Henry G Wheeler.

History of Congress, biographical and political; comprising memoirs of members of the Congress of the United States drawn from authentic sources; (Volume 1) online

. (page 48 of 58)
Online LibraryHenry G WheelerHistory of Congress, biographical and political; comprising memoirs of members of the Congress of the United States drawn from authentic sources; (Volume 1) → online text (page 48 of 58)
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That she can point to many whose exterior, both in dress and
address, comes much nearer to what is termed a finished gen
tleman, no one will doubt. But where now is the man who
never lets a human being pass him unheeded ? whose ever-act
ive mind and ready talent can draw forth alike the budding
powers of childhood or those of ripened age ? who is ever ready
to aid, counsel, or direct, with wisdom, purse, or hand, his fel
low-man? Such a man was John Smith. With an address
which to a stranger appeared rough and rugged as the mount
ains which surround his native town, he possessed a heart as



inal power, practical wisdom, and judicial learning and acuteness ; surpassed in
the love of honor, justice, and truth, by none.

" He was bora at Peterborough, November 29th, 1759, and lived in Exeter from
1797 till a few months before his death at Dover, September 21st, 1842 ; always
most loved in those circles of domestic affection where he was beat known, and
always a Christian, both by his convictions and by the habits of a life protracted,
in extraordinary cheerfulness and energy, to above fourscore and two years."

Samuel, who continued to reside at Peterborough, and was
a representative in the thirteenth Congress, was another son.
John, the second, and the father of Robert, was another. He
was a farmer, unambitious of distinction, nearly the whole of
whose time was occupied with public business. He held the
offices of justice of the peace, selectman, county commissioner,
and representative to the general court. He settled most of
the estates of deceased persons in the town, laid out roads, was
one of the referees in all arbitrated controversies in his region,
and agent in one of the first factories established in New Hamp
shire. He died suddenly in August, 1821, having pitched vio
lently from the top of a cart-load of hay, and broken his neck.

John H. Morrison says of him (in his Life of Jeremiah Smith):

" He was for many years an able and influential member of
the New Hampshire Legislature. Notwithstanding the plain
ness of his speech and the pungency of his wit, he was a man
greatly honored and beloved, and his sudden and violent death
in August, 1821, caused a deep sensation of grief through the
whole community in which he lived. The present governor
of New Hampshire, John H. Steele, who always differed from
him in politics, has, with a warmth of feeling alike creditable
to both, thus described him :

" ' If Peterborough can boast of a better, more useful, bright
er, purer-hearted son than was John Smith, I know him not.
That she can point to many whose exterior, both in dress and
address, comes much nearer to what is termed a finished gen
tleman, no one will doubt. But where now is the man who
never lets a human being pass him unheeded ? whose ever-act
ive mind and ready talent can draw forth alike the budding
powers of childhood or those of ripened age ? who is ever ready
to aid, counsel, or direct, with wisdom, purse, or hand, his fel
low-man? Such a man was John Smith. With an address
which to a stranger appeared rough and rugged as the mount
ains which surround his native town, he possessed a heart as



tender and as pure as ever animated the breast of man. To
him I owe more than I can express. He was not only a friend,
but a father. He taught me to believe that there is nothing
impossible nothing that a willing mind and active hand can
not accomplish. I yet seem to hear his voice reproving me for
saying ' / can not do it /' * Why don't you try,' he would say,
i and not stand there looking as if you were in a trance?' "

The mother of Robert Smith was the daughter of David and
Janet Steele. The family of that name had been somewhat
distinguished in New Hampshire for the conspicuous part which
several of its members had at different times borne in the pub
lic affairs. She had seven children, three daughters and four
sons, of which latter Robert was the second. We will speak
of him, in mere personal matters, as if he were himself address
ing our readers. Thus :

" I was put to work very young to such work as boys in
New England usually do driving the cows to and from pas
ture, running of errands, and waiting upon the men about the
farm. One kind of service I well recollect that was, riding
horse to plow stony ground, and being thrown over the horse's
head many times during the day by the plow striking a rock.
I worked very steadily until sixteen years of age, going to a
district school, in the winter, generally three months, working
night and morning, taking care of the stock, and chopping
wood to keep the fires. This last item, in a large, old-fashion
ed New England house, was no holiday sport. From fifteen to
nineteen I took the entire charge of my father's farm, which
was somewhat extensive. As early as the age of twelve to
fourteen, I used to take three yoke of oxen, and a pair of horses
on the lead, with a wood-sled, and go to the woods a distance
of a mile and a half on the coldest days in winter, with snow
three feet deep on the ground, and haul wood, having a man in
the woods to chop and help load. At fourteen, ' solitary and
alone,' I was sent, with a four-horse team, from Peterborough
to Nashua and Boston, for large loads of cotton for the factory
for which my father was agent. At eighteen I studied mathe
matics, a favorite branch of knowledge with me, under Daniel
M. Christie, then a law-student in Peterborough. I believe I
had credit for being as thorough in that branch as the majority
of college graduates. This, with three months at the New Jps-


wich Academy, under the superintendence of A. Eades, com
pleted my education.

" While I was at this academy being then nineteen years
of age application was made to Mr. Eades for a teacher for
one of the district schools in Dublin, where his brother had
been employed for a number of years. Mr. Eades recommend
ed me to the district. The school continued three months, and,
so far as I could learn, I gave entire satisfaction to parents
and scholars. This I considered almost a miracle, as a large
number of my pupils were greatly my seniors, and many of
them really, in some branches, better scholars than myself.

" In the spring of 1822, after the close of my school, I went
into the machine-shop of my uncle, Samuel Smith, of Peter
borough, to learn the trade of building machinery for the man
ufacture of cotton cloth. In this employment I continued until
the death, in October, of my eldest brother John, who, with
Thomas Baker and John Cavender, had the previous year com*
menced the building of a cotton factory in Northfield, on the
Winnipisiogee River, near the point where, uniting with the
Pemigewasset, the two rivers form the Merrimack. Immedi
ately after the death of my brother, his partners proposed that
I should take his place in the firm, and accordingly, in Novem
ber, 1822, at the age of twenty, I became a member of the
company subsequently known as the Smithville Manufacturing
Company. At this time we had a store at Salisbury Village.
I remained in the store until the spring of 1823, when I went
into the machine-shop again, and worked in that department'
until the machinery required for our purposes was built and put
in operation. I then went into the manufacturing department,
where I remained until I made myself acquainted with the en
tire process of converting the raw cotton into cloth. Soon after
the factory was put into operation, we built a store in the im
mediate vicinity, and I then took the general superintendence
both of the store and factory. I had here a good school in
which to study human nature, and I learned much that has
been useful to me in my subsequent intercourse with the world
During the summer of 1824, 1 confined myself so closely to busi
ness that my health failed, and in October of that year I took
passage from Boston in a merchant ship and went to Savannah.
I made a short stay there, and then took a seven-by-nine steam-


boat for Purysburg, on the Savannah River. Though the dis
tance was less than thirty miles, we were nearly all day in
'making it.' From that place I traveled by land through the
State of South Carolina to Augusta, Georgia, and after having
remained there some weeks I went to Charleston, where I spent
the residue of the winter.

" In the spring of 1825, my health having been perfectly re
stored, I returned home, and resumed my position in the firm.
Society at Salisbury Village and Northfield was not at that
time, perhaps, as refined as in some portions of New England.
There existed a strong opposition to liberal preaching, and
dancing was looked upon with holy horror. I had many wordy
wars with some of the old citizens on these points, and may
have been in some degree instrumental in producing a more tol
erant religious feeling in the community, and in dispelling the
bigoted prejudice against dancing.

" In 1826, our company found itself laboring under great dis
advantages by reason of owning property and doing business in
three towns, all within the distance of half a mile. This led
to efforts to erect a new town out of the three and one other,
namely, Salisbury, Andover, Northfield, and Sandborton. The
members of the Legislature from all these towns were strongly
opposed to the creation of a new one, as it would diminish the
importance of their own. The first effort, made in 1826, was
not successful. It was not, in all respects, judiciously directed.
In 1828 I thought I saw a fair opportunity to accomplish the
object. The effort was again made, and I may say, without
vanity, that my plan of operations secured a successful result.
At no period of my life, perhaps, did I perform more severe la
bor than during the struggle for the passage of an act creating
the town of Franklin. All the towns out of which it was carved
were Democratic. The members representing them were vio
lently opposed to us, and brought party influence to bear against
us. Thus thrown into collision, we were forced to oppose them,
and we did so. Matters growing out of this controversy gov
erned my votes while I resided there, and, consequently, I was
classed by many of my friends as anti-Democratic. I have al
ways claimed to be a Democrat, and have always advocated
those measures which tended to give the largest liberty to the
masses. While I remained in Franklin, no man who had op-


posed the creation of the town, or who was warmly the friend
of those who did oppose it, was elected to the Legislature from
that town. But, the year afterward, the tables were turned.

"In 1827 I went to Commencement at Hanover, and you
may recollect to have heard me relate the incident which oc
curred with my cousin, Albert Smith, a former graduate, when,
leaving me to take his place with his class in the procession, he
expressed his regret that, being an entire stranger, I could not
accompany him.

"Having first given a maturer aspect to my appearance by
putting on a pair of double green spectacles, I took my place in
the procession among strangers of distinction, and passed by
my cousin, who stood with his hat under his arm, while I mov
ed on to a distinguished seat in the hall. This was one of the
few occasions of my life when impudence got the better of that
extreme diffidence which you know to be natural to me.

" On that trip I went to Saratoga Springs and New York
City, and was at Commencement at New Haven.

" During the same year I first met with the young lady who
subsequently became my wife Sarah Perkins Bingham, daugh
ter of Vine Bingham, of Lempster, New Hampshire. She vis
ited the factory in company with some other young ladies ; I
was introduced to her, and my destiny was at once decided.
We were married in November, 1828. I have now living a
son and a daughter.

"I had always felt a strong predilection for the South or
West, and in 1830 I retired from the Smithville Manufac-.
turing Company, preparatory to making arrangements for my
emigration westward. I improved the time that elapsed be
tween this decision and my departure in reading Blackstone's
Commentaries, and other elementary works upon law, under the
idea that possibly I might pursue the study of that profession
with a view hereafter to its practice. In 1831 1 made a journey
to Michigan in company with my cousins James and J. A.
Smith, of Cavendish, Vermont, James Walker, of Peterbor
ough, and some four other gentlemen. We had a very pleas
ant trip, although attended by some hardships. Most of the
country through which we passed was new, and the traveling
very bad. After we left Ann Arbor, the country could hardly
be said to be settled at all. We generally managed to find some


House or cabin to stop in over night. At Bronson, now the
county seat of Kalamazoo county, we had great difficulty in
getting our wagon over the Kalamazoo River, there being then
no such thing as flat-boats in that region. We had to put our
wagon into two dug-outs in order to cross. I purchased some
lands at the land-sale at White Pigeon Prairie, at the first sale
held there. I did not, however, like Michigan well enough to
settle there ; there was too much low, marshy ground to suit
me ; and before leaving that territory I determined to go to Illi
nois, believing then that it would be a more eligible state to
settle in than Michigan. Besides, I preferred a more southern
climate, and in April, 1832, I left with my wife, her mother,
and brother for Illinois. At the time I left, very little was known
in my section of country in relation to the West. My friends
all remonstrated against our departure. They regarded that
distant region as being out of the world or, at any rate, out
of civilization. Few of them ever expected to see us again ;
and very many never expected to hear from us, or of us, un
less it was, perchance, to hear that we had been blown up by
a steamboat, or tomahawked by the Indians. Our journey,
however, was made without any accident, and we arrived in St.
Louis in the latter part of June.

" After remaining there a week, we moved to Upper Alton,
Illinois. We knew no one there, nor was there a single per
son within two hundred miles whom I had ever seen before.
I had very little capital to begin with. The only tenement to
be had at that time was a log house of one story and a half,
containing only one room sixteen by twenty, and with open
ings between the logs large enough to throw a cat through.
Lower Alton contained but few houses, and Upper Alton some-
ten or a dozen. I had carried with me a few goods, and I
opened them in the old post-office building, my store being op
posite to the only other one in the town, that of Messrs. Gil-
rnan and Long. I took no furniture with me. I found a few
hickory-bottomed chairs at Lower Alton, which was the only
furniture to be found in either of the two towns. We used
two chairs and a box-lid as a table upon which to spread our
meals until we got a carpenter to make us one, and this was
the first table ever made in either Alton. St. Louis was then
a small place, and business very flat there. I selected Alton


as a good geographical location, believing then, as I have be
lieved ever since, that if an enlightened and liberal policy had
been pursued, it would at least have rivaled St. Louis, if not
gone ahead of it.

" There being but little business in the mercantile line at
that time, I found myself with a good deal of leisure, and, wish
ing, to know something about the land-owners in the region of
Alton, I went to the land-office at Edwardsville, and procured
maps of all the surrounding country, with the names of the
owners written thereon. This enabled me to know more in re
lation to the lands in the vicinity than many persons who had
lived there fifteen years. The consequence was, that all per
sons wishing to enter lands came to me to procure information
about them. I was fortunate in making friends, and sold more
goods than my neighbors. A vacancy happening in the militia
company from the precinct composed of Upper Alton and
Wood River in the fall of 1832, I was elected captain by all
the votes of the company except two, notwithstanding that I
had, against the custom of the company, refused to declare my
self a candidate.

"For the first few years of my residence in Alton, lawyers
then being scarce, I frequently volunteered, i without money
and without price,' to help my neighbors out of their difficul
ties in little controversies before the magistrates of the precinct.
I met with considerable success? . I was applied to for legal
advice oftener, perhaps, than all the lawyers in my end of the
county. The reason, I presume, was, that I took no fees, but
did every thing gratis ; and I always made it a rule of action
to advise adjustment of the controversy in the first instance,
without resort to the courts of law.

" Soon after my arrival at Alton, I purchased, in company
with my brother-in-law, J. L. Bingham, a tract of land known
as the Middletown tract, lying between Upper and Lower Al
ton, and containing about ninety acres. I believed that if Al
ton should ever become a considerable town, this would be very
valuable property. I also bought lands from time to time, as
desirable opportunities presented themselves, until my pur
chases amounted to about four thousand acres. Many of these
lands were in the immediate vicinity of Alton, and some of them
heavily timbered. I employed a large number of hands during


the fall and winter in chopping wood to supply the Alton mar
ket and the steamboats, and occasionally sending by flat-boats
to the St. Louis market. I also cleared up a good deal of land,
and made several small farms, which were worked chiefly by

" In 1835, Lower Alton having begun to make rapid im
provement, my brother-in-law and myself thought it best to lay
the land out into building-lots. We did so, calling the town Mid-
dletown: it has since been called Middle Alton. In order to
give value to this property, I found it necessary to build a road
between the two towns of Alton. This was a very heavy job,
the ground being rough and broken. After procuring some
small contributions from owners of property in the vicinity who
were to be benefited by the construction of the road, I expend
ed, in addition to these sums, about two thousand dollars in cut
ting through the hills and filling up the hollows. The road,
while in process of construction, excited a good deal of curiosi
ty among the people, being the first work of the kind in that
region of country. It was a novel spectacle to see excavations
through the hills to the depth of some thirty feet, and the con
jectures as to their object, at the commencement of the work,
were various. In 1835 and 36 I built a number of small houses
in Middletown to rent, and by this means and the building of
the road, gave some notoriety to the town and some value to the
lots. For instance : an acre of this land, which I purchased in
1832 at eight dollars, I sold in 1837 for two thousand. Dur
ing the years 1835, 6, 7, and 8, I also built rather extensively
in Upper Alton, and put up a large livery stable, besides a two-
story double house. I may, perhaps, truly say, that from my
first settlement in Alton down to 1838 or 1840, I carried on
more operations, and did more to give life and energy to busi
ness, and prosperity to the town, than any other person in it.
In any event, I presume all would admit that I did more ac
cording to my means than any other person. I devoted myself
exclusively to business, not even participating in any of those
hunting or fishing excursions which are so common in the West
ern country. I realized what in our new country was considered
a fortune ; but, by lending my name to every one who asked it ;
by trusting implicitly to the honesty of all men ; and, finally,
by means of the revulsion which prostrated the business and


prosperity of the country in 1840, 41, and 42, 1 lost all my pos
sessions in a much shorter space of time than that in which I had
obtained them. These reverses, however, have never caused
me the loss of an hour's sleep, nor have I ever relaxed my ex
ertions to recover from the pecuniary losses I have sustained.
Acting upon the principle that nothing is accomplished while
any thing remains to be done, I have always felt confident that,
so long as I enjoyed the blessing of health, I could provide the
means requisite to supply the moderate wishes of myself and
my family.

" In the spring of 1834, the Wood River people brought me
out, against my convictions of policy or propriety, as a candi
date for the Legislature. I urged, with other objections, my
short residence among them. They answered that I had done
more since my residence there to promote their interests than
any other man, no matter how long his residence might have
been ; and they held themselves especially bound to me be
cause, in the summer of 1833, I had fortunately been instru
mental in raising the price of wheat. I had chartered Collet's
Mill, on Rattan's Prairie, where I had wheat ground into flour
for market, and brought up the price from thirty-seven and a
half to fifty cents per bushel. I had influential competitors,
and lost the election through some friend of one of the other
candidates, who stated at two of the precincts most remote
from my place of residence that I had declined running. At
the three precincts nearest me, I ran more than one hundred
votes ahead of the highest candidate elected."

Having now brought Mr. Smith on to the beaten track, we
proceed in the usual form.

In 1836 he was elected to the Legislature from Madison
county, having received a vote over his competitors ranging
from one hundred and twenty-five to three hundred. At the
session which followed, he voted for the internal improvement
system of his state, against his own convictions of its policy,
but in obedience to what he considered instructions. He saw
that there were no means of resisting a mammoth system ; and
it gave to his constituents so large a share of its contemplated
benefits, that they would summarily have set aside any repre
sentative who had voted against it. At the special session of
July, 1837, to which we have elsewhere adverted, he resisted


bank suspension. Before leaving home, suggestions, looking to
instructing him to vote for suspension, had been made, which
he met with the declaration that, if unconditionally instructed to
give such a vote, he would resign his seat. Instructions were
drawn up and circulated for a time, but were finally withdrawn.

In 1838 he was again elected, under circumstances in which
the attempt on his part seemed almost without hope. At this
session he exerted himself to prevent the diversion of the term
inating point of the Cumberland Road to St. Louis, its termi
nation at Alton being a favorite measure with his constituents.
Strong efforts had been made to give it the other direction.

In 1840 he was elected enrolling and engrossing clerk of the
House of Representatives of Illinois, and again in 1842, with
out opposition.

In the spring of 1843 the state was newly districted. He
was nominated for Congress on the first ballot over two formi
dable candidates, and was elected to the twenty-eighth Con
gress by a majority of seventeen hundred and seventy-eight
votes. The majority would have reached three thousand but
for a local difficulty. He was again elected to the twenty-ninth
Congress by a majority of nearly four thousand votes, though
opposed by a very popular gentleman who had formerly repre
sented the district in Congress, who ran as an independent can
didate, and who was sustained by the opposite party ; and he
was again elected to the thirtieth Congress by a majority of
upward of two thousand votes, under circumstances of great

He believes himself at this time to have had more and firmer
friends in his district than he had had at any period since his
first election. Nevertheless, early in the last summer, from a
generous motive, which is known to us, and which will soon
be made manifest, he declared his intention not to be a candi
date for re-election. This determination has not been received
without murmurs by many of those friends whose confidence
he has so long enjoyed, whose interests he has so faithfully rep
resented, and to whose business concerns, in the departments
and elsewhere, he has, in a degree never perhaps surpassed, la

Online LibraryHenry G WheelerHistory of Congress, biographical and political; comprising memoirs of members of the Congress of the United States drawn from authentic sources; (Volume 1) → online text (page 48 of 58)