The editor of the Chatauque (N.Y.) Democrat was spending his time in Washington, and writing home letters for publication. One of them, it was claimed, contained “contraband news,” and the editor (if his statement may be believed) was summoned before the Cabinet to answer for the heinous offence. Here is his account of the affair:–
“So many weeks had slipped away since my friends in Jamestown commenced sending the Democrat regularly to the members of the Cabinet and General McClellan, that the vision of a file of ferocious soldiers had departed from my imagination, when one morning the subscriber requesting his distinguished presence at the White House at a certain hour. I had no doubt but the note was from Mrs. Lincoln, who, I supposed, wished to apologize for the blunder that she made in my not receiving her invitation to the White House ball.
“So, giving my boots an extra blacking, and my moustache an extra twist, I wended my way to the President’s domicile. After disposing of hat, cane, &c., I was conducted into the room used for Cabinet meetings, and soon found myself in the presence of the President, Messrs. Seward, Stanton, and Welles. Mr. Seward, whom I had met at a dinner party at General Risley’s, in Fredonia, during the campaign of 1860, recognized me, and at once alluded to the excellence of General Risley’s brandy, and proposed to Abe that he should send over to his cellar at the State Department and get a nice article that he had there. I noticed three copies of the Chatauque Democrat spread out on the table, bearing certain initials, which for the sake of avoiding personalities I will not mention. I also noticed ominous black lines drawn around certain passages which I recognized as being part of my letter of several weeks ago. They looked like Mr. Benton’s expunged resolutions on the Senate Journal.
Mr. Welles was so deeply engaged in reading a fourth copy, that he did not look up as I went in. It seems that the “mailing clerks” at Jamestown had neglected to furnish the Navy Department with a copy, and the Secretary was deeply absorbed in its perusal. Mr. Stanton was busy writing his recent order, thanking God and General Halleck for the victory and slaughter at Pittsburgh Landing, and paid no attention to my entrance.
Mr. Lincoln said: “A Cabinet meeting had been called at the request of General McClellan, to consider my offence in writing the letter conspicuously marked in the Democrat before us, and whcih had been kindly furnished several of their number by certain patriotic and high-toned gentlemen in Jamestown, N. Y. But they would have to delay a few minutes, to await the arrival of the Commodore from Yorktown, with despatches from General McClellan, who had telegraphed that the business must not go on till his despatches arrived.”
During the interval, me, and Abe, and Seward, sauntered through the rooms, looking at the various objects of interest. On entering the library, we found that the messenger had returned from Seward’s cellar, with some of the Secretary’s best Auburn brand. The cork was drawn, and we sampled the fluid. We next visited the ladies’ parlor, and were presented to “Mary,” who came forward, and shook me cordially by the hand, and desired to know “how I flourished;” said “she never should forgive me for not attending her ball.” She was greatly shocked to hear that there had been a failure to connect, about getting the card of invitation.
We were soon summoned to the council; the Commodore had arrived, bringing seventeen of General McClellan’s staff, who had been delegated by him to transmit to the President his copy of the Democrat, which he had received at Fortress Monrow. On opening it, the same ominous ink-marks were drawn around the passages intended to be brought to the especial notice of the General. The staff-officers then withdrew and the President proposed to proceed to business. At this juncture Mr. Welles looked up from the paper he had been so busily perusing, and inquired of the President: “If he had ever heard anything about the fight the Democrat spoke of, between the Monitor and the Merrimac, and the danger there was of the latter getting out and coming up the Potomac and bombarding Washington?” Mr. Lincoln said: “It was a fact.” The Secretary seemed greatly surprised, and said: “He must write to his brother-in-law in New York, to send round a vessel to Hampton Roads, to watch the Merrimac, and also to send him the Weekly Post, so that he could get the news.” He chose the Post, because he had been in the habit, aforetime, of contributing essays for its columns. He also remarked that there was “much valuable and deeply interesting news in the Democrat,” which was then only some four weeks old.
Mr. Stanton here proposed that the contraband article should be read, as he had been so busy of late, he had not read the copy sent him by his patriotic correspondents at Jamestown. So Mr. Seward read the article through carefully. When it was completed, Mr. Stanton brought his fist down on the table with the energy and vigor for which he is celebrated, and says he: “Them’s my sentiments, by —–.” The Secretary, contrary to the opinion of many who know him only by his short, pungent, pious, pithy, patriotic, and peculiar proclamations, profanes pretty profusely whtn excited. During the reading he had been fumbling his vest-pocket. Says he: “What’s the price of that paper per annum?” I informed him that it was furnished to advance paying subscribers at one dollar. He handed me a gold dollar, and says he: “Send it along.” Mr. Welles, who was just then absorbed in reading the account of the “embarkation” of the army from Alexandria, looked up and said: “He had thought of subscribing himself, but as Mr. Stanton had done so, he would have George send him the Post, and they could exchange.”
The President now called for an opinion from the other members of the Cabinet, Mr. Stanton having voted, as I have before remarked. Mr. Seward, who was in a happy frame of mind, said that: “Perhaps it was impolitic to have written just such an article, as he was always opposed to the expression of any decided opinions, but he thought the editor of the Democrat knew good liquor when he smelt it, and in view of the fact that he hailed from Old Chatauque, whose inhabitants he remembered with pride, having once been a resident there, he voted that the article was not contraband, but that the writer must not do so again.”
Mr. Welles said: “He did not know enough about the subject under consideration to give an opinion. He had been much interested in the perusal of the article, and had found some useful hints in it in regard to the danger to be apprehended from the Merrimac, which he thought he should act upon by next year–on the whole, he thought the good balanced the evil, and he was for calling it square.”
It was the President’s turn, now, to decide the matter. He always gets the opinion of his “constitutional advisers” all round, and then does as he has a mind to. Abe turned to me with a merry twinkle in his eye, and his lovely and expressive countenance seemed more seraphic than ever, and says he to me, says he: “Your letter on McClellan reminds me of a story that I heard in the days of John Tyler’s Administration. There was an editor in Rhode Island, noted for his love of fun–it came to him irresistibly–and he couldn’t help saying just what came into his mind. He was appointed Postmaster by Tyler. Some time after Tyler vetoed the Bank Bill, and came into disrepute with the Whigs, a conundrum went the rounds of the papers. It was as follows: ‘Why is John Tyler like an ass?’ This editor copied the conundrum, and could not resist the temptation to answer it, which he did as follows: ‘Because he is an ass.’ This piece of fun cost him his head, but it was a fact.
“On the whole,” said Abe, “here’s a dollar; send me your valuable paper for a year, and be careful in future how you disclose Government secrets that have been published in the Norfolk Day Book only two weeks.”
I promised to be more discreet hereafter, pledging myself not to interfere further with General Thomas “or any other man” in his exclusive right to give the rebels the earliest information possible; also pledging myself to the best of my ability to aid the Government in its patriotic efforts to promote “loyal ignorance” among the masses of the Northern people.
Originally posted 2008-03-07 13:16:06.