Three Days, Three Speeches

Next week I will be giving three speeches about three different men on three successive days.

On Wednesday evening I will be at the Smiley Library in Redlands, California, to talk about William Henry Seward. I spoke with this group a few months back about Stanton, for some reason I never spoke with them about Seward when the Seward book was first released. They had a cancelation and asked if I could fill in with Seward. Since I need to spend time at the library anyway, to research the Chase book, it is not a big problem.

Why, one might ask, does one need to visit a small public library in California to research Salmon Chase? Twenty-five years ago, John Niven and various Claremont graduate students worked to gather all the letters to and from Salmon Chase. They published the letters in two forms: a small selection were transcribed, edited, and published in five print volumes, and a larger selection were published in forty reels of microfilm. The “raw material” from which Niven and his team worked, for some reason, did not wind up in the Claremont library, but rather in the nearby Smiley Library, which has a strong interest in the period, as the home of the Lincoln Shrine. The raw material consists of thousands of letters to and from Chase, in the form of photocopies gathered from the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and dozens of other libraries.

I have spent some time at the Smiley Library already, and need to spend more time there, reading through these thousands of letters, or more precisely skimming most of them, and reading a few. Chase’s handwriting is not good, and these are not originals; they are photocopies, made thirty years ago on not-very-good photocopy machines. So often reading and deciphering and transcribing a single letter can take half an hour.

On Thursday evening, I will be in Seattle to speak to the Puget Sound Civil War Round Table about Edwin Stanton. I spoke with this group six years ago, when my Seward book was first out. Even though the Civil War had little effect on Washington Territory—there were no battles or even skirmishes—the Puget Sound Civil War Round Table is one of the strongest roundtables in the nation. So I expect a good crowd and good questions.

Every speech I give is different: I try to emphasize the place I am in and issues of interest. And, even in standard parts of the speech, I make changes over time. For example, in the Seattle speech, I will give a longer version of the “why was Stanton interesting” argument, as follows.

George Templeton Strong, the New York lawyer and diarist, knew Edwin McMasters Stanton.  They worked together, and against one another, during the war, when Strong was a leader of the Sanitary Commission, a private group formed to help care for wounded soldiers, a group which Stanton viewed as interfering in the work of his department. When Strong first met Stanton, in early 1862, he liked him, thought he was far better than his predecessor Simon Cameron. Strong wrote at that time that Stanton was “not handsome, but on the contrary, rather pig-faced. At lowest estimate, worth a wagon-load of Camerons. Intelligent, prompt, clear-headed, fluent without wordiness, and above all, earnest, warm-hearted and large-hearted.” By the time of Stanton’s death, seven years later in 1869, Strong had a more complete view of Stanton. Strong wrote at that time that “good and evil were strangely blended in the character of this great war minister.  He was honest, patriotic, able, indefatigable, warm-hearted, unselfish, incorruptible, arbitrary, capricious, tyrannical, vindictive, hateful, and cruel.”  I think that George Templeton Strong was about right:  that Stanton was all of those things, a strange blend of good and evil.  That is what makes Stanton such a fascinating, challenging subject for a biographer, and I hope an interesting subject for the reader.

On Friday morning, I will be speaking at Seattle Prep to the eleventh grade class, about Salmon Chase and writing history. This is the first time that I have given a speech about Chase, and writing the speech forced me to think about writing some parts of the Chase book. How, for example, to describe the events that led Chase to serve as defense lawyer for Matilda Lawrence, a fugitive slave? Here is what I came up with.

In the early part of 1836, an abolitionist editor, James Birney, started publishing his paper, the Philanthropist, in Cincinnati. One evening in July, an anti-abolitionist mob destroyed Birney’s printing press. Birney somehow resumed the paper a few days later, but on July 30, an even larger mob destroyed his press again, then threatened and destroyed other businesses and homes. Chase tried to hold a meeting of the “friends of law and order” on August 2, but this meeting was overwhelmed by another mob. A local paper reported that Chase had said that he would give $10,000 to support an abolitionist press, and Chase wrote to explain that he did not intend to support an abolitionist press, but rather to prevent the destruction of any press. “Much as I have deprecated the course of the abolitionists, I regard all the consequences of their publications, as evils comparatively light, when contrasted with the evils produced by the prevalence of mob spirit. Freedom of the press and constitutional liberty must live and perish together.” And so, when Birney needed a lawyer to press a claim against the mob’s leaders, many of whom were also city leaders, Chase agreed to represent  him, even though he knew it would hurt his career chances.

In March 1837, James Birney arrived breathless at Chase’s office, seeking his legal help in another case, that of his maid, Matilda Lawrence. The Birneys had hired Matilda a few months earlier, thinking she was white, and only later learned that she was a former slave, probably the daughter of her master, Larkin Lawrence. Matilda and Larkin Lawrence had spent a year back East, where she passed as his daughter; on the way home to Missouri, when they stopped at a Cincinnati hotel, Matilda escaped, hiding first with a black barber, and then working for the Birney family. Now a slave catcher had arrested Matilda and was planning to take her down the river, to sell her at a slave market in St. Louis or New Orleans. Birney was worried not only about Matilda but also about himself; he could be prosecuted for the crime of harboring a fugitive slave.

Chase agreed to take the case. He only had one night in which to prepare his argument, for the case was set for trial the next day. The essence of his argument was that slavery was only a matter of state law; it existed in the slave states, such as Kentucky, but it did not exist in the free states, such as Ohio. Chase also pointed out that the fugitive slave law was a federal law; nothing in that law, nothing in Ohio law, authorized the state courts and state officers to enforce the federal fugitive slave law. The judge took only a few minutes to consider the issues; he ruled against Chase, against Matilda, and then the slave catcher and two helpers seized Matilda, and took her to the next steamboat heading South. We know nothing about the rest of her life; she was probably sold into slavery, but whether she lived long enough to see freedom, we do not know.

These paragraphs are far from perfect: when I get to writing the book I need to do a better job of explaining how abolitionists were viewed as eccentrics—sort of like those today who believe that there are aliens among us—and how Cincinnati was especially unfriendly to abolitionists—because it was so tightly tied to the South. And I need to give a fuller version of Chase’s Matilda argument, because it was a critical step in his evolving view of slavery.

But a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first few steps.