The History of New York State
Book XII, Chapter 9, Part 1

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

CHAPTER IX.
POLITICS IN NEW YORK STATE
Post-War Years

With the surrender of Lee and the emancipation of he slave, political controversy seemed to end, temporarily. The Great Issue was an issue no longer. The "inevitable conflict" was over. One side had been trampled down. Politicians no longer had "talking points." After so many exciting years of strife, of angry words and passionate action, the lull in political activity was strange, uncanny. It became, for a moment, heroic, long-suffering, but determined President had fallen beneath the blow of an assassin.

Storm usually follows a lull. It burst upon the Nation quickly, the furious North demanding that the helpless South be punished. The murder of Lincoln rekindled the war flame, but the flare soon died down. Another and worse storm, however, lasted for ten years, the ruthless aftermath of war miring the way of the public service. Dishonesty and well-nigh inconceivable corruption were to mark the steps of many State governments during the period of readjustment. New conditions had come upon the States and the Nation too quickly for the wheels of government and party to keep pace with them, but eventually the political factions realigned, overtaking the changed conditions, and ere long partisan politics again took its prominent place in public affairs. President Andrew Johnson, for a time, continued the politics of the deceased Lincoln. On May 29, 1865, a proclamation of amnesty was issued, measures of reconstructing the States of the South were devised; and the dangerous matter of giving full freedom immediately to the emancipated slaves was approached with caution. It was thought better, for the time being, to restrict the voting privilege to whites, but President Johnson preferred to leave such questions to the discretion of the States.

Strange to say, Johnson pleased the Democrats. In one respect he was the opposite of Lincoln. The war President had viewed everything through Nation eyes; to him the Union was all-important. On the other hand, Johnson was fundamentally, a States-Rights Democrat. He felt that the Federal government functioned only as the agent of the States. It may be understood, therefore, how it happened that the Seymour Democrats of New York State were able to endorse Johnson, and why the Southern States were given time in which to being themselves into line with the Union again. Many stern Northerners had expected that Johnson would hand Confederate leaders, and that the rebel States would be made to feel in their civil government the military heel of the conqueror. Johnson, while holding all States to the Union, preferred to let the disappointed and dispossessed south have time to reach a more contented frame of mind before taking their rightful places again in the national structure. He would admit seceding States to partnership in the Union as and when they accepted emancipation, and since this was not the constitutional law of the Untied States, all parts of the country must inevitably and inexorably accept the Thirteenth Amendment. With those who found it the bitterest of all pills, the President would have patience, fully confident that for their own good they would eventually swallow it. So the North began to take up their own affairs again, and the South began slowly to recover from their wounds.

It is said that the President's course was steered mainly by Seward, and other conservative New Yorkers, notably Thurlow Weed, ex-governor Morgan, Congressman-elect Raymond, and ex-Senator Preston King. One can imagine that the unfortunate Greeley--so capable, yet so chronically unable to secure a public office--found little pleasure, for some time, in any of the plans of the administration. He even served as bondsman for Jefferson Davis, the Confederate ex-President, when the latter was arrested and suspected of complicity in the murder of Lincoln.

The Democrats, as a party, had drastically to reorganize or become defunct. They had to look more to the Radical wing of the Republican party for renewed life. Seymour principles no longer were popular. The unroofed Democrat house must be abandoned. New men must life the Democratic roof, and pin it wit new pillars. So, in the democratic State Convention of 1865, Seymour was given no chance to preside. The man chosen to head the Democratic ticket, candidate for the Secretaryship of State, was a former Republican, General Henry W. Slocum, a military hero. Samuel J. Tilden, although a brilliant lawyer, had been a Southern sympathizer during the war, or at least a supporter of Seymour; so he was denied the nomination for Attorney-General. John Van Buren, who had taken a leading part in organizing Union League clubs at a critical time, when Governor Seymour, by his partisan bitterness, was stirring up revolt, was nominated for the office he ad held once before. The Democrats also stole directly from the existing Republican administration, choosing Lucius Robinson as their candidate for the State office he then held--that of State Comptroller. Although it seemed that the Democrats would like to "steal the thunder" of the Republican party and have citizens forget that they had been Pro-Slavery, and imagine that they had won the war. On the other hand, certain Seymour Democrats were fully convinced that : "Seward and Chase, who were never identified with the Democracy, have entered into a coalition to control its destiny." #1 Raymond, of the "Times" was jubilant as to the Democratic ticket: "The Democratic Party in the State," he wrote, "met yesterday at Albany and after due deliberation and with great unanimity surrendered, horse, foot, and dragoons, to the Unionists and Republicans.. . . . .The solutions of the convention would scarcely be voted down in the Republican convention."

The Republican State Convention opened at Syracuse on September 20. Chauncey M. Depew was offered re-nomination as Secretary of State; but he showed a commendable spirit, and retired so that a "defender of the Union, s soldier, might have a chance of reward in public office for the hardships he had endured in the field, during the four years of war." Literally a soldiers' ticket was put out by the Republicans, their candidates including Generals Barlow and Barnum. Of course, they had not the monopoly of the heroes of the war. The Democrats also had well known soldiers' names upon their ticket. General Barnum was opposed by General Slocum for the Secretaryship of State.

The Democratic Party in general would have been glad if someone had gagged Seymour; but the ex-Governor could not be kept out of the campaign. His voice was still heard in public places, and, as usual, sent out a jarring note. He professed now, however, to rejoice "indeed in the signal victories of the soldiers." Nevertheless, he could not forget that the Republicans had "subjugated" the States and had ruthlessly ignored States rights. Horace Greeley, some months earlier, had accused the Seymour men of hoping to foist on the Democratic party a State Sovereignty platform. To this charge, Dean Richmond had at once retorted that this was "all damned nonsense, and dead long ago." So Seymour's resurrection of professedly dead issues was not pleasing to Democratic leaders. John Van Buren, candidate for Attorney-General, lost his temper. Angered by Seymour's campaign speeches, Van Buren declared that "if Seymour and Vallandigham had been knocked out of the National convention it would have been a good thing for the party." #2 the brilliant son of the Sage of Kinderhook was making a valiant effort to bring his party back to good standing, and Governor Seymour seemed intent upon knocking it completely off its legs.

The election was another Republican triumph, General Barlow becoming Secretary of State by a plurality of 27,491. John Van Buren was defeated for the Attorney-Generalship by another soldier, probably not s well fitted as Van Buren for the legal office. Whether or not this disappointment hastened Van Buren's end can only be surmised. Certainly his health was poor when he left for Europe in the spring of the next year and the trip did him no good. He was destined never again to see his native land, never again to send ripples of laughter through vast audiences by his witty comments on public affairs and public men. Death came to him at sea, on the return voyage. He was then only fifty-six years old. He was sincerely mourned by both Republicans and Democrats, who thought of him not so much as the son of his father, but as a great New Yorker in his own right. He had not the steadiness of his distinguished father, was probably not as sound basically, but John Van Buren's apparent fearlessness--almost carelessness--of speech in public placed had had far greater effect upon the public than his father's subtle guarded words had ever had.

The Republicans returned to the Assembly with a majority of fifty, more than enough to carry on the reconstruction work begun by Governor Fenton in the previous year. New York State emerged from the Civil War in a much stronger financial condition than many other commonwealths of the North; certainly she was not in the hopelessly bankrupt state predicted by Seymour. Indeed, the war had made the North as a whole richer, and New York State had reaped greater advantage than most of the others. In the beginning, there had been some sensational collapses of commercial houses--those that had had extensive dealing with the South; but the readjustment to the changed conditions had been very rapid.

Of course, there was need for haste. The Federal government began to draw heavily upon the financial resources of the States of the North, and particularly upon New York. Indeed, New York furnished the bulk of the war funds; and consequently reaped the greatest advantage. Money lent to the government was spent largely in industrial expansion; in munitions of war; in bounties to private individuals who would expand their industrial enterprises and produce military stores; in finding the vast quantities of supplies necessary to sustain a Nation in arms. New York had been the war centre of Northern industry, the port of entry for the North; and to all intents the financier. The National debt, at the end of the war, was nearly three billions, and the greater part of this had been spent in the East--for military needs at high prices. Immense fortunes had been made by many New Yorkers--by financiers, manufacturers, merchants, and those who could furnish what the government needed; and the people as a whole were prosperous, work having been constant and wages high. What New York lost when Southern cotton was cut off, she more than made good by increased trading with England and France. Women who had been content with cotton dresses in 1861 were wearing silks in 1864. The "New York Independent," on June 25, 1864, commented on the astonishing prosperity of the empire City; "Who at the North," the editorial reads, "would ever think of war, if he had not a friend in the army, or did not read the newspapers? Go into Broadway, and we will show you what is meant by the word "Extravagance.' Ask Stewart about the demand for camel's hair shawls, and he will say 'monstrous,' Ask tiffany what kinds of diamonds and pearls are called for. He will answer the 'prodigious,' 'as near hen's egg size as possible,' 'price no object.' What kind of carpetings are nor wanted? None but 'extra.' Brussels and velvets are nor used from basement to garret." #3 New York had been thriving on war. The State had paid its way as it went, and no doubt the State debt would have been less in 1865 than in 1860 had it not been necessary to find $25,566,000 in 1865, for bounty loans. Because of this, the State debt on December 10, 1865, stood at $51,041,540, "the highest sum ever reached until 1919." #4 the war had taken many thousand of lives. The State had shrunk 48,958 in population in five years, whereas it should have expanded. In material wealth, however, New York had prospered surprisingly.

There was great political excitement in Congress at the end of 1865 over the proposals of President Johnson to admit Southern States on ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, leaving the question of Negro suffrage to the States concerned. Radicals were , figuratively, "up in arms"; but the President found a stalwart defender in Congressman Raymond, of New York. At his side was another New York Republican, William, A. Darling, but with these exceptions, the President had little support from his own party. His proposals were side-tracked to committees, and another Civil Rights bill, which Johnson vetoed, was promptly re-passed. An echo of the National commotion was heard in a resolution passed by the New York Legislature in 1866. It declared that "No State within which there has been insubordination or rebellion should be admitted to share in National Legislation, until it presents itself not only in an attitude of loyalty and harmony, but in the persons of representatives whose loyalty cannot be questioned." The wrangling went on in the National halls, President losing ground all the while. Soon his friends, including Seward and Raymond of New York, tried to feel their way toward the forming of a new party, made up of conservative Republican and Democrats. Seward did not enhance his standing among New York Republicans when, in May, at Auburn, he argued that southern States were better able to protect the rights of the Negroes than the National Congress. The President, with General Grant and Admiral Farragut, made a northern tour in that year, accompanied in New York by Secretary Seward. At Albany, the President's party was welcomed, but Governor Fenton ignored Seward.

However, Seward, Weed, Richmond, Raymond and other conservatives of both parties promoted a preliminary State convention. It was a strange sight to see Thurlow Weed and Dean Richmond side by side in the convention; strange still to find that Raymond, who was the chairman of the Republican national Committee, was elected a delegate to the National convention of the coalition of conservative of both parties at Philadelphia a little later; and astounding to see that every southern state was fully represented in this northern convention. This was certainly a reunion, the first really National convention held since 1860. Wags likened the Johnsonian "wigwam to Noah's Ark," into which they went "two and two, of clean beasts, and of beasts that are not clean, and of fowls, and of everything that creepeth upon the earth." John A. Dix, of New York, was temporary chairman, but the brunt of the convention fell upon the embarrassed Raymond.

During the war, no Republican had been steadier than Raymond, no defender of the North more unbending. Now, with a new party in process, we find him arguing "that even if the condition of the Southern States rendered their admission unsafe because still disloyal in sentiment and purpose, Congress had no power to deny them rights conferred by the Constitution." This strange twisting of political thought gave Greeley an opportunity of once more prodding his inveterate enemy. "Had Judas been one of the Pharisees instead of one of the Disciples," said the "Tribune" editor, " he would not be the worst example that presidents and Congressmen can follow." For this indiscretion, the Republican party removed Raymond from the chairmanship of the national committee, and shortly afterwards from the committee altogether. Raymond had been "read out" of that major part of the Republican party. Radicals, in general, thought that the Johnsonians were inclined to throw away all that the war had won for the North. "treason is always master and loyalty a blunder," read one Congressional committee report. Johnson no longer represented the Republican party, and those of his following were necessarily outcasts.

The coalition of conservatives also failed to capture the Democratic party. Rather, the Democrats would build, or rebuild, upon the Republican outcasts. The Democratic State Convention agreed to merge temporarily with the National Union Party. So the Johnsonians and the Democrats met together in Albany, in September. Possibly some advantage might have accrued from it had Dean Richmond lived, but he had died suddenly, while on a visit to Tilden a fortnight before. Although Weed and the other Republicans favored General John A. Dix, a former Democrat for the Governorship, the Tammany Democrats defeated his nomination. John T. Hoffman, the mayor of New York, became the nominee.

Politics certainly gave strange twists to men's thoughts at this period. The New York "Independent" said of Seward: "Mr. Seward once earned honor by remembering the Negroat a time when others forgot him; he now earns dishonor by forgetting the Negro when the Nation demands that the Negro should be remembered." As a matter of fact, Seward's principles were not much different than those he and Lincoln had held in 1863. President Lincoln could never have ridden roughshod over a subdued South in the way that the Radicals now commanded the government to ride.

The Radicals were to all intents the Republican party; so Seward and Raymond were under a cloud; and Greeley was lionized. The "Tribune" giant controlled the State convention of the Republican party at Syracuse, in September. Scathing denunciation of Weed, Seward, and Raymond pleased the convention. Fenton was recommended for Governor, although he was by no means the man best fitted for the responsibility. In the opinion of one State Senator of the period--Andrew D. white--governor Fenton marked "the lowest point in the choice of a State executive ever reached in our Commonwealth by the Republican Party." #5 Alvord, an abler executive, was denied re-nomination as lieutenant-governor, General Stewart L. Woodford taking his place on the ticket.

Still, Fenton as governor had done nothing glaringly wrong. The year had been a difficult one, anyway. A recurrence of the war spirit had come in an especially awkward way. New York City at that time contained very many citizens of Irish origin. Up-State, along the route of the Erie Canal, each large community showed an appreciable Irish population. The young men returning from Civil War service could not settle down. Other war-like purposes held them. These, in 1866, manifested themselves in a movement toward the Canadian frontier. The Irish of New York would try to remove some of Ireland's troubles by seizing one of England's colonies. They would invade Canada. Arms were shipped by the conspirators to Eastport, Maine, and to Rouse's Point, and on June 1, 1866, a force of 1,200 men crossed the Niagara River from the vicinity of Buffalo, and seized Fort Erie in Canada. The Canadian authorities quickly overcame the invaders, but for long afterwards a tense, uncertain state of things existed along the Niagara frontier.

Returning to the maze of State politics again, we find that Henry J. Raymond, who had been ousted from the Republican committee, and has championed the coalition, changed his mind as soon as Hoffman had been nominated for Governor. In his opinion, it had been a Democratic convention, not a coalition. Raymond, who had fought Tammany, in any case would not accept Hoffman. "With the Democratic party, as it has been organized and directed since the Rebellion broke out, I have nothing in common," he wrote in the "Times" in October, shortly after he had announced that he would give his support to the Republican ticket. Nevertheless, he would not run again for Congress. Thurlow Weed, on the other hand, was quite satisfied with Hoffman, whom he would prefer to the "reckless red-radicalism which rules the present Congress." In Weed's opinion, radicals were always bent upon destruction and obstruction.

However, it soon became clear that Radicals throughout the North were voicing the people's wish at the moment. Hoffman, whom Seward had predicted would win by 40,000 was defeated by 13,789, Governor Fenton getting a second term. #6 The Republicans won twenty of the thirty-one Congressional seats, and carried the State Assembly by eighty-two to forty-six.

Roscoe Conkling had had appreciable part in re-electing Fenton. He had gained a good Congressional record, but never before had he been so active in a State campaign. In the interests of Fenton, he toured the State, speaking in twenty or more towns. After the election, Conkling himself began to look for political advancement. Ira Harris' term in the United States Senate was almost at an end. Conkling wanted the seat. So did Greeley, Folger, Tremaine, Curtis and many others. Judge Harris wanted to succeed himself. He had not been especially prominent in the Senate, but had been persistent in getting from the President all the patronage that he thought New York should have. He must have pestered Lincoln, who once jokingly said: "I never think of going to sleep now without first looking under my bed to see if Judge Harris is not there, wanting something for somebody." #7 The only three who were in the running for the Senatorship, however, were: Judge Noah Davis, a jurist of unquestionable integrity; Roscoe Conkling, whose chance was best; and Senator Harris. The Radical Republicans wished to be sure of sending to the Senate a New Yorker who would vote for the impeachment of President Johnson, a proceeding then impending. Harris might waver. They had confidence in Judge Davis, but the eloquence and parliamentary experience of Conkling attracted them more. He had outshone all other New York Congressmen of the time, though there were many greater men than Conkling in the National House of Representatives. Conkling was vain, but his party could overlook this, for he was indefatigable, and "full of spread-eagle eloquence." It was felt that the Empire State should be represented in the Untied States Senate by a representative who could do more than carry messages to the President. Ellis H. Roberts, a fellow-townsman of Conkling, presented the latter's name, and Senator Andrew d. White, in seconding, declared that "the great State of New York, which had been so long silent in the highest councils of the nation, demanded a voice." #8

The contest raged for a week, though Conkling might have swept away the opposition much earlier, had he resorted to dishonorable tactics. Writing to his wife, he said: "The contest is a very curious and complex one. Great sums of money are among the influence here. I have resolutely put down my foot that no friend of mine, even without my knowledge, shall pay a cent, upon any pretext, nor in any strait, come what will . . . . . .the gamblers say that I can have $200,000 here form New York in a moment if I choose, and that the members are fools to elect me without it." #9 However, by the skill of Editor Roberts and the watchfulness of governor Fenton, Roscoe Conkling, after five ballots, became Senator-elect.

Conkling was now, or soon became, the most prominent politician in New York. He was not the best loved citizen; did not, indeed, then have a strong following in his own party. His talents were recognized, and needed, but his following was not yet strong enough to seat him in Weed's place, in Republican councils. For the time being, governor Fenton was in command. When, in the Republican State convention of 1867, a motion was made in open convention that it be instructed to report Conkling for chairman, Fenton was not prepared to resist. So Conkling was given the distinction, but it was evident that he could not hold all Republicans. After nominations had been made, the Radicals force the convention to rewrite the ticket. General James R. McKean headed the final ticket, being nominated for the Secretaryship of State, instead of General Barlow.

With the rise of Conkling in the Republican party, there arose another force--an evil one--in the Democratic part of the State. The power of New York City had been disastrously felt in the coalition convention of 1866, when, after General Joan A. Dix had seemed to be the choice of both conservative Republicans and Democrats, the Democratic strength of the great metropolis had asserted itself, and by somewhat irregular tactics had confounded the supporters of General Dix and had secured the nomination of Mayor Hoffman, representative of Tammany. Fraudulent tactics at the ballot box had almost elected Hoffman. Immigrants had been naturalized at the rate of as many as 1,000 in a day in New York Cut, quite regardless of their length of residence in the country. It was apparent that Democracy in the metropolis was in the grip of a political leader less scrupulous than those of earlier years. In 1867, this Democratic leader, William Marcy tweed, came more positively to the front.

Tweed, a chair-maker, had, for the greater part of his adult years, been giving more thought to occupying chairs--public ones--than to making them. His activities were confined to the municipality, but that was three-fifth of the State--at least in importance and wealth--so that he was content. For ten years, prior to 1866, he had be a sachem or grand sachem of the Society of St. Tammany, and concurrently has held public office in the city. Controlling city patronage was a more congenial occupation than chair-making; so Tweed, in 1863, abandoned the industry of his father, and of his own youth, and did not object when office-seekers (laborers, street cleaners, and other such lowly workers) spoke of him as Boss Tweed. He was now a lawyer, but how well qualified, or how he came by those qualifications, was immaterial.

The appalling rise and tragic fall of Boss Tweed provide historians with one of the most sensational and astonishing chapters of New York history. At any other time than that much disordered period of American life the manipulations of the Tweed ring would be impossible. The upheaval of all American institutions and social life during the four years of war had a disturbing effect upon the characters of the populace for many years. In the young men, the aftermath of war manifested itself in restlessness; in the older men--or in many of them--he grim realities of war left a callous view point on life in general. Some men of ruthless type interpreted this callousness as indifference, and promptly made their plans accordingly. Tweed, for instance, when unmasked as the pilferer of millions of dollars from the City Treasury, quite frankly asked: "Well! What are you going to do about it?" He himself felt that nothing could be done. He had, he thought, entrenched himself so well that his cohorts could at once sprag the wheels of justice. That he should be known as a thief did not trouble Tweed, so long as the arm of the law could no reach him.

 

The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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