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Chapter 18:


A few days after the election Grant returned from Galena to Washington. He was accompanied by his family and three staff officers, of whom I was one. There had been threats of assassination, and I had opened several letters that contained warnings of this danger, but Grant took no precautions and made no change in his plans, though his route was known in advance. The aides-de-camp were armed, but this was without his knowledge.

Twice when I had been traveling with Grant attempts were made to take his life. In North Carolina, on his return from the surrender of Johnston to Sherman, the train on which he was journeying was thrown from the rails under circumstances that left little doubt of the design. There was no one in the single car but the Union General-in-Chief and his party of two or three officers, and if some bitter and disappointed spirit out of all the millions at the South had taken this method to avenge the lost cause, it would hardly have been extraordinary, and certainly not unprecedented. At another time, soon after the war, Grant was passing through Southern Indiana, a region where the rancor during the rebellion had been almost fiercer than in the field, and as those who indulged in it did not fight, but only talked, they cherished their hatred when the war was ended—unlike most of the men who spilt their blood for the cause they preferred.

It was night, and we were on a special train, again in a single car. Again there was no one in the party but Grant [151] with two of his staff, a servant, and the officers of the road. We were moving at a rapid rate, and about midnight arrived at a bridge at least an eighth of a mile in length, and that crossed a stream seventy or eighty feet below. The night was dark, and a switch had been left open at the approach to the bridge, while stones were placed on the road in advance. The train was, of course, thrown off the rails, but the impetus was sufficient to carry us across the bridge and into a narrow cut beyond, before the car was overturned. The banks of the cut prevented a serious fall, and the speed of the engine had been checked, but Grant was more disturbed than I often saw him in an emergency. The car was violently shaken, and he left his seat and went to the door before the motion ceased. No one was injured, but had the overturn occurred twenty seconds sooner the train must have been precipitated into the river. The car was too much damaged to proceed, but we mounted the engine and in this way traveled to our destination through the night. There was no doubt in the mind of any that the interruption had been planned, but it was thought wise to say nothing on the subject, and the details of the incident were not made public. Only one or two miscreants had probably been concerned in the attempt, and there was no reason to cast odium on a whole region, or to arouse the indignation of the country, which was hardly yet appeased after the murder of Lincoln. Grant himself enjoined silence in regard to the circumstance, and his companions were very willing to comply, for crime is contagious, and to announce one attempt like this is to suggest another.

There was little change in Grant's outward demeanor after the election. He was as simple as ever, though somewhat more reserved. I fancied I saw the shadow of his coming responsibility and that it depressed him. On his arrival at Washington he was at once beset with applications for office, and advice for his own behavior and policy. One of his acquaintances, a Mr. Corbyn, who afterwards became [152] his brother-in-law, wrote out an inaugural address for him in full, and brought it to him in my presence. As soon as Corbyn left the room Grant handed the paper to me and told me to seal it up, and be sure it was not read by any human being till after the 4th of March. He never knew the contents, and I never read more than the first line: ‘Fellow-citizens, I appear before you at this time.’

There were more than six hundred letters waiting for him in Washington, all of which I opened. A newspaper correspondent came in and saw me at this task, and the next week there was a caricature of ‘The man that opens the letters’ sitting behind a heap of rejected applications as high as the table; this part of the representation was not exaggerated. Grant directed me to show him no letters that asked for office. He always had an idea that the man who sought a place was unfit for it; that the place should seek the man; a notion that in his case might have been correct, for he lacked ordinary ambition, and yet possessed great faculties; but most people will consider that he was exceptional in this peculiarity as in so many others.

Some of the applications, however, came from people of so much consequence, or from friends of such a degree of intimacy, personal or political, that notwithstanding his injunction I did not always feel at liberty to withhold them, and he tacitly admitted that I was right. Among the aspirants was Henry Wilson, then Senator from Massachusetts, and afterward Vice-President, who set forth his desires and qualifications for the position of Secretary of War. Grant did not answer the letter, and the subject was never broached in conversation between them. Those who wanted foreign missions were numerous, and collectorships and other lucrative posts were in great demand. But no applicant received an answer.

While he was at Galena, Grant had said to me, that he thought Motley, the historian, would make a good Secretary [153] of State. Motley had been Minister at Vienna, but was removed by Johnson for criticising the Reconstruction policy of the Administration too sharply, and great sympathy was felt for him by Republicans. Sumner, especially, was anxious that he should be restored to the post he had lost. Motley corresponded with me during the canvass, and sent me copies of the speeches he made for Grant. These were shown to Grant, and they impressed him favorably. But soon after the election, Grant visited Boston, where Motley called on him. I did not accompany my chief on this occasion, and on his return I asked his opinion of Motley. ‘He parts his hair in the middle and carries a single eyeglass,’ was the reply; and the tone, as much as the words, indicated that the historian was too foreign in his ways to please the President-elect. At that time, Grant had not entirely rid himself of the narrowness of his early life, some of which, indeed, lasted even through his Presidency; but after he went abroad and met so many great men in Europe and Asia, and even Africa, with dress and manners different from anything he had seen in America, he ceased to regard such peculiarities as decisive. No man ever grew or expanded in mind and taste and character more continuously and conspicuously.

During the winter of 1868-9, Seward, as Secretary of State, attempted to settle the difficulties with England arising out of the Alabama claims. As the new Administration was just coming into power, the Republicans were very indignant that a discredited Cabinet should assume to control the policy of the nation in so important an affair. But Seward persisted, and a treaty was negotiated at London which was extremely unacceptable to the Republicans, and, indeed, to the majority of the nation, of whatever party. Grant was especially displeased, and expressed his feeling openly. He disliked Seward, to whom he attributed not a little of Johnson's craft, and he thought the negotiation an [154] unwarrantable intrusion on his own approaching prerogatives. Besides this, he entirely disapproved the concessions of the Administration to England.

Before the treaty was confirmed, he took a remarkable step. I was personally acquainted with Sir Edward (then Mr.) Thornton, the British Minister, and Grant directed me to pay the Envoy a visit, and in the course of conversation, make known his objections to the treaty; in fact, to declare that I was certain Grant would use his influence to prevent its confirmation by the Senate, and if it should be ratified, would, as President, assuredly procure its revocation. I made my visit, not stating that I had been sent by Grant, but implying this as well as I was able without express words. The Minister doubtless understood my object, and knew that such a visit could not possibly have been paid by the confidential secretary of the President-elect, without the sanction of his chief. If he did his duty, he notified his own Government; but the only result apparent was a renewed haste on the part of the plenipotentiaries, so that the treaty might be concluded before Grant came into his place. It was ratified by the contracting Governments, but almost immediately rejected by the Senate, and in less than two months the Administration that made it was out of power. The Treaty of Washington, negotiated under Grant and Gladstone, took its place.

This was not the only occasion when Grant acted as if the responsibilities of government were very near. General Rosecrans was nominated by Johnson as Minister to Mexico about this time; the appointment was known to be very disagreeable to Grant, if not purposely designed to be offensive to him. The animosity of Rosecrans after Grant removed him from command at Chattanooga had never ceased. He had, like most of the discarded generals, joined the party that opposed the war, and had supported Johnson through all his tergiversations and aberrations. To appoint an important [155] Minister immediately before the beginning of a new administration would have been under any circumstances discourteous and exceptional, but when the Minister was openly and personally hostile to the probable incoming President, the nomination appeared a studied insult.

After his election Grant directed me to write to his personal friend, Mr. Romero, who had long been Mexican Minister to the United States, but was now in the Mexican Government. I was to address him, not avowedly by Grant's order, but so that my authority could not be mistaken, and to state to Romero how distasteful the appointment of Rosecrans was to Grant. The envoy thus would be unable in the short time that he enjoyed his honors to execute any important diplomatic business, or to thwart the policy of the incoming Government. Grant would probably not have taken this course but for his profound interest in Mexican affairs, an interest of which the Administration was very well aware. He had recommended a definite policy in regard to Mexico, and to have a man appointed as Minister there who was likely to oppose in advance whatever he believed were Grant's views, was in Grant's eyes sufficient justification for this interference.

It must be remembered too, that Grant had been given by Congress an authority that made him in many matters independent of the President. It had been declared his duty to oppose the President's acts and policy. He had seen Johnson tried for high crimes and misdemeanors, and almost deposed. He believed that his own election was the condemnation of Johnson and the fiat of the people directing him to undo much that Johnson had done. Yet Johnson was endeavoring to carry out measures in regard both to England and Mexico which he knew to be unacceptable to the people and offensive to the President they had chosen. Now, when Grant found himself on the threshold of the highest place, the sensation of power, as well as the consciousness [156] of his own rights, was very strong. The acts I have described are evidence that he felt the importance of his position more fully than he showed. They were not known to any man about him but myself, and were never revealed by me until now.

As the time approached when Grant was to enter upon his new functions those who were expecting place or recognition at his hand became restive because he gave no intimation of his purposes. Every effort was made to obtain an insight into his plans, but without avail. He did not disclose even to Rawlins or Washburne—who had been his trusted intimates from the very beginning of his greatness—what he meant to do for or with them. Henry J. Raymond, the editor of the New York Times, was a warm, and, of course, an important supporter of Grant; he wrote to me begging for a hint of the future President's policy, so that he might be prepared to advocate it. I read the letter to Grant, but he refused to furnish any data for a reply. Horace Greeley also, I was told by those who should have known, would have been glad to be taken into Grant's confidence, although he made himself no application like Raymond's; but the same silence was preserved toward him. The country was full of comment on this reticence, and many of Grant's friends became anxious, not only those who wanted place, but others from a genuine and patriotic concern. But Grant kept every intention within his own breast down to a very few days before his inauguration.

He was led to this unusual course partly by his military habits and experience, and partly, no doubt, by a belief that his own judgment was better than that of any who could advise him. He had been used in the army to appointing commanders without consulting their wishes and to ordering movements without informing his inferiors; and he kept up the practice in civil life. Many of his Cabinet Ministers were appointed before they themselves were notified. One of them told me he felt as if he had been struck [157] by lightning when he heard of his own nomination. Marshall Jewell went to Washington once to urge the appointment of a friend to the Russian Mission, but was unsuccessful, and on his return he learned that his own name had been sent to the Senate for the post. Jewell was afterward dismissed from the Cabinet in the same peremptory way. Grant said to him one morning: ‘Mr. Jewell, I would like to receive your resignation’; and that was the Minister's first and only warning.

But besides this, Grant was undoubtedly at this time affected by the adulation that was offered him. His head was as little turned as any man's who comes into the highest place; but he had been told for years of his greatness, of his judgment, and of his knowledge of men. All who approach Presidents or Presidents-elect say what they think will please them and withhold what will displease; all have something to ask, if only recognition, for the recognition of Presidents is itself an honor; and most people want much more. Every one now was assuring Grant that the people reposed full confidence in him, that he was the sole arbiter, the judge of last resort; and in some sort this was true; but the unwillingness to ask or take any advice in this untried and most difficult of all positions—in a man who had no experience either in distributing the patronage or administering the affairs of civil government—betrayed a confidence in himself almost unprecedented. This is the explanation of the distance at which he kept not only the public and the press, but political and personal friends. He alone was to be President, and he alone, he thought, was responsible.

But no man is so much above and beyond his fellows as to be able to dispense entirely with their aid. Had Grant called around him and consulted able and experienced statesmen at this juncture, many misfortunes to himself, his friends, and to the country would doubtless have been avoided. He would not, perhaps, have been obliged, in a second inaugural address, to admit the mistakes he had [158] made. I will yield to none in regard for his memory or admiration for his achievements, but the world will more readily believe me when I recount his excellences if I do not hesitate to portray his errors; and this that I now point out was one of the most conspicuous in his career.

One afternoon, about three weeks before the 4th of March, Grant wrote his inaugural address. I was alone with him in the room, and when he had finished he handed the paper to me. This was before the return of Rawlins from Connecticut, whither he had gone sick and almost heartbroken, because Grant withheld his confidence. The address was written at the first almost as it was afterward delivered. Grant told me to lock it up carefully, and it is within my knowledge that he showed it to no one but myself until a day or two before the inauguration. I reviewed it repeatedly with him during this period, for he was used to allowing me to read his most important and secret papers, and to make what suggestions I chose as to matter or style. But in all his utterances I was always anxious that he should say his own thought, and as far as possible in his own way. On this occasion I suggested one material change, or, rather, addition.

I had been greatly impressed with the sentence he uttered at Galena on the night of his election: ‘The responsibilities of the position I feel, but accept them without fear.’ I proposed that he should introduce this line, and pointed out where I thought it could be inserted. He approved the suggestion, and this sentence—his own—became a part of the inaugural address. There were one or two verbal modifications besides, and these were all. The draft was never out of my keeping till it was copied on either the 2d or the 3d of March. It is in my possession now with the penciled interpolation and other alterations in my own hand. Grant gave it to me on the 3d of March after the doors were closed and all visitors excluded, when he and I together revised the address for the last time.

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