George William Bagby.

Selections from the miscellaneous writings of Dr. George W. Bagby (Volume 1) online

. (page 8 of 27)
Online LibraryGeorge William BagbySelections from the miscellaneous writings of Dr. George W. Bagby (Volume 1) → online text (page 8 of 27)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

up, sometimes, long after the original heat of the
controversy had abated his purpose being, as I sup-
pose, to give the opposing paper, and others, a lesson
which would never be forgotten, and thus to ensure
himself against similar annoyances in the future. To
avoid trouble and to maintain the Times-like char- '
acter of the Examiner ', his rule was never to notice
the opinions of other papers, and not even to quote
from them. He waited to be attacked ; but when at-
tacked, he followed the advice of Polonius to the
very letter. But his hottest anger and his bitterest
maledictions were reserved for his political enemies.
His rage against the administration of Mr. Davis, and
particularly certain members of his Cabinet, was, at
times, terrible. In like manner, the journalistic par-
tizans of the Administration came in for a full share
of his fury. I shall never forget his excitement, one
night, on hearing that a certain article in the En-
quirer had been written by a person formerly in his


employ. I can see him now, striding up and down
the room, exclaiming, "I'll put a ball through him !"
"I'll put a ball through him !" This sentence he re-
peated fully twenty times, and in a tone which gave
assurance of a purpose quite as deadly as his words
imported. Yet nothing came of it. He was a hearty
.and persistent hater, but he was not implacable.
During his stormy life he had many fallings out and
many makings up. It is not unsafe to assert that
he never had a friend with whom, at some time, he
did not have a misunderstanding ; yet it is certain
that he died in perfect peace, and on good terms with
all, or nearly all, of his old friends. One of the last
and most pleasing acts of his life was the glad ac-
ceptance with which he met the advance of his friend,
Mr. Thomas H. Wynne, from whom he had been es-
tranged during nearly the whole war.

His enmity to Mr. Davis, amounting to something
like a frenzy, will be ascribed, by those who differed
from him in opinion, to a bad heart, pique at not be-
ing made the confidential friend of the President, or
at not having been sent abroad in a diplomatic ca-
pacity. But by those, on the other hand, who agreed
with him in thinking that the cause suffered more
from mal-administration than from anything or all
things else, his course will not be so harshly judged;
and their chief regret will be that arguments so for-
cible as Daniel's were not left to produce their effect,
unaided, or rather unimpeded, by diatribe and invec-
tive. To reconcile these conflicting opinions is im-
possible, and if it were not, is beyond the intent and


aim of this sketch. I remember asking him once
whether Mr. Davis ever saw his animadversions upon

" They tell me down stairs," he replied, " that the
first person here in the morning is Jeff. Davis's body
servant. He comes before day-light, and says that
his master can't get out of bed or eat his breakfast
until his appetite is stimulated by reading every
word in the Examiner"

"Do you think he profits by its perusal?"

"Unquestionably. The few sound ideas he ever
had came from the Examiner"

This he said with perfect sincerity, for he contend-
ed, both in the paper and out of it, that every wise
and useful measure which had been promulgated by
the administration or by Congress, was borrowed or
stolen from the Examiner.

He was proud of his paper. If he sometimes re-
garded it as "a mill-stone about his neck," he never-
theless devoted his life to it, and found in it his chief
happiness. He looked to it as a source of power and
wealth in the future. Of that future, he was more
sanguine than any man I ever knew. How well I
remember the night he said to me, without provoca-
tion, if I recollect aright :

" I shall live to eat the goose that eats the grass
over your grave."

Perhaps there was something in my appearance
which called forth the remark, for I must have been
worn by the enormous amount of work I was then


I looked up from the table, where I sat writing,
and said quietly :

" I don't doubt it ; but what makes you say so ?"

" Two reasons ; I come of a long-lived race, and I
have an infallible sign of longevity."

"What is that?"

"I never dream my sleep is always sound and

Little did I then think that before two years were
ended, I should see him in his coffin. He was mis-
taken, however, in saying that he came of a long-
lived race. His father was not old when he died y
and his mother was comparatively young when she
came to her death of consumption, if I mistake not,
He was thinking, probably, of his uncle, Judge
Daniel, more than his parents. His own health was-
never robust; his constitution was delicate, as a
glance at his figure showed. His chest was narrow
and rather shallow, though not sunken, and his hips
were broad. The organs of digestion and respiration
were alike feeble. He had had an attack of pneu-
monia before going to Europe, and during his whole
life he was a victim of dyspepsia, from which he had
suffered greatly in youth and early manhood. I often
warned him against the injudicious and frequent use
of blue mass, his favorite medicine. Great virile
strength he had, as was shown by his dense beard
and the coarse hair on his feminine hands, but in
muscle, sinew and bone he was deficient. He took
great care of himself. I was told that when he re-
turned to Richmond his person was protected by a


triple suit of underclothing. Next to his skin he
wore flannel; over that, buckskin, and over that
again, silk. This load of clothing he contended was
indispensable to health in Turin, where the atmos-
pheric changes were very violent and sudden. In
Richmond he dispensed with some of this undergear,
but probably gave up only the buckskin. Among
other items which he gave a Maryland blockade run-
ner, who waited on him one day while I was present,
was an order for " one dozen silk shirts of the largest
size." This size he particularly insisted on, and the
inference was that he intended to wear them over
flannel. What availed all these precautions when
the final summons came ?

Long as this article is, I cannot close it without
some allusion to John M. Daniel as an editor and as
a man. He was born an editor. Whatever may
have been his abilities as a diplomatist and a politi-
cian, whatever distinction he might have attained in
the forum or in the field, his forte lay decidedly in
the department of letters, and more especially in the
conduct of a newspaper. lie was not a poet, not a
historian, a novelist, an essayist, or even, if I may
coin the word, a magazinist. He had talent enough
to have excelled in any or all of these, but his taste
led him in another direction. It was hoped by every-
body that he would on his return home write a
volume about his residence in Europe. Such a book
would have been exceedingly interesting and valu-
able. Bat he was not a book-maker. Moreover, it
is not improbable that he expected to return to diplo-


made life, and did not wish to embarrass himself by
reflections upon the manners and customs of the
people among whom he expected to reside. He
could not have written about the Italians or any
other people without dipping his pen in vitriol. The
publication of a part of one of his letters to his friend,
Dr. Peticolas, had brought him into trouble with the
Italians, and made him furious with his associate,
Hughes, who took charge of the Examiner in his ab-
sence. This occurred early in his career as a diplomat,
and made him cautious. He preserved his dispatches
with utmost care, in large handsomely bound vol-
umes; but whether with a view to publication or for
his own use in after years, I am unable to say.

I remember his telling me one night that he in-
tended to make a book.

" I wish you would," said I.

" Mark you, I did not say write a book, but make
a book."

" What do you mean ?"

"I mean to make a book with the scissors," he

"How so?"

"Why, by taking the files of the Examiner from
its foundation to the present time, and clipping the
best things from them. I am sure that I could in
this way make a book, consisting of a number of
volumes, which would contain more sense, more wit
and more humor than anything that has been pub-
lished in this country for the last twenty years.
Similar publications have been made in England in


modern times, and long since the days of the Spec-
tator and the Rambler, and they have succeeded. I
believe that the best things which have appeared in
the Examiner, if put into book form, would com-
pare favorably with any English publication of the
kind, and that the book would command a ready

So far as my personal knowledge goes, this is the
only book which John M. Daniel ever thought seri-
ously of making. I agreed with him then, and I can
but think now, that the present owners of the Ex-
aminer would do well to carry out his views. In the
impoverished condition of the South, at this precise ,
time, it is idle to expect a very large sale of any
publication whatsoever; but the day will come, I
trust, when the bound volume of selections from the
Examiner will have a place in every Southern gen-
tleman's library.

John M. Daniel was emphatically an editor not
a newspaper contributor, but an editor and a politi-
cian. He was enough of the latter to have made a
name in the Cabinet. He was no orator, although he
had an orator's mouth. I never heard of his making a
public speech. He must have had a great natural
repugnance to speaking. Could he have overcome
this repugnance, he had command enough of lan-
guage to have ensured him considerable distinction
in forensic display ; but his temper was far too hot
and quick to admit of success in debate. He knew
men, in the light in which a politician views them,
thoroughly well. His natural faculty of weighing


measures and of foreseeing their effects, was much
above the common. He had in him the elements of
a statesman. His historical studies and his know-
ledge of mankind were not in vain. Before the first
blow was struck, and when both Mr. Benjamin and
Mr. Seward, speaking the sentiments of their re-
spective peoples, were issuing their "ninety days
notes," he prophesied not only the magnitude, but
the inhuman and unchristian ferocity of the late war.
And who, in this sad hour, can forget how, as the
struggle drew near its close, lie strove day after day
and week after week to revive the flagging spirits,,
and to kindle anew the energy and courage of the
Southern people, by terrible pictures of the fate
which has ever attended ki oppressed nationalities?"
It is true that these articles were written by John
Mitchell; but they were inspired by Daniel. Alas!
those prophecies, like all others, have been inter-
preted fully only in their completion.

As a politician, eminence was not his. Had he
lived, it is as certain as anything human can be, that
he would have filled an honored niche in the temple
of political fame ; but his celebrity was destined to be
confined to the domain of journalism. Therein l\&
obtained a distinction which has been surpassed by
none and equalled but by few American journalists.
His place is by the side of Thomas Ritchie, Hampden
Pleasants and Joseph Gales. As an editor, he was-
to politicians what the Earl of Warwick was to

" It is said," he remarked to me one day, " that my


admiration for Floyd is due to the fact that Floyd
made me. The truth is, I made Floyd."

He was accustomed to magnify his office of editor,
and his exalted opinion of Gen. Floyd was based, not
upon gratitude, but upon his estimate of the man
himself. It has been said that the quality which
.women most admire in men is " strength." The as-
sertion holds equally good of man's admiration for
man, and is particularly true in regard to John M.
Daniel. He worshipped strength, and nothing but
strength of mind and of body. He despised fools
and weaklings of all sorts. Goodness the moral
qualities he threw entirely out of the account. He
did not much believe in the existence of these quali-
ties, and when they did exist, he regarded them as
but evidences of weakness. Floyd was his " man of
bronze " therefore he liked him. Of another and
more distinguished politician he would speak in
terms of extreme contempt. " He snivels he weeps,"
he would say, in tones of indescribable disgust.
Often have I heard him expatiate upon Wigfall's
magnificent physique and his unmistakable natural
courage. "It is the genuine thing," he would say.
" There is no put on there. He has got native pluck
the actual article ; it is no strain on him to exhibit
it. The grit is in him, and you can't shake him."

Of Daniel's own courage, I think I can speak
.safely and correctly ; and I may as well do so here,
although I had intended to defer mention of it until
I carne to the discussion of his character as a man.

He did not have the hard animal bravery of Wig-


fall; it was not in his constitution. His highly
wrought nervous system was not sufficiently pano-
plied with brawn to ensure it against the agitation
arising: from a sudden shock or the violence of an


unexpected attack with the fist or club. Nor was he
of that tough and wiry make which enables some
fragile men to meet the rudest physical assaults with-
out an outward tremor. But he had courage of
another sort, and had it in a high degree. What is
generally called moral courage, but is more properly
intellectual courage that is, bravery which is founded
not upon combativeness, the consciousness of muscular
strength, or upon great excitability unrestrained by
caution, but upon the clear perception of the nature
and extent of danger, together with the hardihood of
great self-esteem and pride of character he pos-
sessed to an extent which is rarely seen. To make
a reputation, he commenced his editorial career by
attacking personally nearly every man of note in
Virginia, thereby incurring a responsibility in the
field and out of it for it rested with the parties as-
sailed to demand satisfaction according to the code
or to take it at the pistol's mouth in the street, as
seemed best in their eyes which few men of the
strongest nerve would have dared to assume.

He lived in a land where duels were common ; in
a city where the editor of the 'Whig had been slain
but a few years before, and among a people 'who
never entertained the first thought of accepting
damages at law as reparation for a personal affront ;
hence the course of the Examiner during its earlier


years was attended with a degree of danger which
none but a truly daring or a fool-hardy man would
ever have encountered. But Daniel was no fool ;
and although he lacked caution and allowed the
bitterness of his feelings to carry him too far, he
was anything but reckless. Appreciating fully his
danger, he willingly risked his life and his reputa-
tion in order to secure the advantages which lay be-
yond the point he so coolly braved. To carry his
point, he accepted cheerfully the odium of the com-
munity, and, indeed, of the whole State in which he
lived. For the sake of power and a competency, he
became an outcast from society. At one time he
was literally hated or feared by everybody. In the
whole world there was scarcely a human being who
really liked him for himself. All this he brought
upon himself, deliberately and for a purpose. He
marked out an arduous course, and he followed that
course resolutely to the last day of his life, accept-
ing all the consequences. Surely, neither a weak nor
-a timid man could have done this. Assaulted sud-
denly in the streets by a powerful rnan, of known
courage, who threatened then and there to cut his
ears off, it is not to be wondered that the fragile
man showed some agitation; but his intrepid "you
shall have your duel" in the admirable correspon-
dence with Elmore, and his calm bearing on the
field in the very presence of death (for his adversary
was no trifler), proved beyond question that John M.
Daniel had that within him which men in every age
have recognized as genuine courage.


To return from this digression : He was an editor
in the best and fullest meaning of the word. He
xiould not only w T rite himself, and write well, but he
could make others write well. The crudest articles,
as I have shown, if they had but the germ of some-
thing good in them, could be transformed by him
in a few moments, with an ease and an art peculiarly
his own, into powerful leaders. A touch or two of
his pen gave a new coloring to a contribution and
made it his own. He had the power of infusing his
spirit into every part of .his paper, and of giving it
thereby an individuality which made it as attractive
as it was unique. He had innumerable editorial con-
tributors, but they all caught, insensibly and quietly,
his spirit, his very tone ; and there was about the Ex-
aminer, whenever he was at the head of it, a homo-
geneity which under other managers it never at-
tained. It was easy to tell when he left the paper
and when he came back to it. His precise arti-
cles could not always be told, but there was a name-
less something about the paper, as a whole, which
gave indubitable evidence of his presence. The very
arrangement of the printed matter and the allocation
of articles betrayed him behind the scenes. He
brought with him. as often as he resumed the helm,
a magnetic charm which drew to the paper the clev-
erest things which were written by anybody. Who-
ever chanced to do a good thing with the pen was
anxious for it to appear in the Examiner. There
it would be read by more people and be better ap-
preciated than in any other paper. The credit would


be Daniel's, but what of that? The intellectual
bantling would be sure not to die still-born. It
would make a noise and be talked about; its un-
known parent would hear its praises and be secretly

Many men have written for the Examiner, and
some have conducted it with ability ; but it has never
been, and it may be fairly reckoned that it never will
be, edited as it was by John M. Daniel. He had not
the humor, and he may not have had the wit of some
of the contributors ; nor did he have the financial
knowledge or the scientific attainments of others who
wrote for him ; but he made a better editor than any
or all of those combined could have made. The
truth of this assertion will be understood fully when
I call the names of some of his contributors. They
are as follows : Robert W. Hughes, Patrick Henry
Aylett, William Old, Dr. A. E. Peticolas, Edward
A. Pollard, L. Q. Washington, Prof. Basil Gilder-
sleeve, John R. Thompson and John Mitchell. Some
of these gentlemen have had the paper entirely in
their charge for months at a time, but it is no dis-
paragement to them to say that the paper in their
hands was never what it was in the hands of John
M. Daniel. He had in him an intensity of bitterness
which they did not possess, and would not have dis-
played if they had possessed. He had a strength of
originality, an art of attracting contributions and of
shaping them into his own similitude, and what is
most to the point, a pains-taking attention to the mi-
nutiae of the paper, which, combined, made him an


editor whose equal, in all respects, has never been
seen in this country.

He had little, and if his own opinion were taken,
not a particle of humor. He was too bitter for that.
But he had the quickest and keenest appreciation of
the humorous. Dickens was a favorite with him,
Nay, he had, he must have had, humor of his own,
Wit he had in a high degree, and of every sort ; but
he was particularly happy in nicknaming and in per-
sonalities of all kinds. Some of those names showed
both wit and humor; as when he called the cadets of
the Virginia Military Institute, on the occasion of
their first visit to Richmond, " kildees," a title which,
as it seemed to belittle them, made the cadets very an-
gry, but which was, nevertheless, so appropriate and
so harmless that everybody laughed good-naturedly
at it. The appellation of "leaden gimlet," which he
applied to a certain lawyer in Richmond, is an ex-
ample of galling satire, without the least admixture
of the milk of human kindness. The office of Mr. Ben-
jamin, the Secretary of State, contained files of the
leading newspapers of the Confederacy ; and hence it
was called by Daniel "the Confederate Reading

J O-

Room" a name intended to convey his contempt
at once for the office and the official who occupied it..
He had a lively fancy, but little or no imagination
in the higher sense of the term. Certainly he had
not the creative faculty. I do not know that he ever
attempted rhyme, much less poetry or dramatic char-
acterization. His mind was logical, but dry and
elaborate argumentation was not to his liking.. He


caught readily the salient points of a question, and
aimed, in writing, to present them forcibly, but not
with too much brevity. I saw him return to the au-
thor a number of editorials which I thought excellent,
and asked him why he did so. "They are well
written," said he, " in fact, they are elegantly writ-
ten ; but there is no incision in them."

His reading was various and extensive, his memory
first-rate. He told me that, during his residence
abroad, he not only made himself familiar with
Italian and French literature, but read, in addition,
every Latin author of celebrity, and many whose
names were almost wholly unknown. Greek he neg-
lected, and he paid little attention to German. His-
tory, biography, memoirs, political treatises, novels,
poetry and essays of the better class, he literally de-
voured, and retained with wonderful fidelity every-
thing of importance that he had ever read. He
cared little, I think, for metaphysics, or for the
exact sciences, and discovered less information in re-
gard to anatomy and physiology than many men of
ordinary capacity and education. He was not, strictly
speaking, a learned man. His taste was pure and cor-
rect ; his love of " English undefiled " very great. Yet
he was not a slavish purist. His peculiar spelling
was but a mark of his infinite detestation of Web-
ster as a New England Yankee. His favorite au-
thors were Yoltaire and Swift. The latter was his
model. He often urged me to study Swift diligently,
in preference to Addison, Dry den, Milton, or any
other English author, ancient or modern.


It remains for me to speak of him in his personal
character, and this I shall do as briefly as I can. He
who has ever looked unflinchingly into his own heart
will be slow to bring against another the accusation
which so many were fond of bringing against John
M. Daniel that he was " a bad man." That he was
essentially and thoroughly "bad," no one who knew
him intimately will charge. De mortals nil nisi
bomtm. Upon that principle alone I should exoner-
.ate him from the charge. But more than that, I
.saw and heard too much to allow me, for an in-
stant, to yield assent to every sweeping indictment
against the character of the dead Virginian. Whilst
he was yet extremely poor, he went twenty miles to
lend a still poorer friend some money ; and, at the
same time, to save himself an expense which he could
ill afford, walked the whole distance between Rich-
mond and Petersburg and back again. This does not
argue a bad heart. He bore his poverty manfully,
denied himself and " owed no man anything." Such
is not the wont of bad men. I know it gave him sin-
cere pleasure to compose a quarrel, and, when called
upon, he exerted himself energetically to accomplish
that end. But bad men prefer to stir up strife, rather
than to allay it., I know that he made a trip to
Charlottesville for the purpose of buying a house ad-
vertised for sale at auction, which house he intended
to rent cheaply to me, in order that I might escape
the grinding exactions of city landlords. And this
he did at my request. Is it the habit of bad men to
undertake such journeys in the interest of those who


have no special claim on them ? I know that at a
time when nearly every property owner in Richmond
seemed almost conscienceless in their extortions, the
houses purchased by John M. Daniel, and fitted up
by him at no trifling expense, were rented to his as-
sistant editors on terms most reasonable. Is this the
practice of bad men ? That Daniel was not liberal
and open-hearted I will admit. But he was not a
screw. He was just, upright in his dealings, prompt

Online LibraryGeorge William BagbySelections from the miscellaneous writings of Dr. George W. Bagby (Volume 1) → online text (page 8 of 27)