Sunday, January 11, 2015

Duvergier de Hauranne: A Frenchman in Lincoln's Washington -- "Democracy is a Quicksand that Swallows Up Famous Men..."

Duvergier de Hauranne arrived in Washington on January 11, 1865 on the midnight train from New York City – one hundred and fifty years ago already a frenetic, chaotic metropolis.  The young Frenchman found New York, for the most part, an appalling place.   

Nor was he impressed by his return stay at the District of Columbia’s own Willard Hotel, whatever its five star qualities may be today.  Willards' Hotel,” he wrote, “is the same as ever, the worst and most expensive hotel in the United States.”  With the still half-constructed city overwhelmed by officials of various ranks and hustlers eager to cash in the largesse of a Federal government in full wartime mobilization, Willards' could charge whatever it liked for its services.  Nor would Duvergier de Hauranne have provided an indulgent review of the hotel’s restaurant on any 19th century version of TripAdvisor or Travelocity.  “The service is abominable,” he complained, “the meals are hasty and penny-pinching despite the elaborate menu; the portions are trimmed down by thrifty hands and it is all too evident that they serve leftovers from other people’s plates.”  He described a scene, however, would not be so far removed from today’s high-end hotel lobbies of 21st century Washington:  “…The mainstay of the hotel’s trade consists of members of Congress, governors of states and general officers…the place is like a hive always full of buzzing bees that perpetually come and go without ever alighting.

Arriving that morning in the District of Columbia, though, Duvergier de Hauranne already had his mind on politics, which was a source of fascination for him throughout his life, in France as well as in the United States.  He reported on the impending resignation of Treasury Secretary William Fessenden, whom he described as utterly worn out by his task of keeping the Federal government solvent, and commented on how fickle fate and fortune are in political life. 
William Fessenden
“Who recognizes today the names of Fillmore, Pierce or Buchanan?” he asked rhetorically, noting  “they are mentioned only as objects of ridicule.”  “Today’s forgotten man” – here Duvergier de Hauranne is referring to General George McClellan, who only two months before had been defeated by Lincoln in the 1864 presidential campaign – “is lost in obscurity, the one who only yesterday was hailed as the victor of Antietam.  Democracy is a quicksand that swallows up famous men who have been stranded on the shore.”  Pennsylvania’s Radical Congressman and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens would refuse to take on the Treasury job, Duvergier de Hauranne speculated, preferring “the independent and less responsible role of legislator to the burden borne by a Cabinet member.”
McClellan Campaign Poster, 1864

But Duvergier de Hauranne’s primary preoccupation on this first day back in the nation’s capital was the prospects for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, in “the great debate about slavery and the new amendment to the Constitution” as he described it.  He pointed out that in the House, the two-thirds majority required to pass the amendment remained elusive.  Yet as the defeat of the Confederacy looked increasingly certain, the opposition of Copperheads and other Democrats appeared more tactical than heartfelt.  The fate of the South and slavery was being settled on the battlefield, not in speeches on the floor of Congress.  Duvergier de Hauranne warned that the Radical Republicans ought to be more nuanced in their rhetoric to better achieve their objectives.  Meanwhile, the political logic for Northern Democrats would point them in the direction of accommodation and compromise.  Duvergier de Hauranne described the calculus on slavery for Lincoln's opponents this way, partly tongue in cheek:  “If you’re trying to win a race, you mustn’t attempt to carry your dead horse on your own back; instead, you should abandon his useless carcass and, if you can, steal your rival’s horse.  Moreover, Abolition is a good cause in its own right, for slavery is, after all, a great injustice.  The game is lost, so let’s change the rules and try to recoup our fortunes!” 

Even then, behind the scenes, Lincoln was leaving nothing to chance, using every means at his disposal to get the votes needed for the amendment’s passage in the House…

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