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Chapter 26:

Grant and Fish.

Fish was the one member of the Cabinet who served during the entire eight years that Grant was President. He entered the Administration on the 11th of March, 1869, and remained until March, 1877, even delaying a few days under Hayes. He had not been Grant's original choice for Secretary of State, but before Washburne's brief term was over, when Wilson declined to take the post, and it was discovered that Stewart, of New York, was ineligible to the Treasury, the President appealed to Fish to help him out of his dilemma.

From the day of his election, Grant wrote, he had determined to offer Fish the appointment of Minister to England, but in the re-arrangement of his Cabinet, which was unavoidable, he invited the ex-Governor and Senator to accept the position of Secretary of State. Fish promptly declined the proposition. He had been requested to telegraph his answer and did so of course, but he also wrote, posting the letter with his own hands, because of its importance. On his return to his house he was met by a telegram announcing his nomination and confirmation as Secretary of State; Grant had not waited for the refusal. The dispatch requested Fish not to reply, but to await the arrival of Colonel Babcock, who was bearer of a personal message from the President.

Babcock arrived the same day with instructions to urge the acceptance of the post. Still Fish hesitated, or rather refused, until finally Babcock communicated a confidential [232] message from the President which he had been ordered to reserve for a final effort. Upon the receipt of this Fish consented to become a member of the Government.

Grant at this crisis was more than glad to have Fish enter his Cabinet; and no man had more permanent influence with him in all his public policy than the Secretary of State, but it is nevertheless true that when the offer was made Grant had by no means so high an appreciation of Fish's ability as he afterward acquired. He was not then familiar with the personal political history of his time; and knew little of the career of civilians who had not held the highest national positions. Fish had been twelve years out of the public service, a longer period than Grant himself had been of importance. He selected Fish rather on account of his character and private position than because he knew him for a man of first-rate capacity. He confessed to me more than once that he had been surprised at the quality and calibre of Fish's ability; not only at his judgment and energy, but at his downwright power to deal with men and affairs. But when Grant's public career was over he looked upon Fish as the ablest of the men who had entered his Cabinet and as worthy to stand in the line with any of his predecessors in the State Department.

There were certain traits which the two possessed in common—a natural plainness, almost a ruggedness of character, in Fish's case doubtless inherited from his Dutch ancestors and not entirely softened even by courtly associations or innate breeding; a stubbornness of disposition that was aggravated by opposition, and an unforgiving temperament when affronts became personal, for each resented insults not only quicker, but longer, than injuries. But besides and more than all, there was in each an unwillingness, if not an inability, to express in manner or words the warm regard that lay beneath an undemonstrative exterior; this gave them, I doubt not, an undefined fellowship of feeling, and yet threw [233] a certain constraint about their intimacy. They knew and liked each other better, I believe, than either ever said to the other. But such natures understand and appreciate perhaps as well as if they expressed more.

Two grave questions, the English and the Cuban, were at once presented to the State Department. The story of the English imbroglio, the quarrel with Motley and Sumner, in which Fish fully sympathized with Grant, the Treaty of Washington, and the Arbitration at Geneva—all this I have attempted to record. The subject profoundly interested the Secretary of State, and all the adjustment was left to him. Grant approved of every step that was taken, though sometimes he required to be convinced; but he was in accord with Fish at every critical moment. In the personal phases of the controversy the feelings of both became enlisted, and they were brought into closer relations because they received and repelled the same assaults. Grant had the soldier's feeling of camaraderie very strong for those who shared his dangers, and Fish was always sturdily loyal. Even when Grant determined on a course that Fish would not perhaps have advised, the Secretary stanchly supported his chief; not, of course, against his developed convictions, but more than once without any personal interest of his own.

The Cuban danger, however, Fish fought from the beginning. Rawlins was very anxious to take sides with the Cubans in their struggle for independence, and others in the Cabinet followed his lead. He looked to the eventual annexation of Cuba by the United States and did everything in his power to precipitate steps that could not be reversed. He was even willing to risk the possibility of war with Spain, but Fish; thought we had too recently emerged from a contest at home to engage in another abroad. He was not averse to acquiring Cuba under other circumstances, as I shall show, but he did not want the island at the expense of war, especially at this time. He therefore frowned upon all attempts [234] to aid the insurgents. Grant at first leaned very strongly to the views of Rawlins, and there were many of the President's friends and advisers who concurred with the Secretary of War. At one time the issue was almost decided in favor of Rawlins, but the development of the English question gave Fish a powerful argument. He urged that with trouble on our hands with Spain, we could not possibly deal frankly and fearlessly with England; that the claims against England were the result of our own war and should be settled definitely before we turned to the acquisition of further territory at the price that Cuba would at that time inevitably cost. This view was one that would be apt to affect Grant, and Fish thought that it convinced him, as it certainly did one or two of the Cabinet; and just when the cogency of the argument was felt by the President, Rawlins died. His mantle as the friend of Cuba fell on no Elisha. The insurgents never found another friend so powerful or earnest; the insurrection languished without the aid of America, and Spain remained firm in her seat on the unhappy island.

The St. Domingo scheme shared the fate of the Cuban enterprise, although the former was accepted as an Administration measure. There was a great outcry at the time that improper motives instigated the urgency of the President and his friends for the acquisition of St. Domingo. I fancy no one now believes that Grant was corrupt in his earnestness, and I have never known any proof that others were; but Cuban bonds were certainly distributed with a lavish hand among those who it was thought could aid the purpose of the Patriots. Men high in position and public estimation accepted these bonds and afterward advocated the recognition of Cuban independence.

Even a foreign Minister was at one time the custodian and dispenser of four million dollars' worth of them, and the fact came to the knowledge of the Government. The Minister was summoned and informed that the Administration was [235] aware of his complicity, and that if the bonas remained in his keeping four and twenty hours his excellency would receive his passports. His excellency made haste within the appointed time to place the papers where they could never again be of use to the insurrectionary party; and during the remainder of his mission he was careful not to dabble in the affairs of stranger nations; nor to foment as a foreign Minister troubles between other governments and that to which he was accredited.

After the English question was disposed of Fish determined to leave the Cabinet. Grant's first term was approaching a close; the President had been re-elected, and the Secretary felt that he could with honor withdraw from the cares of state, having achieved a great diplomatic success and relieved his chief from the anxieties that pressed so heavily when the subordinate accepted office. Grant was unwilling to part with his Secretary of State, but Fish persisted in his intention, and one day when they were alone together he handed the President his resignation in a closed letter. This was just before a Cabinet meeting, and Grant took the letter but said nothing. When the other members of the Cabinet entered, he asked each in turn for his budget, but omitted Fish, who according to etiquette should have been first addressed. Then the President said: ‘I have a letter from the Secretary of State. I suppose I know its contents, and I am very sorry to receive it.’ But he had a matter, he continued, upon which he desired to consult the other members of the Cabinet.

Fish accepted this as his own dismissal, and took his leave, not expecting to enter the Cabinet chamber again as Secretary of State. But the next day he received a letter signed by every member of the Senate except three, urging him to remain in his position. This was the business which the President desired to discuss with his ministers; and the dismissal, as Fish thought it at the time, was a [236] waggish design on the part of Grant to surprise his friend. He was always fond of surprising those whom he liked by his favors or his acts of friendship, and the vein of humor that ran through his character was very perceptible in incidents like these. Fish remained in the Cabinet.

In the year 1870 Mr. Paul Forbes, a man prominent in the business and social circles of his time, made known to the Government his intimacy with General Prim, then Premier of Spain. He also communicated certain intimations that the Spanish potentate might not be averse to negotiate for the disposal of Cuba to the United States, if the terms could be made advantageous, and the Castilian pride should not be inopportunely aroused. There were some pourparlers on the subject, and it was finally determined to send Forbes to Madrid in such a way as not to commit the Government, but to sound the Premier further as to his views, General Sickles, the Minister to Spain, was informed of the plan, and was directed to assist in its execution, but to be careful that the relations of the two countries should not be compromised. The Spanish temper was known to be hot and suspicious as well as arrogant, and Prim must manage his part of the affair with consummate delicacy.

Forbes started for Europe, but was unable to restrain his elation at being intrusted with so important a business. When he arrived at Paris he had the indiscretion to reveal his errand, and before he reached Madrid the story of the proposed sale of Cuba was noised abroad. This at first almost balked the enterprise. Prim was frightened for his hold on power; he had not yet prepared the minds of his countrymen for the abandonment of the Faithful Isle. Still Sickles took up the negotiations and with great skill mended the broken threads; there seemed a fair prospect of success. The offer was absolutely made by Spain that the Cubans should be allowed to purchase Cuba, the United States to guarantee the purchase bonds, and the matter was under [237] consideration by the United States when Prim was assassinated. I was repeatedly assured in Cuba that he had been shot because he contemplated the sale. Be that as it may, with his death the scheme fell through, and it has not since been revived. Cuba remains to-day the most miserably oppressed bit of soil on earth under what is called a civilized government.

No further matter of equal importance in our foreign relations arose during Grant's Administration. Amid the disasters and calumnies that clustered around the last years of his second term, Fish remained stanch to his chief. He was opposed to Grant's standing for a third term immediately after a second, perhaps as much because he thought the President would be defeated if he appealed to the country then, as on account of any disapprobation of the principle. He certainly in 1880 supported the renomination of Grant; but at the close of Grant's second Administration Fish recommended his retirement. During all the anxieties and doubts in regard to the election of a successor Fish was in the full confidence of his chief; and he was by Grant's side when he left the White House. From the Executive Mansion the exPresi-dent and Mrs. Grant were driven to Fish's house, and remained for several weeks his guests, as eight years before he and Mrs. Fish had been guests of General Grant, little dreaming then of the relations they were destined to assume.

While Grant was engaged upon his memoirs he wrote some passages of a political character which seemed to me of so much consequence that I urged him to discuss them with his most important political friends, and he determined to read them to Fish, but for some reason this intention was not carried out. Months afterward, when Grant thought he was dying, and his family were gathered around him to receive his last words, he stammered: ‘I suppose I have not more than half an hour to live, and I wish to say that I want the political passages in my book submitted to [238] Governor Fish to see if there is too much acrimony. He may correct them or strike them out altogether as he chooses.’ General Grant, however, revived after this and lived several months longer, during which he was able to resume his work, but in what he believed were his dying moments he gave this great proof of confidence and respect to his friend and counselor, his Secretary of State.

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