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Chapter 25: epoch of public corruption

  • Dana favors Continental Union
  • -- breach between Sumner and President -- Condemns bestowal of office for pecuniary favors -- Grant's relations in office -- Ku-Klux outrages no excuse for invading the South -- French arms scandal -- corruption in Washington -- “addition, Division, and silence” -- Dana arrested -- Credit Mobilier exposures -- independent Republicans and Democrats nominate Greeley for President -- Dana supports him -- personal journalism -- Grant's second election -- effort to extradite Dana to Washington -- Safe Burglary Conspiracy -- frauds of the Whiskey Ring

It was during the first year of Grant's administration that Dana began to discuss the annexation of the British provinces of North America. He pointed out that Britain could not defend those colonies successfully against us; that free and unrestricted trade between them and the United States was necessary to their greatest prosperity; that the Reciprocity Treaty, which had lately expired, could not be re-enacted; that while it had carried the colonies prosperously along for ten years, it had aroused their hostility instead of conciliating them, and had been followed by an armed federation against us. Later he showed that an honorable union with us would settle the fisheries and fur-seal questions; abolish the custom-houses; extend the area of free-trade; insure free navigation of the St. Lawrence.and the Great Lakes; enable the government to enforce the exclusion act, to protect our land and water transportation interests, to perfect the national defence, and to realize by peaceable and inexpensive means all the advantages of that continental republic which both nature [422] and political expediency seem to have favored from the first.

Throughout life Dana remained the champion of that great idea. He opened his newspaper for its discussion when ever occasion offered. Philosopher, historian, and statesman were alike welcome to its columns, if only they promised to advocate the great cause of “Continental Union.” Nor can there be any doubt that he thought the end of the Civil War presented a rare opportunity for the settlement of the Alabama claims in a way which would greatly promote our permanent and paramount interests. It is not too much to say that he preferred annexation, even if it should be necessary to carry it into effect by force, to the settlement male by the Treaty of Washington. And yet his opposition to the Babcock-Baez Treaty for the acquisition of Santo Domingo, and the practical alliance which grew up between the Sun and the powerful group of senators who arrayed themselves against that measure, and finally defeated it, were the most potent influence in turning Grant, with all the power of the government back of him, against his own favorite policy of annexing Canada, and thus settling the Alabama claims and getting rid of a dangerous neighbor forever.1

The immediate effect of the combined opposition to the Santo Domingo Treaty was to make an impassable breach between Senator Sumner, chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, and the President. Thereafter it was only necessary for Sumner and his friends to support a measure to make it certain that Grant and his friends would oppose it. Sumner resisted the annexation of Santo Domingo, but favored the annexation of Canada and the neighboring provinces. From that time forth Grant did all in his power to override the opposition and to carry [423] his own measures through. To that end he gave his fullest support to Fish's plans for a settlement with England, and had the pleasure not only of seeing the haughty and recalcitrant Sumner deposed by his fellow-senators from the chairmanship of the Committee on Foreign Relations, but also of seeing the treaty of arbitration negotiated, approved, and carried into effect. On the other hand, the senatorial group, aided by the Sun, after a long and bitter struggle, succeeded in defeating the annexation of Santo Domingo, largely because of the taint of corruption which had been fixed upon the treaty, and its negotiation as well, as of the questionable methods by which its friends had sought to secure its ratification. This was one of the bitterest controversies of the times, and brought upon Dana the intense displeasure of the administration and its supporters; but on the whole it strengthened him with the people, and to-day it would be difficult to find an intelligent man anywhere to blame him for the independent and effective part he took in the discussion.

Late in October, 1870, Dana replied fully to the charge that he had not treated Grant fairly in the columns of the Sun, and in justifying his course he contended that the system of bestowing office upon those who had conferred pecuniary favors upon the President was “a shocking innovation upon all the former practices and traditions of the country” ; that in giving utterance to these feelings “the Sun had expressed the feelings of the whole American people,” and that no serious effort had ever been made in any quarter “to controvert the views of the Sun on this subject.”

Again he contended that Grant's foreign policy,

... by its weakness, indecision, want of character, and anti-American sympathies, stood forth in glaring contrast with the vigorous sentiments and statesman-like promises [424] of his inaugural address; and the whole American people, bitterly disappointed, changed their feelings towards the President from one of admiration to one of regret and pity. This new feeling was plainly declared by the Sun, and nowhere has there been any serious attempt either to deny its existence or to dispute its justice.

Finally he declared that, in censuring the President when he reserved it, he had not compelled himself to acquiesce in every charge made against him, whether true or false. When a concentrated effort had been made to implicate him in the gold speculations, the Sun took a judicial view of all the known facts in connection with the President's own testimony and his letter to Bonner, and had not only frankly expressed the opinion that there was nothing in the case inconsistent with his innocence, but had declared its genuine satisfaction that such was the fact. A few days later it enumerated twenty-four of Grant's relatives who were then holding office, and within a week gave him hearty praise for recommending the abolition of the income tax. It admonished him that in surrounding a political convention with soldiers, in order to exclude citizens who were opposed to his renomination, he was menacing the liberties of the people. It cautioned him that in making the Ku-Klux outrages an excuse for invading the South with the armed forces of the country he was exceeding his constitutional authority. It lost no opportunity to denounce public corruption and public robbery. It cried out with “damnable iteration” against political fraud, bribery, and present-taking, whether by Republicans or Democrats, by municipal or federal officeholders, as a serious menace to our free institutions. It spared neither high nor low in its denunciations. It scored Robeson's corruption in the Navy Department and Tweed's spoliation of the city treasury with equal impartiality and equal severity. [425]

On February 17, 1872, the Sun published a leading editorial in which it stated that the nation was now “passing through an epoch of public corruption without precedent in its history, and almost without precedent in the history of free governments.” In support of this generalization, it alluded to the frauds of the Tammany Democrats and the political revolution that had followed their detection. But, great as they were, they sank into insignificance, “not only beside those of the carpet-bag governments of the South, but still more beside those committed by the Republican administration at Washington.” It charged the Republican party and the Republican journals with stifling inquiry and concealing the magnitude and enormity of these crimes. It called attention to Senator Sumner's resolution of inquiry into the sale of arms and ammunition by the War Department to France, to be used in the war against Germany. It alleged that “millions of money had been made” by high officials and persons connected with the administration, and that those who were implicated were seeking refuge “in a committee which had been packed to hide the truth and to whitewash instead of detect and punish the guilty.” It declared that this had been done in the Black Friday and custom-house investigations; that a resolution to investigate a deficit of six millions in the stamps of the Internal Revenue Department had been defeated; that the facts of the case had been suppressed; and that the truth had been successfully concealed in many instances.

In this article the Sun declared that the frauds of the bosses in the District of Columbia “surpassed in greed and boldness” those of Tweed and his confederates in New York; that the Postmaster-General had corruptly participated in the notorious Chorpenning claim against the Post-Office Department, and in the Baltimore whiskey frauds against the internal revenue; that the Navy Department, [426] in the purchase of machinery and supplies, as well as in the repair of vessels, had become “a sink of corruption.” Charging the majority with complicity, it dared Congress to allow a full and searching investigation of the robberies which it had specified, and which it did not doubt would turn out to be robberies indeed.

In conclusion the editor expressed his personal conviction that the President himself was primarily responsible for the corruption of the public service, and that he had

... done more to destroy in the public mind all distinction between right and wrong, to make it appear that the great object of life and the chief purpose of official authority is to acquire riches, and that it makes no difference by what means this object is attained. Had Grant been a pure man of high moral sense, a delicate feeling of honesty, and a just conscience, his example, his influence, and his power would long since have sufficed to turn back the rising tide of corruption and to rescue the government from the dangerous evils with which it was struggling.

It is to be noted that this terrible arraignment is entirely at variance with Dana's commendation of Grant as a military man. It was followed almost immediately by the first public denunciation of the “Whiskey Ring,” which, with its widely extended system of frauds at the distilleries and warehouses throughout the country, cost the government untold millions before it could be broken up. It was a period of exposure. Public opinion was becoming so aroused and inflamed that Congress felt compelled to intervene. The House of Representatives could no longer hold out against the whirlwind of indignation, and hence made haste to appoint a committee for the investigation of the Navy Department. Although this, as it turned out, was an effective step towards reform, it did not at once silence those who were thus brought to the [427] bar of public opinion. They and their confederates, like the harpies of Tammany, thought the storm would soon “blow over,” and, instead of putting their houses in order, they set about organizing a campaign of hatred and resentment against Dana and the Sun. In this they invoked the aid of the federal courts to punish the editor for offences which, if offences at all, were offences against the laws of the State in which they were committed.

It was on June 20, 1872, that the Sun published a letter containing a phrase that was everywhere hailed as the shibboleth of corruption. It runs as follows:

Treasury Department of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg, March, 1867.
My Dear Titian,
Allow me to introduce to you my particular friend Mr. George O. Evans. He has a claim of some magnitude that he wishes you to help him in. Put him through as you would me. He understands Addition, Division, and Silence.

The writer was State treasurer at the time, but was convicted in 1880 of trying to bribe members of the Pennsylvania legislature, and served a year in the penitentiary for his offence. His “particular friend” was a defaulter.

The suggestive and comprehensive formula used in this letter needed no interpretation. Everybody understood it, and the press gave it the widest circulation, but the man who phrased it was a bold and fearless professional office-holder that could see no wrong in the words or in the use he had made of them. To the contrary, regarding them as innocent, and the connection of his name with them in an opposite sense as constituting a criminal libel, he sued out a writ against Dana, and had him arrested as he was passing through Philadelphia and put under bond [428] for fifteen thousand dollars. This kept the phrase before the public, and for months it was used by the newspapers of the country, and especially by the Sun, with telling effect in the campaign against fraud and corruption. Indeed, it may well be doubted if any catch phrase ever received a wider circulation, more aptly indicated the essential shamelessness of the methods then in force at Washington, or did more to arouse the public conscience against them. While still fresh in the public mind, the Credit Mobilier exposures began, and, involving as they did men of the highest position in both public and private life, they gave a degree of infamy to the formula of fraud which no amount of moral teaching or of decorous discussion could have brought upon it.

Meanwhile the movement of the Independent and disaffected Republicans, of which the Sun was the head, had grown into a powerful party organization, which called a national convention, in which many distinguished men took part. It nominated Horace Greeley for president, and B. Gratz Brown for vice-president. These nominations were afterwards adopted by the Democrats, on a platform which was based largely on the Sun's war against corruption in official life at Washington. When stripped of political verbiage, it meant nothing more nor less than “Turn the rascals out.” With this cry, which soon came to be more widely heard than “Forward to Richmond!” had ever been, Dana threw the Sun and himself into the canvass, and for a few weeks it looked as though the North, as well as the South, would take him at his word. He, and those who stood with him, believed thoroughly in the necessity of taking the government out of the hands of the Republican party, as well as in the honesty and capacity of Greeley, and spared no effort to make the country believe in him as well; but as the canvass progressed it became evident that the majority of the voters were unwilling [429] to trust either the candidate or the men who, in case of his election, would naturally become his advisers. It was too close to the Civil War, and too many of its issues yet remained to be settled and disposed of, for the country to intrust the Democratic party with the control of the government. Greeley was generally admitted to be entirely honest, but he was also fantastic and easily imposed upon. The ultra-Democrats, who would have contributed the majority of votes, would have claimed, and, according to precedent, would have received, the majority of the federal offices. In short, it was widely believed that the election of Greeley would put the old secessionists, with all their heresies, in power; and, on the sober second thought, the country was not willing to agree to this. Besides, there seemed to be an element of quixotism not only in the candidate but in the influence that secured his nomination. He had up to the close of the war been regarded with hatred by the Southerners as a radical abolitionist, and although, as soon as the war was over, he had become the exponent of forgiveness and amnesty, thus winning their hearts, there were still thousands on both sides of the line who could not realize that the union between Greeley and the Democrats was genuine and enduring.

It has been suggested that Dana's earlier advocacy of the “Philosopher of the tribune” began in a spirit of fun, and that it could not be sincere, and that the campaign for his election was hopeless from the start. To this Dana paid but little attention till after the campaign had ended in Greeley's defeat and death.

To such as look below the surface, Dana's course at this time appears to have been not only genuine and disinterested, but exceedingly useful to the country at large. In the light of subsequent events, it must be conceded that it was significantly vindicated by the Independent Republican [430] movement, which not only selected Greeley, whom Dana had first nominated, but compelled the Democratic party to select him also, and to adopt a policy on which it ultimately went into power. While the movement at first was defeated at the ballot-box, the Sun's part in it received an amount of non-partisan and even of Republican approval that has rarely ever been accorded to independent journalism.

Ignoring with his accustomed indifference the efforts of the Republican press to put him personally on the defensive after the campaign was ended, Dana said in the Sun of December 6, 1872:

A great deal of twaddle is uttered by some country newspapers just now over what they call personal journalism. They say that now that Mr. Bennett, Mr. Raymond, and Mr. Greeley are dead, the day for personal journalism is gone by, and that impersonal journalism will take its place. That appears to mean a sort of journalism in which nobody will ask who is the editor of a paper or the writer of any class of article, and nobody will care.

Whenever, in the newspaper profession, a man rises up who is original, strong, and bold enough to make his opinions a matter of consequence to the public, there will be personal journalism; and whenever newspapers are conducted only by commonplace individuals whose views are of no consequence to anybody, there will be nothing but impersonal journalism.

And this is the essence of the whole question.

Looking back upon Grant's second election, it is now evident that while the country, with an awakened conscience, was in hearty sympathy with Dana's desire to see the public service cleansed of fraud and corruption, it preferred to continue the Republicans in power with a mandate to punish their own rascals, rather than to turn [431] the government over to Greeley and the secession Democrats. While no one can say positively what would have been the result of a reform administration at that time, assisted as it must have been by Senators Trumbull and Schurz, besides many other Independent Republicans of importance, it may now be plausibly contended that the country acted wisely in re-electing Grant, instead of trying a dangerous experiment. And this view of the case will appear all the more reasonable when it is recalled that, in spite of much work which yet remained to be done to “turn the rascals out,” the Republican administration, and public life generally, had come to be pretty well purified by the end of Grant's second term. To this no one contributed more than Dana.

While the country's decision, not to intrust its government in the hands of the Democratic party, had silenced its leaders or consigned them to secondary positions in Congress or elsewhere, fortunately it had not silenced the independent press. The Sun, ably seconded by the Chicago Tribune, the leading Republican newspaper of the Northwest, and by the Springfield Republican, the most influential journal of New England, continued its campaign against fraud and corruption with unflagging zeal and undaunted courage. Its columns contained not only a daily epitome of the world's history, but of the history of the United States as well. No important event in politics, or in the practical administration of municipal, State, or national government, escaped its notice or its comment. The Sun had now become the most widely read and widely quoted journal of the country. Its daily circulation had passed far beyond a hundred thousand copies. It had become famous, not only for its unsparing criticism of every class of public act and deed that it did not approve, but for the vigor and clearness of its style. “Boil it down” --state it in the fewest possible words-had come to be the rule which [432] governed its writers. The blue pencil was constantly in the hand of its editor, who used it with unsurpassed skill and effect upon the compositions of its ablest contributors. It was everywhere and peculiarly the favorite journal of reading and thinking men, and yet its uncompromising and aggressive opposition to the administration and to the questionable acts of the office-holders had estranged many important persons in both public and private life. Several of Dana's oldest and clearest friends-cherished associates of Brook Farm and of the Tribune staff-had terminated all relations with him.

It was at or about this time that one of his most intimate friends of the war days, thinking that he was carrying his criticism of Grant, his cabinet, and his official assistants too far, ventured to remonstrate with him in their behalf, but without effect. Dana listened patiently, and, when his friend had finished, replied earnestly and impressively:

I am not unmindful of what you say, nor of the good opinions of my friends, and my motives may not be as good as I think they are, but, having taken my course conscientiously, I shall follow it to the end, and shall be content with your judgment six years from now.

And thus it was always. Self-centred, alert, industrious, and fearless, he took every precaution and incurred every necessary expense to learn the truth, and, once having satisfied himself, he exposed, commented, and condemned with absolute independence and unsparing determination to drag the offender and his wrong-doing into the full light of day. He believed that publicity was the greatest safeguard against the crimes of political life, and spared neither time nor money in his efforts to lay them bare and hold their perpetrators up to public execration.

In the year 1873 an incident occurred in connection with [433] the Sun which will be forever memorable in the history of the American press, and which gave to Dana unequalled prominence as the fearless champion of its freedom. The administration and some of its friends, who had come under the special criticism of the Sun, resolved to silence it, and to that end resorted to an unusual and extreme exercise of despotic power to compel him to answer in Washington for what he had said in New York.

It is needless to say that Dana resisted this scheme with all the resources at his command. He employed able counsel, and, thanks to the deeply founded provisions of the law, to the almost universal support of the newspapers, and to the decision of Justice Blatchford, of the national judiciary, the case against him was dismissed in an opinion which declared that the vicious plan to make newspapers criticising the administration answerable at Washington could not be tolerated. This was undoubtedly one of the greatest episodes of Dana's life, and, without reference to the merits of the case against him, his part in it must be set down as a public service of the highest value and importance.

During the whole of this year, and, indeed, ever afterwards, as occasion seemed to call for it, the Sun kept Kemble's formula of corruption-“He understands addition, Division, and silence” --before the public. It exposed and denounced the Credit Mobilier gang, the Washington Ring, the Louisiana carpet-baggers, the Central Pacific contractors, the congressional “salary grab,” and the plan for the annexation of Santo Domingo. It opposed the confirmation of Caleb Cushing and George H. Williams for the Supreme Court of the United States, and had the pleasure of seeing their names withdrawn. It denounced the weakness and incompetency of Richardson as Secretary of the Treasury, the corruption of Creswell as Postmaster-General, and of Robeson as Secretary of the Navy. It [434] held up to public scorn the name of Oakes Ames, for distributing gratuitously the stock of the Credit Mobilier, which had made enormous profits out of the construction of the Union Pacific Railway, and exposed such members of Congress and other public men by name as had accepted that stock in exchange for their votes and friendly offices. The revelations in this case constituted one of the most shameless scandals of our political history. They stained the character of one congressman, who lived it down and afterwards became President of the United States, and of another who became vice-president. They saddened the lives of more than one senator, and of many representatives who had no such ambition, but would have been content to remain in obscurity to the end of their days, if thereby they could have avoided the consciousness of their own unworthiness and retained the respect of their fellow-citizens.

But the Credit Mobilier, involving as it did men of the highest prominence and influence, was only the first, not the vilest nor the most wide-spread, scandal of the day. It was followed, and in a measure dwarfed, by the Safe Burglary Conspiracy and the frauds of the Whiskey Ring.

The first, it may be briefly stated, involved federal officials of the District of Columbia and a member of the President's official household who was also superintendent of public buildings. The conspiracy had for its object the ruin of a highly respected private citizen of Washington through an effort to implicate him in a sham robbery of the assistant district-attorney's safe by a gang of professional burglars hired for that purpose. The rascals were to take certain accounts connected with city contracts, which would be found therein, to the house of one Columbus Alexander, who had called for their production in court, and, while placing them in his house apparently as his agent, he was to be arrested with them and haled off [435] to prison. Fortunately the rascals bungled and delayed their work to a later hour than was intended, and, still more fortunately, neither Alexander nor his family could be wakened, and accordingly avoided the trap set for them. The burglars themselves were, however, arrested, and, although they were released on straw-bail, in due time the conspiracy was fully exposed. The newspapers, and particularly the Sun, made an outcry which not only aroused the country from end to end, but forced the Congress to order an investigation.

The preliminary facts of the case were gathered by a committee charged with that duty, but, as it could not end its work before the end of the session, the House of Representatives required the secretary to complete it. He in turn delegated it to the solicitor of the Treasury. These men, Benjamin H. Bristow and Bluford Wilson, had only recently taken office, but, fearing nothing, they set resolutely about their disagreeable task, and in due time laid bare the almost incredible details and put the machinery in motion which brought the principals to trial. Although the immediate ends of justice were defeated through the verdict of a packed jury, subsequent confessions and revelations brought the culprits to disgrace, from which they were never able to escape.2

The Whiskey Ring was a corrupt combination for defrauding the Treasury of the excise levied by law on distilled spirits. It doubtless had its origin in the need for money with which to pay the expense of national elections, though individual distillers and collectors had probably conspired to make “crooked whiskey” soon after the first act of Congress was passed providing for the collection of internal revenue. Honest distillers were the first to complain; [436] but, as the frauds grew in extent, the receipts of the Treasury fell off, and efforts more or less spasmodic and ill-directed were made to detect and punish the offenders, but the real task of bringing them to justice and enforcing the law fell upon Secretary Bristow and Solicitor Wilson. They were not long in discovering that the ring was national in extent, that its headquarters and chief support were in Washington, and that its active operations were carried on in St. Louis, Chicago, Louisville, Milwaukee, St. Joseph, Peoria, Evansville, New Orleans, San Francisco, and many smaller places. It was composed of distillers, rectifiers, wholesale dealers, supervisors, collectors, and deputy collectors of internal revenue, gaugers, storekeepers, and various private persons, including the chief clerk of the Treasury and many petty officials, of whom, counting big and little, two hundred and thirty-eight were indicted and a large number were convicted and punished by fine and imprisonment. Something over three million dollars worth of property and taxes were recovered, but no estimate was ever made of the revenue out of which the government was defrauded from first to last. It must have reached many millions in the aggregate, but the prosecutions were so vigorously conducted by the distinguished lawyers that were called to the assistance of the government that the frauds were entirely stopped and the principal offenders were safely lodged in the jails and penitentiaries of the country. The chief clerk of the Treasury, who was probably a tool of those who had secured his appointment, was sentenced for two years, but pardoned after he had served only six months. The supervisor of the St. Louis district and his assistant were sentenced for three years, but also pardoned before they had served their full term.

The full history of the Whiskey Ring has never been written, but the newspapers of the day were filled with accounts [437] of the frauds, and of the facts brought out in the trials of those who were indicted for participating in them. The Sun was the leader in upholding and encouraging the officers of the law, and in condemning all who sympathized with or doubted the guilt of the accused. Never a day was permitted to pass that it did not denounce the rascals or recount the enormity of their crimes. The Chicago Tribune, the Springfield Republican, the Evening Post, and, indeed, nearly all the papers of the country that pretended to be honest and independent, took part in the discussion. Many leading periodicals, and especially the North American Review,3 not only denounced the ring, but gave accounts of its operations. While the recollection of the events connected with this disgraceful chapter of American history has largely dropped from the public mind, it is safe to say that what there is left of it is a full vindication of the part taken by the independent press in breaking up the ring and bringing its members, great and small, to the punishment or disgrace they so fully deserved.

1 See Treaty of Washington, by Charles Francis Adams.

2 For a complete account of the Safe Burglary Conspiracy, see an article by the late General Henry V. Boynton, in the American Law Review for April, 1877, pp. 401-446.

3 The North American Review for October, 1876, pp. 280-327, contains the fullest history of the Whiskey Ring ever published. It was written by Henry V. Boynton, for many years a leading journalist of Washington.

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