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IN EXECUTIVE SESSION,
but as my obligations to keep this secret did not terminate with my resignation as Secretary of the Senate, I can only talk to you of the manners of that highly respectable conclave. The first thing is the utter abandon of the Senators. They have no audiences to look down upon and listen to them. They have no gentlemen with the lightning pen to telegraph them to distant points. They are not called upon to face and to fear their constituency. Bound together by a solemn covenant not to reveal what transpires, they do exactly what pleases them most. I must say, with my frequent opportunities of observation, I have seen few who ever overpassed the courtesies and the proprieties of the place. All are easier and more familiar than when under the universal eye of a suspicious People. Those who smoke, smoke; those who like to be comfortable, take off their coats—but there is no such thing as dissipation, at least inside the chamber. Debate is made free because there is nobody to take it down, and the altercations, common in the open Senate, are not uncommon between those walls; and yet the perfect familiarity of the Senators, and the absence of all restraint, contribute to the adjustment of every dispute, however violent.
Talking about these executive sessions reminds me of the difficulty of keeping an official secret. The Senators are all oath-bound not to disclose executive business, and they rarely do so, unless as regards nominations and confirmations for political offices; but as these involve nothing of important political concern, there is a common courtesy that when a man is rejected or confirmed the circumstance may be freely spoken of; and it deserves to be said of the Senators generally that they keep what is intrusted to them with unusual fidelity. To exercise ordinary discretion and care requires extraordinary tact. The doors of the Senate are scarcely opened after executive session, when the whole newspaper tribe besiege the Senators with inquiries, and he must be a rare man who can refuse to drop a word to an editorial or reportorial friend,
Cabinet Ministers have many secrets confided to them, and great ingenuity is required to rescue them from dangerous revelations. The safest depositary of an official secret I ever knew was James Buchanan. This may have resulted from his cold and unimpassioned nature. Certain it is, he never betrayed what took place either in the Senate or in the Cabinet. The manner in which he preserved and kept from public view the fact of his nomination as Secretary of State under President Polk, twenty-nine years ago, is a good illustration. He was regarded as the probable successor of Daniel Webster, who held that great portfolio under most of the administration of John Tyler, but there were many doubters. I remember being present at a dinner given at the National Hotel by Commodore Stockton, of New Jersey, a few days before the inauguration of President Polk, in February of 1845. Among the guests were General William O. Butler, of Kentucky ; George Bancroft, of New York; Robert J. Walker, of Mississippi ; and John R. Thompson, of New Jersey—all since dead, except Bancroft, now at Berlin. Commodore Stockton was exceedingly anxious to discover the material of the incoming Cabinet, and he offered a wager that he could name a majority of the men who were to compose it. That wager was taken by Mr. Buchanan, without an allusion to his contingent connection with the new Administration. He was so careful and cautious that, up to the time of his nomination by President Polk, no friend—not even the one nearest to him-could positively assert that he would be associated with it in any way.
I observe that the Lancaster Examiner, without absolutely contradicting my statement that General Jackson recommended James Buchanan to James K. Polk for Secretary of State, questions it upon the theory that General Jackson had never previously trusted “Pennsylvania's favorite son." All I have to say in reply, is that I have no doubt this letter of General Jackson in favor of Mr. Buchanan will be found among the
private papers of the latter, and that his biographer will establish the fact as I have stated it. That General Jackson was never a special friend of James Buchanan is most true, but that he recommended Buchanan to James K. Polk as the first man in his Cabinet is my sincere belief.
[April 30, 1871.)
The winter before the war, shortly after having been again elected Clerk of the House of Representatives of the United States, I rented two large chambers on the lower floor of what is known on Capitol Hill as “The Mills House," and occupied them, with brief intervals, until March of 1871--sometimes including the two upper parlors, and occasionally taking possession of the whole house, which was very large and commodious; but this only happened when I called my friends around me, about once every three months. I began these assemblies shortly after the outbreak of the rebellion, for the purpose of creating and cementing a patriotic public opinion. My guests were always numerous enough to fill every room in the house, including the basement. They were men of all ideas, professions, and callings. We had no test but devotion to our country. We met like a band of brothers—the lawyer, the clergyman, the editor, the reporter, the poet, the painter, the inventor, the politician, the stranger, the old citizen, the Southerner and the Northerner, the soldier and the statesman, the clerk and the Cabinet Minister, and last, not least, President Lincoln himself. Nothing was spared to add to the interest of these symposia. We had speeches and recitations, vocal and instrumental music, all adding to the main objective point — the awakening of an enthusiasm for the assailed Republic. If a
leading man reached Washington on the day of our meeting he was instantly invited. A journal of the proceedings of these hearty foregatherings would be unusually attractive reading. At one table Thaddeus Stevens would be found playing a game of whist with the Democratic Representative from Indiana, the venerable John Law; at another William Pitt Fessenden and Senator Nesmith, of Oregon. Speaker, now Vice-President Colfax, would be seen in the corner with his inevitable cigar, talking with Hon. Samuel J. Randall, the Democratic Representative from the First Pennsylvania district. In another recess George D. Prentice, of the Louisville Journal, would be discussing politics with Joseph Medill, of the Chicago Tribune. The great portrait-painter, Elliott, would be engaged in artethics with Brady, the photographer ; and so on through all the grades of sentiment and society.
One evening in particular I shall never forget, when William H. Russell, the famous correspondent of the London Times, was present. While we were singing the “Star-spangled Banner" (this was before we got rid of the peculiar institution), he joined in the chorus in a loud voice, singing "America, the land of the free, and the home of the slave.” There were argumentations and discussions, but no quarreling. Another night, when nearly all the Cabinet were present, General Cameron, Secretary of War, startled the proprieties by taking bold ground in favor of arming the negroes. He was immediately answered by Hon. Caleb N. Smith, Secretary of the Interior, and the controversy became exceedingly animated, enlisting all the company, silencing the music, and creating a deal of consternation. Robert J. Walker, George D. Prentice, and several more par.. ticipated in the discussion, while Edwin M. Stanton, then a quiet practitioner of the law, stood by, a silent figure in the scene.
Edwin Forrest was always one of us whenever he visited Washington, and, as I said in a former number, was the toast
and the star of the night. He gave liberally to the Union cause, without being a Republican. Though he did not unite with us when we sung “John Brown,” none could have been more graceful and ready in contributing to the general pleasure. One dramatic night I shall never forget. Forrest was in royal condition. He came early and stayed late. He seemed to be prepared to make every body happy. He needed no solicitation to display his varied stores of humor and of information : sketches of foreign travel ; photographs of Southern manners, alike of the master and the slave ; his celebrated French criticism upon Shakespeare ; his imitation of the old clergyman of Charleston, South Carolina, who, deaf himself, believed every body else to be so; his thrilling account of his meeting with Edmund Kean, at Albany, when Forrest was a boy; his incidents of General Jackson ; his meeting with Lafayette at Richmond, in 1825. Few that heard him can ever forget that night. But nothing that he did will be remembered longer than the manner in which he recited “The Idiot Boy," a production up to that time unknown to every body in the room except Forrest and myself, and to me only because I heard him repeat it seven years before, when I lived on Eighth Street, in the house lately known as the Waverley. These lines are so beautiful and so unique that I print them for the benefit of the readers of these hasty sketches.
To add to their present value, it may be interesting to say that the verses subjoined are taken from an autograph copy, forwarded to me yesterday by my dear friend Forrest himself, accompanied by the following note. The style of Mr. Forrest's writing is as clear, correct, and careful as it was twenty years ago:
“PHILADELPHIA, May 4, 1871. “MY DEAR FORNEY,- I could not find the book that contains the little poem. I think friend Dougherty has it, and so I have written it from memory.