November 19, 2011

Interview with an Antebellum & Progressive Era Congressman

Galusha A. Grow was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives during the 32nd, 33rd, 34th, (1851-1863) and 56th (1894-1903) Congresses.  That is not a typo; he was re-elected to Congress after thirty years.  He also started his congressional career as a Democrat, but switched to the Republican party after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  During the first years of the Civil War, Grow also served as Speaker of the House.  In this interview, prompted by his re-election in 1894, Grow discusses details of his childhood as well as his earlier years in Congress, including the physical altercation he had with Lawrence Keitt which led to a sectional brawl among several members on the House floor.  

From The Saint Paul Daily Globe on March 4, 1894:

How He Became the Successor of David Wilmot -- Interesting Recollections of the Leading Statesmen and Orators of the Ante-Bellum Period -- Passage of the Homestead Laws. 
Correspondence of the Globe.
GLENWOOD, Pa., March 2.--An interview with the most affable of American statesmen, Galusha A. Grow, who at the end of an election for congressman-at-large in Pennsylvania returns to the United States house of representatives, is a matter of pleasure as well of interest.  With a courtesy equal to Chesterfield, a dignity and ease that made him memorable as speaker of the house during the stormy times of 1861-1862, he is at the same time as truly democratic as when he was a young and unknown attorney.  In Pauwell's great allegorical picture, exhibited in the Holland section at the Centennial, prominent among the great Americans stands the figure of Galusha A. Grow, who as the originator of the homestead bill, has been hailed abroad as one of the benefactors of mankind. 
On the opening day of the Thirty-second congress, in December, 1851, a tall, smooth-faced young man of twenty-seven, walked to the clerk's desk and took the oath of office.  Curious eyes closely scanned the new member's make-up, for he came to the house as the apparently unknown successor of a man of national repute, David Wilmot, whose proviso had occupied the attention of previous congresses to the almost total exclusion of other matters.  The young man's name was Galusha A. Grow, and he soon demonstrated that those who had selected him to succeed so notable a man had made no mistake in their choice.  He early became the leader of the courageous and brainy men who, during the exciting days preceding the war, waged unyielding battle against the demands of the slave power on the floor of the house, and the leadership which he gained at the outset of his congressional career, his great abilities and unswerving devotion to duty and the right easily enabled him to retain during the twelve years he remained in congress. 
There was no important measure introduced during his period of service that did not feel the influence of his voice and vote, while to his determination, persistence and farsightedness was due the final passage of the homestead act, with perhaps a single exception, the most important legislation of congress, and which has done more than all else to make the West so great and prosperous. 

Pennsylvania has no more honored citizen than Galusha A. Grow, none with a more stainless record, free from all taint of personal profit or time serving, none who has rendered to his country in its hour of need more efficient and patriotic service.  In the comfortable home of his latter years I found him this afternoon and asked him to tell me something of his life and the men with whom he was associated during his public career. 
"I was born," said he "in Ashford, Conn., in 1824.  My father died when I was still a child and I was sent to live with my mother's father, Capt. Samuel Robbins.  When I was ten years old, mother, anxious to gather in a home of her own, her children, who had been scattered since my father's death, bought this farm and came here with my oldest brother, youngest sister and myself, I being the youngest of four boys.  My mother, one of the noblest and best women, died in 1864, just after I retired from congress.  A yoke of oxen and a cow at the outset constituted the entire stock on our farm.  The first year we were able to plant and sow a few acres of corn and wheat, Edward, my brother, doing the plowing and I driving the oxen.  The pigeons were very numerous that year, playing sad havoc with the newly-planted crops, and, as I was not yet large enough to handle a gun safely, I was assigned the task of keeping the pigeons away. 
"Each winter, until fourteen, I attended the district school--one of the old-fashioned kind, with its spelling bees and other features of educational work in those times, which have since fallen into disuse.  The winter that I was fourteen we had a debating society in our district, in whose discussions I took an active part, the experience in public speaking which I thus obtained proving of the greatest service to me in later years.  When I was a boy here in Susquehanna county, lumbering was still one of the leading industries, and the fondest ambition of every boy in the country was to go down the Susquehanna river on a raft to Marietta and Columbia, or still farther down to Port Deposit.  I made the trip the spring I was fifteen.  It was the most interesting and novel experience of my life.  The trip from Tunkhannock to Marietta occupied about five days, and we ate and slept in a cabin built on the raft.  I acted as cook for the party, and took a hand at the oar when my assistance was needed.  It was just after the panic of 1837, and all branches of business were paralyzed.  Lumber was an absolute drug on the market. 
"At Despot we found Horace G. Phelps, of New York, with a large stock of lumber, for which he had for weeks been vainly endeavoring to find a purchaser.  At last he decided to load it on vessels and send it down Chesapeake bay in search of a market.  I was given charge of one of the vessels as supercargo, my instructions from Col. Bailey being to go until I had sold it to Norfolk or Richmond if necessary.  A few days later, at Annapolis, I found the purchaser for which I was searching, the sold the cargo of which I had charge for much more than the colonel had expected to receive for it.  Returning to Baltimore I met Col. Bailey and my brother.  The former was so pleased with my success that he gave me a handsome sum for my services.  This was the first money that I had ever earned. 
"I accordingly visited Washington and Mount Vernon.  I walked from Alexandria to Mount Vernon and back the same day.  In Washington I saw all that a country boy could see, visiting among other places the White house.  I clerked in the store which  my mother had established here in Glenwood, and later made other trips down the river with my brother.  In 1838 my sister and I entered the Franklin academy at Hartford.  I entered Amherst college in 1840, and graduated therefrom in 1844.  The following year I commenced the study of law with Hon. F. B. Streeter, of Montrose, and in April, 1847, I was admitted to practice in the courts of Susquehanna county.  Soon after my admission to the bar I was invited by David Wilmot to become his partner at Towanda.  I accepted his offer and remained in Towanda a year, when my health, which had become completely broken by study and confinement, compelled me to take to the open air.  I came home and spent the most of the next two years out of doors, surveying and lumbering." 
"Tell me something of Wilmot." 
"During the time we were associated together I, of course, came to know him well.  A large, portly, phlegmatic man of strong personality, resembling in some respects the late Oliver P. Morton of Indiana.  Mentally he was what you would call a great man, and he possessed sterling common sense; was a sound lawyer and a good judge--but one or two of his decisions during the time he was on the bench were overruled.  Moreover, he could see clearly into the future, a great gift for a public man in the forties, and to his lasting credit it is to be said that the position which he took on the slave question--the only just and righteous one--he steadily maintained during his public question.  I remember a talk we had after his return from the last session of the Thirty-first congress, which passed the fugitive slave law and the famous compromise measures, which both the Whig and Democratic parties united in loudly proclaiming as final and conclusive legislation regarding slavery." 
"How did you come to succeed Wilmot in congress?" 
"An interesting chapter of history attaches to it.  In 1848 Wilmot had supported Van Buren, the Free Soil candidate for president, and this, coupled with his own position as author of the proviso, made him unpopular with a large element of his party.  When he came up for re-election in 1850 there was trouble.  The district was composed of Tioga, Bradford and Susquehanna counties.  Wilmot secured the regular nomination in Bradford county, and was also named by the Free Soil wing of the party in Tioga county.  With two Democratic candidates, it was evident that a Whig would be elected.  Wilmot agreed to retire, if his opponent would, and I was accepted as a compromise.  It was close to the time of election, and the committee who waited on me found me at work on the farm repairing bridges.  One week after my nomination I was elected to congress by 1,200 majority.  Two years later my majority was 7,577, and in 1854, as a result of my stand on the Kansas-Nebraska bill, there was no candidate against me, and I was unanimously elected." 
Mr. Grow entered public life at a critical period.  The previous congress, which contained by nine avowed anti-slavery men, had passed Clay's omnibus bill and the fugitive slave law, and all parties, save the small contingent of abolitionists, hoped and avowed that the slavery question was settled for once and all.  But early in the administration of President Pierce,t he successful attempt of Senator Douglas to repeal the Missouri compromise started anew differences only war could settle.  It is one of the ironies of the "irrepressible conflict" that the successor of David Wilmot, who had been defeated largely on account of his anti-slavery views, took and from the outset maintained an even more radical and advanced position than his predecessor.  A ready and effective speaker, on Mr. Grow's shoulders tell the brunt of the bitter but fruitless battle in the house against the repeal, and when it finally was passed by congress and received the executive sanction he publicly and permanently broke with his old party associates and became the congressional leader of the slowly swelling forces of the newly formed Republican party, once its caucus candidate for speaker and finally the presiding officer of the first war congress. 
"The great triumvirate of Webster, Clay and Calhoun had already been broken," said he "by the death of Calhoun before I took my seat in the house.  Webster and Clay died the following summer.  Thomas H. Benton, their old-time rival, however, survived them a number of years.
"After Benton retired from congress, and while he was engaged on his condensation of congressional debates, he sent for me one day and asked that, as I had to pass his house on my way from my lodgings to the capitol, I would drop in daily and tell him what was going on in congress.  I did so for a long time, and, as a consequence, enjoyed many long and pleasant chats with him which are among the most delightful recollections of that period of my life.  On one occasion I remember, while the repeal of the Missouri compromise was under discussion, I asked him how he thought Gen. Cass, then senator from Michigan, would vote on the measure." 
"'Gen. Cass,' said he in answer to my question, 'don't know how he will vote on repeal.  He is a man that is very easily seduced.  It is very fortunate for Gen. Cass, sir,' this after a moment's thought, 'that he wasn't born a woman.  If he had been he would have been without character before he was sixteen years old, sir.' Afterwards we were talking of Senator Douglas' position on slavery; he said: 'They say Douglas is leading the Democracy off.  No, sir; the Democracy is leading Douglas off, sir.  He would go to hell, sir, if the majority were going there.' 
"William H. Seward came to the senate from New York in 1849, where he soon became the leader in debate, first of the anti-slavery Whigs and afterward of the Republicans.  No man could have done better than he the work he was then called on to do, but in the management of men he was not so successful.  It was a most fortunate thing that he failed to receive the Republican nomination for president in 1860, and that the wise and patient Lincoln was nominated in his stead.  John P. Hale had been in the senate four years when I took my seat in the house.  He was a very indolent man, and for that reason he never rose to the position for which his abilities fitted him. 
"Some years before the repeal of the Missouri compromise Senator Slidell introduced a bill appropriating some $20,000,000 for the purchase of Cuba, the object of course being to strengthen the slave power.  General Cass made an elaborate speech supporting the bill, on the ground that it was dangerous to our government to have a dependency of a foreign power so near our shores as Cuba.  hale followed. 'Consistency,' said he, 'has always been a crowning jewel in the diadem of the senator from Michigan.  he favors the annexation of Cuba because its proximity is a constant menace to our welfare when every night of his life when he is at home'--General Cass lived in Detroit--'from the window of the room in which he sleeps you can throw a stone into the possessions of her Britannic majesty.' 
"Ben Wade entered congress as a senator on the same day that I entered the house.  During the following twelve years we were thrown much together, and I came to know him very intimately.  He was one of the most manly of men, thoroughly honest and terribly in earnest. 
"I recall one occasion when George E. Pugh his colleague during the first part of his senatorial career, and one of the most plastic of doughfaces, had finished a pro-slavery speech which aroused Wade's anger; he said: 'While listening to the words of my colleague I have wondered why God Almighty did not make some men spaniels instead of men.'  Toombs, of Georgia, one of the Southern leaders in the senate, was a good deal of a blunderer.  While the bill for the purchase of Cuba was up Toombs one night made a speech in support of it.  He denounced the Republican senators as demagogues, who were afraid of the 'lacklanders' of the North.  When he had finished Wade, who sat next to him, sprang to his feet and turning upon Toombs, his eyes flashing fire, burst out: 'Afraid, are we! Afraid, are we! There is no man or thing on Good's footstool that I am afraid of,' and he brought his fist down on Toombs desk with a vigor that made the latter wince.  'I except the senator from Ohio from my remarks' said Toombs.  'All right, if you want to back out you can,' retorted Wade. 'We gladly accept the issue which the senator from Georgia presents and will go to the people on it, land for the landless against niggers for the niggerless.' 
"Salmon P. Chase was in the senate from 1852-1861, and his pre-eminent talent rendered his services of the greatest value.  Chase's vanity was his besetting weakness.  When he became a member of Lincoln's cabinet, it surrounded him with mischievous advisers, who greatly impaired his usefulness.  Other strong men on the Republican side whose friendship I enjoyed during these years were Charles Sumner Henry Wilson, Hannibal Hamlin, Jacob Collamer, Lyman Trumbull and William Pitt Fessenden, all pure and able men.  Toombs, Jefferson Davis, John Slidell and Judah P. Benjamin were the leaders of the Southern contingent.  Davis was the most supercilious and condescending and Benjamin the wiliest and brainiest of the lot.  In the art of making a weak case appear strong, Benjamin's gifts amounted almost to genius." 
"There were also strong men in the house during your period of service?" 
"There were indeed.  Thaddeus Stevens was a member of the house during the latter part of my congressional life, and whenever he was there, of course, he was always a prominent figure.  He was equal to any emergency, and a remorseless antagonist.  His grim humor often made even those toward whom it was directed laugh.  Once when Whaley, a member from West Virginia, begged for the floor in order to make a statement while Mr. Stevens was speaking on an important question, Stevens finally yielded, saying, "Mr. Speaker, I yield to the gentleman from West Virginia for a few feeble remarks." 
"How did your famous encounter with Keitt, of South Carolina, come about?" 
"That was during the debate as to whether Buchanan's message on the Lecompton constitution of Kansas should be referred to the committee on territories, which was Democratic, or to a select committee of fifteen.  I had previously been chairman of the committee on territories while Banks was speaker, and was then a member of the committee, and, accordingly, had charge of the Republican forces.  The house sat until long after midnight.  About 1:30 I crossed over to the Democratic side to consult with John Hickman as to the best means of protracting the session until morning.  While I was talking with Hickman, Gen. Quitman rose to speak.  We did not want them to talk, but to keep on voting, and I objected.  Keitt who was sitting near where I was standing, broke out: 'If you are going to object, go back to your own side of the hall.'  I replied that the hall was a free one, and every man had a right to go where he pleased.  Keitt then arose from his seat and came around to the aisle in which I was standing.  As he came up to me, he said: 'I want to know what you mean by such an answer as that?'  I told him that I meant just what I had said--that it was a free hall and a man had a right to be where he pleased.  'Sir,' said Keitt, 'I will let you know that you are a black Republican puppy.' 'Never mind,' said I, 'I shall occupy such a place in this hall as I please, and no negro driver shall crack his whip over me.'  This angered Keitt, and he made a grab for my throat and I struck him.  This proved the signal for a rough and tumble fight.  The Southerners who were sitting near rushed to Keitt's assistance, and Potter, the Washburns, and others came to my aid.  Barksdale, of Mississippi, who essayed the role of a peacemaker, caught hold of me.  Potter, thinking that Barksdale meant me harm, hit him.  Barksdale did not know who it was to hit him, but supposing it was Elihu Washburne, pitched at the latter.  Cadwallader Washburne, seeing the assault on his brother, struck out for Barksdale and knocked off his wig.  Barksdale picked it up and put it on the wrong end foremost. This made him appear so ridiculous that all burst out laughing, an in this way the affair ended.  There was a number of laughable incidents connected with the affray.  After it was over and order had been restored, John Covode was seen carrying back to his seat in the rear end of the hall an immense spittoon.  Some one asked him what he proposed to do with it, and he said that when the trouble commenced he picked it up, intending to spot any fellow with it who drew a 'weapon.'  The house continued in session until 6 o'clock on Saturday morning, when it was adjourned until Monday.  Monday afternoon Keitt arose and apologized." 
"You also had some trouble with Congressman Branch, of North Carolina?" 
"Yes, but it never went any further than talk.  I replied with some spirit to a speech he had made, and as a result he challenged me to a duel.  I sent him a reply that I was opposed to dueling, and that it was prohibited and declared a crime by the laws enacted by that body of which we were members.  However my personal rights and the freedom of debate assured by the constitution I should defend whenever and wherever they were assailed.  There the matter ended. 
"Joshua R. Giddings was already well known when I took my seat.  Persistent and unfaltering in his devotion to duty, he was the Cato of the anti-slavery agitation.  Gerritt Smith was also in the house in the early fifties.  A man of noble figure, striking handsome and a splendid speaker, he did good service.  Naturally open-handed, Mr. Smith's great wealth enabled him to be of incalculable benefit to the early anti-slavery apostles. He was for years their chief financial supporter.  Owen Lovejoy, the brother of Elijah, was a member of the house from Illinois.  he was a born agitator, and his services were of the greatest value.  John Hickman was one of my collegues from Pennsylvania, a brainy, courageous and worthy man.  Thomas Corwin, who had previously been in the senate, became a member of the lower house in 1858.  The year following a number of the Republican members desired me to be a candidate for speaker.  I had been the Republican candidate when Orr, of South Carolina, was elected, but the majority of the party supported John Sherman.  The speakership contest lasted eight weeks, and finally ended in the election of Pennington. 
"Gen. Banks, from Massachusetts, was the first Republican speaker.  He was elected in 1855, after what was probably the most exciting contest in our history, it being drawn out for many weeks.  The house finally declared by resolution that after three more ballots without choice, the candidate who received the highest number of ballots in the next vote should be declared elected, regardless of the absence of a majority of the whole vote.  On the next three ballots, Banks received 102 votes; Aiken, the Democratic candidate, 93, and the other candidates 20.  On the next ballot Banks received 103 votes; Aiken, 100, and the others 11.  Banks was accordingly declared elected." 
Mr. Grow was elected speaker of the house July 4, 1861, and so ably and acceptably did he discharge the duties of the office that at the close of his term a unanimous vote of thanks was given him--the first unanimous vote given to a speaker in many years.  Previous to his election to the speakership he had been chairman of the committees on Indian affairs and on territories, being at the head of the latter committee during all the Kansas troubles. 
"I early came," said he, "to believe that the government should not make the public lands a source of revenue, but that it should bestow them in small homesteads upon those without land for actual settlement and cultivation.  My first speech in congress was made in support of a bill embodying this doctrine.  The leaders of slavocracy did not care to see the territories settled upon by a class of small farmers, who, coming from the free states, would be naturally of anti-slavery proclivities, and their opposition defeated the passage of the homestead law until after the breaking out of the war.  I introduced five bills at five different sessions of congress before one was finally passed an became a law, as it did while I was speaker." 
In 1862 the Pennsylvania legislature reapportioned the congressional districts of the state, and Susquehanna county was united to Luzerne, thus making Mr. Grow's district strongly Democratic and preventing his re-election.  Since he retired from congress on March 4, 1863, he has held no office, but his life has been a busy and useful one.  In 1868 he was chairman of the state central Republican committee, and did much to secure the election of Gen. Grant. 
In 1879 President Hayes, in the most flattering manner, tendered Mr. Grow to the mission to Russia, but, adhering to his resolution never to accept an office which did not come by the votes of the people, he declined the honor.  Two years later he was a candidate for United States senator.  Since then he has been engaged in immense operations in oil, lumber and coil, his income from the latter investment being large.  handsome, alert, with an inherited and unimpaired vigor that shows him equal to any duty, he is a man of mark wherever he goes. 

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