Anyone who has read any of my books knows that I believe in quoting the subject. If you want to know about William Henry Seward, the best sources are Seward’s letters and speeches and memoirs. One must also find material about Seward, of course, to provide third-party perspective. But in my view a biography should allow the reader to hear the subject not just the biographer.
I am revising the chapter that deals with Salmon Chase’s first years in Washington, from late 1826 through early 1830. Chase arrived while John Quincy Adams was president and stayed into the first years of Andrew Jackson’s presidency. Chase’s letters from this period are wonderful, and I will be quoting them in the book, but in small bites, not page-long quotes. Some of them seem to me to deserve longer quotes, especially because in many cases my research assistant Jessica or I have had to decipher Chase’s handwriting. Here are a few samples.
In December 1826, just after he arrived, Chase wrote to two sisters in Keene, New Hampshire, to describe his trip to the capital and the city itself. He writes in part:
There are two very splendid buildings here and will be another when the City Hall is finished. The Capitol is situated about a mile east from the President’s House, and is a most magnificent building. It contains the Senate Chamber, Hall of the House of Representatives and various Committee Rooms. The U.S. Library is also in this building. The four celebrated historical paintings by Trumbull are exhibited to public view in the Rotunda of the Capitol. In this room the echoes are so numerous that sounds become indistinct and a continual roaring is heard above your head while on the floor you can scarcely hear a person speaking a few paces from you. I was introduced to the President a few days since. The Jacksonians call him King John but certainly I never saw a man whose appearance in my estimation was more unkingly. He is exceedingly plain in his dress and his manners. He is affable and of easy access though he is naturally very stiff and formal. Time and much intercourse with the world have enabled him in a degree to overcome his natural defects. The House in which he lives is very splendid if we keep the cost of it out of view, but when that is considered we wonder that it should have taken so much money to build so poor a house. Its cost was a million of dollars. I forgot to say that the President is diminutive in his person has blue eyes and a short nose, a forehead neither very high nor very low, and on the whole is a very ordinary looking man.
(Chase did not mention, but could have, that the Supreme Court met in the Capitol, in a cramped room on the ground floor. Already the Jacksonians were campaigning against Adams, calling him an aristocrat, a king, and contrasting him with Jackson, a man of the people.)
In January 1827, Chase wrote to a college classmate:
You see by the date of my letter that I am now in the metropolis of the nation, where all grades of character, all distinctions of rank—from the noble, magnanimous, upright and talented Webster down to the servile, intriguing and—yes I must call him talented too—[Calhoun]—from the President of the United States down to the ostler that attends upon the President’s horses—meet and mingle. The President holds a levee every alternate Wednesday night. I have never attended them but once, when I went at the invitation of Mr. Ichabod Bartlett, who introduced me to Mrs. Adams and the President’s two sons. Mrs. Adams is a very fine-looking woman and is said to possess a very liberal disposition. The sons are nothing remarkable either in person or in mind. These levees are always crowded to excess, so much so that standing room can scarcely be found. Last New Year’s day the room was so crowded that a servant who was carrying around refreshments was pushed down by the violence of those who were striving to help themselves from his waiter. On the same day Mr. Clayton of Delaware lost his hat. He had put his hat away with his coat and when he came for them he found an old hat in the place of his new one, with the papers in it which he had left in his own. Something of this kind almost always occurs and those who attend would do well to wear the poorest articles they have, that their value may not tempt the honesty of others. As to myself, I have opened a school here. It commenced on Monday last, and I have twenty scholars at different prices from $5.00 to $12.50 per quarter. I like my school as well as I shall ever like any school. It will be somewhat profitable in the end I hope, though my expenses are very great.
(Histories of this period often contrast the order in the Adams White House with the chaos of the Jackson White House—especially the chaos on the day of Jackson’s inauguration in March 1829. But this letter shows that there was some disorder even in the Adams White House. Chase used the initial C but I think it is pretty clear that he means Calhoun, vice president under bothAdams and Jackson.)
In November 1827, Chase wrote to his cousin Joseph Denison as follows:
But I am placed at present unquestionably in a situation commanding (so to speak) a very extensive view of the landscape of human life. In this metropolis character may be studied to great advantage as it is displayed before the observer of every shade found the darkest to the most brilliant, and in every situation from the most exalted to the most debased. To a person at a distance then the remarks even of an indifferent observer who occupies a station however low on this stage of human action must necessarily possess some interest. I do not know but I may have said all this before; if so pardon the repetition. I have been amused by the ignorance of students with respect to the state of things around them. It was but lately that a graduate of Dartmouth College asked me with the utmost seriousness if “the President was the sole occupant of the President’s House” if “he took boarders” and if “he ever went into the sacred desks.” As we passed along the street I pointed out to him the house where the Brazilian minister resided. He said he did not know that such a minister was here. I presume he must have thought I meant a minister of the Gospel. I know that all students are not thus ignorant and was surprised that even one should be. The one in question, however, was I supposed tolerably well skilled in ancient law and possibly could recount every incident narrated by Caesar. It is to be regretted I think that students in college generally are so entirely actuated by the desire of shining in the recitation room and securing the first “appointments” that they neglect the [acquisition of knowledge] of more immediate utility, for that, of which the advantage [if any] is remote and uncertain. The chief and to most the only advantage accruing from the study of the dead languages is the discipline of mind to habits of investigation, an advantage which may be gained I should imagine with a little expense of time, in studies when the actual results may be known and estimated.
You have doubtless seen in the papers the Ebony & Topaz toast of President Adams, another proof, if any were wanting of the saying great men are not always wise. The president made an effort at easy dignity and failed most completely. The nature of the intercourse between the President and the People has changed very much since the days of Washington. then he was approached as a being almost superhuman, and the character of the man, the lofty self-respect mingled with the dignified gentleness always manifest in his deportment and the memory of his glorious career associating itself with his personal presence contributed, in no degree to weaken the impression. He needed not the general familiarity misnamed affability to render him popular which become so necessary at the present day. The people too had recently thrown off the yoke of monarchy and the President stood in his place and received that respect which courts have been paid to thinking now our President must if he would be popular make himself emphatically one of the people, conform to their whims and be guided by their humors. I would not wish that he should be otherwise than dependent on the will of the people, but I do wish that he would remember the respect due to his station and the people would accord to him that respect. We should then hear no more of this dinner-giving, toast-making policy.
I have become slightly acquainted with Mr. Clay. He is man of very noble appearance, commanding and dignified in his deportment, but at the same time easy and polite. He invited to come and take tea with him and said he would then introduce me to Mrs. Clay. I have never availed myself of the invitation. Though I should be glad to cultivate an acquaintance with him I have hitherto kept away restrained chiefly by bashfulness. I have been told that teachers here meet with but little respect and though I have seen nothing to confirm this report yet have I been detained by it from visiting as much as I otherwise should have done dreading a reception which might not be altogether such as I meet with at home. One of my Clay’s sons has this moment left me a little boy of about eleven years of age who attends my school. He is I think the best boy and perhaps the noblest character of all that ever came under my observation. He is intelligent and remarkably acute in his sensibility and what is still more worthy of notice appears to be activated in all that he does and says by the highest moral principles. I never knew him to deviate intentionally from the truth and all his conduct is in complete unison with this particular. I cannot but hope that the Lord has sown the seed of divine truth in the heart of this dear child which shall spring up and open in everlasting life. May God grant it also that I may be the honored instrument of accomplishing this great work.
I have become acquainted with the family of Mr. Wirt under whose direction I am now pursuing the study of my profession. He is a gentleman of very polished and fascinating manners, one who wins the affections and prepossesses the judgment almost instantaneously. I feel for him the highest respect and shall omit no endeavor to gain a place in his confidence and esteem. He has a family consisting of three sons and six daughters of whom I may perhaps speak more at large in some future letter. The sons are all in my school. My school is flourishing. You must be very pleasantly situated at New Haven and I am right glad to see that you love your profession. It is absolutely necessary to eminence and usefulness. I know your aspirations extend something beyond the knowledge of the physical conformation of the body and I trust that you have more resolution and perseverance in the pursuit than I have.
(The Ebony & Topaz toast, given by John Adams at a Baltimore banquet to celebrate American victory in the War of 1812, left his listeners puzzled. They were not much less puzzled when he explained, not very well, that he was alluding to a book by the French philosopher Voltaire, in which Ebony represented evil and Topaz good, and that he was contrasting the evil British general with the virtuous American soldiers. The daughters of Attorney General William Wirt, and one in particular, would become very dear to Chase. The original of this letter, in the Library of Congress, is torn, so I have made a few educated guesses about the blanks.)
On January 2, 1828, Chase wrote to his college friend Sparhawk:
Yesterday I attended the levee at the President’s and after shaking hands with him made my way out of the crowd and as soon as I could conveniently left the house. There was an immense crowd there, greater I am told than has ever been known on a similar occasion. Foreign ambassadors, judges, senators, representatives, officers, civil and military, gentlemen, and blackguards, all were there or at least some persons of all these kinds. Mr. Adams is peculiarly unfortunate in his demeanor. Cold and reserved he says “I am very happy to see you sir” precisely as the Automaton Chess Player would make a move. He is stiff as a crow-bar. No polish is perceptible about him and he goes through his part on these occasions like a man who was sensible it must be done and who is heartily rejoiced when he finds that it is done.
On Monday I heard an oration by Mr. Southard Secretary of the Navy before the Columbian Institute. He is far from being an eloquent or graceful speaker, but his discourse was replete with sound wisdom and valuable thought.
This evening I have been at Mr. Wirt’s. He is absent in Baltimore, but Mrs. W. and family remain. She is a very interesting and agreeable woman, though somewhat inclined like most of her sex to remember the faults of the absent. I like the family much. Elizabeth Wirt is a modest girl, with a richly cultivated mind and a most amiable disposition. Her sisters four in number do not equal her as to sweetness of temper but all are uncommonly intelligent.
The Jackson men as you have long since learned through the medium of the papers, are predominant in the Senate and in the House. Gentlemen of the other party say however that Jackson stock is falling in the market. The late movements in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, unexpected I imagine on all hands, have struck a damp upon the hopes of the heterogenous supporters of the Military Chieftain while encouragement is given to the friends of our institutions to persevere in the confidence that in the end success will crown their efforts.
(Wirt was generally absent from Washington, at work in Baltimore or elsewhere, but Chase spent many pleasant hours with the Wirt family, especially Elizabeth. I am not sure what Chase refers to in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. The Military Chieftain to whom Chase refers is Jackson, whom he thought utterly unqualified to become president.)
In March 1828, writing another college classmate, Chase describes a conversation with a black servant, probably a slave, about colonization:
He seemed to have little liking to a scheme which would tear him from all he holds dear. He feels in all its force that amor patria which makes the Greenlander prefer the rough and bleak land which God hath given him to the fairest portion of the earth. America is as much the home of the Negro whose fathers’ fathers have lived here and died as it is of the American white man, whose foot not many centuries ago had never pressed the soil which he now so proudly claims as his own peculiar inheritance. So strong indeed is this feeling that I know in this city a slave, who to the possession of good natural abilities adds the advantage of a degree of learning uncommon in one of his caste, who has refused liberty when offered by his master with the privilege of a free passage to Liberia. The truth is that little cause exists for that sickly sympathy which many at the North feel or affect to feel with the fancied suffering of the slave. The master has a far more just claim upon our commiseration for it is a truth that the people of the South live in continual apprehension of an insurrection among their slaves.
(Then after several other paragraphs)
You ask me what I think of your spending three years under the direction of Mr. Wirt. I think it would be well if you have resolved to make law your profession, and if he at the time you speak of should reside in Baltimore. Should Jackson succeed (which I hope and believe he will not) Mr. Wirt would move to Baltimore. You would be delighted with Mr. Wirt, charmed with Mrs. Wirt and pleased with their family. There are two unmarried daughters who are old enough to go into society, both possessing highly cultivated minds, fine taste and elegant manners. The eldest Elizabeth is not so attractive as her sister Catherine but still is far from being unlovely. I sometimes visit there but on the whole am rather domestic in my habits. I intend though I do not always fulfil that intention, to study five hours per day besides discharging the duties of my school.
(This is perhaps the most difficult of these letters for a biographer. Does the first part of the first paragraph show his appreciation for the feelings of the slaves, who view the United States as their home? Or does it show his heartlessness, when he says that there is no cause for sympathy with the slaves? And what to make of his comment that Elizabeth, whom he would have married if he had had the money, was less attractive than her sister Catherine?)
One more letter: from the summer of 1828, again to a college classmate.
Congress has adjourned and I hear less of politics now than formerly. Both parties are sanguine in their hopes for success but I fear that the Jackson men will gain the day. It has been truly said that they have the huzza boys with them and unfortunately they are a majority in this land of equal rights and unequal sense. I hope however that the developments which have taken place in the last winter in relation to the private and public character of Gen. Jackson will awaken the people to a sense of their danger. In my humble opinion, no election has taken place since the adoption of the Constitution of greater importance than the one now pending. If it has come to this that a charge of corruption so often and so fully refuted can be made the instrument in the hands of ambitious men, to work the ruin of those who obstruct their own path to office, then farewell to our boasted liberties. For my own part I would far prefer the despotism of one man to that of a thousand for there would be a chance at least for peace and quiet. But what can be expected here if Jackson succeeds? Will not the weapons which he and his partisans now aim at Mr. Adams and Mr. Clay be turned against himself? Most assuredly they will and it will be retributive justice. Those who now support him from interested motives, when they have seen their hopes blasted (and this must necessarily be the case with the vast majority of his adherents) will enlist themselves in the ranks of his opponents and he will be obliged to contend with an opposition tenfold more furious than the present. Well might the Richmond Enquirerdeprecate his election as a “curse to the country.”
(Chase is alluding here to reports about Jackson’s violence as a military officer and that his wife, at the time of their marriage, was married to another man. In the last part, Chase is suggesting that those of Jackson’s supporters who did not receive federal offices (“when they see their hopes blasted”) would turn on Jackson and criticize him the way Jackson was now criticizing Adams.)
I wish that I had space in the book to quote all these letters, if not at this length, then at more length. Alas, the chapter should not be more than about 10,000 words, and this blog post is now about 3,400 words. And I have only quoted from a few of the surviving Chase letters, about thirty of them, from this period. So the quotes will have to be much shorter.