Chapter 40: social relations and incidents of Cabinet life, 1853-57.The wives of Mr. Pierce's Cabinet officers labored in their sphere as well as their husbands. We each endeavored to extend hospitality to every member of Congress, of both Houses, at least once during the winter. We did not “bank the mantels with flowers” as is done now, for very good reasons — it was not the fashion, and many of us, I, for one, could not bear the heavy odor in a crowded room. We bought, out of our private purses, all the flowers we used, and we were none of us what would in this day be called rich. If we had been so at the beginning of the official term, we should have become poorer every day, as well from inattention to our private affairs as to the utter inadequacy of the salary. A few palms or azaleas growing in pots, and other ornamental plants grouped about the room, made them acceptable, and ignorance was “bliss” to us. If a measure was to be recommended by the Administration, the Chairmen of the Legislative Committee, to whom these recommendations  would be referred, were invited and the plan was informally unfolded to them. If a man was dissatisfied with the Administration and not personally offensive in his disapprobation, he was invited to breakfast or some informal meal, where a personal explanation was possible. However, these methods probably prevail now as they did then, and will continue so to do until trees cease to “bear fruit after their kinds.” If a scientific association met at Washington, or whenever any distinguished people met in convention, they were invited as a body to an entertainment in their honor. At one of these I remember a remarkable experience. The morning of the day on which the Association visited us, Dr. Robert Hare, at that time the most noted chemist in America, had endeavored to read a paper which he had written upon mechanical tests of spiritual manifestations. The paper was not accepted and declared irrelevant, and he felt much hurt. Upon my making the remark, I being quite ignorant of this occurrence, that I had been with a party of ladies to see Miss Fox, who was afterward Mrs. Kane, and felt humbugged, but could nevertheless not account for the noises made, or the answers to questions asked her, Professor Hare immediately stated his grievance against the society,  prefacing it with “Truth is the Mother of Science, and her children should not be ashamed of her.” He then proceeded to tell me that he had been impressed by some unaccountable phenomena in the practice of Spiritualism, and determined to submit the presence of disembodied spirits to a mechanical test. He made a disk and put the letters of the alphabet all over it in “pi.” In the centre he placed two index-hands, on the outer edge there were figures which one hand registered, while the other hand indicated letters. He attached a sensitive lever to the disk-he did not explain the machinery, but told me that the spirits spelled out difficult chemical problems by the aid of the letters-and pulled down the lever to the weight of 150 pounds. Professor Henry came up while his confrere was speaking, and smilingly turned the conversation by saying: “Now if Daddy Lambert were alive and could be induced to weigh himself, then we should be convinced;” but the jest seemed to very much annoy Professor Hare. Professor Henry was a most attractive man, whose wisdom made his “face to shine,” but though he was plain and quiet in manner he so loved his pursuits, that with the mention of them, he became alert and communicative. Once, when Mr. Davis had been enjoying the Professor's learning, a member of Congress  who wore dark-green spectacles and who indulged in aspirations, without remembering that endeavor should supplement them, came in and whispered: “I wish Professor Henry would talk to me about weighing the stars.” Mr. Davis turned the conversation into that channel; other company coming in, he left the pair together. When he looked at them an hour afterward, the member was rigid and sound asleep behind his spectacles, and the gentle Professor was taking the measure of the solar system with a benign air. Once Professor Henry and I went to Alexandria together on the little ferryboat. He began describing a visit which he had just made to the circus, but in the midst of his talk, suddenly stopped and looked intently at a little valance nailed around the seat which was describing constant succeeding undulations as the wind blew the ruffle-he had stopped at the antics of the “so-called tame rhinoceros;” and after ten minutes silence he added, “and the same forces may make the undulations of the waves, to say nothing of the tides, which are less understood.” I did not remind him of the hiatus, and he talked most charmingly of cognate subjects until we reached the house of good old Mr.  Hallowell, to whom my little brother, Becket Kempe Howell, was going to school. Mr. Hallowell was a “Friend,” and was equally esteemed and beloved by the whole community, among whom he had lived from youth to old age. He said, “Thy brother is always seeking for a royal road to knowledge, and is dull at figures.” Professor Henry, seeing the child was mortified, kindly took his hand and said, “Send him to me and I will explain the rule of three to him.” I gratefully accepted his offer, and he did explain so distinctly that Becket never forgot the lesson or the rule. If great men knew how acceptable their condescension is to the ignorant, they would cultivate the amenities of life. Professor John LeComte was another of the savans who impressed me most pleasantly; he brought with him his exquisitely beautiful wife, who shone resplendent among the quiet old figures there. Professors Agassiz and Pearce, with a whole galaxy of scholars and specialists, were present, whose names will go sounding down the aisles that science treads, as pioneers of its discoveries and builders of its temples. There were dinners given to the officers of the Army, especially by the Secretary of War, where they unbent like boys and told campaign stories-General Gibson, the Commissary-General,  General Jessup, the Quartermaster-General, General Lawson, the Surgeon-General, General Towson, Paymaster-General, Colonel Abert, of the Topographical Engineers, and a number of others of less degree. At one of these dinners General Jessup entered upon a flood of memories of the time when he was staying with some other officers, by invitation, at Kempton, with Colonel James Kempe, at Natchez, Miss. He laughed over and repeated a piece of doggerell to which each man added a line as it went round the table, and then proceeded to describe their host's exquisite performance on the flute; “but,” said the dear old General, “when we made him sing ‘ The Tough Old Commodore,’ he talked it and could not turn a tune.” While there, Aaron Burr was arrested at Natchez, and he and his captors were also bidden to Kempton. There was a short parley among all the guests and the host, and it was decided to ignore Colonel Burr's condition; so he came to Kempton, sardonic and brilliant, but entirely impersonal in his conversation. The General turned to me and said, “I wonder you did not know those people, as you lived at Natchez. Major Chotard was a charming young fellow also, who was on a visit there.” I quietly answered I did not know them,  but my mother did. Colonel Kempe was her father, and Colonel Burr was my father's second cousin on the maternal side. I did know Major Chotard, who was an elegant man, a refugee from St. Domingo, who illustrated most manly charms and virtues in his own person. During one of these “General's dinners,” as we called them, someone said that men were worse than they used to be. My husband exclaimed, “That would disprove the Christian theory that, with the diffusion of our Lord's system of morals, mankind would unconsciously be moulded into higher forms of thought and nobler action.” General Jessup, who, in his own personality, was a fine example of Christian culture, said, with some heat — there was never a more pernicious statement, or one more untrue. He then went on to show that the vices of the Quartermaster, in his youth, were those a sergeant of the regulars would blush to commit now — the petty peculations, he said, were nauseating in that day-“time has drawn a curtain over the unseemly sight.” General Gibson coincided with him that people were growing steadily better. General Jessup, speaking of the force of habit, said he could not understand a man becoming subject to it, and told me that early in life he found  that smoking made him nervous, and from that time he had set aside the money that would otherwise have been spent for tobacco and used it for books. “Now,” said he, “I have a fine library all bought with cigar money.” General Gibson was a man so beloved that I never heard one derogatory word of him. He never was known to deny charity to those who asked it of him, and no man who had merited his good opinion would willingly forfeit it, or having taken his advice doubted his wisdom. His nephew, whom he brought up, Colonel George Gibson, of the United States Army, long afterward proved the heredity of nature by his own life of usefulness. He was honored in a less degree only than his uncle had been, and was equally worthy and beloved. General Totten was an exceedingly elegant man in his deportment, and most kind-hearted and observant of all the courtesies of life, besides being a soldier in the scientific sense of the term. The Surgeon-General was a spare, keen-eyed man of warm sympathies, hot resentments, and great dignity. He was a clever physician, and had a composure of manner most reassuring under trying circumstances; but he suffered under one idiosyncrasy of which I have never seen another example. The moment the name of a person  he disliked was mentioned, he unfolded a large bandanna handkerchief and commenced sneezing, which continued spasmodically until something diverted his attention. The sight of a witty old lady who disputed the boundary line of their adjacent property, and had offended him grievously once by one of her caustic remarks, used to make him sneeze so he could not talk to her, but between sneezes he said, “I'll write, madam, I'll write.” Of General Scott I saw but little. He was a great-looking man, with the grandiose manner, in a less degree than his, quite common to the men of his day. Mr. Davis and he had an unfortunate difference about a claim of General Scott's for pay, which he could not allow. This led to a correspondence painful to both, which, having passed out of sight, it is useless to recall. An unusual number of pleasant people were in Washington during Mr. Pierce's Administration. In the winter of 1854, Mr. Charles O'Connor came there with his handsome bride, the ci-devant Mrs. McCracken. I knew so little then of New York lawyers, and had only heard of him through his knightly defence of Mrs. Forest, that I should not have noticed the announcement of his presence; but after his noble head, illumined by large sensitive gray eyes, met my sight, the impression  he made was never forgotten. His deliberate manner of speaking in a man of less calibre would have been tiresome, but one can patiently wait for treasures no matter how slowly they may be doled out. They were much feted and we met them everywhere, and had the pleasure of receiving them at our own house several times. At that time Mr. O'Connor conceived the respect and regard for my husband which bore such priceless fruit in our day of helplessness and sorrow. Mr.King and Mrs. Charles King, of Columbia College, spent the winter in Washington, and Mrs. King remains an ideal old lady to me, her accomplishments were so varied and her judgment, breeding, and temper were so perfect. Mrs. Gracie was also there — a dignified, agreeable woman. General Gracie, of the Confederate Army, her splendidly gallant son, afterward died on the battle-field and his loss was bitterly mourned by the whole army as well as by his beautiful young widow. Mr. Edward Everett also spent the winter there, a man whom to know was to admire, for his social graces were in excess even of his oratory. The Honorable A. Dudley Mann remained throughout the season in the city, and then I first beheld this “perfect man.” To all the accomplishments of a trained diplomat he united every Christian virtue; with a detestation  and scorn of wickedness he nevertheless grieved over the sinner, and was in his own life a shining exemplar of the Christian charity that “suffereth long and is kind.” He left a history of his life and times which I hope his son will soon publish, for his reminiscences will be of rare value to the world of letters. Mr. Davis and he gravitated toward each other at once, and loved like David and Jonathan, until extreme old age, and my husband only tarried here a month after Mr. Mann, but did not know his friend had “crossed over” before him. One of the men of mark at this time was Mr. Charles Sumner. He was a handsome, unpleasing man, and an athlete whose physique proclaimed his physical strength. His conversation was studied but brilliant, his manner deferential only as a matter of social policy; consequently, he never inspired the women to whom he was attentive with the pleasant consciousness of possessing his regard or esteem. He was, until his fracas with Mr. Brooks, fond of talking to Southern women, and prepared himself with great care for these conversational pyrotechnics, in which, as well as I remember, there was much Greek fire, and the “set pieces” were numerous; he never intruded his peculiar views upon us in any degree, but read up on  the Indian mutiny, lace, Demosthenes, jewels, Seneca's morals, intaglios, the Platonian theory, and once gave me quite an interesting resume of the history of dancing. Mr. George Sumner, who was rather a short man and thick-set, also spent part of the winter in the city upon his return from the Crimea, which he had visited as the reporter for some newspapers. He talked in the same predetermined artificial way, but had much that was new and interesting to tell. One evening, in the presence of two officers of the army at our house, he said he had ridden camels without a bridle. “How did you guide them?” said General Emory. “By my foot touching them first one side or the other on the nose,” answered Mr. Sumner. General Emory took out a pencil and made a calculation, and after Mr. Sumner had passed to other subjects, the General interjected suddenly the remark, “According to my calculation, your leg must be nine feet long to guide a camel as you did.” Mr. Sumner made no response. He had a large collection of field maps made in the Crimea, and traced the course of the different battles in a very interesting manner with little tin flags. At midsummer we took a house two or three miles out of town, and spent the heated  term there, so that I could be near my husband, who was far from robust. Mr.Pierce and Mrs. Pierce used frequently to come to us for the day, and such intimate talks, such unrestrained intercourse and pleasantries exchanged are charming memories. He became eloquent over the genius, the shy, tender ways, and the agreeable conversation of his friend Hawthorne one day, and stuck his hands in his pockets as he paced up and down. Mrs. Pierce cast an appealing look at the recusant hands, to which the President answered, “No; I won't take them out of my pockets, Jennie! I am in the country, and I like to feel the comfort of it.” He took a never-failing delight in talking to our little Maggie, who was a clever child of eighteen months, and could talk and walk. He eight years afterward related, during a visit to us at Fortress Monroe, the incident of her suppressing her tears when the dog snapped at her, lying down beside him until he went to sleep, and then biting him on the nose as retribution. One of the measures of Mr. Davis's administration of the War Department was what was called the four years rule. That an officer should not remain on duty at distant posts, or at ease in Washington, for more than four years. To some the army had been  a sinecure. They remained year after year, made welcome by every host, and, it is fair to say, contributing their full quota to the social enjoyment of the capital, while others tramped from outpost to outpost with their families, knowing Washington only through their marching orders. Sometimes the enforcement of this rule was as painful to Mr. Davis as to the recipient of the order. Notably in the case of his dear and intimate friend, Major Robert Anderson, who had been stationed at a most agreeable and healthful post in Kentucky, and very much desired to remain there. The reply of the Secretary of War is appended, and explains itself:
One charming young fellow, who was the best dancer of his day, went to a surgeon for a certificate that his health did not permit his braving the hardships of the frontier. It was given him in the cognate language formulated by the medical faculty from the Latin. He took it and went to his post, bidding farewell, “for only a few days,” to his regretful friends. When he reached Fort Worth, to which he was ordered, and presented his certificate, the surgeon laughed immoderately, and told him it was a certificate that he had suffered from an accumulation of dandruff in his hair; that he was quite bald and his head glistened only added to his indignation. This came very near causing a duel with his jocular medical friend. Many officers having become established in the city, and being hampered in many ways, resigned, and there was wide-spread dissatisfaction  among the ease-loving minority in the different cities, and many appeals for a prolonged stay; but the Secretary was inflexible. However, he ran when the wives appealed, and always showed the “white feather” to them, but without surrendering at discretion. At this same time Mr. Dobbin was in trouble on account of the projected reorganization of the navy, and many were dropped. One of them who had fared badly thus explained the situation to me: “There are, you see, three causes for dismissal, mental, moral, and physical unfitness. I had all three.” There were fine old men who had never for a moment believed the navy could exist without them, but who for some good reason had been “waiting orders” for fifteen years, from whom all means of existence were taken away when they were too old to work. They woke up from comfort and dignity, to find themselves poverty-stricken and discredited, for at that time there was neither an army nor a navy retired list. The injustice was manifest, and their grief and humiliation most painful to witness. The whole city pulsated with sympathy. The Retiring Board, presided over by Commodore Shubrick, was composed of the best men available for the purpose, but, of course, private pique was one of the reasons assigned  for their action, and the atmosphere was murky with tears and indignation. Mr. Dobbin actually became feverish and all unstrung under the pressure brought to bear upon him. A lady pursued him so relentlessly that he said: “My dear Madam, you shall, if you please, have my resignation to hand to the President, if you think you can procure a reversal of the decision from anyone else.” One poor woman met me in the Senate gallery, and said, “What can they mean by unfitness, my husband is six feet two in his stocking feet.” An example of the non sequitur in reasoning which is not often excelled. Under the pleadings of the unfortunates, in which all classes united, many of them were restored to their positions, but it was necessarily a time of great trial, and the ruin of a great many who were lost that the navy might live. This experience added new vigor to Mr. Davis's efforts to introduce a retired list, as he was most painfully depressed by the mortification and suffering of his old friends. During his four years in the Cabinet he worked with an increasing ardor that tired out all his assistants-sometimes he came home to dinner at two o'clock in the morning, bringing with him his dear friend and coadjutor, Colonel Samuel Cooper, Adjutant-General of the United States Army, who, being much  older than my husband, looked ready to faint. Luncheon with wine was often sent from home to the War Department, but Mr. Davis forgot to eat or offer the repast to the Colonel. When Mr. Buchanan came into office, Colonel Cooper gravely said that the consolation he felt for losing Mr. Davis was that he could rest; “for,” said he, “another four years would have killed me; Mr. Davis is never tired, he takes no account of time.” Amidst all this eager labor, the humblest soldier could get an interview with him as readily as the greatest general. One day a woman called at our house before he was up, at seven o'clock, and was given audience; after a half-hour's talk with her, Mr. Davis came in to our breakfast-room with a soiled, yelling little boy by one hand, and followed by a frowsy young woman with a crying baby. He ordered a chair placed for her at the table, courteously invited her to be seated, and led the child up to me, saying, “My little man, there is a lady who comforts crying boys.” After quiet was restored, it was developed that she had come to appeal from a sentence pronounced against her husband, who was a private in the ranks, and Mr. Davis had promised I should take care of the children until she could go to visit the President and appeal for a pardon. He accompanied  her and secured it, while I performed the expiatory sacrifice at home. The poor creature came back in the course of time, bringing me a note from my husband begging that the family might have an early dinner, a dollar be given to each of the children, and the butler be sent to pay their passage home and see them off safely on the train. This was not an isolated instance; for hundreds could be cited of his tender consideration for the helpless or sorrowful people who came to him. I once became very tired of the visits of a poor little dwarfish insane man, known in Washington for having expressed his intention to murder Mr. Clay. This little outcast came very often to see and levy upon Mr. Davis for contributions, and I said, “I do not know how you can bear with him, he is so intrusive.” He looked troubled and said, “Perhaps if he were agreeable he would not care to call so often it is a dreadful fate to be distraught and friendless.” When the poor man was troublesome to others, and after he had been committed to the insane asylum, my husband sent supplies of letter paper and envelopes to him in order that he might follow his inclination to write long letters to everybody, and Mr. Davis personally answered those addressed to him.  His heart was so tender that he was sometimes betrayed into misplaced sympathy. There was a poor disfigured creature spent by disease, with a talent for mendicancy, who used to sit in front of the War Department and knit stockings winter and summer. Every day the messenger of the Department, Patrick Jordan, was instructed to pay her a small sum of money, and at last he insisted on my sending her a little cushion to prevent her taking cold, though Patrick always declared that she was rich and a “practised outlaw.” This messenger became so attached to him and served him so well, that when we left Washington Mr. Davis gave him a handsome gold pencil-case. Some years ago, when Patrick died he left the pencil to be returned. Mr. Davis found much comfort in the loving message which accompanied the pencil, and his eyes were misty with tears as he closed the widow's note. He abhorred the idea of oppressing the weak so greatly, that it was a difficult matter to keep order with children or servants. If the children were sent from the table for misconduct he called them to kiss him before they went, and our little girl Margaret Howell, who was born about this time, would as soon as she could talk say, “I wish I could see my father, he would let me be bad.”  Mr. Davis's chief clerk and good friend, Colonel Archibald Campbell, used to remonstrate with him on the sums he gave to charity. “In anyone else,” he said, “it would be a mere yielding to importunity, but after they have left Mr. Davis grieves over their suffering, and it wears him very much.” He had never heard the poem of the “Babes in the wood,” or, strange to say, even the story; probably from his going away from home so early in his childhood he missed the heartrending histories repeated to the “babes” in the nursery. One day when he was ill, I was reading Percy's “Relics,” and he asked me to read aloud. Hoping thus to put him to sleep I turned to the “Babes in the wood” as an oft-told tale and began reading; when midway he grasped my hand and said, “Do stop, I cannot bear it — if it is the truth, it is a cruel thing to perpetuate the story; if it is a fabrication, you may rely on it the man was a rascal who invented such a horror.” And yet to this man, almost weakly merciful, has been attributed the wilful torture of prisoners at Andersonville and in other war prisons! During Mr. Pierce's Administration the Holy Father, Pius IX., sent his Legate to America, and the Roman Catholic families were all anxious to receive him; notable  among these was Madame de Sartige, the very agreeable wife of Comte de Sartige, the French Minister. Her sister, Mrs. Rice, at a dinner party at the Legation, brought down her chubby baby in its little frilled night dress, and held it smiling up to Monseigneur the Legate, for his blessing. Mrs. Rice was a handsome young creature, and it was a lovely picture as she stood against the pale blue velvet hangings, and presented her little baby to the great dignitary. The baby, her only child, grew to manhood and was Thorndike Rice. In this year, also, the Japanese princes and their suite came to Washington. They were lodged at Willard's Hotel. Their attendants, with their little teapots, braziers, low stools, and other paraphernalia, took up the whole wing of the hotel. The princes were very small, but their dignity of manner impressed all who were introduced to them. They looked as if they could say a world of wise and original things, if the confusion of tongues had never fallen upon mankind. During Mr. Pierce's administration, Mr. Crampton, who was a well-bred man of some wit, a strong sense of humor, and sincerely liked by the society of Washington, was misled by his zeal for the interest of Great Britain, into conniving at the enlistment of Americans  and foreigners into America, for service in the Crimean war, to fill up the foreign legions authorized by Great Britain at that time. The President's whole Cabinet felt so kindly to him that they examined narrowly the evidence against Mr. Crampton, and would gladly have believed that he had been innocent of violating the neutrality of America toward the contending nations, but were at last unwillingly convinced of the fact. It was a grave matter that caused much acerbity between England and America; but, nevertheless, Mr. Crampton and three English consuls were given their conge as soon as the facts were undoubtedly established. The President was personally partial to Mr. Crampton, and it is difficult to perceive how, except from an irresponsible writer, ignorant of the truth, the Administration of President Pierce could have been accused of a desire to derive “popularity,” or a new “tenure of office,” from involving England and America in a war. Mr. Crampton was socially very acceptable to the “American statesman,” but the preservation of good faith in our treaties with other countries outweighed personal regard. Sometimes Captain Rodman came to see Mr. Davis at home; he was then perfecting his great gun. He was a rather thick-set,  quiet man, of pleasant address and very gentlemanly manner, which was peculiarly acceptable to Mr. Davis. They talked of smooth bores and rifled bores, but I soon gave up trying to understand heavy artillery, as too scientific for an unlearned listener. Colonel Montgomery Meigs was charged with the extension of the Capitol, and was a frequent visitor. Mr. Davis detailed him for the work, and never had man a more generous, ardent defender than Colonel Meigs found in my husband throughout his whole term in the Cabinet and Senate; for there were many attacks made upon him which Mr. Davis always accepted and defended as personal, and he certainly merited a more grateful memory than General Meigs seemed to have retained. Mr. Davis also gave Colonel Meigs's son an appointment as cadet at West Point, and followed the course of the promising boy with anxious interest. He became an officer in the Federal Army and was killed in the usual course of war, not murdered, as alleged, and our house was very sorrowful when his death was announced; he was “little Johnnie Meigs” to us, a boy we had seen grow up, and for whose success we had many aspirations. Just before the termination of Mr. Davis's service in the Cabinet our second son, Jefferson,  was born, and I was ill unto death for many weeks. This was the “year of the snow,” when it drifted against the houses and in the streets to six feet in some places. On F Street it was so deep that Mrs. Henry Wayne, a dear friend and opposite neighbor, could not cross the street without the assistance of men to beat down the snow, and these could not be procured. Mr. Pierce was nearly an hour getting a square and a half, to inquire for me; he would not send a servant, for, said he, they have no personal interest to urge them on, and would never have made their way this far. He reached our house exhausted, having sunk above his waist several times. Mr. Seward heard that I was at the point of death, and that the lady, a near neighbor of his, who was nursing me with Mrs. Wayne, could not get a carriage to bring her to our door at the corner of F and Fourteenth Street. Though he did not know us, he had his own fine horses harnessed to a sleigh, and brought Mrs. Hetzel to me-but with broken harness and at some peril. This service introduced him to us, and after all those long years of bitter feuds, I thank him as sincerely as my husband did to the last hour of his life. Mr. Davis's construction of his stewardship  to the Government was very strict. His office had for him no perquisites. He was much displeased because his messenger carried a parcel for me to a shop, and gravely admonished me. “Patrick's services are for the War Department--the horse and wagon are for Government use; employ another servant if your own are not adequate to your needs.” He never sent an order for flowers to the Congressional greenhouse, but considered the garden one established for botanical purposes, to acclimatize useful foreign varieties of trees and shrubs, and not for family use by the officials of the Government. The stationery that I used was bought from our own purse, and when, during his Congressional service, my father desired to have a “Congress knife,” then the best made, Mr. Davis gave up his for the session and presented it to my father. These were laborious but happy years, and bore rich fruit to the Government my husband served, and to the Army where his heart was. He did his best, and the verdict was he did well. He came out with unstained hands, and the whole country knew and acknowledged his purity and efficiency, though an ex-postfacto indignation, at his death, denied even a slight recognition of his services. Many of the incidents I have related are  trifling, but the high lights of a picture are only perceptible when sustained and accentuated by the neutral and deep tones. I have therefore striven to show the background of the scenes in which Mr. Davis was a central, I may say a brilliant, figure.