Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Gossip, 1885: George S. Boutwell Writes Home About Washington Politics

Brian Bixby

Recently, I had the delightful opportunity to read some letters that hadn’t been seen in at least eighty years. The letters were full of interesting political stories from the Washington, D.C. of the 1880s. And
Photograph of George S. Boutwell by Matthew Brady.
they were written by a man whose political career helped shape the nation during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

The man’s name is George S. Boutwell (1818–1905). Haven’t heard of him? You should have. If you pay income taxes, you can thank Boutwell, who was the first commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service in 1862. He then went on to Congress, where he helped write the Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteeing citizenship to the former slaves. After serving as a member of the House committee to impeach President Andrew Johnson in 1868, he went on to become President Grant’s secretary of the treasury, where he helped break the Gold Ring, a currency conspiracy, in 1869.

After he lost reelection to the U.S. Senate in 1877, Boutwell and his family returned home to Groton, to the house he had built in 1851 when he was governor of Massachusetts. However, Boutwell continued to spend much of the year in Washington, where he practiced patent law and international law. His daughter Georgianna missed living in Washington, and constantly wrote to her father for news of her friends and political gossip. And he obliged, frequently: fifty-one times in 1885 alone.

Boutwell’s 1885 letters to “My dear Georgie” are a wonderfully anecdotal history of Washington politics. Since 1884 had been an election year, 1885 began with a season of parties as the new president and Congress came to the city. There were so many, Boutwell told Georgie, that he’d decided to go to no more than one at each house!

Not everyone showed similar restraint. Among the fabulous Field brothers of Stockbridge, Massachusetts—each of whom became famous in his own right—was Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field (1816–1899). Field was a Democrat and weak on civil rights, which made him and Boutwell political enemies. Yet, in a letter from January 16, Boutwell mentions that Field greeted him warmly and was in “high, friendly spirits.” Boutwell, who had once run on the Temperance Party ticket, euphemistically attributed Field’s unusual geniality to having “dined” too much.

One mustn’t think Boutwell a complete killjoy. He did ask Georgie in February to pack up and send his billiard cue to him!

I’m pretty sure Georgie was in favor of women’s suffrage, since she actually ran for office and won a seat on the town’s school committee. But I’ve never been able to find out her father’s opinion. And he hedged his language even in his letters. He wrote to Georgie about how he had attended two church services on January 25. The minister at the morning service spoke out against suffrage, which was daring of him, because Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the famous suffragist, was in the audience, and loudly confronted the minister after the service. Boutwell snidely noted that her response was “more intelligible than elegant.”

But before you judge Boutwell, you should know that he thought it unfair that opponents of women’s suffrage were still using the lurid “free love” reputation of Victoria Woodhull against the movement, even though Woodhull had left the country in 1877. And that evening Boutwell went to a service at the Universalist Church conducted by Rev. Olympia Brown. There’s another name you probably don’t know, but should. Brown (1835–1926) was the first woman in the United States to graduate from a theological school and to be ordained. And she was firmly in favor of a woman’s right to vote. No doubt her sermon reflected her sentiments. As an aside, I must note that unlike Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan B. Anthony, Brown would live long enough to see women obtain the right to vote and to cast a ballot in a national election.

In the 1884 elections the Democrats had won the presidency for the first time since the Civil War and maintained control of the House of Representatives, leaving the Republicans with only the Senate. Boutwell was not happy about this, and looked constantly for signs that the Democrats were breaking up along factional lines. On May 15, he told Georgie that the Democrats would break up over patronage for federal offices. In November, he was hoping the scandal over Attorney General Augustus H. Garland’s involvement in a telephone company and associated litigation would bring the administration down. Boutwell would hope in vain, at least until the election of 1888, when Republicans reclaimed the House of Representatives and the presidency.

At least he was not like those people he mentioned who were still hoping even in January of 1885 that the Republican candidate James G. Blaine might still win the Electoral College. In the same vein, Boutwell thought the Republican defeat was why outgoing President Chester A. Arthur looked depressed just after relinquishing office, not realizing that Arthur was suffering from a serious illness that would lead to his death before the end of the next year.

Next: Boutwell tangles with a slave trader!

Brian Bixby received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst for his study of Shakers and tourism. His childhood hobby of coin collecting developed into an interest in the history of money, which led him to George S. Boutwell's role in the currency controversies of the 1870s. That and Brian grew up only a mile away from the Boutwell House.


The Geeks said...

hi..Im college student, thanks for sharing :)

hcr said...

This is SO cool! Glad we've found some of Boutwell's papers. He's important, and too often invisible. Can't wait to hear more.