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Life of Walter Quintin Gresham, 1832-1895 online

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of Article 4 of the Constitution, we will have him up against
the Sommerset case, and with it as a premise we will control
the public opinion of Great Britain, and consequently her
government, against him."

Tracing his lineage back to the Mayflower, inheriting
a competency, a graduate of Harvard, with excellent pros-
pects for a valuable private practice and political prefer-
ment, both of which he gave up in order, as he said, to
represent three million human beings "who stood mute
within our civilization and our laws," Wendell Phillips
demonstrated he was the best informed and ablest lawyer
of his time. But a lawyer with a single client is always a
dangerous man in a community. If consideration for the
unfortunate whites, whose destiny for the time being at
least was tied up with the bondsmen, can be laid aside —
Walter Q. Gresham always kept them in mind^ — then the
advocate of unconditional and immediate abolition must be
rated the clearest sighted and boldest statesman America ever
produced. The distinction, as the Frenchman put it, is the
difference between "men of the nation and men of the bar."

From the time of the Prigg decision, Wendell Phillips
held Massachusetts as a legal entity out of the Union.
Jefferson Davis made that point in his farewell address in
1 86 1, and as a reason why the Southern brothers should be
permitted to depart in peace. He said that in 1850 he had
opposed the coercion Daniel Webster then exerted on the
people of Massachusetts. And so well did Webster, as
the head of the Fillmore administration, enforce the law,
that Wendell Phillips after a time advised the fugitives they
were no longer safe in Massachusetts, and unless they were
prepared to resist by taking human life, they should flee
to Canada.

ISee Chapters XVI and XIX, especially page 326.


Webster was a patriot when he forced South Carolina —
with the fiery Jackson making concessions — to live up to a
tariff law that bore heavily, but an apostate and Ichabod
when he made the people of Massachusetts — • the State that
seconded South Carolina's motion for a pro-slavery consti-
tution — obey the law of Congress passed in pursuance of
that constitution and warned Massachusetts what might
be the consequence of her disobedience.

The student had learned the ' 'hang' ' of the office under
the big elm tree with the reports and the briefs, when Daniel
Webster, a heartbroken man, on October 29, 1852, breathed
his last at Marshfield, to be vindicated even by Wendell
Phillips, as well as Abraham Lincoln. Webster's last words
were: "A few Abolitionists have more influence than I
and all the public men in America." Five months before
Webster's demise, Henry Clay had died, at the National
Hotel in Washington.

Long before Walter Q. Gresham formally began the study
of the law, he had read many of Webster's speeches. In
the log schoolhouse he had declaimed, as many another
schoolboy has done, before and since, that prayer of Webster
in his reply to Hayne : ' ' When my eyes shall be turned to
behold for the last time the sun in heaven, may I not see
him shining on the broken and dishonored fragments of a
once glorious union ; on states dissevered, discordant, bellig-
erent, on a land rent with civil feuds, or drenched, it may be,
in fraternal blood." History will rate Webster a great
statesman, as well as a great lawyer. ^

A thorough mastery of the pro-slavery provisions of the
Constitution of the United States, of the legislation and de-
cisions under it, and of the slave code of Kentucky, as a
part of his legal education, satisfied Gresham that the theory
of Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison, possibly
potential in the end, but harsh and cruel, was wrong. Their
first premise that slavery was immoral merely confirmed

iSee page 139,


his mother's teaching and the promptings of his own heart.
But their second premise^ and the Springville Resolutions
anticipated them by twenty years — that the Constitution
of the United States was per se a pro-slavery instrument,
did not support their conclusion that the Fugitive Slave
Law be defied and the Union destroyed. He was confirmed
in this by the opinion of John C. Calhoun, that the preser-
vation of the Union meant in time the extinction of slavery.

It was in those formative days that Walter Q. Gresham
learned, as he afterwards often remarked, that it was at
the Hartford convention of 1 814 that secession, at least in a
practical way, was first suggested, and this fact he always
afterwards kept in mind when considering the action of the
men who went into the rebellion.

The convictions of Henry Clay.^ as expounded by Daniel
Webster, he grasped as correct, namely, that if the Union
could be held together, the growth and development of the
country and pubUc opinion would, in time, bring about
the abolition of slavery without violence and bloodshed,
and with compensation to the slaveholders. In short,
Walter Q. Gresham never was an Abolitionist. Moreover,
he used his influence with the young men about Corydon
to abate the activities in the Underground Railroad. He
came to the conclusion then, as he afterwards maintained,
that a State, the same as an individual, whether an anti- or
a pro-slavery man, should obey the Federal power in the
exercise of all its legitimate functions. His pro-slavery
friends, his Kentucky friends, and the lawyers from Bran-
denburg down the river to Cloverport and back in the
State to Hardinsburg and Ehzabethtown, never doubted
his good faith when he told them that he was glad that
Indiana had no personal liberty laws on her statute books
such as those of Massachusetts. Because these laws were
unconstitutional and furnished a pretext for secession, he
was against them.

1 See page 139.







T17 ALTER Q. GRESHAM was reviewing his studies
* ' preparatory to admission to the bar when the country
was thrown into a frenzy by the Kansas-Nebraska Bill.
No measure was ever less understood, aroused greater
opposition, or was more far-reaching in its effects. To-day
the layman and the' publicist seem to be equally ignorant
as to what it really was and just how it operated.

January 23, 1854, Senator Stephen A. Douglas, as
chairman of the Committee on Territories of the United
States Senate, reported his third amended bill to, organize
the territory west of Missouri and Iowa — the remaining
portion of the Louisiana Purchase — into two territories,
Kansas and Nebraska, with or without slavery, as the
people might desire; because, as the bill declared. Section
8 of the Missouri Compromise, which prohibited slavery
north of the line 36° 30', the southern boundary line of
Kansas, was "inoperative" in that it was superseded by
the Compromise of 1850, which had refused to extend
the 36° 30' line to the coast; the purpose being, as the
bill declared, that "Congress shall neither legislate slavery
into any of the territories or States, nor out of the same;




but the people shall be left free to regulate their own do-
mestic concerns in their own way, subject only to the Con-
stitution of the United States."

As the bill finally emerged from the committee, Salmon
P. Chase, one of the anti-slavery leaders of the United
States Senate, and an Independent Democrat, as he styled
himself, denounced it as a gross violation of a sacred pledge,
and in an address previously prepared and that day started
broadcast over the land, called on the anti-slavery people
to defeat the purpose "to exclude from a vast unoccupied
region immigrants from the Old World and free laborers
from our own States, and convert it into a dreary region of
despotism, inhabited only by masters and slaves."

The law student at once wrote Senator Chase, which
started a correspondence that was kept up for years, and
perhaps accounts for the fact that in i860 Gresham was
for Chase rather than Mr. Lincoln in the nomination for

In the debate that followed, in the Spring of 1854, on the
Kansas-Nebraska Bill, Senators Chase, Seward, and Sum-
ner, representing the anti-slavery sentiment, and Senators
Bell, Huston, and Davis the pro-slavery side, the naoderates
and extremists were no match for Senator Douglas.

From the accepted doctrines that the people of the
States were accorded the right to determine their own
domestic concerns. Senator Douglas argued the same right
should be accorded the people of a territory, and they,
should begin to exercise that right as soon as the govern-
ment of the United States intrusted them with a territorial

When, later on, the practical operation of the Kansas-
Nebraska Bill was what neither the anti-slavery nor the pro-
slavery people expected, sides were changed. Among the
first to see the effect it would have — the making of Kansas
into a Free State — and to give his approval to the principle
upon which it was constructed, was Walter Q. Gresham.


By 1856 the extreme pro-slavery Secessionists, led by
Senator Robert L. Toombs of Georgia, Jjerceived what had
become plain to the young lawyer the year before, that
the practical workings of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill would
make of Kansas a Free State. It was for this reason that
W. L. Yancey and the extremists wanted to defeat Doug-
las's nomination, and especially to repudiate as a party
measure the doctrine of "Squatter Sovereignty."

In February, 1861, after the pro-slavery men had se-
ceded because Douglas held their party to what Mr. Lincoln
called "Squatter Sovereignty," aXRepublican Congress,
Charles Sumner and William H. Seward sitting mute, copied
the Kansas-Nebraska Bill verbatim in bills for the organiza-
tion of the territories of Colorado, Dakota, and Nevada.

In 1883, while Mr. Blaine was writing his " Twenty Years
in Congress," I heard him discuss the operation of the
Kansas-Nebraska Bill with Mr. Gresham in our library in
Washington. If, as Mr. Blaine says in his book, and as he
said to my husband, Charles Sumner, Salmon P. Chase,
and William H. Seward owed an apology to the memory of
Daniel Webster for the maledictions they heaped upon him
for his seventh of March speech, which was mainly in sup-
port of the proposition of the Compromise of 1850 to make
Utah and New Mexico territories with the right to adopt
or reject slavery, then it must be admitted, as my husband
said to Mr. Blaine, that much of the criticism in the year
1854, and afterwards, of Senator Douglas, was unjust, and
that history must, as it will, do him that justice which Mr.
Blaine does not accord him.

Senator Douglas could not have been ignorant of the
Springville Resolutions^ and the effect of Congress giving
them heed. But he never mentioned them. Disclaiming
all sympathy with the bondsman, was the lawyer's way of
advancing a principle of government that made for the
bondsman's freedom and caused Abraham Lincoln to de-
nounce him as the best Abolitionist of them all. It was

J See pages 2i and 22.


inside the ropes and under the Constitution of the United
States that Douglas fought.

In 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska Bill centered the atten-
tion of the people of the second Indiana congressional dis-
trict on their congressman, William H. English of Lexington,
Scott County, who was then serving his second term.
When, on May 2, the bill passed the House with many
Democratic votes against it, but with "Bill" English and
many Whig members from the South for it, an organiza-
tion at home was started to defeat Mr. English's re-elec-
tion. In this movement Walter Q. Gresham was partic-
ularly active. On August 30, 1854, a convention, which
was called "The People's Convention," assembled in New
Albany and nominated Thomas C. Slaughter, the senior
member of the firm of Slaughter and Gresham, as the Anti-
Nebraska candidate for Congress.

In addition to helping manage the Slaughter campaign,
Walter Q. Gresham became the Anti-Nebraska candidate
for prosecuting attorney for the Court of Common Pleas in
the district composed of the counties of Harrison, Crawford,
Orange, and Washington, against T. S. Ganiott. Much of
the time Mr. Slaughter was kept out of the contest because
of his ill health and on account of the illness and death of
his eldest son. Many of his appointments to speak were
filled by his young partner and George P. R. Wilson, a Ken-
tuckian who had come at an early date to Harrison County
and married a daughter of Spier Spencer, who fell at Tippe-
canoe while in command of the Harrison County troops
at that battle. Except when he was engaged in public
affairs Mr. Wilson lived on a large farm in the western part
of the county. He had then been a member of the Indiana
legislature for ten terms, and in 1845 had failed as a Whig
candidate for Congress when pitted against that remarkable
man, Robert Dale Owen, who as a Democrat in the midst
of the war advanced some of the most important arguments
for its prosecution to a finish.^

1 See page 200.


The masses of the Democrats at first looked on the
Kansas-Nebraska bill as a violation of the pledge embodied
in the Missouri Compromise; but party lines were strong,
William H. English was a good campaigner, and the people
easily led. The New Albany Ledger, in a leading editorial
June 2, 1854, denouncing the bill, concluded as follows:

"If it is to be organized it ought to be as a free territory.
It is a violation of twice-plighted faith for the benefit of a
presidential candidate and ought to fail." But on Septem-
ber 16 the same paper said: "When Mr. Slaughter says,
'We denounce the repeal of the Missouri Compromise by
the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, as a violation of
twice-pledged faith,' Mr. Slaughter says that for which he
has not a particle of reason or shadow of proof."

In this contest Judge Slaughter, who was a man of
singular purity of character, as well as of ability, came
nearer defeating Mr. English than ever happened in the
long career of the lattei- gentleman. Two years before,
Mr. English's majority was 2,500; that year he led Mr.
Slaughter by only 536. Democrats like Thomas A. Hen-
dricks, with good majorities behind them, were easily de-
feated that year. The Anti-Nebraska men had a majority of
11,000 in Indiana. There was an Anti-Nebraska majority
returned to the next Congress. Ganiott was elected prose-
cuting attorney, but young Gresham carried Harrison Coun-
ty by a vote of 1,328 to 1,276, the only candidate who did
so on the Anti-Nebraska ticket that year. Notwithstanding
the bitterness of the political contest, the acquaintance then
formed by young Gresham with William H. English ripened
into a friendship that was never afterwards broken. Of all
the Democrats that Indiana produced, Mr. English was,
in my judgment, the ablest. Less gifted than many others,
he surpassed them all in force and practical sense.

The year 1855 was marked by an epidemic of cholera
and by the ' ' Know-Nothing ' ' outbreak against the foreigners
and the Roman Catholics in Louisville. One morning early


in the summer I went to market with my mother, a negro
carrying our basket. As we passed along Market Street,
where the hacks stood, one of the drivers tumbled from his
box. The report at once spread that he was attacked with
Asiatic cholera. My mother hastened home and we were
all rushed off to Cedar Glade at Corydon, Before this,
the disease had made its appearance at many points on the
Ohio River. There were many deaths in Louisville and at
other places, and it was not until late in the fall that the
ravages of the plague were stopped.

The American or Know-Nothing party had prevailed in
m-any of the municipal elections throughout Kentucky in
the Spring of 1855. It was equally successful at the State
and congressional elections in August of that year. It
elected Governor Moorehead and a majority of the mem-
bers of Congress. Being a foreigner by birth, my father's
opposition to it was somewhat akin to its proscriptive
nature. He went from Corydon to Louisville to vote
against it at the August election, but the Know-Nothings
carried the day, which has gone into history as "Bloody
Monday." In Louisville there were riots in which a score
of men were killed and many more wounded.

Fortunately my father returned to Corydon before the
news of the riots reached us. The commotion which these
events created in a household such as ours can better be
imagined than told. For a time we were more frightened
at the word ' ' Know-Nothing ' ' than at the mention of the
Abolitionists. The impression produced on my father
was never effaced. The riots were described with great
detail, and we were told how George D. Prentice and Lovell
H. Rousseau saved the Irish from a general massacre and
the Catholic Cathedral from destruction by fire. My
father had always subscribed for the Journal, which George
D. Prentice had established years before as the Whig organ
but primarily in the interests of Henry Clay. When he
went over to the Democracy because of the Know-Nothing


craze, my father changed newspapers — stopped the Journal
and took the Courier, the Democratic organ. But after
"Bloody Monday," although the Courier continued to be
my father's paper, the Journal was invariably delivered at
the house and read by him, though there was much in the
charge of the Courier that it was Prentice's intemperate
editorials before and on the day of the election that had
brought about "Bloody Monday." ,

Following the excitement over the Know-Nothing riots
in Louisville, there was the greatest interest in Harrison
County, Indiana, over a local election, which brought home
not only to every voter but to every man, woman, and child
the Kansas-Nebraska trouble. In correspondence with the
young lawyer, Salmon P. Chase repeated the advice he had
urged upon the people of the United States in the debates
in the Senate the year before, that they manifest in every
concrete form possible their opposition to the plan, as he
claimed, of the Kansas-Nebraska bill to make Kansas a
Free State.

July I, 1855, the county commissioners of Harrison
County ordered a special election to be held on the isth of
October following, to fill vacancies in the offices of the
county clerk, county treasurer, and county commissioner.
Here was an opportunity for the young lawyer. Walter Q.
Gresham did not want the office of county clerk, as it would
take him out of the practice of his profession, but as a candi-
date for that office he would have an opportunity to organize
and advance the ideas of the men of the Anti-Nebraska
sentiment. He accepted the nomination on the Anti-
Nebraska ticket for clerk, with Hamilton Tressewriter for
treasurer, and Reuben W. Reynolds for commissioner.

The Democrats presented as their candidate for county
clerk, William H. McMahon, a worthy man. They nomi-
nated Samuel Douglass for treasurer and Jacob Tense for
commissioner. Mr. McMahon had been chief deputy clerk
for years, and as such had managed the office to the


satisfaction of everybody. He was a deservedly popular
man, but did not pretend to be a public speaker. So the
young lawyer challenged the Democrat lawyers to a joint de-
bate to discuss the Kansas-Nebraska bill. They appointed
Simeon K. Wolf, an ex- Whig and afterwards a Democratic
member of Congress, to meet him. They had a joint
debate in the public square in Corydon, and then met in
every schoolhouse in the county.

George P. R. Wilson could not be induced to join the
new political organization (it was not yet the RepubUcan
party and the name "Republican" was not heard that year
in Harrison County), but he volunteered to take the stump
for his yOung friend and against his old enemy, the Democ-
racy. He would not forgive the Abolitionists for their
denunciation of his idol, Henry Clay ; but he approved of all
the denunciation the Abolitionists could heap on the Demo-
cratic organization. Even in 1856 Mr. Wilson was still so
inoculated with the virus of slavery that he refused to join
the Republicans, and voted for Fillmore, the Know-Nothing
candidate for President. He died in 1857.

Great meetings were held in the woods, and the old and
the young man addressed them. Mr. Wilson is said to have
surpassed any of his previous efforts. As one enthusiast
said, who had frequently heard Mr. Clay speak, he equaled
Mr. Clay when the latter was at his best. The aid Mr.
Wilson thus rendered (and it was the only aid he received
on the stump in that contest) the young man never forgot.
Forty years later, out of a list of eligibles, he induced Presi-
dent Cleveland to advance one of George P. R. Wilson's
sons, a regular army officer in every way qualified, when
General Scofield, then in command of the army, urged the
promotion of another officer.

In his address, after reviewing all the historical and
legal objections to the system of African slavery that had
come to him from his Virginia and Kentucky ancestors, the
young man claimed that the discussion had been opened


by the Kansas-Nebraska bill on the theory. that it had been
necessary by the Compromise of 1850 to repeal the Missouri
Compromise, and that hence he was free to discuss and
criticize those provisions of the Compromise of 1850, namely,
those sections of the Fugitive Slave Law which bore so
harshly on the alleged fugitive and had no regard for the
sensibilities of those who thought slavery immoral and
wrong. He would accord to the master all his constitutional
rights. State laws that interposed obstacles to the master's
recovering his runaway slave were unconstitutional and
wrong and should be repealed, but the fugitive slave provi-
sion of the Constitution of the United States did not con-
template that Congress should offer a cheap bribe to a judi-
cial officer of the United States, either to do or fail to do his
duty, five dollars to a United States commissioner when he
set the black free but ten dollars when he certified him
into slavery. Neither did the framers of the Constitution
expect that the United States marshal would make every
man, regardless of his feelings, a "nigger catcher."

' ' If the negro was the same kind of property as a horse,
why was there not in the Federal Constitution some provi-
sion for the reclamation of runaway horses?" he asked.
The constitutional provision and the law of Congress to
enforce that "personal service" conclusively demonstrated
there could be "no such thing as property in man."

He further argued that while the Kansas-Nebraska bill
had not been passed in good faith, now that it operated con-
trary to the expectations of its author and his cohorts, it
was not being and would not be enforced in good faith by
the National administration, dominated as it was by the
slave power. He stated that only the preceding March
President Pierce had removed Governor Reeder, the first
governor of Kansas and the man he (Pierce) had appointed
under the Kansas-Nebraska act, because Reeder had set
aside the first election in Kansas for the reason that many
of the actual settlers of Kansas, anti-slavery men, had been


driven from the polls before they could vote, by border
ruffians from Missouri, who stuffed the ballot boxes and
then returned home. Mr. Gresham said: "I opposed the
Kansas-Nebraska bill, but now that I see how it operates,
I am for it. . The only way, my good honest Democratic
friends of warm and generous anti-slavery sentiments, to
free the Democratic organization from the control of the
slave power, is to vote it out of office."

In addition to the challenge to the Democratic laAvyers,
an offer was kept up to meet all comers in joint debate.
John Mathes, an auctioneer and a local celebrity, who had
been a member of the legislature and began all his speeches
with the statement, "I have voted for every Democratic
candidate for President from Andy Jackson down," named
Lowden's schcolhouse in Spencer Township as the place

Online LibraryMatilda GreshamLife of Walter Quintin Gresham, 1832-1895 → online text (page 8 of 39)