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Chapter 20: visit of Calhoun, 1845.

Mr. John C. Calhoun had always been such a strict constructionist of the Constitution that encroachment, in defiance of the restrictions imposed upon the appropriation by Congress of money to improve one State or harbor at the expense of the rest, had been with him a constant cause of excited debate whenever such propositions were urged. About this time the effort had been renewed to obtain grants for the improvement of the different harbors on the Lakes, and especially that of Chicago, which was just then beginning to be built up into a city. On this subject there was a good deal of feeling between the Southern and Southwestern States.

Before attending a commercial convention in Cincinnati, Mr. Calhoun had in some measure changed his views, and in a speech in his journey through the West and South (before the convention at Cincinnati) he justified the appropriation for the Lakes, and suggested one for the Mississippi River, because they were all “inland seas.” Great was the confusion [208] of his allies and adherents throughout the Democratic party: they looked upon the proposition as class legislation, not justified by the Constitution, and a latitudinarian construction of this instrument by him was as though Moses had altered the Commandments. In this state of feeling he drew nigh to Vicksburg in his tour, and my husband was invited to welcome him.

Mr. Davis had known Mr. Calhoun with some degree of intimacy since 1836, and received his cadet's warrant from him. Strongly opposed to internal improvements by the General Government, Mr. Davis meant to be very circumspect in what he said, and also to avoid having to write out the speech for the reporters afterward. He pondered and dictated it to me, and the delivery was to consume half an hour. The “inland seas” were gracefully left to take care of their own shores, and the speech, as written, had an amount of pretty imagery and lofty rhetoric in it, that, to my girlish taste, was as wonderful as it was charming. It had the usual stanzas of poetry, and the ship of state tossing, as it does for all young orators, on a stormy sea, while the statesman addressed took its bearings and brought it “safe into port!” The speech was, at last, clearly written out in my best hand, and the pages numbered. It was my [209] glorious privilege to be permitted to perpetuate such eloquence! We then prepared our house for a long absence, and commenced our journey to Washington, taking with us our niece, Miss Mary Bradford.

We reached Vicksburg in the afternoon of the night that was to bring Mr. Calhoun to us. A numerous company of elegant people, who had come in from forty miles around Vicksburg, were gathered in a public hall. Dr. William M. Gwinn and his handsome young wife were there, and numbers I did not know. The boat was delayed and the guest of the evening did not arrive until the large assemblage were tired out. Then, after rustlings, cranings of necks, and whispered remonstrances at the delay, the door opened, and the committee, escorting Mr. Calhoun, entered.

My Whig proclivities had inclined me to be coolly civil to the stern zealot with whom I could feel no sympathy; but when Mr. Calhoun, with head erect, cast his eagle eyes over the crowd, I felt like rising up to do homage to a king among men. His head was long rather than broad, the ears were placed low upon it, the depth from front to back was very great; his forehead was low, steep, and beetled squarely over the most glorious pair of yellow brown shining eyes, that seemed to have a [210] light inherent in themselves; they looked steadily out from under bushy eyebrows that made the deep sockets look still more sunken. When excited, the pupils filled the iris and made his eyes seem black. He lowered them less than any one I have ever seen; they were steadily bent on the object with which he was engaged; indeed on some people they had an almost mesmeric power.

He wore his thick hair all the same length, and rather long, combed straight back from his forehead. This, with his brilliant eyes and unflinching gaze, gave his head the expression of an eagle's. His mouth was wide and straight; he rarely smiled, and the firm, square chin and grave manner made a personality striking in the extreme. He was tall and slenderly built, quick and alert in both speech and movement, but mind and body were so equally and rarely adjusted to each other that no dignity could be more supreme that Mr. Calhoun's.

His voice was not musical; it was the voice of a professor of mathematics, and suited his didactic discourse admirably. He made few gestures, but those nervous, gentlemanly hands seemed to point the way to empire. He always appeared to me rather as a moral and mental abstraction than a politician, and it was impossible, knowing him well. to [211] associate him with mere personal ambition. His theories and his sense of duty alone dominated him.

Now the forthcoming speech of welcome was to be delivered, and I was for the first time to hear my husband address an assembly. Dread was the prevailing feeling. The world had not then given its imprimatur to him, and I felt like a mute inglorious Columbus who had discovered a new continent, and that my El-Dorado was to enrich the millions. He had asked me not to look at him while speaking, so I heard only his beautiful voice, expressive of respectful regard in every tone. He greeted the great statesman with a few words of personal and general welcome, and then began, in rather a slow manner, evidently trying to remember the aforesaid speech ; but as he progressed his voice grew round and clearer until it filled the large hall to the echo. Without pausing for a word, he passed in rapid review the tariff, the currency, the probable addition of Texas to the Union-which was then an exciting theme — as there were many opponents of the measure. He did not even look askance at nullification, or internal improvements by the General Government, but made a strong appeal for strict construction of the Constitution, and an eloquent statement of the power, the glory, and the [212] danger of our country; a short review of Mr. Calhoun's career as Secretary of War, Senator, and Vice-President; and then came to the home-stretch with State rights sails all set and Mr. Calhoun at the helm.

Round after round of applause greeted the orator, and then Mr. Calhoun deliberately arose. After the enthusiastic greeting had subsided, amid profound silence, I heard him for the first time. His language was plain to poverty; he never used a trope or simile; and seemed to argue as though alone with one man, and he a devoted patriot, who only aimed to know the right to do it with all his might.

Mr. Calhoun made no appeals to any emotion. The duty of a citizen to the State was his theme; the reward he offered was the consciousness of having performed it faithfully. He spoke so fast, in words so concise, that the loss of one or two rendered it hard to follow him. He borrowed nothing from the style or thoughts of authors of the past or present. It was the chart of his faith which he turned toward us and explained its bearings, taking it for granted we were to sail with him; and I do not think any one present would have hesitated then to do so.

When the applause which followed subsided a little, he passed from one lady to another, [213] saying to each a few words without a trace of gallantry; yet, though he was gray and much emaciated, the fire within made him seem hardly to have reached middle age. He devoted a little more time than to others to the wife of the orator of the evening, and his manner was so paternal and full of indulgent sympathy that I found myself telling him what a grief it was to contemplate my first separation from my mother. He spoke of a daughter named Cornelia, near my age, who loved him better than any one else, and told some little anecdotes of her, and of his brilliant Anna, who married Mr. Clemsen.

Thus began a friendship which lasted through his life, and was attested by long letters on governmental subjects, written as though to an intellectual equal. It was one of the sources of his power over the youth of the country that he assumed nothing except a universal, honest, co-intelligence between him and the world, and his conversation with a girl was on the same subjects as with a statesman. His perceptions were so quick, however, that after a few words in response to him he would interject, “Yes, Yes, I know what you mean,” and proceed to answer at once to the unexpressed opinion. His letters were all lost during the war; but it was I and not posterity that sustained the misfortune, [214] for his handwriting, though it looked neat, was almost undecipherable. I once sent him back his letter to read for me, and he responded, “I know what I think on this subject, but cannot decipher what I wrote.”

These two speeches, the third I had ever heard — the first was one by Sargent Prentiss-excited me greatly; but when a lull came, a certain pity for the loss to the world of the written speech over which we had toiled so industriously came upon me. Not one word had been repeated of all the very fine things I had indited in a fair hand-and all for nothing! However, the amateur reporters had entirely forgotten their object, and neglected to give the speech as it was delivered; we had no time to rewrite it, so the other was printed instead. If still in existence, it will be a thing of joy to the young people, but very unlike the address, or any other Mr. Davis ever made afterward.

From that day forth no speech was ever written for delivery. Dates and names were jotted down on two or three inches of paper, and these sufficed. Mr. Davis's speeches never read as they were delivered; he spoke fast, and thoughts crowded each other closely; a certain magnetism of manner and the exceeding beauty and charm of his voice moved the multitude, and there were apparently [215] no inattentive or indifferent listeners. He had one power that I have never seen excelled; while speaking, he took in the individuality of the crowd, and seeing doubt or a lack of coincidence with him in their faces, he answered the mental dissonance with arguments addressed to the case in their minds. He was never tiresome, because, as he said, he “gave close attention to the necessity of stopping when he was done.”

Only so much of his eloquence has survived as was indifferently reported. The spirit of the graceful periods was lost. He was a parenthetical speaker, which was a defect in a written oration, but it did not, when uttered, impair the quality of his speeches, but rather added a charm when accentuated by his voice and commended by his gracious manner. At first his style was ornate, and poetry and fiction were pressed from his crowded memory into service; but it soon changed into a plain and stronger cast of what he considered to be, and doubtless was, the higher kind of oratory. His extempore addresses are models of grace and ready command of language.

The next day we took a boat for Wheeling, which was the route usually pursued by persons going North at that season. Otherwise, Congressmen went by river to New Orleans, and by rail, river, and stages through [216] Alabama and Georgia until they reached Charleston, and there took ship for Norfolk. This was called the “Southern route,” and consumed five days and nights of hard travel. There were no sleeping cars, and the only way to get rest, if greatly fatigued, was to stop overnight at some miserable little inn and lose a day, or go on and trust to a good constitution to bear one through. This latter mode we preferred.

The river soon began to be full of floating ice, which crunched alarmingly against the sides of the boat, and, after making very little headway, we ascended the Ohio River to what the captain called the “Norrows.” The ice closed around us, and we remained on board nearly a week, hoping for a thaw. Here we had an amusing experience of the frankness of the uneducated classes. The pilot's wife had been permitted a cabin passage, “to give her a treat,” and she was intensely interested in finding out “what on airth that man was takina them delicate, puny-lookina gals through all the cold fur.” She tried in vain to find out where we “was agoin‘ anyhow.” My husband was much amused by her skilful interposition of questions on all occasions, and, in order to draw her out, did not answer them. At last she flushed fiery red, and said, “My name is McGruggy, an‘ I [217] ain't ashamed of it, an‘ I am goin‘ to Cincinnatta, and I don't see but what I am good enough for that man to tell me whar he is a goin‘” --then, with a sniff, she turned to her little tow-headed daughter and said, “Si-i-s, Davis ain't a aristocratic name, no-how.” However, later, our mutual suffering brought us nearer together, and she gave me some fine apricot seed, which grew and bore at Brierfield for nine years under the name of “The pilot's wife.” Eventually a very small boat came alongside of ours with great puffing and ringing of bells; we were transferred to her as of lighter draft. She puffed and steamed all night, and in the morning had only reached the south bank, in sight of the boat we had left. Then her wheels ceased to revolve and we had to debark and continue our journey, at the imminent risk of our lives, on a rough wood-sled with oaken runners, sitting on our trunks. The member from South Mississippi, Colonel Robert N. Roberts, a kind and very shrewd and observant old gentleman, much respected and entirely trusted by his constituents in Mississippi, was our only companion. The narrow road, slanting sidewise, covered with frozen snow, ran about half-way up the side of a mountain on one side, and sloped on the other steeply to the river. When a quarter of the journey [218] had been traversed the sled slipped over, and we were precipitated down a bank twenty feet beneath the road, and our trunks followed their owners at a breakneck pace. Colonel Roberts, in his fall, struck a tree and broke a rib, and I sustained severe contusions about the head. After a day's travel we stopped for the night at “Cresap's House,” 1 on the Ohio River, a historic place, and in the course of the evening the hostess — a handsome, bright-eyed woman, in a large white muslin turban-being stirred by some vague memory, asked my servant to tell her my maiden name; and then related how my father and mother, and Mr. Joseph E. Davis, had spent the night there, when “going through the wilderness,” just nineteen years before. When my husband inquired why she remembered them so well, she answered, “They were so beautiful and so cheerful, I have never forgotten them, and your voices are the same.” When we reached Wheeling my husband's feet, of which he had not complained, were frozen, and Colonel Roberts suffered much. A line of stages ran over the Alleghany Mountains to take passengers to Brownsville, and a [219] little boat plied from there to Pittsburg. The people who traversed that road and survived, certainly should properly have been designated “the fittest,” for we were thrown very often up to the roof of the stage, and the old vehicle creaked and groaned audibly in concert with our exclamations of pain or terror within. When the snow was deep, the wheels slipped to the very verge of precipices so steep that it made one dizzy to contemplate them even from a vantage-point of safety. On several occasions the gentlemen jumped out and chocked the wheels, while the coachman whipped his horses and turned them across the road to hold the stage back; but the mountains and the snow-laden firs that cling to their sides were worth the risk for “one glance at their array.” After three weeks of peril, discomfort, and intense cold, during which we were obliged to eat our life-long supply of worst with maple syrup for a condiment, we reached Washington more dead than alive.

Under all these disadvantages Mr. Davis was cheerful; always ready with some pleasant story, making light of the discomforts, and sometimes singing “We'll tough it out till morning.” When exhortations and jests failed, he went into the little wayside inns and bought candy and milk, and told us to “drink deep and forget our sorrows.” Once, when [220] hard-boiled eggs without salt were given us, as we were ruefully contemplating the luncheon he called out, theatrically, “What is the province of salt? ‘ Salt seasons dainties, blunts the sabre's edge,’ ” etc.

So, half-dead with fatigue, but trying our best to command his respect by being stoical, though bruised black and blue, we arrived in Washington, and took temporary lodgings at the “National Hotel” on Pennsylvania Avenue.

How grand and blase the people all looked to these weary country girls, who had never seen anything more worldly than their domestic mothers! There was Mrs. Myra Clarke Gaines, then not more than ankle-deep in her great suit. The beautiful Mrs. Ashleigh, afterward Mrs. John J. Crittenden; Apollonia Jagello, a Polish heroine, with a heavy mustache and a voice to match; Mrs. James Gordon Bennett; Mr. Calhoun and his family, just leaving for the house in which they were to live on Missouri Avenue; Mr. McDuffie, of South Carolina, formed in the same physical mould with Mr. Calhoun, but bearing aloft a cavalier's head, and who, like Launcelot, though a doughty and most valiant knight, was “not averse to dalliance for awhile” with the pleasures of society; Judge Douglas, the impersonation of the talent and [221] force that “westward took its way.” Judge Woodbury of the Supreme Court, a profound thinker, a faithful friend, and tender father and husband, whose brilliant eyes and gentle manners charmed me from the first, was there with his beautiful daughter, afterward Mrs. Montgomery Blair. She was the impersonation of a feminine Die Vernon-strong, tender, and beautiful in body and mind. Mrs. Woodbury was a singularly well-preserved, handsome, and elegant woman, and a most amiable and charitable creature. To this day I remember with a thrill of pleasure her remonstrance with Mrs. Blair and myself for laughing over a note she had received from an Associate Justice's wife, who had met Webster's Spelling-book too late in life. This lady declined an invitation, and plead a severe cold as her excuse in this wise: “I have consulted a doctur and must endure my disappintment, it is nobel to bare but harde to suphur.” Mrs. Woodbury looked at us gravely and remarked, “Do you not think that, with such difficulty about spelling, it was kind in her to try it?”

Mr. Bodisco was the Russian Minister at that time, and his child-wife, lately a school girl from the District, was the admiration of all men, and for that matter women too. Her husband's looks were a powerful foil to hers, but he was most agreeable and kind. [222]

It is strange in the present memory of past events to think how many people were assembled there that winter who more or less entered our after-lives and were important factors therein. Mr. Seddon was there with his handsome bride. Colonel, afterward General Dix, was then a Senator from New York, and was one of the distinguished few who “kept house.”

Mr. Lincoln, I have heard, was a member of Congress that session. Mr. Slidell passed through Washington en route from Mexico, where he had been on some diplomatic mission, and we called to see him. When Mrs. Slidell entered the room her beauty, which was of the best “creole type,” impressed us most agreeably. Mr. Slidell was also a man to be noticeable anywhere. He had an air of quiet refinement that was very attractive, and his features were regularly handsome; but he looked, and indeed was, so much older than his wife that the contrast was sharp. Her features were regular, her figure noble, and she looked so dignified and was so fair and courteous with her French empressement of manner that the impression she made on me then was never effaced, and years after ripened into a sincere friendship that was never interrupted.

Mr. Buchanan, who was then Secretary of [223] State, came to the hotel one evening, and made a strong impression on me. He was very tall and of fine presence, and always wore a wide and spotless white cravat, faultlessly tied. His complexion was very fair and delicate, and his eyes were blue; but one of them had sustained some injury that had obscured the sight. The first thought that one had in looking at him was, how very clean he was. The only drawback to his appearance was a nervous jerking of his head at intervals, but it was not so often as to render him at all absurd. His unwilling footsteps were then just upon the boundary of middle age, and a more charming man could hardly be imagined. He was particularly gifted in polite repartee, and quick as a flash in response. In those days he liked society, and to be bon camarade to thoroughly refined women. At an evening entertainment Miss B very much desired a little dove that was nestled in a wreath of ivy, but had not uttered the wish. The master of the house — an aspirant for office, and not over fond of Mr. Buchanan-seeing her admiration of it said, “I wish I were tall enough to reach that dove, Miss B , you always put me in mind of one. and I would give it to you.” Mr. Buchanan reached up several times to get it, and the host remarked, “Take care. [224] even you may reach too far.” Mr. Buchanan turned a searching look upon him, and, making another effort, secured the toy and remarked, “Fearless minds climb soonest unto crowns, you know.” He had a reticent temper, but masked it under a diplomatic frankness of speech that was very engaging.

Montgomery Blair, then a slender young widower, used to come very often to see Judge Woodbury's fair daughter; he was tall and not personally graceful, and had what English people call a thoroughly American type of face, but he was only ten minutes behind the handsomest man present, for his smile was genial and he listened and responded with intelligent sympathy, and was as faithful and sincere as he was tender and sympathetic. It is much to escape that most terrible scourge to society, one who listens to controvert.

After about ten days we found rooms in a house near by on the Avenue, and joined a “Congressional mess,” that is, a boardinghouse into which a certain number of men holding the same political faith agreed to go for the session, reserving the right, if the equivalent was paid, to exclude any objectionable person.

In our mess were the two members from Mississippi, and their pleasant, kindly wives, [225] Mr. Jacob and Mrs. Thompson, and Mr. Steven Adams with his wife; General Jones, of Iowa, was there for awhile; and a Mr. Foster, of Pennsylvania, and several others, with the memory of whom forty-three years have played sad havoc. Robert Dale Owen, the younger, boarded quite near us, with Daniel S. Dickenson, of New York, who was as cheerful and enthusiastic as a boy; he came to us almost every evening for what he called a little “confab.”

Now began Mr. Davis's earnest work. He visited very little, studied until two or three o'clock in the morning, and, with my assistance, did all his writing. Between us we franked all the documents sent to his constituents, and all the letters, and to calls upon him for service he scrupulously attended. He was “a working member;” but, I think, believed it his destiny to attain distinction at some future day. There was always something lofty about his bearing, for his was the natural dignity which cannot brook familiarity. An instance of this latter peculiarity, which occurred very soon after our arrival, always provoked a smile.

One of the Senators from Mississippi, Mr. Jesse Speight, was a singularly handsome man, and no respecter of persons. He did not hesitate to call Mr. Cass or Mr. Clay to his seat if he wished to speak with them. [226] They all liked him, and came with an indulgent smile. Two or three times he had called my husband from home at quite a late hour to confer with him on some subject which could have been postponed. At last, one snowy morning, at about eight o'clock, a note was handed in at our door,

Come over.


To which Mr. Davis made answer,



It was taken, however, in good-humor by the Senator, and never mentioned without a laugh by either side, though while writing his reply, my husband was in no pacific mood. It bore the relation to us then that a telegram at dawn of day about a trifle does now.

A propos of telegrams, I find in an old letter at this time this announcement:

We went down to-day to see Mr. Morse's machine make the wires talk, and repeat messages from one town to another. There are small wires stretched from Baltimore to this place, and they are brought into the windows of a house on the Avenue. Inside of a little stall a man sits and sends messages and receives the answers. I think it is a trick, but paid my two-bits (twenty-five cents) to get a message ‘ that it was a fine day.’


From another letter of 1850 I cull this sentence:

There is a machine in town, I hear, that stitches like the hand-work.

That was the description of the now universal and indispensable sewing-machine.

1 It was near this house that Logan's family were killed in 1774, and Cresap was supposed to have been instrumental in the murder; therefore Logan and his bend massacred a large number of settlers in the vicinity.

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