgence. The virtue of many a public man has thus been victimized by the indulgence of his constituency. . . .
"It must be our principal object not only to catch the people's votes for our candidates, but to enlist in our cause the people's conscience. We must encourage moral independence in politics; we must admonish every man to think and reason for himself, to form his own convictions and to stand by them; we must entreat him never to accept, unseen and uninvestigated, the principles of others, even if they be our own. Let those who follow your lead believe in your words because what you say is true, and not merely because you say it. . . . Address yourself to their moral nature, and their consciences will enlighten their understanding. Then you will organize the party of independent men. This independence will keep the rank and file vigilant, and that vigilance will keep the leaders upright and honest. I know it will require incessant work to keep up something like discipline in such a party, but it will be an object worth working for; for such an organization will never become a mere tool in the hand of selfish ambition, and its discipline will never degenerate into a mere machinery of despotism. I know that volunteers will sometimes not fight as well as regular troops, and that drill will sometimes defeat mere enthusiasm. But enthusiasm also may be disciplined, and then it will be irresistible. . . .
"We must not hesitate to denounce every member of our own party who prostitutes his trust and power by dishonest and corrupt transactions, as a contemptible villain. And not only that, we must consider and treat him as a traitor to his party. What we can and must do, is to make all dishonest and corrupt practices high treason, and to take every such traitor and pitch him overboard, and condemn him to political death without regard to person or station, without benefit of clergy.
"I repeat it, and I cannot impress it upon your minds too solemnly: Our liberty and the honor and prestige of this Republic cannot be preserved unless you raise the standard of political morals; and this is the way to do it."
Such sentiments were warmly applauded by a Republican mass meeting in 1858. And what I somewhat crudely expressed there has remained the rule of my political conduct all through my long life. Indeed, subsequent experience has only served to strengthen my conviction that the despotism of party organization constitutes one of the greatest and most insidious of the dangers threatening the vitality of free institutions of government — all the more, the freer those institutions are. Of this I shall have more to say in connection with later events.
When the political campaigns of 1858 were over, I thought it was high time for me to settle down in the regular calling for which I had prepared myself. I made application to the Circuit Court sitting in Jefferson County, Wisconsin, for admission to the bar, and my petition was granted without ceremony. Indeed, the proceeding was simple in the extreme. It consisted in the presentation of my request by a lawyer of Watertown, a smile and a nod by the judge, a hand-shake, the signing of a paper, and finally a moderate tipple and a hilarious exchange of lawyers' jokes at the village tavern near by. I had the good fortune of becoming associated in business with Mr. Halbert E. Paine, a young lawyer practicing in Milwaukee. He was one of the finest characters I have ever known, a gentleman in the best sense of the word, and a patriot capable of any self-sacrifice. Whenever in later years I rose into public position, my first thought always was to find some way of bringing Mr. Paine to my side, being sure that in him I would have the safest counselor and the truest friend. In this I succeeded only once, and then only imperfectly. He joined the army soon after the breaking out of the Civil War, rose to the rank of Brigadier-General, lost a leg while attacking at the head of his command, at Fort Hudson, served several times in the lower House of Congress, established a law office at Washington, declined, for economic reasons, the position of Assistant Secretary of the Interior, which was offered to him when I took charge of the Department, but accepted the Commissionership of Patents, and, after having left that office, resumed his law practice in Washington.
I have often regretted that I did not resist the temptation of public activity which constantly interfered with every attempt on my part to settle down to steady occupation as a lawyer. But I may say, by way of excuse, that whenever a public call was made upon me, my friend and associate, Mr. Paine, in the generosity of his heart, invariably encouraged me to respond to it. And as such calls came in rapid succession, the result followed that I was constantly employed in public matters, and never had time for any private pursuits that demanded consecutive application. I had hardly sat down upon my chair in the law office at Milwaukee, and was in great dejection of mind about the loss of a cow case in the court of a justice of the peace, when I was urgently demanded for service in a contest of peculiar significance.
Wisconsin had its "fugitive slave case," which created intense commotion among the people. In March, 1854, a colored man, Joshua Glover, who for some time had been working in a sawmill near Racine, was, by virtue of a warrant issued by a United States District Judge, arrested as a fugitive slave from Missouri. The arrest was effected under peculiarly dramatic circumstances. The day's work done, Glover was in his cabin, not far from Racine, amusing himself with two other colored men, when, about dusk of the evening, two United States Deputy Marshals, with four assistants and the claimant from Missouri, came in carriages from Racine and knocked at the door of the cottage. The door being opened, one of the Deputy Marshals rushed forward and struck Glover down with a bludgeon. Although Glover recovered himself and struggled fiercely against being manacled, the seven white men finally overcame him, thrust him, wounded and bleeding, into a wagon, and thus carried him to Milwaukee, where, early the next morning, he was locked up in jail. When, the same morning, this occurrence became known in Racine, the people rushed together on the Court House Square — the largest concourse ever seen in that town, denouncing the "kidnapping of Joshua Glover, a faithful laborer and an honest man," demanding for him a "fair and impartial trial by jury," and "declaring the slave-catching law of 1850 disgraceful and demanding that it should be repealed." It was also resolved to send a delegation to Milwaukee to see the resolution carried into effect as much as it could be, and one hundred citizens went on that errand. The capture had been telegraphed to Sherman M. Booth, the editor of an anti-slavery paper in Milwaukee. Mr. Booth, a fierce-looking man with flowing black hair, a long and bushy black beard, and dark glowing eyes, mounted a horse, and riding through the streets of the town, he stopped at every corner, loudly shouting: "Freemen! To the rescue! Slave-catchers are in our midst! Be at the Court House at two o'clock!" More than five thousand men and women assembled on this summons. The meeting was addressed by some of the foremost citizens. A committee of vigilance and protection was named to see that Glover should have a fair trial. The committee agreed not to countenance any violation of the law. But when the delegation from Racine arrived, the multitude gathered again, battered down the jail door, and liberated the negro, who, put in a wagon and carried off, lifted up his manacled hands and shouted: "Glory! Hallelujah!" the crowd wildly cheering. He was taken to Canada in a lake schooner.
The most conspicuous actor in these proceedings had been Sherman M. Booth. He was selected as the representative victim of the fugitive slave law of 1850, and was arrested upon a warrant issued by the United States Court Commissioner, and a suit was entered against him for damages to the amount of the supposed value of the escaped slave, some two thousand dollars. He was liberated on a writ of habeas corpus granted by Abram D. Smith, one of the Justices of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin, on the ground that, in his opinion, the fugitive slave law of 1850 was unconstitutional. The case was taken to the Supreme Court of the State, which, after full argument, unanimously affirmed the order discharging the prisoner. Then the United States District Court took hold of the matter again, and after various proceedings, in which the Supreme Court of Wisconsin constantly held "to the right of the State Court on habeas corpus to pass upon the jurisdiction of the Federal Court," the matter went to the Supreme Court of the United States, which, by unanimous decision, reversed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin. The summary of this decision was that "when a person is in the custody of an officer of the United States, a State may indeed issue a writ of habeas corpus, and the officer holding the person in question in custody must make return to the writ, so far as to show that he holds him under the precept of the United States Court, but no further, and that thereupon the power of the State Court is at an end. Neither the formality nor the validity of the process, nor the constitutionality of the act under which the process issues, can after such return be inquired into, either upon a writ of habeas corpus from a State, tribunal, or upon any other State process." The opinion was written by Chief Justice Taney, the author of the famous Dred Scott decision. It attracted wide attention as the "Glover case," and the proceedings under the fugitive slave law following it had powerfully stirred up the anti-slavery sentiment throughout the country.
CHIEF JUSTICE TANEY
From a photograph in the collection of Robert Coster
Indeed, the fugitive slave law of 1850, regarded as a part of the compromise measures which were to create for the anti-slavery North and the pro-slavery South a practicable "modus vivendi" — a way of peaceably getting along together — was a striking example of that kind of mistake which is justly said to amount to a crime in public policy — the mistake not seldom committed by compromisers, of going so far as to offend and defy the moral sense and the legitimate self-respect of the other. The old fugitive slave law, enacted in 1793, had authorized the owner of the fugitive slave to arrest him, to bring him before a United States judge or any State judge or magistrate and prove to the satisfaction of such judge or magistrate that the person arrested owed service to the claimant under the laws of the State from which he had escaped; whereupon it was made the duty of the judge or magistrate to give a certificate that sufficient proof had been made; and this certificate was declared a sufficient warrant for removing the fugitive to the State from which he had escaped. It further imposed a fine of five hundred dollars for knowingly and willfully obstructing the execution of this law, or for harboring or concealing the fugitive after notice that he was a fugitive slave. It is true that this law was but imperfectly enforced and that, in spite of it, many fugitive slaves were concealed and harbored in the Northern States or escaped across them to Canada. But this was not because the law was not stringent and severe enough; it was because, in the very nature of things, no law for the capture and rendition of human beings fleeing from slavery, ever so stringent and severe, could have been effectively enforced. On the contrary, the more stringent and severe, the more provokingly it would offend the moral sympathies of human nature, and the more surely and generally it would be disobeyed and thwarted.
If the compromise of 1850 were to be a real measure of conciliation, nothing could, therefore, have been more ill-advised than to embody in it a law apt to bring the odium of slavery in its most repulsive aspects to the very door of every Northern household. According to that law, the right of a claimant to an alleged fugitive slave, or rather the right of a human being to his or her freedom, was not to be determined by the ordinary course of law, a trial by jury, but by a summary process presided over by a United States Commissioner — a process in which the testimony of the alleged fugitive slave was not to be admitted as evidence, and the presumption was held to be all in favor of the claim of the slave-hunter. It made punishable not only by fine, but also by imprisonment, the harboring or concealing of a fugitive slave. It "commanded" every citizen, whenever called upon by the proper officer, actively to aid in the capture of a fugitive slave. It thus imposed upon him the duty of becoming a slave-catcher and, as the saying was at the time, to do for the slave-holder what the slave-holder would have been too proud to do for himself. It is no wonder that, when Charles Sumner, upon the question put to him in the Senate, whether he would obey the fugitive slave law, replied: "Is thy servant a dog that he should do this thing?" the winged word reverberated throughout the North. Indeed, it was the prevailing moral sentiment among Northern people, not that it would be sinful to violate that law, but rather that it would be sinful to obey it. And nothing can be more futile, unstatesmanlike, as well as inhuman, under a popular government, than the enactment of laws that are offensive to a moral sense springing from an intuitive conception of justice and the natural sympathies of the human heart. It may therefore well be said that the fugitive slave law did more than anything else to keep the anti-slavery sentiment alive at a period when the widespread lassitude from past excitements co-operated with the materialistic tendency of prosperous times to put it asleep and to make the slavery question a "dead issue" in politics. And when the Kansas-Nebraska bill had, in spite of the prosperity of the times, shaken the public conscience out of its lethargy, the various attempts to enforce the fugitive slave law did more than anything else to influence the righteous wrath of freemen against the institution of slavery. It exemplified more drastically and provokingly than anything else its aggressively tyrannical tendencies.
Indeed, it had the effect of making the impulsive anti-slavery sentiment seek refuge in the extreme States' rights doctrine which was first elaborately formulated at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the famous "Virginia and Kentucky resolutions," and became subsequently, under Calhoun's leadership, the fundamental article of the political faith of the Slave States. According to it, the Federal Union and the Constitution were the product of a compact of which the several States were the original parties. The Federal Government created by that compact, could, therefore, in the nature of things not be the only and final judge of the extent of its own powers, but (in the language of the Virginia resolutions) "in case of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of other powers not granted by the said compact, the States who are parties thereto have the right and are in duty bound to interpose for arresting the progress of the evil, and for maintaining within their respective limits, the authorities, rights, and liberties appertaining to them." When in the early thirties, the State of South Carolina ran this "compact theory" of the Federal Constitution to its logical consequence, attempting an actual nullification within its borders of the Federal revenue laws, almost the whole North united in condemning the attempt as something akin to treason, although the Democratic party on the whole would consider the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions as justified in principle. But when twenty years later the Federal law concerning the capture and rendition of fugitive slaves outraged the anti-slavery sentiment of the North, the same "compact theory" of the Federal Government was resorted to by a large number of people, among them not a few public men of high standing and of conservative antecedents, to thwart the execution of the fugitive slave law. Not only was that law denounced as unconstitutional and void in numberless mass-meetings, but one Northern legislature after another, among them that of Wisconsin, passed so-called "personal liberty bills," setting the provisions of the fugitive slave law for the capture of alleged fugitives practically at naught — that is, substantially nullifying it. The North was thus fast becoming the "nullifying" section of the country.
Such was the temper of public sentiment at the North when the Glover case occurred in Wisconsin and the legal proceedings called forth by it took place. Anti-slavery meetings as well as the anti-slavery press, East and West, praised the action of the Supreme Court and the Legislature of Wisconsin to the skies and expressed the fervent hope, that whatever the Federal Government or the Federal judiciary might do, the State of Wisconsin "would stand firm on the noble ground taken."
In the spring of 1859, a vacancy on the Supreme Bench of Wisconsin was to be filled by popular election. A caucus of the Republican members of the Legislature, attended also by other anti-slavery men, nominated as a candidate for that position Byron Paine of Milwaukee. Opposed to him as the Democratic candidate was William P. Lynde, also of Milwaukee. Mr. Lynde was a lawyer of high respectability, but he lacked the elements of popularity which distinguished his Republican competitor. The figure of Byron Paine stands in my memory as one of my most fascinating recollections. When I imagine the ideal republic, I put him into it as one of its typical citizens. At that period he was only thirty-two years old. His tall and sturdy frame, and his face, not regular of feature, but beautiful in its expression of absolute sincerity, kindness, and intelligence, made his very appearance a picture of strength ruled by reason, justice, and benevolence. There was something childlike in the gaze of his lustrous blue eyes. He was not what is usually called "brilliant" in conversation, — rather modest and unpretending. He talked with a sort of cheerful ingenuousness; but when discussing serious subjects, he would often surprise the listener with an unexpected display of profound research and wide knowledge, and his opinions came forth, not, by any means, with a tone of obtrusive dogmatism, but as the expression of well matured and profound conviction, never leaving the slightest doubt as to the absolute purity of his motives. An unstudied refinement gave a peculiar charm to his whole being. His large humanity naturally made him an anti-slavery man, and his whole mental and moral quality was such that so offensive an affront to human dignity as the fugitive slave law would necessarily provoke in him an almost revolutionary indignation.
Although a young lawyer of limited practice and no fortune, he had volunteered his services without compensation to Mr. Booth when that gentleman was arrested for helping the fugitive slave, Glover, to escape. In his various arguments, which were praised by his very opponents as singularly logical, learned, and profound, and sometimes rising to a high order of eloquence, he took the strongest State's rights ground, and, as I have mentioned, he was sustained by the Supreme Court of Wisconsin. Letters of approval and congratulation from public men of note, one of whom was Charles Sumner, came pouring upon him — letters which might have made many ordinary mortals vain, but were received by him with modest diffidence. It was natural that in the campaign that was made for him as a candidate for the Supreme bench of his State, the principal issue should be, aside from his personal merits, the doctrines he had promulgated as an advocate in the legal proceedings that had made him conspicuous. And in that campaign I took a zealous part on his side. On the 23d of March, 1859, I delivered a speech in Milwaukee "for States' rights and Byron Paine," in which I defended, to the best of my ability, his position, which no doubt was also the position of the bulk of the anti-slavery men of the time, although there were strong and distinguished dissenters.
This address I did not include in the collection of my speeches which was published six years later, because a more matured judgment had convinced me that — not indeed the fundamental theory of democracy, but the conclusions drawn from it as to the functions and necessary powers of government, were unsound. Here was a striking illustration of the proneness of the human mind to permit itself to be swayed in its logic, its course of reasoning, its philosophical deductions, even in its views of historic events, by moral sentiments, by sympathetic emotions, and by party spirit. Indeed, it certainly was not party spirit that determined my course, for my deeply grounded distrust of party tyranny over the human conscience put me on my guard against any undue influence from that quarter. But this campaign for an election to a judicial office was an anti-slavery campaign — a campaign against one of those arrogations of power on the part of the "slaveocracy" which offended our moral sense, insulted the dignity of manhood, and struck at the fundamental principles of democratic government, by denying to the alleged fugitive slave a fair trial by jury. The Supreme Court of the United States had done the thing most dangerous to its authority that a judicial tribunal can do — it had, in the Dred Scott decision, gone out of its way to take part in the political discussion of the day — and that in favor of slavery. And now the same Federal Supreme Court sternly overruled the action of the State Judiciary, which had been in favor of freedom and human rights.
All these things co-operated in bringing about a contest in which the Republican party, the natural opponent of the States' rights doctrine against a law maintained by the pro-slavery men as a bulwark of the "peculiar institution," planted itself upon extreme States' rights ground and went to the very verge of actual nullification, while the Democratic party, the traditional champion of the States' rights doctrine, became an ardent defender of the Federal power as against any pretensions of States' rights that asserted themselves according to the principles promulgated in the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions. It was one of those struggles which, as Mr. Lincoln once said, become so mixed that, in the heat of the wrestle, the combatants worked themselves into one another's coats. Byron Paine won the election and took his seat in the Supreme Court of Wisconsin. But it is a significant fact that, only two years later, when the bulk of the Slave States, then again repudiating the supremacy of the Federal power, had carried the States' rights doctrine to the logical length of secession, those who but yesterday had shouted and voted for "Byron Paine and States' rights," rushed to arms to maintain the supreme authority of the Federal Government and to put down the pretensions of States' rights which were made in favor of slavery. Byron Paine himself, in the course of the Civil War, left the Supreme Bench of Wisconsin to join the army.
Thus in the North as well as in the South men's sympathies with regard to slavery shaped and changed their political doctrines and their Constitutional theories. In the South, it was States' rights or the supremacy of the Federal power as one or the other furthered the interests of slavery. In the North, it was States' rights or the supremacy of the Federal power as one or the other furthered the interests of freedom. This inconstancy of men's minds as to very important political doctrines can, indeed, be psychologically explained in view of the circumstances under which it then occurred. But it has also manifested itself under circumstances far less anxious, and it may, in a democracy, become a grave danger to the stability of political institutions. As to the perplexing conflict between moral sentiment and the fugitive slave law, which at that period troubled many a conscientious and dutiful citizen, the right way out was suggested by Mr. Durkee, a Senator of the United States from Wisconsin, who said, "I shall not obey that law, but I shall submit to the legal penalty for disobeying it."
The Byron Paine campaign was hardly over when I was urgently called to another field. As the anti-slavery movement was disintegrating both the old Whig party and the Democratic party at a fast rate, the "Native American" sentiment burst forth in one of its periodical manifestations. That sentiment was originally — in greatest part at least — directed against the Catholic influence — against "Romanism," as the favorite phrase ran — but it demanded a curtailment of the political rights of the whole foreign-born element without distinction of origin or religious creed. A secret society, called the "Know-nothings," was organized with all the paraphernalia of rituals and oaths and vows and passwords which seem to have a peculiar charm for people of weak minds and susceptible imaginations, and the "order" spread rapidly all over the Northern States. Some earnest anti-slavery men favored the movement because they thought that it would help in breaking up the old political organizations, especially the Whig party, and thus facilitate the eventual passing of citizens, once detached from their old party affiliations, into the Republican ranks. But when the Know-nothing organization became strong enough to control elections in such States as New York and Massachusetts, and when the proscriptive spirit awakened by it led, as it is always apt to do, to savage excesses in the larger cities — bands of ruffians committing bloody outrages upon peaceable foreign-born people — the anti-slavery men who had thought it "good politics" to countenance and encourage the nativistic dissolvent, became alarmed at their own work, for it evidently tended to drive the foreign voters into the arms of the Democratic party for their own protection.
In Massachusetts, where the "American" movement won control of the whole State government, the Legislature adopted for submission to a vote of the people an amendment to the State Constitution, providing that foreign-born persons should not have the right of voting until two years after they had become citizens of the United States. This was the famous "two-years' amendment" which at the time created much excitement among the foreign-born population, and was eagerly seized upon by Democratic newspapers and stump-speakers as a premonitory indication of the fate which awaited the foreign born if the Republican party should come into power. And this warning was all the more likely to make an impression, as the State of Massachusetts was recognized as the high school of the anti-slavery movement.
Among the Republican leaders who became especially alarmed at this state of things was Henry Wilson, one of the United States Senators from Massachusetts. As I learned to know him at a later period, he was what is commonly called "a man of the people." Without the advantage of a higher education — his early connection with the shoe business in Natick, had earned him the nickname of "the Natick cobbler" — he had worked himself up to a position of influence in politics. He had won the confidence of the anti-slavery men by his sincere and very active devotion to that cause. His eloquence did not rise to a high level, but became impressive by the ingenuous force with which it portrayed his convictions. He justly enjoyed the reputation of being a thoroughly honest and well-meaning man. There was something childlike in his being, even in his political dealings, although he may have considered himself, and to a certain extent he was, a skillful political manager. He certainly was a very watchful and busy one. The anti-slavery sentiment filled his whole soul. Beyond that cause he took very little interest in other political questions; at least he judged them by their relation to it, and only in that relation they became important or unimportant in his eyes. Everybody liked him; and everybody was attracted by the sympathetic warmth of his nature; and everybody trusted the goodness of his motives, although not always his discretion. There was a rumor that, believing he could aid the anti-slavery cause by countenancing the nativistic movement, he had secretly joined one of the Know-nothing lodges. Whether this rumor was correct or not, I do not know. He probably did not care much whether foreign-born citizens were permitted to vote a year or two earlier or a year or two later, provided they cast their votes against the slavery cause. Certain it is that as soon as the nativistic movement threatened to endanger the anti-slavery cause, he turned against it and anxiously looked for a way to defeat the "two-years' amendment" in Massachusetts.
Senator Wilson consulted with Edward L. Pierce, who many years later wrote the great biography of Charles Sumner and became a warm and dear friend of mine, and the two joined in inviting me to come to Massachusetts and help them undo the mischief. The ostensible occasion was the celebration by a public dinner of the anniversary of Thomas Jefferson's birthday — a celebration which was in harmony with the recent revival of Jeffersonian States' rights principles in the agitation against the fugitive slave law. But the real object was to rally prominent anti-slavery men for a demonstration against the mischievous nativistic tide. Of this I was duly informed. As soon as the invitation arrived, my partner, Mr. Paine, insisted that I must accept it, as this was more important than any law business. So I went.
The dinner took place at the Parker House in Boston and was a notable affair. The principal figures in it were John A. Andrew, who was to be the illustrious war-governor of Massachusetts, Senator Henry Wilson, Governor Boutwell, Frank Bird, Edward L. Pierce, his brother, Henry L. Pierce, Samuel Bowles, the brilliant editor of the Springfield Republican, and several of the anti-slavery leaders of the State. The speeches which were delivered vied with one another in denouncing the fugitive slave law as one of the ruthless invasions of the rights and liberties of the American citizen, and in celebrating the States' rights men of Wisconsin as the heroes of the day. Vigorous attacks upon the narrow-minded spirit of nativism as embodied in the Know-nothing organization were not wanting. And in all this Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, the founder of the Democratic party, was praised and canonized by Republican anti-slavery men as the great patron-saint of the fundamental principles of our Republic. A day or two later I was assailed in some newspapers which favored the Know-nothing movement, as an intruder who had come into Massachusetts to meddle with State politics. But this served only to attract to me a degree of public notice which otherwise I would, probably, not have had.
A few days later, on April 18, 1859, a great public reception in Faneuil Hall took place which had been arranged for me by some of the participants in the Jefferson birthday dinner. Senator Wilson presided. The ancient hall was crowded with a typical Boston audience. There I was to strike my blow against nativism and the policy of sly shifts and small expedients, and, judging from appearances, my speech produced a happy effect. I spoke with great fervor, dwelling upon the idea which has been a "leit motif," a leading motive, with me during my whole public life in America: the peculiar significance of the position occupied by this Republic in the progress of mankind toward democratic government, and the consequent responsibility of the American people to the civilized world. It may have an improbable and even absurdly presumptuous sound when it is asserted that foreign-born American citizens may be more fervently, more jealously patriotic Americans than many natives are. And yet in my experience, this is the case. It is even naturally the case with foreign-born persons who, before they came to this country, had in the old world taken part, or at least an earnest interest, in the struggles for free government and witnessed the terrible difficulty of overcoming the obstacles in their way in the shape of old established institutions, or customs, or traditional prejudices, or habits of thinking and feeling; and who then saw in this new country a free field for the untrammeled development of truly democratic institutions, and of everything good and great, most ardently hoping that here the great demonstration he furnished of the capacity of man to govern himself — a demonstration to encourage and inspire all mankind struggling for liberty and happiness. Such foreign-born Americans watch every event affecting the fortunes or character of the Republic with an especially anxious solicitude, with triumphant joy at every success of our democratic institutions and with the keenest sensitiveness to every failure, having the standing of this country before the world constantly in mind.
In my speech on "True Americanism" in Faneuil Hall I gave full rein to my exuberant American enthusiasm. I feel it all again while writing these reminiscences and reading over in a printed volume the report of the words I then spoke to express what moved me so deeply. Thus I may be pardoned for quoting here some of the language in which I uttered the fundamental idea — language somewhat florid, perhaps, but I was young then and not sufficiently sobered always to resist the intrusion of poetic imagery into the discussion of serious subjects. I opened thus: "A few days ago I stood on the cupola of your State House, and overlooked for the first time this venerable city and the country surrounding it. Then the streets, and hills, and waters around me began to teem with the life of historical recollections, recollections dear to all mankind, and a feeling of pride arose in my heart, and I said to myself, I, too, am an American citizen. There was Bunker Hill, there Charlestown, and Lexington, and Dorchester Heights not far off; there the harbor into which the British tea was sunk; there the place where the old liberty-tree stood; there John Hancock's house; there Benjamin Franklin's birthplace — and now I stand in this grand old hall, which has so often resounded with the noblest appeals that ever thrilled American hearts, and where I am almost afraid to hear the echo of my own feeble voice; — oh, no man that loves liberty, wherever he may have first seen the light of day, can fail on this sacred spot to pay his tribute to Americanism. And here, with all these glorious memories crowding upon my heart, I will offer mine. I, born in a foreign land, pay my tribute to Americanism? Yes, for to me the word Americanism, true Americanism, comprehends the noblest ideas which ever swelled a human heart with noble pride.
"It is one of the earliest recollections of my boyhood, that one summer night our whole village was stirred up by an uncommon occurrence. I say our village, for I was born not far from that beautiful spot where the Rhine rolls his green waters out of the wonderful gate of the Seven Mountains, and then meanders with majestic tranquillity through one of the most glorious valleys of the world. That night our neighbors were pressing around a few wagons covered with linen sheets and loaded with household utensils and boxes and trunks to their utmost capacity. One of our neighboring families were moving far away across a great water, and it was said that they would never again return. And I saw silent tears trickling down weather-beaten cheeks, and the hands of rough peasants firmly pressing each other and some of the men and women hardly able to speak when they nodded to one another a last farewell. At last the train started into motion, they gave three cheers for America, and then in the first gray dawn of the morning I saw them wending their way over the hill until they disappeared in the shadow of the forest. And I heard many a man say how happy he would be if he could go with them to that great and free country, where a man could be himself."
I then described how, from these first crude and vague impressions, my ideal conception of the American republic as the hope and guide of liberty-loving mankind developed itself, how peoples struggling for liberty and hampered in that struggle by old inherited institutions and customs and habits of thinking were wistfully looking to this new world for the realization of that ideal; how this new world, by the evolutions of history, appeared predestined and wonderfully fitted for that realization; how, by the assembling and intermingling of the most vigorous elements of all civilized nations, a new and youthful nation was created; how that new nation asserted and maintained its rightful independent existence upon the principle that all men are created equal and are endowed with certain inalienable rights among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; how this basic principle indicated the great, historic mission of the American republic, and how the best hopes of mankind were bound up in the fulfillment of this mission, for which we were responsible to the world. I continued thus:
"This principle contains the program of our political existence. It is the most progressive, for it takes even the lowliest members of the human family out of their degradation, and inspires them with the elevating consciousness of equal human dignity; the most conservative, for it makes a common cause of individual rights. From the equality of rights springs identity of our highest interests; you cannot subvert your neighbors' rights without striking a dangerous blow at your own. And when the rights of one cannot be infringed without finding a ready defense in all others who defend their own rights in defending his, then, and only then, are the rights of all safe against the usurpations of governmental authority. This general identity of interests is the only thing that can guarantee the stability of democratic institutions. Equality of rights, embodied in general self-government, is the great moral element, of true democracy; it is the only reliable safety-valve in the machinery of modern society. There is the solid foundation of our system of government; there is our mission; there is our greatness; there is our safety; there, and nowhere else! This is true Americanism, and to this I pay the tribute of my devotion."
I then proceeded to point out the inevitable consequences in a democratic republic of any deviation from this principle, admitting at the same time the local or temporary inconveniences and difficulties apt to arise from a general application of it. I passed some of them in review and said:
"True, there are difficulties connected with an organization of society founded upon the basis of equal rights. Nobody denies it. A large number of those who come to you from foreign lands are not as capable of taking part in the administration of government as the man who was fortunate enough to drink the milk of liberty in his cradle. And certain religious denominations do, perhaps, nourish principles which are hardly in accordance with the doctrines of true democracy. There is a conglomeration on this continent of heterogeneous elements; there is a warfare of clashing interests and unruly aspirations; and with all this, our democratic system gives rights to the ignorant and power to the inexperienced. And the billows of passion will lash the sides of the ship, and the storm of party warfare will bend its masts, and the pusillanimous will cry out, 'Master, master, we perish!' But the genius of true democracy will arise from his slumber, and rebuke the winds and the raging of the water, and say unto them: 'Where is your faith?' Aye, where is the faith that led the fathers of this Republic to invite the weary and burdened of all nations to the enjoyment of equal rights? Where is that broad and generous confidence in the efficiency of true democratic institutions? Has the present generation forgotten that true democracy bears in itself the remedy for all the difficulties that may grow out of it?
"It is an old dodge of the advocates of despotism throughout the world, that the people who are not experienced in self-government are not fit for the exercise of self-government, and must first be educated under the rule of a superior authority. But at the same time the advocates of despotism will never offer them an opportunity to acquire experience in self-government, lest they suddenly become fit for its independent exercise. To this treacherous sophistry the fathers of this Republic opposed the noble doctrine that liberty is the best school for liberty, and that self-government cannot be learned but by practicing it. This is the truly American idea; this is true Americanism, and to this I pay the tribute of my devotion.
"You object that some people do not understand their own interests? There is nothing that, in the course of time, will make a man better understand his interests than the independent management of his own affairs on his own responsibility. You object that people are ignorant? There is no better schoolmaster in the world than self-government, independently exercised. You object that people have no just ideas of their duties as citizens? There is no other source from which they can derive a just notion of their duties than the enjoyment of the rights from which they arise."
I then pointed out the inconsistencies and danger of restrictions of the suffrage on arbitrary grounds in their effect upon the conduct of political parties, reaching these conclusions:
"Another danger for the safety of our institutions, and perhaps the most formidable one, arises from the general propensity of political parties and public men to act on a policy of mere expediency, and to sacrifice principle to local and temporary success. And here let me address a solemn appeal to the consciences of those with whom I am proud to struggle side by side against human thraldom.
"You hate kingcraft, and you would sacrifice your fortunes and your lives in order to prevent its establishment on the soil of this Republic. But let me tell you that the rule of political parties which sacrifices principle to expediency is no less dangerous, no less disastrous, no less aggressive, of no less despotic a nature, than the rule of monarchs. Do not indulge in the illusion that in order to make a government free and liberal, the only thing necessary is to make it elective. When a political party in power, however liberal their principles may be, have once adopted the policy of knocking down their opponents instead of voting them down, there is an end of justice and equal rights. The history of the world shows no example of a more arbitrary despotism than that exercised by the party which ruled the National Assembly of France in the bloodiest days of the great French Revolution. I will not discuss here what might have been done, and what not, in those times of a fearful crisis; but I will say that they tried to establish liberty by means of despotism, and that in her gigantic struggle against the united monarchs of Europe, revolutionary France won the victory, but lost her liberty."
An appeal to Massachusetts pride closed the speech.
My address was very warmly applauded by the audience. I received no end of compliments, even from some men of distinction, and was afterwards told that the printed report was widely read and produced an excellent effect in the interior of the State. Perhaps it did contribute a little to the defeat of the "two-years' amendment." By its opponents I was paraded as one of the "foreigners" whose political rights it was intended to curtail.
This was my introduction to Boston, and to me it was a most happy one. Not only did I keenly enjoy the cordiality which met me wherever I turned, but the whole atmosphere of the city, the general physiognomy of the population were exceedingly congenial to me. I thought I saw a light of intelligence on the faces of all the passersby on the streets, which impressed me as if every milkman on his wagon and every citizen hurrying to his task with his tools under his arm, must be something like Harvard graduates in disguise. No doubt my enthusiasm ran a little ahead of my judgment; but I had good reason to be intensely delighted with the persons whose acquaintance I was fortunate enough to make. It could hardly be otherwise. For instance, I was invited to a dinner party at the house of Mr. Gardner Brewer, one of the patrician houses of the town. I met there several of my friends of the Jefferson birthday dinner, also, for the first time, Longfellow and Banks. But I was seated at the table by the side of a little gentleman whose name had escaped me when I was presented to him. He was very kind to me, and soon I found myself engaged with him in a lively conversation which gradually drew the attention of the whole table, all the guests listening to him. His talk was so animated, bubbling and sparkling, and at the same time there was so kindly and genial a flow of wit and wisdom, that I sat there in a state of amazed delight. I had never heard anything like it. After a while I asked my neighbor on the other side: "Pray, who is the wonderful man?" "You do not know him?" he answered. "Why, this is Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes."
OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES IN 1859
I visited Boston often after those days in 1859, and then I had sometimes the happiness of sitting as a guest at the same table with the other members of the famous circle of Boston's, or rather America's, great celebrities — Longfellow, Emerson, Lowell, Agassiz, Holmes, Norton, Field, Sumner, and others of their companionship, and of hearing them converse among themselves — not with an effort of saying remarkable things, but with the natural, unpretending, and therefore most charming simplicity of truly great minds. I never saw Whittier at one of those dinners. But being a warm admirer of Whittier's powerfully moving anti-slavery poems, I wished very much to behold the poet's face and to hear his voice. Therefore, I eagerly accepted, on one of my visits to Boston, the offer of one of Whittier's friends to take me to Amesbury, the village where he lived, and to introduce me to him. When we called at his very modest frame house, the typical New England village house painted white with green shutters, we were told that he was not at home, but might possibly be found at the post-office. At the post-office we were told that he had been there, but had probably gone to the drug store. At the drug store we found him quietly talking with a little company of neighbors assembled around the stove — for it was a cold winter day. I was almost sorry to break into that tranquil chat between the poet and his village familiars, for I was satisfied with looking at him as he stood there, tall and slim, with his fine, placid face, all goodness and unpretending simplicity, so superior to those surrounding him, and yet so like them. My friend introduced me to him as a co-worker in the anti-slavery cause, and he received me very kindly. We had a little exchange of questions and answers not remarkable, and he offered to take us to his house. But we could not accept the invitation, as we had to hurry back to the train for Boston. I left him with a feeling as if the mere meeting with him had been a blessings breath of air from a world of purity and beneficence.
JOHN GREENLEAF WHITTIER IN 1859
To no member of that famous circle I felt myself more attracted than to Longfellow, and he, too, seemed to look upon me with a friendly eye. He kindly invited me to visit him whenever I might come within hailing distance. And how delightful were those hours I spent with him from time in the cozy intimacy of his old colonial house in Cambridge, the historic Washington headquarters. We usually sat together in the little room on the right hand of the hall, the room with the round book-covered table in it. He then used to bring in a bottle of old Rhine wine and a couple of long German student pipes, which, I fear, he did not enjoy smoking very much although he pretended to enjoy it, because, no doubt, he thought I did; and then he talked of German poetry and poets, and of the anti-slavery cause for which he cherished a warm, although quiet, interest, and of Charles Sumner, whom he loved dearly as I did. Longfellow was one of the most beautiful men I have ever known, and he grew more beautiful every year of his advancing old age — with his flowing white hair and heard and his grand face of the antique Jupiter type — not indeed a "Jupiter tonans," but a fatherly Zeus holding a benignant hand over the world and mankind. He was by no means a brilliant conversationalist — not to be compared with Oliver Wendell Holmes — but his talk, although not remarkable for wit or eloquence, had to me a peculiar fascination. It produced, upon me at least, the impression of modestly withholding behind it a great store of serene reserve power, and it flowed on so placidly as to make me feel as if I were in a gently rocking boat floating down a tranquil stream meandering through green meadows. His very being seemed to be enveloped in an atmosphere of peace and noble sympathy. I have seen him quietly entering social gatherings of men and women when everybody seemed at once to become sensible of the mellow sunshine radiating from his presence, and all faces, old and young, turned to him with an expression of something like joyous affection.
HENRY WADWORTH LONGFELLOW IN 1860
Of the public men whose acquaintance I made on the occasion of the Jefferson dinner, John A. Andrew and Frank W. Bird stand prominent in my memory. Andrew, destined to become famous as the great war-governor of Massachusetts, was a man of extraordinary personal magnetism. His ruddy face topped with blonde curly hair fairly beamed with the energy of youthful enthusiasm. He was a picture of sturdy manhood. The genial warmth of his nature raised the temperature of the very air around him. There was in his speech a cordial ingenuousness, an impetuous, earnest vivacity, and a directness and sincerity so evident, that it irresistibly commanded your confidence. He was one of the rare men with whom you instinctively wished to agree when he spoke to you. He had not only the intellectual and moral qualifications but also the temperament of a leader, and a leader, too, who would attract the best part of the community in point of morals and intelligence, as a trusty personal following. He would have become a great figure on the field of national polities had he not died so young.
Frank Bird was a man of a different type. I was at first a little puzzled at the respect shown him by all whom I met and by the decided deference of the younger men among them. He was somewhat rustic in appearance, and could hardly be called uncommonly interesting in conversation. There was no captivation in his looks nor in his manners. He resembled rather a gnarled oak having strong branches and a vigorous foliage but no flowers. Gradually I learned to understand and appreciate his worth. He was animated by a large and respectful sympathy with the weak and lowly, a hearty love of truth and right and justice, and equally hearty contempt of all humbug and false pretense and meanness, an indomitable courage in attacking what he thought wrong, and that kind of patriotism which consisted in a keen and jealous appreciation of the honor and the highest duties of his country. And what he knew and thought and felt came out in a language of rugged force. He may not have contributed much to the stock of ideas in his time, and he had his eccentricities and made his mistakes, but he was the very embodiment of enlightened and courageous conscience and of high moral standards. Public men of a higher grade of ability could, perhaps, not learn much from him, but they were anxious to be thought well of by him and to be able to count him among their friends. This made him a moral power and thus a singularly useful citizen of the Republic. He had a peculiar attraction for younger men. A number of them used to meet him at dinner at regular intervals in some public house in Boston, and this "Frank Bird Club" continued to exist under that name for years after his death.
I returned from my Massachusetts expedition to Wisconsin much richer in friendships as well as in experience. But in my State I soon found myself exposed to a trial not altogether pleasant. Whatever of soreness — and there was but very little — I may have at the time felt at my defeat as a candidate for the lieutenant-governorship of Wisconsin in the State election of 1857 had long vanished from my mind. But many of the German-born citizens of the State who had joined the Republican party took a more serious view of the matter. They saw in my defeat, while other Republican candidates were elected, a striking proof of the prevalence of nativistic tendencies in the Republican party, and charged Governor Randall with having secretly intrigued against me because I was foreign born. There was no proof of this, and although Mr. Randall as a politician was not over-sympathetic to me, I sincerely discredited the story. But appearances rather encouraged the suspicion of a nativistic spirit in the Republican organization, and the German-born Republicans insisted that it must be disproved or atoned for by a signal demonstration of good faith. Moreover, the Republican party in power had not fulfilled its promises, but indulged itself in a sort of political management on the spoils principle, which it had vociferously denounced when practiced by Democrats — a shortcoming which I had so pointedly reproved in my speech on "Political Morals" in celebrating our victory of the year before. All these things co-operated in inducing the German-born Republicans, and some native American Republicans of the same way of thinking besides, to move my nomination for the governorship by the Republican State Convention to be held in the autumn of 1859. As Carl Roeser, the editor of a Republican journal at Manitowne, expressed it in one of his leading articles: "We are, on principle, in favor of the nomination of Carl Schurz as candidate for governor, not because he is a German, but because we demand of the Republican party that by an open, living deed, namely, the nomination of a foreign-born citizen who has won general esteem throughout the United States, it condemn the proscription of foreign-born citizens."
JOHN F. POTTER
Being a novice in politics, I distrusted my own judgment as to a thing like this. My ambition did not run in the line of office, and I was much disturbed when I found myself pushed forward in that direction. The state of my mind at the time is best portrayed by a letter I wrote to my friend, Judge Potter, who represented the First District of Wisconsin in Congress — a letter which, forty years later, I found published in the Milwaukee Sentinel, together with others of Mr. Potter's political correspondence: "My name has been mentioned in connection with the nomination for governor. Several newspapers have brought me forward, and all our German Republican papers have taken this thing up with great alacrity. Then it went through the whole German Republican press of the North, and my nomination was represented as already made. This state of things embarrasses me very much. If I had been consulted about it before it got into the newspapers, I should have stopped it. . . . What the feeling of the people of this State is, I do not know and have taken no pains to ascertain. As for me, I am wavering whether I shall let the thing go on or cut it short by publicly declaring that I shall not be a candidate. Allow me to consider you my confidential friend, to tell you my thoughts, and to ask your advice. To be governor of this State, honorable as the position may be, is really not the object of my ambition. . . . The thing has only one charm for me, and that is, that a success of this kind would give me a more powerful influence over the German population of the Northern States, which would tell in 1860. Beyond this the governorship has little value for me personally." I then gave several reasons why I should prefer not to be a candidate, and closed: "Now, I want your advice, my dear Judge; tell me openly whether in your opinion I should put a stop to it by declaring my intention not to be a candidate, or whether I shall let the thing go on." Mr. Potter advised me not to withdraw, and I followed his no doubt well-meant counsel rather against my own judgment.
It turned out that my friend had been more sanguine than I was myself.
Governor Randall, who was a master in management, received the desired renomination by a large majority, and I was again nominated for the lieutenant-governorship, if I remember rightly, by an unanimous vote. This honor I, as well as my friends, thought I could not accept. But in declining it, I emphatically reaffirmed my devotion to the anti-slavery cause and to the party serving it. Some of my friends, however, were not so easily contented. They expressed their anger at what had happened in threatening language, and I made every possible effort to appease them. My first opportunity was a "rousing public reception" given me by the "Young Men's Republican Club" of Milwaukee on my return from the Republican State Convention at Madison, and I most earnestly admonished them never to forget, in anything they might be inclined to do, the great cause whose fate would be decided in the national election of 1860. This admonition I continued to urge upon my dissatisfied friends throughout the State campaign, which had much effect in quelling the disturbance; and the Republican candidates for the State offices were comfortably elected.
On the whole, this was not a promising prelude to an official career. But my wishes and hopes did not in truth contemplate such a career, and I felt that I had neither aptitude nor liking for the business of the "practical politician."
It was also at this period that I had the first taste of being attacked and vilified by political opponents. With a sort of blank amazement I found myself one day accused in a Democratic newspaper of being in the pay of the Prussian Government as a spy on the doings of the political refugees from Germany in America. The proof offered to sustain this charge consisted in the absurd allegation that, while the property of other exiles had been confiscated by the Prussian Government, mine had not been. I wondered whether anybody would take so silly an invention seriously. But it was evidently put afloat in the hope that it would be believed by persons not acquainted with European affairs, or by the class of people who were ready to believe anything bad of anybody, especially of a man belonging to the opposite party; and I was solemnly asked what I had to say to clear myself. Indignant at being expected to answer such a charge, I replied that I had not a word to say. This was interpreted by some as an indirect confession, but more generally as a proper expression of contempt. The matter attracted some attention in the State and was largely discussed in the press. The upshot was that a Republican editor, Mr. Horace Rublee, a man of uncommon ability and high character, who at a later period rose to distinction, inquired into my past career, and then learned and published the story of the liberation of Kinkel, which gave me a sort of romantic nimbus. And then an excited hunt began for the originator of the slander, which, indeed, did not result in the discovery of the guilty party, but in the most emphatic declarations of suspected persons that they were innocent.
This, however, was only the beginning of my experiences in being the victim of defamation. I know now, and I knew then, that every public man is more or less exposed to the unscrupulousness of the vilifier among his opponents. But as I became more active on the political field the attacks upon my character grew so thick and fast and amazingly reckless that I have often thought I had more than my proper share of personal abuse. Maybe the thugs of the press believed that, I being only an adopted citizen, a "foreigner," they could permit themselves greater license in abusing me than they could have safely indulged in when attacking a public man native to the soil. Certain it is that if only a tenth part of the things that were said and printed of me had been true, I should have been rather fit for the penitentiary than for the company of gentlemen. In the course of my public activity I became gradually hardened to this kind of infliction, and took it as an unavoidable incident of political warfare. I made it a rule never to dignify with an answer any accusation that had nothing to do with my public conduct.
My habit of not replying to attacks of the personal kind led sometimes to curious incidents. For instance, when at a later period I opposed General Grant's re-election in 1872, I spoke in a Western town where the Republican paper, anticipating my speech, published a personal attack on me so extravagant in its vileness that I cut out the article and put it in my pocketbook to show it on occasion to my friends for their amusement. It so happened that a few years later I visited the same town in a "sound money" campaign in which the Republican candidate was on the right side; and now it was the Democratic paper of the place that fired a tremendous volley of abuse at me. The Republican editor politely visited me at my hotel, holding the Democratic paper in his hand. "Have you seen this Democratic mud-battery?" he said. "It is a d——d outrage, isn't it?" I read and smiled, remembering that I happened to have my Republican friend's article still in my pocketbook. I took it out and presented it to him. "The Democratic mud-battery is not without precedent," said I. The poor man's confusion may be imagined. He blushed, stammered something unintelligible, and beat a hasty retreat.
One of the favorite methods of fighting a troublesome political opponent whose arguments cannot easily be answered, has always been to throw suspicion upon his motives. If it may be taken as a compliment to the strength of one's reasoning to be attacked in that way, I should be satisfied with the honors that have been showered upon me. For I had not been publicly active more than two or three years, when I could count upon it that, whenever I had made a speech that attracted some attention, a cry would surely arise from the opposite side accusing me of being in the field for money, and that I served only as a hired and paid attorney. And this cry followed me with a persistence truly remarkable. I do not know of any other public speaker being so constantly pestered in the same way. And the worst of it was that, as sad experience proved to me, a good many respectable and well disposed people believed that there was some truth in it. Even as late as 1896, when I made a speech at Chicago in behalf of sound money which was considered quite effective, it was said in opposition newspapers that I had received $10,000 for it; and some persons on my side, instead of repelling the slander, rather confirmed it by replying only that it was all right, "because my speech was worth so much and more." This went so far that, in some cases, money in considerable sums was offered to me as an inducement to enter the field when it was thought that I was reluctant to do so. One of these cases I may have occasion to mention particularly later on.
I must confess that this charge, coming forth again and again unremittingly, touched me more keenly than the absurd story of my being a Prussian spy had done, and on two occasions I replied to it — once when it appeared even in the Senate, and once when it was elaborated with peculiar acrimony in a prominent newspaper by no less a writer than Gail Hamilton, a relative and strenuous champion of Mr. Blaine. I replied, because the accusation impugned the unselfishness of my motives, and thus the integrity of my public conduct. The truth is, that being called into the service of the cause I believed in, so often — almost year after year — and being thus obliged to give to that service no end of my time and labor, and my own financial resources being very limited, I had sometimes necessarily to accept compensation for my expenses, traveling fare, hotel bills, and incidentals — for without such provision I could not have served at all. But there was hardly a campaign from which I did not return more or less considerably out of pocket, not seldom finding myself seriously embarrassed, as I had been obliged to neglect my own interests altogether for long periods of time. In fact, I had to serve my cause as a public speaker on the whole at a heavy sacrifice, not only in the way of outlay in excess of reimbursements, but, far more seriously, because the time and labor required for the preparation of speeches, involving much research and study, and the constant travel from meeting to meeting, made regular work in the law office impossible, and finally obliged me to abandon it altogether, much to my material injury and mental chagrin. It happened to me not infrequently that, when I came home from a political campaign, tired and longing for rest or quiet work, I found myself, in consequence of the long neglect of my affairs, obliged to replenish the exhausted bank account in the shortest possible time by setting out again on lecturing tours, which, as I had come to be much in demand by lyceum societies, were quite remunerative, but sometimes excessively fatiguing. And, as the irony of fate would have it, the fees I earned by lyceum lectures to make up for the sacrifices incurred in my political agitation, were used by my detractors as proof of their charge — that is to say, they falsely but perseveringly asserted that the remuneration I received for lyceum lectures I had regularly exacted for political speeches in addition to reimbursement for my outlays. It was one of the crosses I had to bear. Sometimes it severely tried my patience, but did not exhaust it.
The question whether it is not advisable or even necessary to restrain by law the license of the press in attacking public men has often been argued, and plausible reasons have been adduced in favor of restrictive measures. In spite of many provocations I have had to suffer, I have always been decidedly opposed to such a policy. That the freedom of the press in the discussion of the merits or demerits of public characters is liable to gross abuse, is certainly true. But it is no less true that any restrictive legislation would be liable to abuse far more dangerous. It is very difficult to draw the dividing line between legitimate and illegitimate criticism, and a law against the latter can hardly be devised that could not easily be misused against the former. It is infinitely more important that in a free government which is to rest upon a well-informed public opinion, legitimate criticism should have the widest and most unobstructed range, than that illegitimate criticism should be restrained or punished. As to the practical working of this freedom, I do not know a single instance of a public man in our political history being destroyed or seriously injured in his standing or influence by unjust attacks upon his character. But I know of several cases in which public men were justly attacked, and the public interest demanded that they be attacked, when such conscientious attacks would in all probability have been seriously discouraged, if not entirely prevented, had restrictive laws against illegitimate criticism, outside of our present libel laws, been in force. In fact, the enactment of such restrictive legislation has in our days been most urgently asked for, or at least desired, by a class of politicians whose interest it is to work mostly in the dark, and upon whom the searchlight of public criticism cannot be turned too relentlessly. I mean the "party machines" and the "bosses."
That the treatment of public characters in our press is not always a beautiful spectacle will readily be admitted. But in a democracy there are, unavoidably, many things, not bad in themselves, that do not furnish a beautiful spectacle; and if we were to remove everything from the workings of our free institutions that is not beautiful in appearance, there would soon be an end of popular government altogether. In its very nature a democracy cannot be esthetically perfect or entirely inoffensive to sensitive nerves. We find full compensation in its blessings for its roughnesses. It is often said that many persons of fine sensibilities will not take an active part in public life on account of the liberties which the press will take with their names. Such persons may be otherwise very estimable, but their public spirit surely lacks the true temper. They are like men who would serve their country as soldiers only on condition that they be not compelled to march over muddy roads, or to listen among their comrades to language not fit for ears polite.
In our days, especially since the assassination of President McKinley, there has been much outcry against the freedom with which the conduct and the character of the executive head of the National Government is being discussed, and much demand that, at least, the presidential office and the person of the occupant of it, should be specially protected by law against disrespectful treatment. And this demand has been reinforced by the assertion that assassination is apt to be incited by any discussion of public affairs or any criticism of the conduct of the government calculated to make the chief magistrate appear as an unworthy or dangerous person. To be sure, the presidential office is entitled to high respect, as one of the most important and exalted functions in the world, and its occupant should not be unjustly or even flippantly remarked upon. But it must not be forgotten that this is a Republic to be governed by a well-informed public opinion, and that this public opinion is to receive its light through the freest possible discussion and criticism of public affairs and policies and men. And to exempt the president on account of the dignity of his office from that critical discussion would be entirely incompatible with the nature of our government. The presidential office is reached through a nomination by a political party convention and the ratification thereof by the popular vote. It is the usual ambition of a president ending his first term of office to secure a second, and during the second to secure the presidency for another member of his party. The people have to decide by their votes whether they consider it their interest to gratify that ambition or not; and they have to make that decision on the best information they can get. They are clearly entitled to that information. Indeed, the information or advice presented to them by an unrestrained freedom of speech and press is not all trustworthy. But it is to be sifted by free discussion, and it cannot be sifted in any other way. Under these circumstances, to set up the president as a superior being to be protected by legal restrictions and penalties against all unhandsome criticism would fit governments in which the fiction of the divine right of kings prevails, but not ours.
It would be a dangerous thing for our presidents themselves, in the first place, because it would greatly obscure their judgment of public opinion. Even under present circumstances, they are, on account of the power they wield and the favors they have to bestow, surrounded by an atmosphere of sycophancy and obsequiousness but too apt to create in their minds extravagant notions of their greatness and popularity. It is an historic experience that some of them have thus fallen into the strangest delusions and errors. This danger would be still greater were their dignity artificially supported by laws restraining adverse criticism, and were presidents thus encouraged in the belief that by virtue of law they stand above the rest of mankind. That this would not be a healthy and profitable state of mind for the first officer of a republic, needs no argument. And secondly, if such a law had any influence at all, it would be not merely to prevent wanton vilification of the chief magistrate, but also to discourage legitimate and useful criticism of his official conduct. It is a significant fact that after the assassination of President McKinley there were hysterical outcries by vehement advocates of restrictive legislation against those who had opposed and criticised certain policies of the Administration in a perfectly legitimate way, as virtual instigators and accomplices of the assassin. It is easy to see how liable restrictive laws might be to gross and dangerous abuse in times of great excitement.
In my opinion the American people cannot be too careful in guarding the freedom of speech and of the press against any curtailment as to the discussion of public affairs and the character and conduct of public men. In fact, if our newspaper press has become at all more licentious than in olden times, it is in the way of recklessly invading social privacy and of the publication of private scandals. The discussion of public matters and the treatment of men in office, especially in high office, has gradually become very much more discreet and lenient than it was in the early times of the Republic. Private scandal may perhaps be repressed by a strengthening of the libel laws. But whatever is still remaining of scurrility in the treatment of public things and men should patiently be borne as one of the inevitable concomitants of democratic government, in accordance with Thomas Jefferson's wise saying that "he would much rather be exposed to the inconveniences arising from too much liberty, than those arising from too small a degree of it."