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Chapter 3: Congress and Cabinet.

  • Bloodless revolution
  • -- glances at the Congress -- its personnel and its work -- party hacks in place -- wind vs. Work -- what people said of the Solons -- the New Cabinet -- heads of departments sketched -- the President's advisers -- popular opinion -- the first gun at Sumter.
    The proposition that, shown who writes the ballads of a country, one may tell who makes its laws, is far from reversible in many instances; and assuredly the lawmakers of the Confederacy looked little like poets.

    When the councils of a country are assembled for work, it is but natural to look for a body of grave and reverend — if not most potent-seigniors. And especially, when a new government is forming from selected fragments of the old, might one expect a pure and simple structure, free from those faults and weaknesses which sowed the seeds of disintegration in the elder fabric.

    It was too much the fashion to believe that the Confederacyhaving sprung full-grown from foam of the angry sea of politicswas full-armed as well. A revolution, unprecedented in the world's history, had already been achieved. A strongly cemented and firmly seated government had been disrupted; and a new one, built from the dissevered fragments, had been erected almost under the shadow of its Capitol. And no drop of blood had been spilled! Six millions of people had uprisen and, by a simple declaration of will, had in a few short weeks undone the work of near a century. Without arms in their hands; without a keel in their waters; without a dollar in their treasury, they arrayed themselves against the mother government with the serious purpose of not only asserting, but maintaining, their independence of it.

    So far, all had been, accomplished without violence. But, whatever the simpler masses might expect, the initiated politician could scarce have believed that the older government would meekly submit to “Let the erring sisters go in peace.” Hence, one might justly have looked to see the executive council of the new nation-to whom had been intrusted its safety and its hopes — with every thought bent, every nerve strained to the one vital point-preparation! One [31] could only have expected measures simple as energetic; laws clear, concise and comprehensive; care only for the arming, organizing and maintenance of the people.

    Blessed are they who expect nothing! One glance at the “Congress of the Confederate States of America,” as it sat in the Capitol at Montgomery, told the whole story of its organization and of its future usefulness.

    The states went out of the union, separately and at different periods, by the action of conventions. These were naturally composed of men who had long been prominently before the people, urging the measures of secession. As a matter of course, the old political workers of each section, by fair means and foul, were enabled to secure election to these conventions; and, once there, they so fevered and worked upon the public mind, amid rapidly succeeding events, that its after-thought could neither be reasonable nor deliberate. The act of secession once consummated, the state connected itself with the Confederacy and representatives had to be sent to Montgomery. Small wonder that the men most prominent in the secession conventions should secure their own election, as little regard to fitness as ability being had by the excited electors.

    The House of Representatives at Montgomery looked like the Washington Congress, viewed through a reversed opera-glass. The same want of dignity and serious work; the same position of ease, with feet on desk and hat on head; the sane buzzing talk on indifferent subjects; often the very same men in the lobbies-taking dry smokes from unlit cigars; all these elements were there in duplicate, if somewhat smaller and more concentrated. No point in Montgomery was remote enough — no assemblage dignified enough — to escape the swoop of the lobby vulture. His beak was as sharp and his unclean talons as strong as those of the traditional bird, which had blinked and battened so long on the eaves of the Washington edifice. When “the old concern” had been dismembered, limbs had been dragged whole to aid in the construction of the new giant; and scenting these from afar, he hastened hither fierce for his fresh banquet.

    Glancing down from the gallery of the House, many were the familiar faces peering over the desks; and, even where one did not know the individual, it was easy to recognize the politician by trade among the rosy and uncomfortable novices. It was constant food [32] for wonderment to thoughtful men, that the South had, in most cases, chosen party hacks to legislate for and to lead her in this great crisis, rather than transfused younger blood and steadier nerves into her councils; rather than grafted new minds upon the as yet healthy body. The revolution was popularly accepted as the result of corruptions and aggressions which these very men had been utterly helpless to correct, or to prevent; even had they not been able actors in them. Yet, worn-out politicians — who had years before been “promoted from servants to sovereigns and had taken back seats” --floated high upon the present surge. Men hot from Washington, reeking with the wiles of the old House and with their unblushing buncombe fresh upon them, took the lead in every movement; and the rank old Washington leaven threatened to permeate every pore of the new government.

    It is small wonder that the measures of such a congress, when not vacillating, were weak. If the time demanded anything, that demand was the promptest organization of an army, with an immediate basis of foreign credit, to arm, equip and clothe it. Next to this was the urgent need for a simple and readily managed machinery in the different departments of the government.

    Neither of these desiderata could be secured by their few earnest and capable advocates, who thrust them forward over and over again, only to be pushed aside by the sensation element with which the popular will of the new nation-or the want of it-had diluted her councils. There were windy dissertations on the color of the flag, or on the establishment of a patent office; and members made long speeches, bearing on no special point, but that most special one of their own re-election. There were bitter denunciations of “the old wreck;” violent diatribes on the “gridiron” flag; with many an eloquent and manly declaration of the feelings and the attitude of the South. But these were not the bitter need. Declarations sufficient had already been made; and the masses-having made them, and being ready and willing to maintain them-stood with their hands in their pockets, open-mouthed, eager, but inactive. They were waiting for some organization, for some systematized preparation for the struggle even they felt to be surely coming. Not one in three of the congressmen dared look the real issue directly in the face; and these were powerless to accomplish anything practical. But their constant [33] pressure finally forced from the reluctant legislature a few first steps toward reduction of the chaos.

    The Government was to consist, after the President, of a vice-President and a secretary for each of the departments of State, War, Navy, Treasury, Post-Office and Justice; the latter being a combination of the responsibilities of the Interior Department and the Attorney-General's office.

    Alexander H. Stephens, of Georgia, had been elevated to the vice-Presidency, as reconciling the oppositions of “original secession” and “anti secession.” He had long been a prominent politician; was thoroughly acquainted with all the points of public life; and was, at this time, quite popular with people of all sections, being generally regarded as a man of exceptional capacity and great independence.

    The portfolio of State was in the hands of another Georgian, Robert Toombs. In the present posture of affairs, little could be expected from it, as until the nations of Europe should recognize the South, she could have no foreign policy. The honorable secretary himself seemed fully to realize how little onerous was his position. One of the ten thousand applicants for any and every position approached him for a place in his department and exhibited his letters of recommendation.

    “ Perfectly useless, sir!” responded Mr. Toombs with a thunderous oath. Let us whisper that the honorable secretary was a profound swearer.

    “But, sir,” persisted the place hunter, “if you will only look at this letter from Mr. ---- , I think you can find something for me.”

    “ Can you get in here, sir?” roared the secretary fiercely, taking off his hat and pointing into it — with a volley of sonorous oaths-“That's the Department of State, sir!”

    The Post-Office and Department of Justice were, as yet, about as useful as the State Department; but to the War Office, every eye was turned, and the popular verdict seemed to be that the choice there was not the right man in the right place. Mr. Leroy Pope Walker, to whom its administration was intrusted, was scarcely known beyond the borders of his own state; but those who did know him prophesied that he would early stagger under the heavy responsibility that would necessarily fall upon him in event of war. Many averred that he was only a man of straw to whom Mr. Davis [34] had offered the portfolio, simply that he might exercise his own wellknown love for military affairs and be himself the de facto Secretary of War.

    The selection of Mr. Mallory, of Florida, for the Navy Department, was more popular and was, as yet, generally considered a good one. His long experience as chairman of the committee on naval affairs, in the United States Senate, and his reputation for clearness of reasoning and firmness of purpose, made him acceptable to the majority of politicians and people. Of Mr. Reagan the people knew little; but their fate was not in his hands, and just now they were content to wait for their letters.

    The Treasury Department was justly supposed to be the key to national success. It was at least the twin, in importance, with the War Office. Mr. Memminger, of South Carolina, was a self-made man, who had managed the finances of his state and had made reputation for some financiering ability and much common sense. He had, moreover, the advantage of being a new man; and the critics were willing to give him the benefit of common law, until he should prove himself guilty. Still the finance of the country was so vital, and came home so nearly to every man in it, that perhaps a deeper anxiety was felt about its management than that of any other branch.

    The Attorney-General, or chief of the Department of Justice, had a reputation as wide as the continent-and as far as mental ability and legal knowledge went, there could be no question among the growlers as to his perfect qualifications for the position. Mr. Judah P. Benjamin was not only the successful politician, who had risen from obscurity to become the leader of his party in the Senate, and its exponent of the constitutional questions involved in its action; but he was, also, the first lawyer at the bar of the Supreme Court and was known as a ripe and cultivated scholar. So the people who shook their heads at him-and they were neither few nor far between-did it on other grounds than that of incapacity.

    This was the popular view of that day at the new Capital. The country at large had but little means of knowing the real stuff of which the Cabinet was made. It is true, four of the six were old and thoroughly broken party horses, who had for years cantered around the Washington arena, till the scent of its sawdust was dear to their nostrils. But the people knew little of them individually [35] and took their tone from the politicians of the past. So — as it is a known fact that politicians are never satisfied — the Cabinet and Congress, as tried in the hotel alembic, were not found pure gold.

    So the country grumbled. The newspapers snarled, criticised and asserted, with some show of truth, that things were at a dead standstill, and that nothing practical had been accomplished.

    Such was the aspect of affairs at Montgomery, when on the 10th of April, Governor Pickens, of South Carolina, telegraphed that the Government at Washington had notified him of its intention to supply Fort Sumter-“Peaceably if we can; forcibly if we must.”

    Bulletins were posted before the Exchange, the newspaper office and the “Government House;” and for two days there was intense suspense as to what course the South would pursue. Then the news flashed over the wires that, on the morning of the 12th of April, Beauregard had opened the ball in earnest, by commencing the bombardment of Fort Sumter. This caused the excitement to go up to fever heat; and the echo of that first gun made every heart in the breadth of the land bound with quickened throb. Business was suspended, all the stores in the town were closed, while crowds at the hotels and in the streets became larger and more anxious as the day wore on. Various and strange were the speculations as to the issue of the fight and its consequences; but the conviction came, like a thunder clap upon the most skeptical, that there was to be war after all!

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