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Chapter 56: San Domingo again.—the senator's first speech.—return of the angina pectoris.—Fish's insult in the Motley Papers.— the senator's removal from the foreign relations committee.—pretexts for the remioval.—second speech against the San Domingo scheme.—the treaty of Washington.—Sumner and Wilson against Butler for governor.—1870-1871.

Sumner, it may be repeated, had kept hitherto strictly within the line of his right and duty as a senator in his discussions of the San Domingo scheme. He had given the President by word or act no just cause of offence, the latter's friends as well as the record being witnesses. He felt—and in this he was justified by common belief—that Motley's removal was a blow struck at him personaly; but that wound would have healed with time, explanations, or the intervening of other questions. He was still a Republican, loyal to his party, and so avowed himself. The scheme which had divided the party was wanting in public favor, and had been rejected by the decisive vote of the Senate. Without its further agitation there would be harmony; its revival was sure to bring discord.

The President, however, acting wholly on his own motion or more or less by the instigation of others, decided to bring the disturbing question again to the front. His decision was deeply regretted by the mass of the members of his party in Congress and in the country, and it was fraught only with mischief. In his annual message, in December, 1870, he earnestly urged upon Congress early action for acquiring ‘the island of San Domingo.’1 His estimates of the capacities of the territory were wildly extravagant.2 Its acquisition would in his view reduce our imports by one hundred millions of dollars, turn the balance of foreign trade in our favor, stimulate enormously commerce and industry, open a market for the products of our farms and [453] factories, give remunerative wages to tens of thousands of laborers not already on the island, cheapen the cost of living, and (he even went so far as to say) open the way—and the only way he found it easy to see—for the extinguishment of our national debt, then amounting to nearly two billion five hundred million dollars: all this was to be accomplished by a territory only twenty thousand square miles in extent, and having a population imperfectly civilized, and numbering only one hundred and twenty thousand! He avowed his conviction that the moment the project was entirely abandoned, European nations would negotiate for a free port in the Bay of Samana, and that then would be seen ‘the folly of our rejecting so great a prize,’—a prediction of the fulfilment of which no signs have appeared during the succeeding period. He proposed, as one mode for making the acquisition, the joint action of the two houses of Congress by a resolution of annexation, as in the case of the acquisition of Texas. This mode would, of course, overcome the obstruction of a two-thirds vote of the Senate required in the exercise of the treaty-making power; but it was an extraordinary proposition to be made by a Republican President. Its only precedent was the one named,—that made by Tyler, after the Texas treaty had been rejected by the Senate, for the annexation of that territory, being the resort of the propagandists of slavery for the purpose of extending and perpetuating their institution. The friends of liberty had fought it to the end as revolutionary, unconstitutional, and wicked; and their resistance was almost the beginning of the political movement against slavery, out of which the Republican party was born.3 This idea of recurring to an act which had been repudiated as a precedent in the change of American opinion on the extension of slavery came from General Butler, who at the last session, when the approval of the treaty by the Senate seemed improbable, tried on nine different days4 without success to introduce a joint resolution for the acquisition of San Domingo. Such a measure from such a quarter was no occasion of surprise, as its author was in full accord with the pro-slavery [454] policy of the Democratic party at the time of the annexation of Texas, and had so recently as 1860 supported the nomination of Jefferson Davis and the candidacy of Breckinridge.

During the recess of Congress, busybodies of low or high degree, hoping to gain advantage thereby to themselves, had been doing their best to inflame the President's mind against the senator; and then as always he lent a too ready ear to suggestions unfriendly to those who had thwarted his will. Sumner on arriving in Washington, in December, was assured from various quarters that the President was angry with him, and had even said that but for the dignity of his office as President he would call the senator to account.5 Threats also had been uttered by Babcock, which at one time he denied, and at another admitted.

Attempts at reconcilement between the President and the senator were made, most likely by Wilson, who was always a peacemaker; but according to the report, the President, manifesting a good deal of feeling, refused to give his consent to any movement having in view a reconciliation. At length, in the third week of the session there came out in a newspaper a statement which appeared to have the sanction of the President or of those very near him. It represented him to have stated that the senator ‘had attacked him in executive sessions of the Senate; that he had spoken bitterly of him publicly in street cars and other public conveyances, and that he had grossly abused him in Boston and during his recent journey West;’ and the President added, ‘that on some of these occasions Mr. Sumner had attributed dishonest motives to him.’ The same day Sumner had the passage read in the Senate, when he at once denied the President's charges, calling senators around him, and particularly Morton, to witness that never in executive sessions had he alluded to the President except in most respectful kindness,— asking Morton to repeat to the President what he (Morton) had said the day before to him (Sumner) as to this allegation.6 He challenged senators and every one else to witness that he had never attributed dishonest motives to the President,7 declaring that the strongest things he had ever said of him and his acts had been said to Mr. Fish and Mr. Boutwell, whom he summoned [455] to bear witness to the truth of his assertions. When he took his seat no senator questioned his statement. It was made by one who knew the integrity of his own mind, who always said what he meant, who spoke openly and not in whispers, and who never smote men with hints and insinuations. This public denial drew no disclaimer from the President of the language attributed to him.

There was doubtless free talk at the senator's house as well as at the Executive Mansion and at Mr. Fish's; and the President's military secretaries, with assistance from the state department, were diligent in carrying to him all they heard, and some things which they did not hear. But the official tenure would be fragile indeed if such tales told by such men were, without personal confronting or the scrutiny of cross-examination, to determine the position of statesmen, and their opportunity to serve their country. A truly great man has no ears for them. After Chase had left Lincoln's Cabinet, in 1864, reports were carried to the President of what the late secretary had said of him; but he turned away from the tale-bearers, saying he could not as President take such things into account; and spite of all he heard, he made Chase chief-justice.

The measure on which Sumner had put his foot was not to rise again, but in the contest it had brought on he was to be worsted. The Northern masses as well as their leaders took then, as they take now, but a languid interest in the fate of populations, African or Asiatic, which cannot be counted in the political forces of the country. Patriotic people, who dreaded any distracting issue which might restore the South and the Democratic party to power, held back from coming to his support. There was then as always a widespread sentiment, partisan rather than patriotic, which rebuked dissent within the party when carried to a point likely to break its column at an election. It was a period of low ambitions,—lower than before or since, —when public men, especially senators, were compacted into a body submissive to the Executive will, while their followers were fed from their hands by the booty of patronage. Sumner, idealist as he was, did not comprehend at the outset what powers he had challenged.

When the session began, a plan for the reconstruction of the Senate committee on foreign relations was presented in the Republican caucus. It was proposed, with a view of obtaining [456] favorable action on the San Domingo question, to drop Sumner, Schurz, or Patterson; but it was not found practicable at that time to dislodge either of the first two. A committee (Chandler chairman) in offering a new list in caucus dropped the name of Patterson, placing him elsewhere without consulting him, and substituting Conkling in his stead. Sumner objected to parting with Patterson without the latter's consent, and, Wilson coming to his aid, was able to keep the committee as before. The fact that the change was agitated found its way into the public journals and the debates in the Senate.8

The President in his message had asked for ‘a commission to negotiate a treaty with the authorities of San Domingo for the acquisition of that island.’ Congress was not deemed to be in a mood to go so far, and Morton introduced a resolution on the sixth day of the session for a commission to investigate and report concerning the condition of the people and various points affecting the question of annexation. Its consideration was pressed to the exclusion of Sumner's earlier call for documents and information,9 ‘anterior in time and essentially preliminary in substance,’ as he said. A reference to a committee was refused, and the debate beginning December 20, a vote was forced the next day. The vote to take up the resolution disclosed the fact that Republican senators generally, even though opposed to the annexation, thought it well to go thus far with the President, hoping that he would be content with this recognition of his wishes and let the matter rest with a report. Morrill and Patterson, however, as well as Sumner and Schurz, voted against taking up the resolution.

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