The United States Democratic Review/Volume 43/Issue 2/Biographical Sketches. Hon. Isaac Toucey—Secretary of the Navy
If a consistent political course, an unchanging devotion to political principles, and a fearless vindication of political opinions, constitute any merit in a statesman, Mr. Toucey has well deserved the confidence of the public. The characteristics of the individual will display themselves in the politician. Man's nature is not often changed by his elevation to political or social rank. Qualities which in one position lie dormant are often displayed and brought into relief in another; and it is the surest touchstone of merit that the traits which adorn the private citizen, still exist to add grace and strength to the character of the public servant.
Mr. Toucey is in the prime of his intellectual vigor and usefulness. In his tastes and tendencies he is essentially scholar-like and refined. These tendencies are indicated by his personal appearance and manners, which are remarkably gentlemanly and dignified but unostentatious. The prevailing expression of his features indicates determination of character, coupled with a courteous deference to the claims of others. He is a favorable illustration of the New England character in its higher developments, possessing a keen and shrewd sagacity, united to a conscientious pursuit of his object, and a straightforward, earnest, and sincere disposition, together with an untiring industry, so that labor is his habit; he never relies upon a subordinate in the discharge of duties appropriately his own.
Mr. Toucey received early in life a thorough classical education; and his tastes for classical pursuits, so far from being extinguished in the active scenes of professional or political life, as is usually the case, still exist in undiminished strength, his practice being to devote a portion of every day to the reading of those ancient languages which have transmitted such intellectual treasures to modern times. He pursued the study of the law in the office of the Hon. Judge Chapman of the Supreme Court of Connecticut. On his admission to the bar he established himself in the city of Hartford, and soon gave evidence of those traits of character by which he has become known to the nation.
Assiduous in his attention to business, and scrupulously faithful to his clients, his efforts at the bar were marked by a forcible and vigorous logic, which enabled him to dispense with the reputation which depends on mere rhetorical display. His first vote was cast in support of the Democratic cause; and unseduced by the prestige which so long clung to the leaders of the Federal party, he entered upon the course, which he has ever since pursued with uniform consistency, that of a warm and earnest advocacy of popular institutions, as explained and illustrated by the great leaders of the Democracy.
From the commencement of his political life to the present day he has been open and consistent in the avowal and maintenance of his opinions upon the questions which, of late years, have so agitated our country. In public and in private he has never hesitated to avow and to defend those opinions, thoroughly national in their character; and although, on some occasions, they may have caused his defeat in his native State, few men upon the whole have been more successful. While others, his opponents, have seized upon a fleeting notoriety by sectional agitation, he has steadily pursued his upward and undeviating course, and now justly enjoys the reputation of a statesman whose views and policy embrace the whole country.
Previous to his entrance into our national councils he had represented his town and district in both branches of the Legislature of his State; and it is not an unimportant fact, illustrating the force of his personal worth added to distinguished talents, that when elected to the State Senate, he overcame an opposition to the Democratic party in his district which had stood firm and unbroken for nearly twenty successive years. Other important positions he occupied; and more than once he was invited, by friends, who had the power of bestowing it, to take a seat upon the bench of the Supreme Court. These flattering invitations he declined. He was elected to the House of Representatives as a member of the twenty-fifth Congress; and at once took a prominent position as the advocate of Democratic measures.
In 1846 he was elected Governor of Connecticut, in which position he was distinguished for his administrative talents. His administration was made memorable by his veto of the bill, at that time quite popular in the state, authorizing what was called the "Air Line Railroad Company," to bridge the Connecticut at Middletown. The doctrines he then set forth were deemed by many as novel and unsettled; but have since been fully sustained and confirmed by the Supreme Court of the United States in the case relating to the bridge over the Ohio at Wheeling.
In 1848 he was appointed, by President Polk, Attorney General of the United States. His peculiar fitness for that position was at once evident to all reflective men.
The office of Attorney General requires the incumbent to possess, not only the qualifications of a judge, but also of an advocate. He represents the United States in the highest judicial tribunal of the country, in cases in which its interests are involved, and he must be able to illustrate them by arguments and to display them in the most favorable light. He is also to give opinions upon questions of law, when requested by the President and the heads of departments, to guide them in the discharge of their responsible and complicated duties. He must, therefore, possess a judicial mind, which will enable him to discriminate between what is substantial and what is merely formal. He must possess also the further qualifications of a statesman, and as a member of the cabinet contribute his share towards the solution of great questions relating to the national interests. In the discharge of these various duties, Mr. Toucey sustained his reputation as an acute and discriminating lawyer as well as a fearless and national statesman. His opinions are not overlaid and darkened by the display of cheap learning, but possess the merit, in a high degree, of being sensible, vigorous, and easy to be understood. He does not amplify nor digress from the point in issue into discussions foreign to the subject, but having a distinct idea of what he intends to say, he expresses it in a direct and perspicuous manner. His opinions, as they are found in the published series, illustrate and fully sustain these views. They stand there as models of judicial eloquence, commanding the approbation of our greatest lawyers, while, as authorities, they are unsurpassed by the opinions of the most distinguished men who have occupied that high position.
In the year 1852 Mr. Toucey, while a member of the House of Representatives of Connecticut, was elected to represent the State in the Senate of the United States. His election had, to some extent, been made an issue before the people. A decided Democratic majority was returned to both houses. His course in the Senate is well known. He was looked upon as one of those members on whom a Democratic administration could rely with confidence and safety. When the question arose, whether the different States of the Union were to possess equal political privileges—whether the people of the several States were to exercise the right of self-government in a matter of vital interest to themselves, or were to be trammelled by the arbitrary discretion of Congress—whether the inhabitants of Kansas and Nebraska were to have a voice in moulding their own institutions, or were to be forced into the support of the abstract theories of morbid sentimentalists—Mr. Toucey, true as he ever has been to the maintenance of equal rights as guaranteed by our national constitution, advocated and voted for the bill which declared them to the American people. The Missouri compromise bill, for so many years a public manifesto, that the people residing within a certain latitude were incompetent to govern themselves, has now taken its place in history as a gigantic error, inconsistent with our constitution and unworthy of a free and enlightened people. Originating in false philanthropy and mistaken views of the Constitution it fell before the sight of truth. Its fall aroused in the ranks of its supporters such a hatred to its opponents as only fanatics can feel. No cowardly malice, no form of contumely—no base insinuations were wanting towards those who had the audacity to believe, and to maintain, the doctrines of self-government.
It required no little moral courage to breast this wave of denunciation; but Mr. Toucey met it firmly—calmly—as a man conscious of his own rectitude, standing upon the strong foundation of truth and justice. He might have bowed before the storm, but that was not in his nature. He might have purchased his re-election at the price of principle, but that was a consideration he could not pay. He voted for the Nebraska bill, thereby, it is true, for a time, losing the support of Connecticut, but gaining the confidence of the nation. That confidence, we are sure, no act of his will ever forfeit.
In selecting Mr. Toucey for the Navy Mr. Buchanan exhibited his usual sound judgment and accurate discrimination of character.
Governor Toucey entered upon the duties of this highly responsible post in March, 1857. Although he had had much experience in public affairs, state and national, and had filled the various stations with which he had been honored, with marked and decided ability, the field upon which he now entered was new and entirely different front any in which he had heretofore labored, beset as it was with difficulties that none, until they make the experiment, can comprehend. A Secretary of War, upon his induction into office, finds system and regularity—the army divided into corps—each officer employed in his legitimate sphere, and the various branches of the service moving in unison and harmony. In the Navy Department there is no such system, and possibly, from the nature of the service, there cannot be, without a thorough re-organization—a work involving not only much time but an enlarged experience. A Secretary of the Navy, entering upon the duties of office, suddenly finds everything connected with the Naval Marine, under his supervision, such as the building and repairing of ships, contracts for material, steam machinery, naval stores, clothing, provisions, &c.; the improvement of the Navy Yards, the Naval School, together with the disposition of the squadrons abroad, so as to afford adequate protection to the valuable and constantly increasing commerce which, through the enterprise of our commercial community, now penetrates every quarter of the world. In many instances it is not the mere supervision, but the direction of the details of these various objects. Superadded to all this, the duty devolves duty him of assigning officers to commands and positions in the service ashore and afloat, which of itself is no ordinary task, when it is recollected he has to decide conflicting claims for duty, resulting from the fact that there are more officers than positions.
When Gov. Toucey entered the Department as its official head the personnel of the Navy was in a most confused and distracted condition, resulting from the operation of the act of Congress providing for a reserved list. As Gov. Toucey, when in the Senate, had advocated and voted for a law granting relief to those officers who complained of injustice by being placed on the Reserved List, not a few of them, as well as their friends, were disappointed that he did not at once adopt decisive measures to counteract the ill effects alleged. As a Senator he had advocated a law for their benefit, but as an Executive officer he wisely decided, that the remedy provided by Congress must be pursued if they desired relief A little reflection served to convince that his rule of action was the true one, and his kind and generous course towards those officers who applied for a restoration to their original positions, under the law passed for their relief, has secured him the lasting gratitude and esteem, not only of the officers themselves, but of their friends.
Gov. Toucey, the two and a half years he has been at the head of the Department, has displayed administrative ability of no ordinary character—he has introduced many salutary reforms in every branch of the service, by which promptness and efficiency are secured as well as economy, with a strict accountability in the disbursement of the public money. One of the reforms he has established merits special notice. Heretofore complaints have been loud and frequent, that service, irrespective of the rights of others, has been obtained or evaded through assiduous personal solicitation at the Department, or through official cliques who have controlled the distribution of favors, or through the political and personal influence of friends. This crying evil has been remedied much to the satisfaction of the officers generally. Each one now feels and knows that he will have his just rights, free from political or other influence. Officers are now required to perform the duty of their respective grades in regular rotation, and if any decline service, they are placed on furlough pay, unless very satisfactory reasons are shown in exploration.
While exacting of every officer and man his whole performance of duty, Sec. Toucey evinced his goodness of heart by making that duty as pleasant and light as the nature of the service will admit. In reducing the term of foreign cruisers from three to two years, he effected a reform in the Naval Service alike popular and useful. The advantages of this change are too apparent to require a word of argument to prove its utility.
An increase of the effective force of the Navy has received much attention, and in the measures connected therewith Gov. Toucey has displayed a knowledge of the subject which reflects upon him the highest credit. Under his administration of the Department no less than twenty steam vessels have been added to its effective force. Those constructed under his direction are admirably built, and justly pronounced equal, if not superior, to any of their respective classes in the world. In the contracts for the steam machinery he displayed a knowledge, which elicited from competent engineers the most unqualified commendation. The great object he had constantly in view, was to combine in the same vessel, not only a complete adaptation for naval warfare, but at the same time the greatest possible speed. Experts pronounce the Lancaster, Hartford, and vessels of that class, built contemporaneously with them, as unrivalled in each and every particular; and it is not doubted but the Wyoming, and vessels of her class, constructed at the same time, will enjoy a like reputation.
When Congress directed redress to be demanded of Paraguay for the insult offered the Flag, and for spoliations of the property of citizens of the United States, the sending of a large fleet was deemed the surest way of accomplishing the object, and accordingly Gov. Toucey despatched as efficient and imposing a squadron as any which has heretofore left our shores. In preparing for the expedition it was soon ascertained the Navy did not possess vessels of a draught of water light enough to ascend the Parana and Paraguay rivers, in a sufficient number, in the event of force being required to secure the redress our Government demanded. In this emergency a commission of competent Naval Officers, the chief Naval Constructor, and the Engineer in Chief, were dispatched to the seaport cities to examine such steam vessels as would be available for that purpose. This commission selected seven, and upon its report and recommendation they were chartered by the Department. In the contracts of charter, Governor Toucey, with a sagacity which shows him ever alive, not only to the interest of the Navy, but the whole country, inserted a clause whereby the privilege was reserved to the Government of purchasing the vessels at a stipulated price, deducting whatever had been paid or was due on account of their charter. The Paraguay Expedition having accomplished its object in a much briefer period than anticipated, and being on its return, Gov. Toucey saw that if the Department could avail itself of the stipulations of the contracts, seven steam vessels of a class, the services of which were greatly needed for special objects, would be added to the Navy, at a comparatively small cost. Congress being in session, he applied for the means to enable him to carry into effect this design, and notwithstanding it was against the views of the committees on Naval Affairs of both houses, through his personal influence, and the obvious merits of the measure, an appropriation was obtained authorizing the purchase if the Department deemed it advisable. Gov. Toucey availed himself of the discretion thus given, and most wisely purchased the vessels in question, thereby adding seven steamers to the Navy, which could not have been secured in any other manner. At the time, this purchase was the subject of much comment and animadversion, not only in the newspapers of the day but in Naval circles. It was generally condemned, but now those foremost in and out of the Navy to censure the act, have been irresistibly compelled to admit their mistake, and acknowledge that the course of the Secretary was marked with decided foresight and judgment. The Department never intended these should be considered strictly war vessels, but Gov. Toucey knew, with certain repairs in their hulls and machinery, they could be made most efficient for special duty. He was well aware that on our southern coast, as well as those of Cuba and Africa, vessels only of a light draught can enter most of the rivers and harbors. The vessels have been repaired, the command assigned to enterprising Lieutenants, and are now on the eve of sailing for their destination on the coasts of Africa and Cuba.
In the disposition of the naval forces, Governor Toucey does not abate that forecast and energy which characterize his administration of the department. Whenever political or other considerations require that a vessel or vessels should be at any particular point, it will be found he has already anticipated the views and wishes of the country. In the early part of 1858, Great Britain claimed the right of search on the high seas, and her cruisers had actually exercised it, in the Gulf of Mexico, in the case of several American vessels. It is true that Great Britain claimed this right of search only where the vessels were suspected to be slavers. Whilst Congress and the newspaper press were discussing her pretensions, our Government had already sent to the Gulf a formidable force, with orders to the commanders of the various vessels to resist to the end any such pretension, and at every hazard to prevent the exercise of any such police of the sea, as that claimed by Great Britain. The high ground assumed by Mr. Buchanan's administration on this question, and the promptness of Gov. Toucey in dispatching a sufficient force, not only to assert, but enforce our rights, was as effectual as the diplomacy which, fortunately for the peace of the two countries and the world, finally disposed of this delicate and vexed question.
At no period of our history has the navy been more efficient than the present. There are more vessels in commission on foreign stations than we have ever had before, and the several squadrons are in a condition of which the country may justly be proud. Heretofore the vessels composing the squadron on the coast of Africa, which is kept up in compliance with treaty stipulations with Great Britain, have been of a description not well adapted for the object in view. A new squadron has just been organized, consisting of four sailing vessels and four steamers, two of which are of light draught, with the ability to ascend the rivers on the coast. This class of vessels will be most serviceable in putting a check, if not an entire stop to the slave trade. There are four small steamers also about to sail for the waters of Cuba, so that if the slavers should elude the vigilance of our cruisers on the African coast, they will be caught by those off the shores of Cuba. This policy is important in more than one way. Our Government is under a treaty stipulation to put a stop to the slave trade in American vessels, and if we succeed, the question presents itself, whether Spain will continue to find Cuba a source of revenue, if the island is deprived of its annual supply of labor from the coast of Africa? In the contingency that Spain does not find it a source of revenue, and it is demonstrable that she cannot, will not the United States be able to acquire the sovereignty of the island at a much more moderate rate than that recently proposed by distinguished southern statesmen? This is a matter for consideration, and may not the system inaugurated by Gov. Toucey lead to a result so much desired by the country generally, and especially the southern portion? In connexion with his policy in regard to the African squadron, Gov. Toucey has directed the depôt of provisions and coal to be removed from Porto Praya to St. Paul de Loando, a Portuguese settlement on the main land in 8° south latitude. This point is known to be a healthy position, of easy access, and in the immediate vicinity of the cruising ground of the squadron. The vessels heretofore have been compelled to spend too much time at Madeira and other places, remote from the theatre of operation. These points will only be visited by the vessels for occasional refreshment and recruit of the health of their crews. A glance at the map will at once show the change of depOt to be a most judicious measure.
Governor Toucey, in his present position, has fully justified the anticipations of his most ardent and cherished friends; and judging of the future from the past, it is not hazarding too much to say, that when he retires from the department, he will leave our naval marine in a condition of efficiency it has never before attained under any administration.