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(/I *^^ death of George F. Edmunds at Pasa-
V I y dena, California, February 27, 1919 ended
i^ the career of the man who may be ranked,
when all circum,stances are considered, as the most
distinguished of the sons whom Vermont has sent
directly into the public service of the Nation. Dur-
ing his long and useful life, covering more than
ninety-one years, he saw a wonderful transforma-
tion in his own country and in the world. When he
was born the area of the United States included
the region north of Texas and east of the Rocky
Mountains, the title to Oregon Territory not having
been established. There were only two States west
of the Mississippi River, Louisiana and Missouri.
During the life of Senator Edmunds, as Vermonters
had been accustomed to call him for more than fifty
years, the number of States had increased from
twenty-three to forty-eight, and the population of
our country from 4,000,000 to more than 100,000,000.
Great cities like Chicago, St. Louis and San Fran-
cisco had grown from, nothing during his lifetime.
When he was born John Quincy Adams was Presi-
dent of the United States and Ezra Butler was
Governor of Vermont. The span of his life, there-
fore, included the administrations of twenty-two of
the twenty-seven Presidents of the United States

Page Seven



and forty-eight of the fifty-seven Governors of
Vermont. Nearly all of the great inventions that
are now a part of our daily life, the steamboat
excepted, have been discovered since his birth, and
many volumes would be required to record the
social, industrial and political transformations of the
world during that period.

George Franklin Edmunds was born in Rich-
mond, Vermont, February 1, 1828. Both his
maternal and paternal grandparents were Rhode
Island Quakers, or Friends, the former belonging
to the Orthodox faith and the latter to the Hick-
site denomination. In 1826 his parents removed
from the Berkshires, Massachusetts, to Richmond,
and purchased a large farm on the Winooski River,
about two miles above the village, where their son
George was born. The only children in the family
were this son and an older sister, who afterward
became Mrs. A. B. Maynard. The local district
school was on this farm, and there Mr. Edmunds
began his education at a very early age. He grew
up a slender boy, lacking the health and strength
of the average country lad. He was taught the
various things that a boy on a farm should know,
his parents carefully guarding his precarious health.
His sports were hunting, trout fishing, riding farm
horses and breaking colts, and altogether his
boyhood was a happy one. About the year 1840
the farm was sold and the family moved to the

Page Eight



village, where, with his sister, George attended a
select school taught by a capable man. A year or
two later he was sent to Burlington to attend an
academy in preparation for college. In a few weeks
his health became impaired and a long illness
followed, necessitating the abandonment of a college
career. He had lessons in Latin and French from
his brother-in-law, A. B. Maynard, a college man,
and studied for one winter in a private school for
boys at Troy, N. Y. Early in the summer of 1845
he returned home, glad, as he said, "to be with the
family, the mountains and neighborhood friends."
In a letter written a few years ago, Mr. Edmunds
said of this period : "That summer I drove with one
horse and a Concord wagon to the White Mountains,
having previously, with other boys, climbed Camel's
Hump and Mansfield, and thus taken a chronic
mountain fever which has lasted me to this day,
carrying my family and myself from our own Green
Mountains to the white peaks of Switzerland and
northern Italy, and the Rocky and Coast Mountains
of the Pacific."

Mr. Edmunds began the study of law in the
office of his brother-in-law, but being threatened
with tuberculosis, he spent the winter of 1845-46
in Washington, for the benefit of his health. He
continued his studies there and had access to the
Law Library of the United States Supreme Court.
It was his privilege to hear cases argued by some

Page Nine



of the great leaders of the American Bar (a dis-
tinction which he was himself to win in later years),
among them being arguments by Daniel Webster,
Rufus Choate and John Van Buren, in the famous
"Passenger Case." In a letter to the writer of
this article Mr. Edmunds related the following
incident of this winter in Washington: "On one
occasion, while reading in the Law Library, I had
what was, to my youthful imiagination, the greatest
honor of my life, in showing to Mr. Webster and
Mr. Van Buren, who came into the Library where
I was sitting reading "Stephens' Pleadings," a
passage in the book settling a point of law they
were disputing in their conversation. With some
trepidation, and an apology, I handed the book to
Mr. Webster, who, having read the paragraph,
smiled, rose and said to me in his deep, soft tones,
'Young man, I thank you'."

In the spring of 1846 he returned home and
continued his law studies with Mr. Maynard until
1848, when he went to Burlington to be a student
clerk in the law office of David A. Smalley and Ed-
ward J. Phelps, both eminent lawyers. Early in the
year 1849 Mr. Edmunds was admitted to the Bar and
returned to Richmond to become a partner of his
brother-in-law. The following year he removed to
Burlington and became the partner of Charles D.
Kasson, who died within a year. He speedily built
up a lucrative practice at a time when the Burling-

Page Ten



ton Bar included such eminent men as David A.
Smalley, Edward J. Phelps, Levi Underwood and
L. E. Chittenden.

In 1852 he married Susan Marsh Lyman,
daughter of Wyllys Lyman, and a niece of George
P. Marsh, then United States Minister to Turkey.
Mrs. Edmunds was a woman of great refinement
and intelligence, and during their married life of
more than sixty years, Mr. Edmunds consulted her
in all matters of importance, relying upon her rare
judgment and depending largely upon her advice.
Two daughters were born to Mr. and Mrs. Edmunds,
one of whom. Miss Mary, is now living at Pasadena,
California. Miss Julia died in 1882. Mrs. Edmunds
died August 24, 1916.

Beqinning of His Public Career

Mr. Edmunds' first public service was the
performance of the duties of Moderator of the
Burlington town meeting in March, 1854. Later
that year he was elected as Representative from
Burlington to the State Legislature, being the can-
didate of the younger element in local politics. This
office, and all that he subsequently held, came with-
out any seeking on his part, either directly or
indirectly. State elections were then held annually,
and Mr. Edmunds was re-elected to the House each
year from 1855 to 1859. In 1855 he was made

Page Eleven



chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and in 1857,
1858 and 1859 he was elected Speaker.

In 1861-62 he served in the State Senate, being
chairman of the Judiciary Committee and President
pro tempore of the Senate. As a member of the
Legislature he won distinction as a painstaking
and careful legislator, who gave diligent attention
to every detail of business.

During the Civil War an old shoemaker in
Jericho, whose name was similar to that of a man
who had expressed his sympathy for the Southern
cause, was arrested by the United States Marshal
and confined in the Chittenden County jail. Mr.
Edmunds acted as counsel for the prisoner and
applied to Judge Smalley of the United States
District Court for a writ of habeas corpus, which
he obtained, directing the Marshal to produce the
prisoner in court. The IVIarshal was instructed
from Washington to refuse to execute the writ, to
hold the prisoner, and to send the name of the
attorney to Washington. When the Legislature
convened Mr. Edmunds, then a member of the State
Senate, introduced a resolution asking an investi-
gation of the imprisonment of this harmless and
innocent old man. This action of Mr. Edmunds
was furiously denounced and the resolution received
only the vote of the man who introduced it. A
little later the Marshal was directed to release the
prisoner.

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For the next few years Mr. Edmunds devoted
himself to his large law practice. Following the
St. Albans Raid of 1864, when armed Confederates
from Canada invaded Vermont and looted the
banks of St. Albans, Mr. Edmunds was sent to Mon-
treal by Secretary of State William H. Seward to
obtain the extradition of the raiders on charges of
murder and robbery. The Canadian courts, however,
held that these crimies were acts of war. Mr.
Ednnunds at once notified the State Department of
the condition of affairs and recommended a strict
blockade of the Canadian border. This policy was
adopted and was strictly enforced. As a result the
Canadian government adopted a more reasonable
attitude, and reimbursed the banks for the money
stolen by the raiders.

Appointed Senator

The death of Senator Solomon Foot, March 28,
1866, necessitated the filling of the vacancy by the
Governor, the H^onorable Paul Dillingham. At this
time the Senate and President Johnson were at odds
and the Republican majority needed every vote it
could command in the Senate. Governor Dilling-
ham had decided to fill the vacancy without delay,
and on his return from attending Senator Foot's
funeral at Rutland, he stopped at Burlington, April 3,
and sent a note to Mr. Edmunds asking him to
come to the American House. The two men had

Page Thirteen



served together in the Legislature and had been
fellow members of the Judiciary Committee. When
the message came Mr. Edmunds was at his homo
in consultation with a Boston client, going over the
papers and evidence in an important railroad case.
Ke responded to the summons, however, and was
offered the appointment as United States Senator.
Although Mr. Edmunds knew that some of his
friends might suggest his name, he had no expecta-
tion that he would be appointed. He was reluctant
to abandon his law practice, which was his only
means of support, and his family was in New York
for the winter, where one of his daughters was
receiving medical treatment. The Governor, how-
ever, was urgent not only that he should accept
the appointment, but also that he should leave the
next day for Washington. President Johnson had
vetoed an important bill and the votes of both
Vermont Senators were needed.

With much solicitude as to how he should
succeed, he accepted, and left the following day for
the national capital. His credentials were presented
by Senator Poland, and he took his seat on April 5,
1866, at the age of thirty-eight years, being, with
one exception, the youngest member of the body.
On April 6, the Civil Rights bill, vetoed by President
Johnson, came up in the Senate and was passed over
the veto with not a vote to spare. Without the vote
of Senator Edmunds it would have failed. He was

Page Fourteen



assigned, according to custom, to minor committee
places, Pensions and Commerce being the commit-
tees on which he began his work.

One week after he entered the Senate he paid
a brief but beautiful tribute to his predecessor at
a memorial service held in honor of Senator Foot. On
April 18, less than two weeks after he had taken his
seat, a bill came up relating to the habeas corpus
act, to which Senator Edmunds offered several
amendments. His argument showed profound legal
knowledge, a thorough mastery of the subject and
great skill in the running fire of debate which fol-
lowed. The late Benjamin F. Fifield of Montpelier
informed the writer that this first speech of the
new Vermont Senator created a deep and lasting
impression in the Senate and at once gave him a
high standing among his colleagues. In preparing
for the case involving the Jericho shoemaker, to
which previous reference has been made, Mr.
Edmunds had familiarized himself thoroughly with
the history of the habeas corpus privilege both in
England and in America, and was well equipped for
such a discussion.

On April 25, only twenty days after he entered
the Senate, Mr. Edmunds made a powerful and
eloquent speech on a bill providing for the admission
of Colorado as a State. It was with difficulty that
two-thirds of the voting strength of the Senate was
obtained on measures which must be passed over

Page Fifteen



President Johnson's veto, and the addition of two
Senators to the Republican column would have been
n^ost welcome. The State Constitution, however,
contained a clause granting the right of suffrage
only to white persons. Senator Edmunds opposed
the passage of the bill on account of what he be-
lieved to be this unjust provision, asserting that
Vermont from: its foundation tolerated no distinc-
tions of race or color in the granting of this right.
As he concluded this speech Charles Sumner arose
and said : "I cannot forbear returning my thanks to
the Senator from Verm/)nt for the noble utterance
that we have heard from him. He has reminded
you of the true principles upon which you are to
pass. He has held up before you the dignity of the
occasion, and has rallied the Senate to its duty. I
thank him, sir. His speech ought to produce an
effect on his associates in this Chamber. It ought
to remind them that there is a truth which cannot
be put aside for any temporary expediency. I am
grateful to the Senator for the speech he has made.
I think the Senate will do well to sleep upon it
tonight, to reflect upon it, and when they come here
tomorrow to do their duty in maintaining those
principles which he has so clearly advocated." Com-
ing from such an eminent leader as Mr. Sumner,
this was, indeed, a remarkable tribute to be paid
to a young man, unknown outside his own State,

Page Sixteen



v'ho had served less than three weeks in that
distinguished body.

Rapid Rise in the Senate

Probably in the entire history of the American
Senate there have been few men, coming into that
Chamber unknown to the country at large, who
gained a position of influence as speedily as did
George F. Edmunds. James G. Blaine in his
"Twenty Years of Congress" alludes to this fact,
and Mr. Blaine was by no means an ardent admirer or
close friend of the Vermont Senator. Before he
had served a year in the Senate he was taking such
a prominent part in the debates that James Ford
Rhodes, the eminent historian, quotes from his
speeches in describing the period following the
Civil War. In December, 1866, Senator Edmunds
had charge of and explained the features of the
Tenure of Office Bill.

When arrangements were made for the trial
of President Andrew Johnson before the Senate
to answer to impeachment charges preferred by
the House, Mr. Edmunds was made chairman of a
committee to arrange rules of procedure in the
Senate and, in conjunction with Chief Justice Sal-
mon P. Chase of the United States Supreme Court,
who was to preside at the trial, established the rules
as they appear in the official records. It may be
unnecessary again to call attention to the rapid

Page Seventeen



rise of Senator Edmunds to a position of leadership,
but it is indeed remarkable that a man who had
been in the Senate less than two years should be
chosen for such a difficult and responsible task.
Senator Edmunds and his colleague from Vermont
v(;ted to impeach President Johnson. In a letter
written in 1913, and printed in the "Century," Mr.
Edmunds expressed the opinion that the failure
to impeach President Johnson was due in part, at
least, to a belief that Senator Wade of Ohio, Presi-
dent pro tempore of the Senate, who would have
succeeded to the Presidency, was not in all respects
a proper man for the office, and that had Senator
Frelinghuysen or Senator Harlan been President
of the Senate, Mr. Johnson would have been re-
moved.

Before the electoral votes cast in 1868 were of-
ficially counted. Senator Edmunds, on February 8,
1869, introduced a resolution relating to the vote of
the State of Georgia. In this connection Rhodes says :
''Edmunds was one of the best lawyers in the Senate,
and to settle the difficult question had proposed the
plan which followed the precedents of 1821 and 1837
in the cases of Missouri and Michigan." Rhodes
frequently refers to the part taken by Senator
Edmunds in the great debates of the Reconstruction
period, mentioning his clear legal mind and his
power of sarcasm. Writing of the Ku-Klux Bill,
which was pending in 1871, this eminent historian

Page Eighteen



says: "The Senate Committee on the Judiciary was
a strong body. Of the seven who composed it five
were excellent lawyers, Trumbull (the chairman),
Edmunds, Conkling, Carpenter and Thurman. As
one surveys in retrospect the able men of the legal
profession who have adorned the Senate, one would
hesitate to affirm that, excepting Webster, Calhoun
and Fessenden, greater adepts in constitutional law
have argued in that arena of debate than Trum-
bull, Edmunds and Thurman." Trumbull and Thur-
man opposed the Ku-Klux Bill. Edmunds reported
it from the Judiciary Committee and in closing
the debate "made a powerful legal argument in its
support." And this remarkable tribute is paid to
a man who was still a new Senator as terms of
service ordinarily are considered in that body.

Later, Senator Edmunds proposed amend-
ments to the Colorado Bill and to one admitting
the Territory of Nebraska as a State, which pro-
vided that a condition of admission should be
suffrage rights which did not discriminate on
account of race or color. In a private letter Senator
Edmunds alluded to the fact that Senator Wade
of Ohio lectured him rather roughly for the objec-
tion he had raised, saying that this course was
like shaking a red rag at a bull, and that there was
no danger that slavery would be established by
the people of Colorado. Mr. Edmunds insisted,

Page Nineteen



however, and aided by Senator Sumner and others
secured the amendment he desired.

Chairman of Judiciary Committee

Senator Edmunds' committee assignments in a
few years were made more desirable. As a result
of his demonstrated legal ability he was soon
assigned to the Committee on the Judiciary and a
little later to the Committee on Appropriations. In
1871 he was chairman of the Committee on Pensions
and in 1872 was made chairman of the Committee
on the Judiciary, a position which he held with great
distinction during the remainder of his service in
the Senate, with the exception of the period from
1879 to 1881, when the Democrats were in control
and his intimiate friend, Senator Thurman of Ohio,
held the position. During the later years of his
senatorial career he was a member of the Com-
mittee on Foreign Relations. It is not often that a
small State exerts such an influence in national
affairs as did Vermont during the long period when
the chairmanships of the powerful Committees on
the Judiciary and on Finance were held, respectively,
by Senator Edmunds and Senator Morrill.

After the first two or three years of Senator
Edmunds' term he was generally regarded as one
of the leading members of the Senate and the "Con-
gressional Record" shows that he participated
actively and helpfully in the consideration of most

Page Twenty



of the important measures that came before that
body. It is said that President Grant depended
much upon him for advice. Rhodes says, however,
that Edmunds and Sherman could not be classed as
"thick and thin supporters" of the Administration;
that they were "statesmen of a high order," and not
mere politicians. Senators Edmunds and Morrill
voted against one of Grant's pet measures, the annex-
ation of San Domingo.

In his "Men and Memories" John Russell Young,
a famous journalist, said of President Grant; "The
friends, however, whose advice had most weight
with him in doing his country splendid service,
were Hamilton Fish, Senator Edmunds of Vermont,
and Mr. (George W.) Childs. I say this upon the
authority of General Grant himself."

Early in Grant's first term he offered Senator
Edmunds the position of Judge of the Circuit Court
for the second United States circuit, comprising
Vermont, Connecticut and New York. He was
strongly tempted to accept, as he liked the law, but
knowing that he must live in New York City, he
made some inquiries in regard to the rental of a
small and mbdest house in a healthful part of the
city and found that it would be $6,000, the exact
amount of the salary he would receive. He decided,
therefore, that he could not afford to accept the
office. Later during President Grant's first term
Senator Edmunds was asked to accept the post of

Page Twenty-one



United States Minister to Great Britain preceding
the negotiations concerning the Alabama Claims,
which he felt compelled to decline on account of the
expense which acceptance of the position would
compel him to assume.

Resumption of Specie Payments

Senator Edmunds was never a man who sought
publicity for his achievements, and the credit which
belonged to him for not a few important legislative
acts has gone to others. As an illustration of this
statement the Act providing for the resumption of
specie payments, passed in 1875, may be cited. The
story may be told best in Mr. Edmunds' own words,
which he was kind enough to furnish the writer of
this article for historical purposes, some years ago,
and is as follows: "On the occasion of proceedings
for the resumption of specie payments, resulting in
the passage of the resumption bill of 1875, the East-
ern and Western views in the Senate were greatly
divided, the Western Senators feeling that resump-
tion ought not to be established, thinking it could
not be maintained. The Eastern Senators thought
the experiment should be tried. The West also was
badly tinctured with the double standard delusion of
sixteen to one, and with a desire for free coinage of
silver. Most of the Eastern Senators thought quite
otherwise. At the request of three or four of the
Eastern Senators, of whom I was one, a Republican

Page Twenty-two



confidential caucus was called, and met and appointed
a committee of eleven, I think, to confer and, if
possible, to propose a bill for some action on the
subject that would satisfy all interested. I was a
member of that committee, which for three weeks
had almost daily, or, rather, nightly confidential
consultations, and agreed upon a bill to provide for
resumption. Drafting this bill was committed to a
comm;ittee of two. Senator Logan of Illinois and
myself, and we agreed upon a draft containing, I
believe, precisely the words which appear in the
Statutes of 1875 providing for resumption. We
reported our draft to the committee, which agreed
to it precisely as we had drawn it. The committee
reported it to the caucus, which agreed to it, I believe,
unanimously with the exception of Senator Morton
of Indiana, who reserved leave to vote against it in
the Senate. In fact, every Senator, stating that he
wished to do so with frankness, had a perfect right
to vote against the bill if he thought fit, without any
complaint from the others. It was agreed in the
caucus that if the bill was to be passed at all it was
to be passed in the precise form, punctuation and all,
in which the committee framed it. It was then
directed by the caucus that this draft should be put
into the hands of Senator Sherman, then chairman
of the Finance Committee of the Senate, and that it
should be reported from the Finance Committee in
precisely that form, and that any amendment pro-

Page Twenty-three



dential election. At that time the Democrats con-
trolled the House, and the Republicans the Senate.
About the middle of December the House passed a
resolution asking the Senate to unite in the appoint-
nuent of a joint committee to prepare and report
some measure, either legislative or constitutional,
which should determine the result of the election
by some tribunal of unquestioned authority, the
decision of which would be generally accepted as
final. The Senate by resolution referred the House
proposal to a committee of seven, Mr. Edmunds
being the chairman. On January 18, 1877, the Elec-
toral Commission Bill was reported by Senator
Edmunds, who explained the bill thoroughly and
supported it in an able speech. Although the bill
was opposed by Republican leaders like Blaine,
Sherman and Morton, it was passed in the Senate
by a vote of forty-seven to seventeen, and in the


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Online LibraryWalter Hill CrockettGeorge Franklin Edmunds → online text (page 1 of 3)