MY MEMORIES OF EIGHTY YEARS
CHAUNCEY M. DEPEW
TO MY WIFE MAY PALMER DEPEW
THIS BOOK GREW FROM HER ENCOURAGEMENT
For many years my friends have insisted upon my putting in
permanent form the incidents in my life which have interested
them. It has been my good fortune to take part in history-making
meetings and to know more or less intimately people prominent
in world affairs in many countries. Every one so situated has
a flood of recollections which pour out when occasion stirs the
memory. Often the listeners wish these transcribed for their
My classmate at Yale in the class of 1856, John D. Champlin, a man
of letters and an accomplished editor, rescued from my own
scattered records and newspaper files material for eight volumes.
My secretary has selected and compiled for publication two volumes
since. These are principally speeches, addresses, and contributions
which have appeared in public. Several writers, without my
knowledge, have selected special matter from these volumes
and made books.
Andrew D. White, Senator Hoar, and Senator Foraker, with whom
I was associated for years, have published full and valuable
autobiographies. I do not attempt anything so elaborate or
complete. Never having kept a diary, I am dependent upon a good
memory. I have discarded the stories which could not well be
published until long after I have joined the majority.
I trust and earnestly hope there is nothing in these recollections
which can offend anybody. It has been my object so to picture
events and narrate stories as to illumine the periods through
which I have passed for eighty-eight years, and the people whom
I have known and mightily enjoyed.
I. CHILDHOOD AND YOUTH
II. IN PUBLIC LIFE
III. ABRAHAM LINCOLN
IV. GENERAL GRANT
V. ROSCOE CONKLING
VI. HORACE GREELEY
VII. RUTHERFORD B. HAYES AND WILLIAM M. EVARTS
VIII. GENERAL GARFIELD
IX. CHESTER A. ARTHUR
X. GROVER CLEVELAND
XI. BENJAMIN HARRISON
XII. JAMES G. BLAINE
XIII. WILLIAM McKINLEY
XIV. THEODORE ROOSEVELT
XV. UNITED STATES SENATE
XVI. AMBASSADORS AND MINISTERS
XVII. GOVERNORS OF NEW YORK STATE
XVIII. FIFTY-SIX YEARS WITH THE NEW YORK CENTRAL RAILROAD COMPANY
XIX. RECOLLECTIONS FROM ABROAD
XX. ORATORS AND CAMPAIGN SPEAKERS
XXI. NATIONAL REPUBLICAN CONVENTIONS
XXII. JOURNALISTS AND FINANCIERS
XXIII. ACTORS AND MEN OF LETTERS
XXIV. SOCIETIES AND PUBLIC BANQUETS
INDEX [not included]
MY MEMORIES OF EIGHTY YEARS
I. CHILDHOOD AND YOUTH
It has occurred to me that some reminiscences of a long life
would be of interest to my family and friends.
My memory goes back for more than eighty years. I recall
distinctly when about five years old my mother took me to the
school of Mrs. Westbrook, wife of the well-known pastor of the
Dutch Reformed church, who had a school in her house, within
a few doors. The lady was a highly educated woman, and her
husband, Doctor Westbrook, a man of letters as well as a preacher.
He specialized in ancient history, and the interest he aroused
in Roman and Greek culture and achievements has continued with me
The village of Peekskill at that time had between two and three
thousand inhabitants. Its people were nearly all Revolutionary
families who had settled there in colonial times. There had been
very little immigration either from other States or abroad;
acquaintance was universal, and in the activities of the churches
there was general co-operation among the members. Church
attendance was so unanimous that people, young or old, who failed
to be in their accustomed places on Sunday felt the disapproval
of the community.
Social activities of the village were very simple, but very
delightful and healthful. There were no very rich nor very poor.
Nearly every family owned its own house or was on the way to
acquire one. Misfortune of any kind aroused common interest
and sympathy. A helping hand of neighborliness was always extended
to those in trouble or distress. Peekskill was a happy community
and presented conditions of life and living of common interest,
endeavor, and sympathy not possible in these days of restless
crowds and fierce competition.
The Peekskill Academy was the dominant educational institution,
and drew students not only from the village but from a distance.
It fitted them for college, and I was a student there for about
twelve years. The academy was a character-making institution,
though it lacked the thoroughness of the New England preparatory
schools. Its graduates entering into the professions or business
had an unusual record of success in life. I do not mean that they
accumulated great fortunes, but they acquired independence and were
prominent and useful citizens in all localities where they settled.
I graduated from the Peekskill Academy in 1852. I find on the
programme of the exercises of that day, which some old student
preserved, that I was down for several original speeches, while
the other boys had mainly recitations. Apparently my teachers
had decided to develop any oratorical talent I might possess.
I entered Yale in 1852 and graduated in 1856. The college of that
period was very primitive compared with the university to which
it has grown. Our class of ninety-seven was regarded as unusually
large. The classics and mathematics, Greek and Latin, were the
dominant features of instruction. Athletics had not yet appeared,
though rowing and boat-racing came in during my term. The
outstanding feature of the institution was the literary societies:
the Linonia and the Brothers of Unity. The debates at the weekly
meetings were kept up and maintained upon a high and efficient
plane. Both societies were practically deliberative bodies and
discussed with vigor the current questions of the day. Under this
training Yale sent out an unusual number of men who became
eloquent preachers, distinguished physicians, and famous lawyers.
While the majority of students now on leaving college enter business
or professions like engineering, which is allied to business,
at that time nearly every young man was destined for the ministry,
law, or medicine. My own class furnished two of the nine judges
of the Supreme Court of the United States, and a large majority
of those who were admitted to the bar attained judicial honors.
It is a singular commentary on the education of that time that the
students who won the highest honors and carried off the college
prizes, which could only be done by excelling in Latin, Greek,
and mathematics, were far outstripped in after-life by their
classmates who fell below their high standard of collegiate
scholarship but were distinguished for an all-around interest
in subjects not features in the college curriculum.
My classmates, Justice David J. Brewer and Justice Henry Billings Brown,
were both eminent members of the Supreme Court of the United States.
Brewer was distinguished for the wide range of his learning and
illuminating addresses on public occasions. He was bicentennial
orator of the college and a most acceptable one. Wayne MacVeagh,
afterwards attorney-general of the United States, one of the leaders
of the bar, also one of the most brilliant orators of his time,
was in college with me, though not a classmate. Andrew D. White,
whose genius, scholarship, and organization enabled Ezra Cornell
to found Cornell University, was another of my college mates.
He became one of the most famous of our diplomats and the author
of many books of permanent value. My friendship with MacVeagh
and White continued during their lives, that is, for nearly sixty
years. MacVeagh was one of the readiest and most attractive of
speakers I ever knew. He had a very sharp and caustic wit, which
made him exceedingly popular as an after-dinner speaker and as a
host in his own house. He made every evening when he entertained,
for those who were fortunate enough to be his guests, an occasion
memorable in their experience.
John Mason Brown, of Kentucky, became afterwards the leader of
the bar in his State, and was about to receive from President Harrison
an appointment as justice of the Supreme Court when he died
suddenly. If he had been appointed it would have been a remarkable
circumstance that three out of nine judges of the greatest of
courts, an honor which is sought by every one of the hundreds
of thousands of lawyers in the United States, should have been
from the same college and the same class.
The faculty lingers in my memory, and I have the same reverence
and affection for its members, though sixty-five years out of
college, that I had the day I graduated. Our president,
Theodore D. Woolsey, was a wonderful scholar and a most inspiring
teacher. Yale has always been fortunate in her presidents, and
peculiarly so in Professor Woolsey. He had personal distinction,
and there was about him an air of authority and reserved power
which awed the most radical and rebellious student, and at the
same time he had the respect and affection of all. In his
historical lectures he had a standard joke on the Chinese, the
narration of which amused him the more with each repetition. It
was that when a Chinese army was beleaguered and besieged in a
fortress their provisions gave out and they decided to escape.
They selected a very dark night, threw open the gates, and as
they marched out each soldier carried a lighted lantern.
In the faculty were several professors of remarkable force and
originality. The professor of Greek, Mr. Hadley, father of the
distinguished ex-president of Yale, was more than his colleagues
in the thought and talk of the undergraduates. His learning and
pre-eminence in his department were universally admitted. He had a
caustic wit and his sayings were the current talk of the campus.
He maintained discipline, which was quite lax in those days, by
the exercise of this ability. Some of the boys once drove a calf
into the recitation-room. Professor Hadley quietly remarked:
"You will take out that animal. We will get along to-day with
our usual number." It is needless to say that no such experiment
was ever repeated.
At one time there was brought up in the faculty meeting a report
that one of the secret societies was about to bore an artesian
well in the cellar of their club house. It was suggested that such
an extraordinary expense should be prohibited. Professor Hadley
closed the discussion and laughed out the subject by saying from
what he knew of the society, if it would hold a few sessions over
the place where the artesian well was projected, the boring would
be accomplished without cost. The professor was a sympathetic
and very wise adviser to the students. If any one was in trouble
he would always go to him and give most helpful relief.
Professor Larned inspired among the students a discriminating
taste for the best English literature and an ardent love for its
classics. Professor Thacher was one of the most robust and
vigorous thinkers and teachers of his period. He was a born
leader of men, and generation after generation of students who
graduated carried into after-life the effects of his teaching and
personality. We all loved Professor Olmstead, though we were not
vitally interested in his department of physics and biology. He
was a purist in his department, and so confident of his principles
that he thought it unnecessary to submit them to practical tests.
One of the students, whose room was immediately over that of
the professor, took up a plank from the flooring, and by boring
a very small hole in the ceiling found that he could read the
examination papers on the professor's desk. The information
of this reaching the faculty, the professor was asked if he had
examined the ceiling. He said that was unnecessary, because
he had measured the distance between the ceiling and the surface
of his desk and found that the line of vision connected so far
above that nothing could be read on the desk.
Timothy Dwight, afterwards president, was then a tutor. Learning,
common sense, magnetism, and all-around good-fellowship were
wonderfully united in President Dwight. He was the most popular
instructor and best loved by the boys. He had a remarkable talent
for organization, which made him an ideal president. He possessed
the rare faculty of commanding and convincing not only the students
but his associates in the faculty and the members of the corporation
when discussing and deciding upon business propositions and
questions of policy.
The final examinations over, commencement day arrived. The
literary exercises and the conferring of degrees took place in the
old Center Church. I was one of the speakers and selected for
my subject "The Hudson River and Its Traditions." I was saturated
from early association and close investigation and reading with the
crises of the Revolutionary War, which were successfully decided
on the patriots' side on the banks of the Hudson. I lived near
Washington Irving, and his works I knew by heart, especially
the tales which gave to the Hudson a romance like the Rhine's.
The subject was new for an academic stage, and the speech made
a hit. Nevertheless, it was the saddest and most regretful day of
my life when I left Yale.
My education, according to the standard of the time, was completed,
and my diploma was its evidence. It has been a very interesting
question with me how much the academy and the college contributed
to that education. Their discipline was necessary and their
training essential. Four years of association with the faculty,
learned, finely equipped, and sympathetic, was a wonderful help.
The free associations of the secret and debating societies, the
campus, and the sports were invaluable, and the friendships formed
with congenial spirits added immensely to the pleasures and
compensations of a long life.
In connection with this I may add that, as it has been my lot
in the peculiar position which I have occupied for more than
half a century as counsel and adviser for a great corporation
and its creators and the many successful men of business who
have surrounded them, I have learned to know how men who have
been denied in their youth the opportunities for education feel
when they are in possession of fortunes, and the world seems
at their feet. Then they painfully recognize their limitations,
then they know their weakness, then they understand that there
are things which money cannot buy, and that there are gratifications
and triumphs which no fortune can secure. The one lament of all
those men has been: "Oh, if I had been educated I would sacrifice
all that I have to obtain the opportunities of the college, to be
able to sustain not only conversation and discussion with the
educated men with whom I come in contact, but competent also
to enjoy what I see is a delight to them beyond anything which
But I recall gratefully other influences quite as important to
one's education. My father was a typical business man, one of
the pioneers of river transportation between our village and
New York, and also a farmer and a merchant. He was a stern man
devoted to his family, and, while a strict disciplinarian, very
fond of his children.
My mother was a woman of unusual intellect bordering upon genius.
There were no means of higher education at that period, but her
father, who was an eminent lawyer, and her grandfather, a judge,
finding her so receptive, educated her with the care that was
given to boys who were intended for a professional life. She was
well versed in the literature of the time of Queen Elizabeth and
Queen Anne, and, with a retentive memory, knew by heart many
of the English classics. She wrote well, but never for publication.
Added to these accomplishments were rare good sense and prophetic
vision. The foundation and much of the superstructure of all that
I have and all that I am were her work. She was a rigid Calvinist,
and one of her many lessons has been of inestimable comfort to
me. Several times in my life I have met with heavy misfortunes
and what seemed irreparable losses. I have returned home to find
my mother with wise advice and suggestions ready to devote herself
to the reconstruction of my fortune, and to brace me up. She
always said what she thoroughly believed: "My son, this which
you think so great a calamity is really divine discipline.
The Lord has sent it to you for your own good, because in His
infinite wisdom He saw that you needed it. I am absolutely
certain that if you submit instead of repining and protesting,
if you will ask with faith and proper spirit for guidance and
help, they both will come to you and with greater blessings than
you ever had before." That faith of my mother inspired and
intensified my efforts and in every instance her predictions
Every community has a public-spirited citizen who unselfishly
devotes himself or herself to the public good. That citizen of
Peekskill in those early days was Doctor James Brewer. He had
accumulated a modest competence sufficient for his simple needs
as bachelor. He was either the promoter or among the leaders of
all the movements for betterment of the town. He established
a circulating library upon most liberal terms, and it became an
educational institution of benefit. The books were admirably
selected, and the doctor's advice to readers was always available.
His taste ran to the English classics, and he had all the standard
authors in poetry, history, fiction, and essay.
No pleasure derived in reading in after-years gave me such delight
as the Waverley Novels. I think I read through that library and
some of it several times over.
The excitement as the novels of Dickens and Thackeray began
to appear equalled almost the enthusiasm of a political campaign.
Each one of those authors had ardent admirers and partisans.
The characters of Dickens became household companions. Every one
was looking for the counterpart of Micawber or Sam Weller, Pecksniff
or David Copperfield, and had little trouble in finding them either
in the family circle or among the neighbors.
Dickens's lectures in New York, which consisted of readings from
his novels, were an event which has rarely been duplicated for
interest. With high dramatic ability he brought out before the
audience the characters from his novels with whom all were
familiar. Every one in the crowd had an idealistic picture in
his mind of the actors of the story. It was curious to note that
the presentation which the author gave coincided with the idea
of the majority of his audience. I was fresh from the country
but had with me that evening a rather ultra-fashionable young
lady. She said she was not interested in the lecture because
it represented the sort of people she did not know and never
expected to meet; they were a very common lot. In her subsequent
career in this country and abroad she had to her credit three
matrimonial adventures and two divorces, but none of her husbands
were of the common lot.
Speaking of Dickens, one picture remains indelibly pressed upon
my memory. It was the banquet given him at which Horace Greeley
presided. Everybody was as familiar with Mr. Pickwick and his
portrait by Cruikshank in Dickens's works as with one's father.
When Mr. Greeley arose to make the opening speech and introduce
the guest of the evening, his likeness to this portrait of Pickwick
was so remarkable that the whole audience, including Mr. Dickens,
shouted their delight in greeting an old and well-beloved friend.
Another educational opportunity came in my way because one of
my uncles was postmaster of the village. Through his post-office
came several high-class magazines and foreign reviews. There
was no rural delivery in those days, and the mail could only be
had on personal application, and the result was that the subscribers
of these periodicals frequently left them a long time before they
were called for. I was an omnivorous reader of everything
available, and as a result these publications, especially the
foreign reviews, became a fascinating source of information and
culture. They gave from the first minds of the century criticisms
of current literature and expositions of political movements and
public men which became of infinite value in after-years.
Another unincorporated and yet valuable school was the frequent
sessions at the drug store of the elder statesmen of the village.
On certain evenings these men, representing most of the activities
of the village, would avail themselves of the hospitable chairs
about the stove and discuss not only local matters but the general
conditions of the country, some of them revolving about the
constitutionality of various measures which had been proposed
and enacted into laws. They nearly all related to slavery,
the compromise measures, the introduction of slaves into new
territories, the fugitive slave law, and were discussed with much
intelligence and information. The boys heard them talked about
in their homes and were eager listeners on the outskirts of this
village congress. Such institutions are not possible except in the
universal acquaintance, fellowship, and confidences of village
and country life. They were the most important factors in forming
that public opinion, especially among the young, which supported
Mr. Lincoln in his successful efforts to save the Union at whatever
A few days after returning home from Yale I entered the office
of Edward Wells, a lawyer of the village, as a student. Mr. Wells
had attained high rank in his profession, was a profound student
of the law, and had a number of young men, fitting them for the
bar under his direction.
I was admitted to the bar in 1858, and immediately opened an
office in the village. My first client was a prosperous farmer
who wanted an opinion on a rather complicated question. I prepared
the case with great care. He asked me what my fee was, and
I told him five dollars. He said: "A dollar and seventy-five is
enough for a young lawyer like you." Subsequently he submitted
the case to one of the most eminent lawyers in New York, who
came to the same conclusion and charged him five hundred dollars.
On account of this gentleman's national reputation the farmer
thought that fee was very reasonable. In subsequent years I have
received several very large retainers, but none of them gave so
much satisfaction as that dollar and seventy-five cents, which I had
actually earned after having been so long dependent on my father.
After some years of private practice Commodore Vanderbilt sent
for me and offered the attorneyship for the New York and Harlem
Railroad. I had just been nominated and confirmed United States
minister to Japan. The appointment was a complete surprise to me,
as I was not an applicant for any federal position. The salary was
seven thousand five hundred dollars and an outfit of nine thousand.
The commodore's offer of the attorneyship for the Harlem Railroad,
which was his first venture in railroading, was far less than
the salary as minister. When I said this to the commodore, he
remarked: "Railroads are the career for a young man; there is
nothing in politics. Don't be a damned fool." That decided me,
and on the 1st of January, 1921, I rounded out fifty-five years in
the railway service of this corporation and its allied lines.
Nothing has impressed me more than little things, and apparently
immaterial ones, which have influenced the careers of many people.
My father and his brothers, all active business men, were also
deeply interested in politics, not on the practical side but in
policies and governmental measures. They were uncompromising
Democrats of the most conservative type; they believed that
interference with slavery of any kind imperilled the union of
the States, and that the union of the States was the sole salvation
of the perpetuity of the republic and its liberties. I went to
Yale saturated with these ideas. Yale was a favorite college
for Southern people. There was a large element from the
slaveholding States among the students. It was so considerable
that these Southerners withdrew from the great debating societies
of the college and formed a society of their own, which they
called the Calliopean. Outside of these Southerners there were
very few Democrats among the students, and I came very near being
drawn into the Calliopean, but happily escaped.