Thursday, January 22, 2015

Duvergier de Hauranne: A Frenchman in Lincoln's Washington -- Impressions of The Civil War Congress

Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Massachusettts)
Congress remained a source of fascination for Duvergier de Hauranne during his first week back in the District of Columbia.  Thanks to Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, who had taken an interest in the young Frenchman, Duvergier de Hauranne was able to attend the next sessions on the very floor of the House, at one point even occupying the seat of Henry Winter Davis, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

A speech by Missouri Democrat James Sidney Rollins piques his interest; Rollins, formerly a fierce opponent of the abolitionists, speaks out in favor of the 13th Amendment.  Duvergier de Hauranne has a keen eye and a strong writerly touch: 
Rep. James P. Rollins (D-Missouri)

He has the rough exterior one expects of men from the West, but along with that there is a strain of candor and native tact that raises him above the ordinary…He would have agreed, he said, to the preservation or even the expansion of slavery if that would have saved the Union.  He agreed now to accept abolition because it had become necessary to win the war and restore the public peace.  It was strange to hear this slave-owner, impoverished only yesterday by the new principles, defying the Democrats to find any religious, moral or even economic or political argument to justify slavery.

In contrast, Duvergier de Hauranne archly dismisses the overblown rhetoric of an unnamed abolitionist Congressman:

I will pass in silence over the speech made by a loud-mouthed representative who delivered himself of a string of anti-slavery platitudes.  He seems to be one of those who don’t believe they are speaking eloquently until they are blue in the face and have bloodshot eyes.

The French visitor is impressed by Thaddeus Stevens, whom he characterizes as among the last of the great orators of the antebellum legislature, comparing him to the likes of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun. 

Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (R- Pennsylvania)
At his very first word I was able to recognize a born orator.  Mr. Stevens is a strong, vigorous old man with deep-set eyes whose expressive, haughty face is heavily furrowed by wrinkles. ..The House of Representatives, which is usually so disorderly, lending only half an ear to partisan clamor, suddenly grows quiet when Mr. Stevens rises to speak, rendering an involuntary tribute to an eloquence and dignity whose secret it has lost.

In conclusion, Duvergier de Hauranne allows that the House is not, “as I may sometimes have led you to believe,” made up entirely of opportunists and “barroom politicians.”  He remarks that “ugly faces and home-made haircuts abound…but when you are once accustomed to the typical American face and costume – a strange mixture of stiff formality and unbuttoned negligence – you realize that the greater part of the House is composed of ‘gentlemen.’”

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