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Chapter 24:

Grant and Sumner.

Sumner had hoped to be Secretary of State under Grant. His anticipations, indeed, began earlier still. It was positively arranged at the time of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson that he was to have the State Department if Wade had gone into the Presidency; and even under Lincoln there was an occasion when he expected to supplant Seward. He thought himself especially fit for the post, and if acquirement and ornate eloquence were the prime requisites for a Secretary of State he might have filled the position with a certain degree of brilliancy.

But though, with Sumner's consent, his friends pressed his name for the first position in the Cabinet, Grant never for a moment entertained the idea of appointing him. There was, indeed, little congruity between the plain and almost rugged soldier, used to war and actual strife, to directing armies and planning campaigns, and the polished rhetorician, the elaborate student of phrases, the man of the closet, the Senate, and of society. Sumner always felt—perhaps with many others—that the career of the soldier should have closed with the war. Arma cedant togoe was always in their hearts, if not upon their lips. Chase, and Seward, and Stanton, and some of their successors, felt themselves better equipped in the arts of statesmanship than they believed any mere warrior could be, and they were undoubtedly jealous of the civic honors given to those who, they thought, should have been content with military rewards. But the people [211] did not agree with them. It was a foregone conclusion from the close of the war that Grant should be the next President. In all ages the successful commander is the most generally popular of the aspirants for public favor, and in Grant's case the highest honors of the State were absolutely pressed upon him, not only unsought, but at first undesired.

Sumner was slow in accepting the situation, but he finally fell into line and made a speech or two in favor of Grant during the Presidential canvass of 1868. After this he expected the appointment to the State Department. The world knows that he was disappointed in his expectations. Still, at first Grant had a high appreciation of Sumner's character and ability. They had not been thrown together intimately, but Grant admired the steadfast position of the anti-slavery champion, as he always admired steadiness whether in friend or foe. He believed in Sumner's scholarship, which he had heard of, but could not verify; he fancied that Sumner was a statesman; and he felt the remains of the indignation which burst out all over the North after the dastardly attack of Brooks had elevated the victim into a martyr.

Sumner had been for years on intimate terms with Fish; had dined at Fish's house weekly while they were together in the Senate; and had been a constant visitor at Fish's homes in town and country in New York. Fish had seen Sumner often in Paris while the orator lay suffering from the blows received in the Senate chamber. Thus when Fish entered the Cabinet he naturally turned to his old associate and friend, who had been more lately familiar with high politics than himself; for Fish had been out of the public service for twelve years, while Sumner was at this time chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs. The official relations of the two brought them at once into close companionship. Before Grant's Administration was three months old Motley was [212] sent to England to please Sumner, without whose interposition he would at most have been returned to Vienna.

But almost immediately Sumner's dictatorial disposition and imperious behavior began to make trouble. The Clarendon-Johnson Treaty was still before the Senate when Grant became President, and in April, 1869, without consulting the Administration, Sumner made his famous speech, in which he claimed that the war had been ‘doubled in duration’ by the English ‘intervention,’ and that ‘England was responsible for the additional expenditure’ which America thus incurred. From Sumner's position in the Senate, and his well-known personal relations with Fish, the country would have a right to presume that these views were shared by the Administration, and this speech at once compelled the President and the Secretary of State to consider and define their own position. It was very different from Sumner's. They held that though England had been most unfriendly in her prompt recognition of Southern belligerency, she was yet within her rights as an independent nation in making the recognition; and they were far from maintaining that she was responsible for all the subsequent or consequential damages. When therefore, Sumner's view was presented to the Administration by Motley as the basis for his own instructions, it was necessarily rejected. At this Sumner became very indignant, and at times was almost offensive in behavior. He considered the rejection a personal slight to himself, and threatened, as I have already stated, to induce Motley to resign. Nevertheless for a while he retained a show of amicable relations with the Government. I remember that I dined with him a night or two before I left Washington to accompany Motley to England, and he was in high spirits, though I fancy he had not then seen Motley's final instructions, which were only concluded at the last moment, and reached the Minister just as he was about to sail. Sumner wrote me once while I was in England a diffuse letter defending himself against the criticisms [213] of his former English friends, who were all very indignant at the position he had assumed. He gave me leave to use the letter, and I sometimes tried to explain to one or two what seemed to them most offensive in his views; but with little success.

I returned to Washington four months later, and during the winter the question of St. Domingo came up. I was never taken into the confidence of those who originated that scheme, and I know no more of it than the public knows. The President once or twice spoke of it to me, and expressed a desire for the ratification of the treaty, and I wrote one or two articles in favor of it for the newspapers, because it was an Administration measure. I learned the general arguments that were offered from a public point of view, and I thought there were reasons why the acquisition of territory in St. Domingo was desirable; but at this time the President did not seem to me to have set his heart so much upon the measure as afterward. I believe it was the heat of the contest that made him so eager for success at last; for he had the soldier's instinct even in civil affairs; when he was once engaged in battle he was always anxious to win.

Sumner, General Grant told me, at first acquiesced in the scheme; but he afterward opposed it bitterly. Those who surrounded Grant thought that the opposition was more on personal than public grounds. Sumner was displeased because he could dictate neither the policy nor the appointments of the Administration. But Grant and Fish were both men unused to dictation; they both resented it; and the antagonism between the characters of Grant and Sumner soon became apparent. Sumner's enormous conceit was evident in words and tones and acts to every one with whom he came in contact. He thought his judgment and knowledge so far superior to those of a plain soldier like Grant that he could not conceal the idea; and he was besides utterly unpractical as a statesman, so that not only the simplicity and modesty [214] of Grant were shocked by the pompous self-assertion and conspicuous vanity of the orator, but the executive ability and plain common sense of the President were as different as could be from the high-sounding theories and impossible suggestions of the inflated doctrinaire.

Nevertheless Sumner was practical enough in the pursuit of power, and in providing for his friends. He was always a place-hunter for others, and knew as well as any man how to build up and maintain a personal party by finding positions and employments for his adherents. I cannot say that he could have been induced to support the St. Domingo scheme by offers of patronage; but I do know that men in Grant's Cabinet thought and said so at the time. Sumner was especially anxious that a certain friend of his named Ashley should have a high appointment; he was always adverting to this when important measures were discussed. ‘Why don't you do something for Ashley?’ was his constant cry. Grant had some reason, I never knew what, for refusing this request; perhaps it was in part an obstinate unwillingness to be forced or persuaded into anything; he had held out so long, he would hold out to the end. For he was often, I thought, maladroit in the distribution and withholding of patronage. Regarding it as he did, and as everybody did at that time, as a legitimate means of party support, and believing that it was clearly within his province to distribute office as he chose—he might have won many important people whom he drove away; he was not pliable enough for a politician. He thought he would not truckle to the press, and therefore he defied and fought the great journals and journalists of the country. But by a judicious use of legitimate political advantages, and by personal advances that coming from him would have conferred distinction, he might have retained as friends many who became his bitterest enemies. I thought at first that even Sumner's friendship need not have been lost. [215]

In the winter or spring of 1870, one of Grant's Cabinet said to him: ‘General, you can get St. Domingo and Sumner's support if you will give him something for Ashley’; but Grant refused bluntly and almost sternly. The Cabinet officer may have been right or wrong; but I believe now that no concessions could long have retained Sumner as a friend. He wanted too much; to control absolutely; and the more that was yielded the more he claimed. Lincoln had the same trouble with him as Grant, but was more adroit. He avoided open ruptures by seeming to concede, by playing upon Sumner's vanity, by making him believe that he suggested measures which the Administration had already determined on.

Fish finally became assured that the St. Domingo treaty could not pass the Senate; a private count was taken, and it was ascertained that the requisite two-thirds could not be obtained in its favor, though more than a majority would vote for it. When this was certain Fish became anxious to settle the question definitely, and begged Sumner, who as Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs could control the situation, to bring up the treaty and reject it, so as to have done with the matter; but Sumner was determined to make the Government withdraw the treaty, a peculiar humiliation to which Grant refused to submit.

Late in the spring of 1870, Fish went to Sumner's house. It was night, and the Secretary was returning from a dinner; he was ushered into Sumner's library and found him in tears. The domestic relations of the Senator, the world knows, were very unhappy, and he was depressed and probably contemplating them. He was not rich, and confessed that the state of his affairs also troubled him. Fish remembered their old time friendship and sought to console him. He said: ‘Reject this treaty, Sumner, and let the Senate adjourn; then go abroad for the summer; get away from your cares and think of something else.’ Sumner was at this time [216] preparing an edition of his speeches or some similar work, and Fish urged him to apply himself to this as a distraction. But Sumner said he could not afford to go abroad, and Fish in the effusion of the moment, and knowing that Motley was to be recalled, exclaimed: ‘How would you like to be Minister to England?’ The moment he heard his own words, he recognized his mistake. He perceived that the offer might be misconstrued, and regretted what he had said. But Sumner simply replied: ‘No, I cannot disturb Motley,’ and Fish eagerly acquiesced; ‘No, I see,’ he said, ‘you are right, you could not supplant Motley.’ Not another word passed between them on the subject, yet this has been called an attempt to bribe Mr. Sumner into the support of the St. Domingo treaty by the offer of the English mission. In this very interview Fish had already urged Sumner to bring up the treaty and reject it; for the Administration had fully made up its mind that the measure was lost.

Twice before this Grant had told Fish that he meant to remove Motley; once when Motley's report of his first interview with Lord Clarendon arrived; next when it was discovered that Motley had submitted his account of the interview to the Foreign Office in London, and thus made it a part of the British archives; but on each occasion Fish had interposed to save the envoy. I have already stated in a previous chapter that in May when I was leaving Washington, the President told me he had certainly determined to remove Mr. Motley.

On the 30th of June, the St. Domingo treaty was rejected, and on the 1st of July Motley was requested to resign. The determination was executed then which had long before been arrived at; but I have no doubt whatever that the decision of the Senate accelerated the action of the President. The axe had been hanging, but now Grant let it fall. It was on the night of July 1st that General Grant desired Mr. Fish to request the resignation of Motley; but the President supposed [217] that the Secretary would telegraph, and a week or two later when he discovered that Fish had merely written, he requested him to telegraph; and the Secretary of State of course complied.

For some months all personal relations between Sumner and Grant had ceased. Sumner had used language highly disrespectful and injurious to the President; not only attacking his acts but impeaching his motives, and making himself personally as well as politically offensive, and Grant was not the man to endure this without resenting it. He did not measure his own language in commenting on that of the Senator. Nevertheless, Mr. Fish had continued his intercourse with Sumner, though it was of course constrained; for Sumner criticised the Secretary with a contemptuous sort of condescension, saying that Fish meant well, but was used by others. Fish was aware of the language, but it was so important to preserve a sort of concord in their official relations that he overlooked what otherwise he might have considered unpardonable. He was in the Senate Chamber shortly after the nomination of Motley's successor was sent in, and went up as usual to Sumner's desk; Sumner almost provoked a rupture then, but finally thought better of it; and things went on for awhile as before in spite of the Motley imbroglio.

When the Senate re-assembled in December the new committees were formed; but though the treaty of St. Domingo had been rejected in July, principally through Sumner's efforts, no attempt was made by the Administration to procure the deposition of Sumner from his place as Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. If the Government had wished to avenge itself in that way for Sumner's opposition to the treaty, now was the time, for his imperious behavior had made him many enemies as well as rivals in the Senate, but not a step was taken, not a word uttered by the President or one of his Cabinet in that direction. Motley was finally [218] and peremptorily removed in December, and in January the Senate called for the entire correspondence on the subject. In this correspondence Motley had, with very bad taste, referred to the rumor that he had been removed because of Sumner's opposition to the St. Domingo scheme, and Fish replied with some severe strictures, which, however, in no way reflected on Sumner. The Senator, nevertheless, at once resented them for his friend; he refused at a dinner at General Schenck's house to speak to Mr. Fish, and afterward announced in the Senate that he had ‘cut the Secretary of State.’

At that very time negotiations for the Treaty of Washington had begun. Sir John Rose had been sent out from England to prepare the way for the Joint High Commission that followed. Mr. Fish, a night or two before, in spite of all that had occurred, had visited Sumner and consulted him in regard to the Treaty, which of course must go to the Senate for confirmation. Sumner had, however, stipulated for some provisions that would have put a stop to all negotiations whatever with England. He sent Fish a written memorandum in which he declared that ‘the withdrawal of the British flag from this hemisphere—including the provinces and islands’—--must be a ‘condition preliminary’ to any settlement. This preposterous proposition was of course never entertained for a moment by the Administration, for no statesman on either side of the Atlantic could conceive of its acceptance by England. Before Mr. . Fish could reply to the note, however, the dinner occurred at which Sumner declined the acquaintance of the Secretary. Sir John Rose was present at the dinner, which, as I have said, was given by General Schenck, then recently appointed Minister to England; so that in the midst of the negotiation on so grave a question, on which he was himself officially to act, Sumner refused to associate with the principal representative and spokesman of his own Government. [219]

The conferences with Rose, however, continued, and he at last returned to England, the bearer of information which resulted in the dispatch of three Commissioners from the British Government who negotiated with our own representatives the Treaty of Washington. The British Commissioners arrived in this country in the last days of February; the new Senate assembled on the 4th of March, and then the Administration, with whom it was evident that Mr. Sumner could not or would not work, exerted itself to procure the selection of another Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. Sumner would speak neither to the President nor to the Secretary of State, and it was impossible to carry on public business without such communication between these high officials. Neither the President nor the Secretary would resign, and Sumner was less powerful than they. He was deposed.

Not only his manner but his doctrines contributed to his downfall. It was impossible to negotiate or even prepare a Treaty with the stipulations which he had declared indispensable. It was absurd to suggest or suppose that England would think of withdrawing her flag from this continent; the bare mention of such a proposition would have been an insult; and the idea was as Quixotic and unstatesmanlike as ever entered the brain of a sane politician; it alone demonstrated the unfitness of its author for the conduct of foreign affairs.

Sumner felt the blow that was dealt him almost as keenly as the strokes of Brooks; both were delivered in the Senate Chamber. Following on the heels of his domestic troubles this later misfortune affected, not only his feeling, but his judgment and his political consistency. When the next elections came on he joined hands with those who had been, not only his enemies, but those of his country, in order if possible to overthrow Grant. This completed his political destruction. He was censured by a vote of the Massachusetts [220] Legislature, and though the censure was revoked he never regained his influence. His health and spirits soon gave way. He was deposed in the Senate in 1872. The same year Grant was re-elected by a triumphant majority. Sumner lingered a year or two in physical and mental suffering and in 1874 he died. The physicians called the disease angina pectoris; it was rightly named, the anguish of a disappointed heart.

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