Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Duvergier de Hauranne: A Frenchman in Lincoln's Washington -- Congress is Not Exactly "A Festival of Eloquence"

In the days that followed, Duvergier de Hauranne reacquainted himself with wartime Washington, D.C., which he had first visited at the outset of his U.S. travels during the summer of 1864.  Outside the city, he finds the same "vast, level spaces that have been turned into wastelands by military encampments; everything has been scraped clean to the ground; there remains not a tree, not a blade of grass, nothing but tents and barracks."  Likewise, inside the city:  "the same monotonous stretches of mud and the same vain and pitiful attempts at grandeur."  But the city had come alive, dramaticallly so, roused from the August doldrums, with "the clatter of carriages, the screeching of the horsecars on their iron rails and the hum of pedestrians who crowd the sidewalks."  The destiny of Washington, Duvergier de Hauranne believes, would be tied to the fortunes of the federal government.  If the capital were to fall back into "its earlier insignificance," it would simply wither away; if everything added to the permanent features of the city by the wartime exigencies were swept away, "scarely anything but a desert would remain."  Looking ahead, Duvergier de Hauranne cannot help but comment, as he anticipates the country's rapid expansion westwards, that Washington, D.C. -- "a badly situated fulcrum of the American nation" -- would need to be supplanted by another city in the Mississippi basin, perhaps St. Louis.

Gen. Benjamin F. Butler
The news of the day:  the replacement of General Benjamin Butler -- announced, per Duvergier de Hauranne, "like a thunderbolt from the mysterious cloud that conceals the government's august summit."  The Frenchman, reviewing Butler's career, dismisses him as a poor military leader and an unscrupulous politician whom Grant had protected but whose failures and misdeeds had become too glaring to ignore any longer.  (Even now, 150 years later, it is hard to find any historians who have much that is positive to say about this son of Massachusetts other than his fierce anti-slavery convictions.)  Yet Butler's dubious wartime record did not prevent him from being returned to Congress by the state's voters as well as elected governor in 1882.  Duvergier de Hauranne also reports rumors of a secret peace mission to the Confederacy undertaken by an informal advisor of Lincoln's, Francis P. Blair.  While welcoming the idea of the North making such overtures, he dismisses the notion that they would bear fruit due to "the blind obstinacy of the Richmond government."

U.S. Capitol, 1861
Meanwhile, the politics of the moment remains front and center in Duvergier de Hauranne's account. His first visit to Congress, he reports, is "a waste of time."  Describing two contrasting schools of rhetoric -- comparing the staid Senate and the raucous House -- the Frenchman comments that Congress is not exactly "a festival of eloquence."  The Senate debates, he relates, resemble more "a conversation, interrupted by courteous, muted disagreements," before a mostly empty gallery and a slumbering presiding officer.  The House, on the other hand, is like "a storm-tossed sea," surrounded by galleries packed with noisy spectators.  Duvergier de Hauranne is clearly not enamored of the House's "general atmosphere of indiscipline, insubordination and irreverance":

Few speakers are accorded more than five minutes of attentive silence; the debates are carried on at one end of the room, while at the other end no one is any longer paying the slightest heed.  It is therefore necessary to speak like Demosthenes so as to be heard above the sound of the waves, to go right on speaking without giving any thought to ones audience and to shout loudly enough for the stenographers to hear.  Hence the oratory of the House is full of long-winded bluster, accompanied by gesticulations -- in fact, the very image of a public meeting.

As usual, Duvergier de Hauranne demonstrates he is a keen observer of the political scene.  With perhaps as little as five votes needed in the House to pass the anti-slavery Thirteenth Amendment, he describes how difficult the naysaying Democrats will be to win over but notes that the Republicans at the same time have the luxury of allowing their adversaries "to tear themselves to pieces" knowing the anti-slavery cause will ultimately prevail.

Rep. Fernando Wood (D-NY)
Duvergier de Hauranne is scathing about the arguments of Copperhead holdouts like Fernando Wood, a former mayor of New York and Tammany Hall figure par excellence, who insist the proposed amendment would be "unconstitutional" and unfairly reviewed in the absence of Southern representatives in Congress.  The Frenchman cooly observes that the Constitution had always been subject to amendment, so the true motivation is simply "to preserve forever the equivocal silence of the Constitution on the question and thus retain the pretext it offers for rebellion."  As for the lament over the absence of a voice from the  Confederate South in the debate, Duvergier de Hauranne exclaims:  "But if representatives of the South are not in Congress today to oppose the amendment, whose fault is that?  Who drove them out?"

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