Hiram Parks Bell:  Personnel of the Members of the Second Congress

 

The following is Chapter 13 from Hiram Parks Bell’s Men and Things, published 1907:

            “The study of a people, their opinions, principles, passions and prejudices, as reflected through their representation, as well as the character, capacity, and personal peculiarities of the Representatives themselves, was to me always interesting and instructive.

            “The seething, boiling passions of revolutions, like volcanic eruptions, often cast to the surface unknown men, endowed with high capacity for command and leadership. However this truth may have been illustrated in the military history of the Confederacy, it finds no confirmation in the civil service department of the government.  The President and his Cabinet were distinguished statesmen, well known for their ability and long and faithful public service.  This is also true of a number of the members of both houses of Congress.

            “The House of Representatives was a body of able, earnest men, ardently devoted to the success of the Confederate cause and unusually free from selfish ambition.  Of course there were divergent views and opinions upon the wisdom of particular measures, but the members were a unit in the desire and purpose to promote the public interest.  In ability, the members approximated as nearly equality as could be found in any body of the same number.  The Georgia members were:  Julian Hartridge, a graduate of Brown University, a fine lawyer and polished orator.  He had served his state as legislator and prosecuting attorney with decided ability.  He was a strong debater and a courtly gentleman.  William E. Smith was a practicing lawyer, with a strong will, clear discriminating judgment; rarely spoke, but always voted.  He had lost a leg in battle.  Mark Blanford, rugged, rough, blunt and bright, was a lawyer, striking square from the shoulder, and never surrendering.  He lost an arm in the war.  After the war, he was associate justice of the Supreme Court  of Georgia and was distinguished for his brevity, clearness and correctness of his decisions.  Clifford Anderson was a lawyer.  He took his stand, while yet a young man, at the head of the profession.  He was a pleasing speaker, had represented his county in the Legislature before the war, and ably served the State as attorney general after the war was ended.  John T. Shewmake was a quiet, cultured gentleman, who thought much, and spoke little.  He was always present and gave close attention to the business before the House.  Indeed, he kept a book in which he made a careful memorandum of everything that was done.  Joseph H. Echols, an educated gentleman, was an extensive planter.  He had presided over a female college in Madison, Georgia.  He was a State Senator in 1861-62.  He was an accomplished gentleman, a genial companion, a faithful friend, and an ardent patriot.  James M. Smith, vigorous and robust in mind and body, was an able lawyer.  Though not inclined to speech-making he thought closely and logically and had strong and decided convictions, which he did not hesitate to avow and defend, and, as occasion was supposed to require, with the emphasis of certain expletives that do not appear in Sunday literature. He was the first Democratic governor, after the Hegira of Rufus B. Bullock and his carpet-bag menagerie.  George N. Lester was admitted to the bar at the age of nineteen, by special act of the Legislature.  He had been Supreme Court reporter.  He served two terms as chairman of the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives in the State Legislature; lost his right arm in the battle of Perryville, Kentucky.  After the war, he was judge of the Superior Court in the Blue Ridge Circuit, and Attorney-General of the State.  Hiram P. Bell received an academic education, secured by his own efforts; was a member of the convention that seceded from the Union.  He opposed secession; was elected to the convention, Commissioner to the State of Tennessee; was elected State Senator in 1861, served one session, and resigned to remain in the army; was Lt. Col. of the 43rd Regiment, Georgia Volunteers; was desperately wounded and permanently disabled for further service at Vicksburg.  After the war, he served in the 43rd and 45th Congress of the United States, and one term each in the House and Senate of the Legislature of Georgia.  Warren Akin was probably the ablest lawyer in the Cherokee Circuit.  He was a strong debater.  He opposed Governor Brown for the Governorship, and, though defeated, he made a brilliant campaign.  He was Speaker of the House of Representatives 1861-62, and won reputation as a presiding officer.  It will be seen that, of the members of this delegation, one, James M. Smith, became Governor; two, Lester and Blandford, Judges; three, Hartridge, Bell, and William E. Smith, members of the United States Congress.

            “Governor Brown’s controversy with President Davis on the constitutionality of the conscript law and the right to appoint military officers in certain cases had brought the Governor and the State into disfavor at Richmond.  The members from Georgia, being new men, were supposed to have been chosen because of the Governor’s views and their sympathy therewith, or because they had been mangled in battle, and that, in either case, the delegation could not be relied upon.  This suspicion or speculation was successfully dissipated when Akin, Lester, Hartridge, and Anderson tackled them in debate.  This fact I accidentally ascertained by overhearing a conversation that I could not avoid hearing between Judge Gholston, a member of the House, and another gentleman.  Gholston, after stating the distrust of the Georgia members as above stated, added that after hearing these gentlemen from Georgia and becoming personally acquainted with them, he was never more astonished in his life; that he found the delegation as able, faithful and true as any one in the House.

            “What is called oratory, or eloquence, has never been, and can never be, accurately defined nor described.  There is no common authoritative standard of perfection established for the adjudication of its merits.  Styles of speaking, and the impressions produced, as different as those of a flower garden and a thunderstorm;  a battle and a landscape.  Patrick Henry’s ‘Give me liberty, or give me death,’ and William Wirt’s answer to ‘Who is Blannerhassett?’ are the illustration.  The pictures of attitudes in books that profess to teach the art of public speaking are only ludicrous cartoons.  Each auditor is a judge, and every auditor has an equal right to judge what constitutes it.  Three professors will disagree in awarding the medal in a contest between a half dozen college boys.  Some speakers, by mellifluous voice and chaste, smooth-flowing diction, will charm the weak esthetic; others, by clear, cold logic, will convince the judgment and control the reluctant will of the stubborn;  still others, by sympathetic earnestness of pathos, will excite and control the passions of the emotional.  The possession by a speaker of all these powers in harmonious combination, in my opinion, makes him an orator.  Few men possess them.  Bishop George F. Pierce possessed them all in a larger degree than any speaker it was ever my privilege to hear.  And Sargent S.P. Prentiss, in a more eminent degree than any orator of whom history or tradition gives any information.  The nearest approach to a true definition of oratory, eloquence included, that can be attained, is that it is a form of speech, from living men to living men and women, that convinces the judgment, controls the will, masters the emotions, and incites to action.

            “Most legislation is considered and formulated in the committee room and reported by the chairman to the House.  The chairman usually engineers the report through the House and is therefore often on his feet and engaged in discussion, and for this reason the uninitiated think he is a great man.  This may or may not be true.  Sometimes chairmen are appointed because of their ability; often because of favoritism.  Valuable men in legislation are those who think wisely and work constantly.  Francis S. Lyon, whose character is so finely drawn, under the name of ‘The Hon. Francis Strother,’ by the master limner Joseph Baldwin in his ‘Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi,’ was chairman of the committee on Ways and Means; W.P. Miles, on Military Affairs; John A. Gilmer, on Privileges and Elections; Charles W. Russell, on the Judiciary; and Frank B. Sexton, on Post Offices and Post Roads.  As accomplished speakers, I think Hartridge and Vest excelled.  Marshall, Lester, Akin, and Baldwin were the strongest parliamentary debaters.  W.N.H. Smith, Machen, Gilmer, Chilton, and Colyar were the wisest practical legislators.  Barksdale, Dupree, and Perkins were able, optimistic extremists.  Charles W. Russell was a man of coldness, courage, and ability.  It was understood that the administration relied on him for leadership.  Two men greatly impressed me for the possession of what I regard as high qualities and capacity for legislation.  They were W.N.H. Smith of N.C. and W.B. Machen of Ky.  They were watchful, wise, cautious, and practical.  They were both modest, unobtrusive, and able.  They understood the use of language and, in a few plain words, successfully exposed the wrong, sustained the right, or explained the doubtful.  William C. Rives was the Nestor of the House in age only.  He had been United States Senator and Minister to France and, at that time, stood with the first statesmen of Virginia; but age had palsied the septre of his power.  There was one member of the House who, for uniqueness and picturesqueness, stood, like Adam’s recollection of his fall, alone.  This was Henry S. Foote.  His intellect was bright, his information large, his experience varied, and his courage invincible.  He had been shot in a duel with Prentiss, had the memorable scene with Benton in the United States Senate, and had defeated Jefferson Davis for Governor of Mississippi.  He represented the Nashville District, Tenn.  He had lost all hope (if he had any) in the success of the Confederate cause.  He was a Don Quixote, a sort of free lance, that would fight a windmill or a mogul engine with equal alacrity.  For some cause which I never understood, or it may be without any cause, he was exceedingly bitter in his feelings toward Mr. Davis and Mr. Benjamin.  He allowed no occasion to pass; and with or without excuse, he never spoke without indulging in denunciatory invective against them, pronouncing their names with a vicious malignity of tone and a contemptuous sneer of derision and distortion of expression of face, that baffled description.  A resolution to expel him was introduced and referred to the committee on privileges and elections.  All the members of the committee---the chairman and myself excepted---promptly adopted a report in favor of the resolution.  We submitted a minority report against the resolution.  He was not expelled.  A short time after this he left Richmond.  It will be understood that the mention of certain members of Congress by name is not to the disparagement of those not referred to by name.  I wish I had the data, time, and space to give to those who come after us, the history, of every member of this body of true men, who participated in the last scene of the play and witnessed the fall of the curtain upon the bloody tragedy of Civil War.

            “I am unwilling to close this chapter without referring to one member of the cabinet; the last one appointed by Mr. Davis.  I refer to John C. Breckenridge, Secretary of War.  I had a matter of business for a constituent before the department and happened to be present when he was sworn in.  Being immediately introduced to him, I congratulated him and the Confederacy upon his appointment, to which he replied that he could not say as to the Confederacy, but that certainly, in view of the momentous responsibilities of the office, he was not to be congratulated personally.  He invited me to a seat, took one himself in my front, and at once began, in an easy way, a most charming conversation.  He inquired what district I represented, and in what section of the state it was located.  He asked particularly about the state of affairs in Georgia, the condition and sentiments of the people in my district.  Knowing the pressure of business and the weight of responsibility upon him, as well as the value of time, as soon as a pause occurred in the flow of his delightful conversation, I stated what I wanted.  He said:  ‘Really, I do not know whether this matter is under the jurisdiction of the Secretary or the Chief of the Conscript Bureau.  You see this business is all new to me; I will see.’  Calling his chief clerk by the tap of his bell, who at once responded, he asked him ‘which had jurisdiction, the secretary or the Chief?’  ‘Both,’ replied the clerk; whereupon, in a moment and without a word, he took up his pen and granted my request.  This is the man who contests, with Henry Clay, the premiership of affection in the heart of Kentuckians; that presided over the highest legislative body in the world, and of which Clay had been the most illustrious member.  He was scholar, soldier, orator, statesman, and patriot.  The memory of this brief interview has lingered with me for almost half a century, fresh as the dew of the morning, and sweet as the fragrance of roses.  His superb physique, his versatile accomplishments and excellencies, his intellectual, moral, and social qualities---all in symmetrical and faultless combination---made him, in my conception, the most magnificent specimen of manhood I ever beheld.  When the Confederacy fell, the United States requited his long and brilliant public service with malignant hate and relentless persecution, and thus compelled him to seek refuge among strangers.  On entering the boat on the coast of Florida, which was to bear him away, he thanked a Confederate private who had served him;  adding that he wished it was in his power to requite his kindness.  ‘It is,’ replied the private.  ‘Corporal A. has abused and lorded it over me because he is an officer and I a private; I want to outrank him;’ whereupon he was brevetted Captain on the spot, and made happy.  This was the last official act of the Confederate Secretary of War.”