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Chapter 24: Grant's first administration

  • New York sun as an independent newspaper
  • -- Rawlins Secretary of War -- Dana recommended for collector of customs -- Washburne secures appointment of Moses Grinnell -- Dana commends appointment -- Grant's cabinet announced -- wide-spread disappointment -- nominations of Stewart and Borie regarded with amazement -- Rawlins highly commended -- no splendid administrations -- call for Borie's resignation -- Dana declines appraisership of merchandise -- Criticises Grant's use of Tallapoosa -- the “Black Friday” conspiracy -- frauds in the custom-house -- death of General Rawlins -- appointment of Belknap -- sun opposes Hoar's confirmation -- Condemns Secretary Fish

From the preceding chapter it will be evident to the most casual reader that Dana, from the beginning, conformed strictly to the principles which he had laid down for his government in the conduct of the Sun. From the day he took charge of it he made it an independent newspaper in the broadest sense of the words. While it supported Grant for the presidency, it wore the livery of no party. While it discussed every public question and commented on the acts of every public man as occasion required, it must be admitted that it did so in no personal sense, but upon their merits alone. If the freedom of the press is essential to the freedom of the citizen, absolute independence of judgment on the part of the editor is not only his highest privilege, but his highest duty to the public. As the future course of this narrative will show, the Sun was never anything if not independent. In making it so, Dana estranged many friends, but while he [405] was not indifferent to their good opinions, as many supposed him to be, nothing turned him from the course he thought it his duty to pursue. He may not have been right always in the details of his statements or opinions, and probably cared but little for the mere appearance of consistency in what he said from day to day, but it is certain that he pursued the general course he had chosen with unfaltering constancy and fearlessness to the end. And it was by these virtues, commingled as they may have been from time to time with faults and errors of detail, that the Sun soon came to be the most widely read and most frequently quoted newspaper of the United States. Its style was terse and vigorous, clear and luminous, from the start. Whatever was worth saying at all was worth saying well, and in language which no man could affect to misunderstand. Statesmen, lawyers, preachers, professors, and educated men of every calling read it with avidity, and this fact made it possible, not only by its utterances, but by the persistency with which it reiterated them, to exert a tremendous influence upon every occasion in shaping public opinion.

During the month of February, 1869, while staying with General Grant in Washington, he read his inaugural address to J. Russell Jones, of Chicago, and myself, and invited our comments upon all important subjects except the cabinet. This he naively told us he regarded as “a purely personal matter” which he would not discuss with any one, not even with his wife. He gave us his views freely about many prominent civilians and soldiers, and asked us for the names of such as we thought worthy of consideration and place. On this hint we reminded him of a number he had not mentioned. It was during the first of these interesting conferences that he told us, in answer to a direct inquiry that he intended to send Rawlins, the chief of staff of the army, to command the Department [406] of Arizona, in the hope that the dry atmosphere and out-of-door life of that region would restore his health; and he specially authorized me to make this known to Rawlins. This was done the next day, when I was by no means surprised to learn that Rawlins was not only not pleased with the general's intention, but wanted to be Secretary of War, and thought himself fully entitled to that honor. Thereupon the matter was discussed in all its bearings, and finally at the request of Rawlins, I laid his views before the general. Much to my gratification, the general, without the slightest hesitation or disappointment, directed me to tell Rawlins that he should be Secretary of War, but that he would have to wait a while, possibly thirty days, because he had asked Schofield to hold over. The matter was arranged accordingly, but instead of holding over a month, Schofield went out, and Rawlins went into the War Department on March 9th, the sixth day after the inauguration. I have General G. M. Dodge's authority for the statement that he took the same view of Rawlins's case, and received the same assurance that had been given to me.

I have related these facts with greater detail perhaps than necessary, because they led to many other conferences, one of which at least was germane to this narrative. Knowing that Rawlins not only had great influence with General Grant, but as much interest in the success of his civil as he had had in his military administration, I talked with him even more fully than with Grant about both men and measures. We discussed the merits of many with whom we had become intimate during the war, and among the first of these was Charles A. Dana. We agreed that he had rendered both Grant and the government most important service; that he was a vital, able man; and that having a metropolitan newspaper fast rising into popularity and influence, he could be of great benefit to the new administration. [407] In consideration of the fact that he could not with justice to his own interests leave his newspaper, we concluded that the most suitable place for him was that of Collector of Customs at New York. Rawlins, who was a prudent man, took the matter under further advisement, and at our next meeting, not only expressed his concurrence in the conclusion we had reached, but requested me to inform Dana that he was to have that place, and this was without qualification or condition. Feeling that it was a wise decision, I made haste to communicate it both by letter and in person. Inasmuch as Rawlins was at that time seeing Grant daily, and discussing every sort of question with him, except such as were personal to himself, I assumed that they had considered and decided upon Dana's appointment together, and that Rawlins had full authority for the assurance he had authorized me to give to Dana. This and this alone is consistent with the character of Rawlins and his relations to Grant; but the matter hung fire, and, greatly to the surprise of many, Moses Grinnell, a gentleman of much less consideration, received that appointment, while a month later an inferior place in the same service was offered to Dana.

What or who caused this change of purpose has always been a matter of conjecture with me. It will be remembered that E. B. Washburne, Grant's first friend in public life, was also his first Secretary of State, and although he held office but a few days, for the purpose, as the President himself explained at the time, of giving him “special prestige as minister to France,” he was most active, in the short interval allowed him, in disposing of patronage and breaking political slates. While it is evident that Grant wanted to do the proper thing, and appear not ungrateful to Washburne, it is also evident that he did not intend to have that aggressive statesman too near at hand, and therefore decided to send him as far away as possible. That [408] Dana concurred in this is hardly consistent with the assumption of the Sun that Washburne was to have a cabinet position. What Washburne's real feelings were towards Dana cannot be positively stated on any evidence in my possession, but the chances are that they were inimical. He was a strong, aggressive, and ambitious public man, not over-fond of his rivals nor over-lenient to the people he did not like. Having been long in political life, and a Republican before it was popular to be one, he had many debts to pay and many friends to reward. Grinnell was widely known at the time as a gentleman of the highest character, but he was without political prominence, and was besides regarded as a special friend of Seward, which of itself could scarcely have commended him to General Grant, no matter what might have been his relations with Washburne. In making the announcement of this appointment in the editorial page of the Sun, March 26th, Dana certainly showed no feeling of resentment. He stated truly that it was regarded as a victory of the Seward faction over the Greeley faction of the Republican party in New York, and that

it was all the more interesting from the fact that General Grant was supposed to have cherished anything but a feeling of love for the late Secretary of State, ever since the celebrated question of veracity in which Mr. Seward took the side of President Johnson. ...

It is to be noted that Dana went out of his way to add:

... For our own part, notwithstanding our sympathies are with the Greeley wing, we are not going to complain because such a jolly veteran as Moses H. Grinnell has got a good thing. He is a splendid specimen of a New York merchant prince, and we do not question that he will leave the [409] collectorship, four or eight years hence, with his popularity undiminished.

There can be no doubt that this article expressed the real sentiments of Dana; but without reference to his feelings, or to those of the public at the time, the preference given to Grinnell over Dana must from every point of view be regarded as a political mistake, no matter who may have been responsible for it.1

It will be recalled that Dana had been charged with unfriendliness to Grant because he had criticised the terms of Lee's capitulation, and had opposed Washburne's bill, passed in 1866, reviving the grade of general for Grant's special benefit. It will also be proper to recall that in taking charge of the Sun, some eighteen months later, he had given fair notice to the country that it was to be an independent newspaper, that it would wear no party's collar, that it would discuss both men and measures solely on their merits, and that Grant's first official act as President — the announcement of his cabinet — was not only to surprise the country greatly, but was to put Dana's goodwill rudely to the test. If he had been merely an office-seeker, or willing to use his newspaper for the promotion of his personal interests, he could have remained silent, if he could not have commended the cabinet appointments which so greatly surprised even Grant's most intimate political friends. Taken as a whole, those appointments were a great shock to the party leaders of every grade, and especially so to the Senate, whose advice and consent must be had before the gentlemen named could enter upon their respective duties.

They were: E. B. Washburne, for Secretary of State; A. T. Stewart, for Secretary of the Treasury; John M. [410] Schofield, holding over as Secretary of War; Jacob D. Cox, Secretary of the Interior; Adolph E. Borie, Secretary of the Navy; John A. J. Creswell, Postmaster-General; E. Rockwood Hoar, Attorney-General.

With the exception of Washburne, the list contained not a single name that any newspaper or political organization had ever suggested or, so far as known, had ever thought of for a Cabinet position, but, as has already been shown Washburne's appointment was temporary, and merely for the purpose of giving him prestige. As a matter of fact, he held office but a few days, when he was succeeded by Hamilton Fish, who had been so long absent from active public life that he was almost forgotten. Dana alone had remembered and mentioned him as a fit man for the Treasury Department, but he was completely unknown to the country at large, and Dana's mention of him attracted but little attention at the time.

The nominations of Stewart and Borie were received with amazement. They were both merchants, entirely without experience in official life. Neither had ever held even the most insignificant office. Stewart was at the time the greatest merchant in the country, if not in the world; but, as he was largely engaged in the importing trade, he was absolutely disqualified from holding the office by a statute which had been long upon the books. It is not strange that Grant, a simple soldier, should have been ignorant of the law, which the newspapers, if not the senators, made haste to bring to his attention, but, instead of withdrawing the appointment at once, the President committed a still greater blunder by asking Congress to repeal the law. As this request was received with disfavor, the nomination of Stewart was after a few days reluctantly withdrawn, and that of George S. Boutwell was substituted for it.

But if Stewart's name was received with amazement, [411] Borie's was received with ill-concealed contempt. He was a most amiable and benevolent person, not even engaged in active business. He was a loyal and, to the extent of very limited abilities, a trustworthy gentleman, who knew absolutely nothing about any department of the government, least of all about the navy. Recognizing this, it was speedily made known that Admiral Porter had been, or would be, detailed as his principal assistant; but, instead of mending matters, this made them worse. Borie accepted the office and entered upon his duties; but when it became generally known that both he and Stewart had been liberal contributors to the fund for the purchase of a house for General Grant, and that the general's acquaintance with them dated from that purely personal transaction, the outcry became so great that Borie was presently forced to resign. His place was filled by George M. Robeson, an inconspicuous citizen of Camden, New Jersey, whose management of the department finally brought serious discredit upon the administration.

Doubtless in ignorance of the fact that the appointment was only temporary, Dana spoke of Washburne for the Department of State with unqualified approval. He characterized him as an experienced legislator “of vigorous, masculine intellect” and “thorough American feeling,” who would surely maintain “the honor and the interests of our country in the momentous debates then pending with Great Britain and other foreign powers.”

With the understanding that Schofield would soon be replaced as Secretary of War by General Rawlins, Dana made haste to say of the latter:

... No better man can be found for that office or any other. Able, original, true, and brave, there are few Americans of higher moral and intellectual worth than he.


This was followed by an appreciative estimate of Hoar's high qualities as a gentleman, a lawyer, and a judge. This was followed by the prophetic statement that

... this is a working and not an ornamental cabinet. It contains a great deal of business faculty and comparatively little experience in the art and science of politics. We may be sure of one thing, however, and that is that there will be no conflict either of views or of ambition between its members and their chief.

And so it turned out. Such of the first cabinet, as well as their successors, as had views of their own, or had manifested any noticeable degree of independence, were forced after a shorter or longer probation to throw up their positions and return to private life.

It is not germane to this narrative to discuss Grant's cabinet further at present. It is sufficient at this time to say that it was generally regarded as a chance body chosen rather for personal than political reasons. So far as can now be ascertained, it was not approved as a whole by a single newspaper, either Republican, Democratic, or independent, in the United States, but it was widely and generally disapproved. Dana's criticism was neither more harsh nor more unfriendly than that of his contemporaries. They were greatly disappointed with the cabinet as a whole; and when Grant proposed that Stewart should be relieved of the legal disabilities which excluded him from the Treasury, they generally concurred with Dana, not only in pronouncing the proposal to be a mistake, but in holding that the law which interdicts from the Treasury every person engaged in trade, and every dealer in public securities, was wise and salutary. While this was the independent view of the matter, it was doubtless distasteful to the thick-and-thin supporters of the administration, [413] if not to Grant in person. Although Dana followed it by the commendation of Alonzo B. Cornell's appointment to the office of Surveyor of the Port as “one of perfect fitness,” and by hearty praise of the President for recalling the order by which he had placed the administration of the army and the military bureaus under the general-in-chief, and returned it to the Secretary of War, where the law puts it, the other newspapers, and especially the Tribune, were swift to attribute Dana's criticism, mild as it was, to personal disappointment.

While Dana ridiculed this imputation, he held inflexibly to the independent course he had adopted. He declared Sherman to be an honest man, but did not hesitate to say that his acceptance of one hundred thousand dollars, with which to buy a home in Washington, made it undesirable that he should be placed in charge of business which was of such great concern to the army contractors.

On March 29th Dana questioned the Tribune's prediction that Grant's administration would be a “splendid” one, but this seems to have been little more than a verbal criticism based upon the fact that “the government is run mainly by Congress,” and that “there have not been any splendid administrations.” But on April 1st the Sun contained an article of far greater importance, urging that Borie should quit the Navy Department for reasons

... which are very simple but very strong.

In the first place, he is unable to do the duties of the office, [although] Admiral Porter has been assigned to assist him.

In the second place, he is a pecuniary benefactor of General Grant. He has given the general money; he was a large contributor towards the purchase of a house in Philadelphia, worth some fifty thousand dollars, which was presented to the general. Mr. Borie has got himself into this false position, hurtful to himself, still more hurtful to General Grant, and most of all hurtful to the dignity and the welfare of the [414] country, without sufficiently reflecting upon the grave and pregnant error he was committing.

Dana drove this criticism home a few weeks later by the question, “Is there a man in this country who believes that, if Mr. Borie had been a poor man and unable to contribute money to General Grant in Philadelphia, he would to-day have been at the Navy Department?” Of course, such language was distasteful to those concerned. It was certainly based upon a higher ideal of public life than seems to have prevailed in Washington at that time and afterwards, but that General Grant himself seriously objected to the first part of it, at least, is far from being apparent. If he had any feeling about it at all, it was doubtless one of approval rather than disapproval, for two weeks later he sent Dana's nomination to the Senate as appraiser of merchandise at the New York custom-house. The Tribune announced this appointment in terms of mock exultation, to which Dana replied the next day in an editorial introducing an official letter which he had received from Secretary Boutwell, with whom he was on terms of personal friendship. It was dated at the Treasury Department, April 14, 1869, and runs as follows:

You will have heard of your nomination as appraiser — an office for which probably you have neither taste nor inclination, and which, regarding your own claims only, should not have been tendered you, and yet I hope you will not decline it. It is the point on which our success in collecting the customs revenues turns, and I know of no place in which you can render so efficient aid to the government.

If you accept, as I sincerely hope you will, I shall esteem it a personal favor, and you may count on my constant support.

Dana's reply is an excellent illustration of his style, as well as of his independence and his views of public [415] duty. It is dated, “Sun Office, April 17, 1869,” and is here inserted in full:

Your unexpected favor of the 14th instant was duly received. It would have been more speedily answered but for the personal request with which it closes. In these days of corruption in high places as well as low places, no upright citizen ought hastily to refuse such a request; but, after due consideration, I find myself constrained to decline this mark of esteem and confidence. I beg you, however, to believe that this is not done from either of the reasons you suggest. Having been educated to commercial pursuits, the office is not repugnant to my tastes; and as for serving the government at some sacrifice of my own interests and convenience, I trust that during the past few years I have sufficiently proved my readiness to do it. But I already hold an office of responsibility as the conductor of an independent newspaper, and I am persuaded that to abandon it or neglect it for the functions you offer me would be to leave a superior duty for one of much less importance. Nor is it certain that I cannot do more to help you in the pure and efficient administration of the Treasury Department by remaining here and denouncing and exposing political immorality than I could as appraiser by the most zealous effort to insure the faithful and honest collection of the customs.

This incident was much commented upon by the Sun's contemporaries, one of which charged that Dana had turned on Grant and his administration for the reason that he had not been appointed collector. So far as I know, he was never an applicant for that or any other office. The action which I had taken with General Rawlins in his behalf was entirely on my own responsibility, in the interest of General Grant and his administration, and in the conviction that the appointment was one in every way fit to be made. I felt that Dana was entitled to it, by both his military and his political services, and that [416] it would prove advantageous to the country at large, as well as to the Treasury. Rawlins fully concurred in this opinion.

But without regard to the cause or motive by which Dana's policy as editor of the Sun was controlled, it turned out that henceforth he found much in the current action of the administration to condemn, and that this condemnation interested the public at large, however distasteful it may have been to the office-holders and the men “inside of politics.” Within two months a breach had occurred, which by the end of six had become impassable. Dana's absolute independence was now an important factor in the discussions of the day, and, while many conservative and prudent people did not hesitate to say that he was going too far and becoming entirely too personal in his criticisms, the circulation of the paper increased rapidly, and its revenues kept pace with its circulation. Borie resigned on June 26th, but that did not change Dana's course. In July Grant took the Tallapoosa, a naval vessel, for his private use, and this was disapproved by the Sun. Although the President is the constitutional commander-in-chief of the army and navy, this act was regarded as an innovation on the practice of his predecessors. It las since come to be a common custom, and now passes without special comment.

Later in the month the Sun called for a mass-meeting to denounce the shooting of American citizens by the Spanish authorities in Cuba, without trial. It had already expressed the opinion that the administration was too lenient towards the Spanish government, and “should retrace its steps.” It had severely commented upon Grant's acceptance of a gift of land in New Jersey, and in August it criticised him for

... the corrupting and demoralizing practice of giving office in return for presents, his fatal disregard of law, his petty foreign [417] policy, and his deplorable failure to represent the sentiment and to promote the manifest destiny of the country.

This was preceded by a severe condemnation of United States Marshal Barlow for resisting his own arrest, under the advice of the President, who had written him a personal letter authorizing and requesting him to defy the processes and officers of the State courts, no matter under what pretext they might assume to act.

In September of that year a conspiracy was formed by men both inside and outside of Wall Street to raise the price of gold, whereupon the Sun called upon the Treasury Department “to block the game of this unscrupulous ring,” and this was done, mainly through the President's own intervention, on what came to be known as “Black Friday.” The story of that memorable day, involving as it did many distinguished names, has never been fully told, but one of its consequences was to call forth a letter from General Grant to Robert Bonner, which was widely published and commented upon. In its issue of October 16th, the Sun, after praising the President for writing it, “as one of the most sensible things he had ever done,” declared:

... This letter disposes of the efforts to involve General Grant with the gold conspirators. He had no more to do with the gold speculation than any other innocent man, except that he ordered gold sold, and thus broke the ring. The plans of the conspirators to involve General Grant, and thus to make their own fortune or ruin his reputation, were very skilful and adroit, but his plain, straightforward letter scatters them all to the winds. The whole country will believe General Grant, and will regard his letter with satisfaction.

This clear and unequivocal commendation was never recalled. When it is considered in connection with many other utterances to the same effect, it shows beyond question [418] that Dana regarded Grant always as an honest man. It is interesting to note, however, that in commenting a few days later upon the appointment of a successor to the Assistant Treasurer of the United States, who had been removed for complicity in the gold conspiracy, the Sun declared that “no man can be appointed who has made donations of money, houses, horses, or anything else to General Grant.”

And this declaration was emphasized by the fact that after Grinnell's removal was called for, on account of the prevalence of frauds in the custom-house, it was discovered that he had also been one of the contributors to the fund for the benefit of General Grant.

The death of General Rawlins, which took place September 9, 1869, removed from the office of Secretary of War not only a very able man,2 but a most fearless and devoted friend to General Grant. The loss was an irreparable one, for while Rawlins had been in no way consulted in the make — up of the cabinet, he was the only man in it, with the exception of General Cox, specially noted for independence of character, or who had known General Grant intimately from his obscure beginnings to the end of the war. Every other member of it made his acquaintance after the war was over, and all naturally thought that a man who had been so great a general must necessarily be also a great statesman. At all events, they seemed to act on this theory. Those of them, like Fish, who had no views in opposition to those of the President, held their places to the end, while those like Cox and Hoar of the first lot, and like Bristow and Jewell of a later date, who had views of their own, sooner or later found themselves forced to resign.

The appointment of Belknap, a soldier of excellent education [419] and of fair abilities, although without experience in politics, was well received by the country and the disbanded volunteer army. Dana, who had known him during the Vicksburg campaign, commended it, but rather on account of the independence Belknap had shown towards a kinsman of Grant's living in Iowa, who had claimed to control the internal-revenue appointments for that State, than for any special fitness for a cabinet position. While Belknap was technically an excellent Secretary of War, his career was unfortunately closed by scandal and impeachment, under circumstances that the Sun, in common with the independent and opposition newspapers throughout the country, did not fail to denounce.

Although Dana had come to be an unsparing critic of the administration before the end of its first year, he did not fail to praise the President whenever an opportunity presented itself. He specially commended him for adopting Secretary Seward's policy of purchasing Haiti and acquiring Santo Domingo. He also praised the President's views on the currency question as “sound and statesmanlike,” while on the other hand he criticised him severely for advocating the renewal of the income tax, which had been passed as a war measure with a specific declaration on the part of Congress that it should continue till 1870, and “no longer.” Dana regarded this as a species of repudiation, alike injurious to the government and the business of the country. Somewhat later the Sun came out strongly against the nomination of Hoar, of Massachusetts and of the cabinet, for a seat on the bench of the Supreme Court, for the circuit formerly represented by Justice Wayne, of Georgia. While it could say nothing against the eminent fitness of Hoar, it opposed his confirmation on account of his locality, and pronounced the appointment as “one of the most repugnant cases of carpet-bag-ism which had marked the era of reconstruction.” [420] The Republican Senate appears to have agreed with the Sun, for it rejected the nomination with no excuse and but little delay. About this time the Sun condemned Fish for permitting his son-in-law to be counsel for the Spanish government, and for not stopping the war against Cuba. It contended that the United States, within “five years after the abolition of slavery at home,” were permitting themselves “to be used to fasten slavery and the slave-trade anew upon the people of Cuba.” While the Sun from the first favored the annexation of Santo Domingo by honorable means, it came out in January, 1870, against “the consummation of the iniquitous scheme ... without the honest consent of the Dominican people,” and raised a warning voice against “the visit of the President to the Senate's anteroom, to influence its action in favor of the Dominican Treaty,” as establishing a dangerous precedent.

1 Grinnell served 1869-70, and was succeeded by Thomas Murphy.

2 See Schofield, Forty-six Years in the Army, pp. 323, 420, 421.

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