« PreviousContinue »
lady friend, since deceased, called my attention to the fact that the wife of one of her best servants, Sam, was about to be sent away from him to Georgia, and that unless over eight hundred dollars could be raised for her in forty-eight hours, her master, a man living at Georgetown, D. C., would be sure to sell her to strangers. The case was a terrible one. Sam was a fine fellow, and his distress was grievous. I sat down and wrote out the facts, headed the subscription, and in a few hours raised the money, paying over three hundred dollars myself. The papers were made out to me, and I set the woman free. “Well,” said Mr. Stevens, as he paid his fifty dollars, “this is the first time I ever heard of a Democrat buying a negro and then giving her her liberty !"
He affected much indignation when President Lincoln consigned Roger A. Pryor to me as a sort of prisoner-guest in 1865, and regularly every morning would greet me with the grim remark: "How is your Democratic friend, General Pryor? I hope you are both well.” I was a little annoyed by his sarcasm, and when an appeal was made to me by an old citizen to assist in pardoning another Confederate, I referred him to Mr. Stevens. He happened to know the Great Commoner, and went over to him with my message. Judge of my surprise when he returned with the proposition that whatever I wrote he [Stevens] would sign. I dictated the strongest appeal to the President, and Mr. Stevens put his name to it. I indorsed the petition ; but I did not fail to remind my neighbor that very day of his inconsistency. “Oh! you need not be riled about it,” was the retort; “I saw you were going heavily into the Pardon business, and thought I would take a hand in it myself.”
Mr. Lincoln was a humorist of another school. He delighted in parables and stories. His treasures of memory were inexhaustible. He never failed for an illustration. He liked the short farce better than the five-act tragedy. He would shout
with laughter over a French, German, or negro anecdote, and he was always ready to match the best with a better. More than once, when I bore a message to him from the Senate, he detained me with some amusing sketch of Western life. He seemed to have read the character, and to know the peculiarities of every leading man in Congress and the country, and would play off many an innocent joke upon them. I will not attempt to repeat what has been so often described. There was also a sacred confidence around many of those scenes which could not be violated without offense to many living good men; and as I do not write to wound the feelings, I will not profane an illustrious memory by reviving what would only give unnecessary pain.
His two inaugurations were accompanied by apprehensions of his assassination, and the second was followed in a little more than a month by his murder. At the inauguration of March 4, 1861, I was present as Clerk of the House. At the inauguration of March 4, 1865, I was present as Secretary of the Senate. James Buchanan, as ex-President, heard the remarkable first message of the man who succeeded him, just as Andrew Johnson heard the still more remarkable inauguration of the man he succeeded. War followed the one, peace and assassination the other. The scene in the Senate of the United States on the 4th of March 1865, when Andrew Johnson was sworn in as Vice-President, has too often been painted to be set out into daylight again. Let it rest. I refer to it now only to relate one incident. After we reached the eastern and middle portion of the Capitol, where Mr. Lincoln took the oath, Johnson was under a state of great excitement, and was in my immediate charge. I was confident, however, that he would be subdued before the President finished his inaugural. To the surprise of every body however, except, perhaps, the Cabinet, Mr. Lincoln did not consume five minutes in repeating it. As soon as the people outside saw that he was done, loud cries were raised for Johnson, upon which we hastily retreated to the Senate chamber, and closed the unhappy and inauspicious day. On the 14th of the succeeding month of April, the murder planned four years before, and baffled by superior foresight, was executed, and Abraham Lincoln was dying from the pistol-shot of Booth.
[March 5, 1871.]
CIRCUMSTANCE often controls men as inexorably as conscience. Many a Confederate would have been a Radical if he had lived in the North, just as many a Radical would have been a Confederate if he had lived in the South. Howell Cobb was one of the best types of this idea. There was an undercurrent of anti-slavery, or rather a profound devotion to the Union, in his nature. Take his campaign against the Nullifiers of the South in 1850, when he ran as an independent candidate for governor of Georgia, and was elected over Charles J. McDonald, the leader of the Calhounites. At the close of his first eight years in Congress, and at the end of his Speakership of the House, I sat with him in his official room at the Capitol, and heard his eloquent declaration that he would make war upon these men, cost him what it might. The contest was exciting to a degree. Personal vituperation and personal threats were as common against Cobb as they were twenty years after against Bullock, the Republican governor of Georgia. In 1855 Governor Cobb was again sent to Congress, and there took early and patriotic ground against the extremists. He was so anxious to make Mr. Buchanan President, that in 1856, on my invitation, he came into Pennsylvania, and traversed Chester County with John Hickman, pledging the Democracy to justice
JOHN C. BRECKINRIDGE.
to the people of Kansas. His argument was exceedingly effective, and thousands voted for the “favorite son” because they believed the impassioned Georgian.
Yet as the controversy deepened Governor Cobb yielded to the exactions of his section, and when the rebellion burst upon us he was one of the foremost and most resolute of the secession chiefs. He died in New York in 1869, in his 54th year, greatly mourned in Georgia, where he leaves large family connections. Before we revive the censure of his conduct as James Buchanan's Secretary of the Treasury, and as one of the members of the government of Jefferson Davis, let us "put ourselves in his place."
Another illustration of the force of circumstances is that of John Cabell Breckinridge, of Kentucky. I have always believed that he espoused the Confederacy, if not reluctantly, at least in the conviction that it would forever end his political career. He inherited hostility to slavery. When he came to Washington in 1851 as a Representative from the old Henry Clay Lexington district, in Kentucky, he was in no sense an extremist. At that early day, when he had just attained his 30th year, and I was in my 34th, we conferred freely and frequently on the future of our country. He used to relate how Sam Houston, for whom he had great respect, would expatiate upon the dangers and evils of slavery; and it was not difficult to trace the operation of the same idea in his own mind. But he was too interesting a character to be neglected by the able ultras of the South. They saw in his winning manners, attractive appearance, and rare talent for public affairs, exactly the elements they needed in their concealed designs against the country. If they were successful in arousing his ambition and finally making him one of themselves, we must not forget that few men similarly placed would have been proof against such blandishments. Let this be said of him. He was never prominent in the small persecutions of the Democrats who refused to indorse
the course of the Administration of which he was Vice-President. No doubt that lost him the confidence of the President and his immediate followers.
He was made a Senator in Congress from Kentucky when the Buchanan régime expired, taking his seat on the very day that his venerable chief retired to Wheatland; and he remained a Senator in Congress till the close of the called session, which opened on the 14th of July, and closed on the 6th of August, 1861. He was the leader of the Democracy in that exciting month, and though he gave no sign of his intention to join the rebel army, nobody was surprised when he was reported at Richmond, Virginia.
Perhaps the most dramatic scene that ever took place in the Senate Chamber-old or new—was that between Breckinridge and Colonel E. D. Baker, of Oregon, on the ist of August, 1861, five days before the adjournment sine die, in the darkest period of the war, when the rebellion was most defiant and hopeful. The last week of that July was full of excitement in Congress and the country, and I know how much labor and patience it required to keep alive the hopes of our people. The course of Powell and Breckinridge, of Kentucky, and Bright, of Indiana, in opposing the Government, had nearly obliterated party feeling in the Senate. McDougall, of California, Rice, of Minnesota, Thompson, of New Jersey, all Democrats, had declared for force to crush the rebellion. These men were especially emphatic, though closely endeared to Breckinridge. Thompson, of New Jersey, spoke loud and firm from his seat—"I shall vote for the bill as a war measure I am in favor of carrying on the war to crush out the rebellion.” The same day McDougall questioned the right of Powell, of Kentucky, to his seat in the Senate. Andrew Johnson reiterated his determination to stand by the flag to the last. Carlile, of West Virginia, would vote for force to put down the rebel foe.
It was in the midst of this feeling that Breckinridge rose to