Monday, April 20, 2009

A swarthy old man

One hundred and fifty years ago today Edward Bates, a potential US presidential candidate at the time, began keeping a diary, one he was to carry on writing while serving as Attorney General under Abraham Lincoln and for much of the last decade of his life. Bates’ diary - which is full of interesting entries about politics, society, gardening and literature - is freely available on the internet.

Edward Bates was born in 1793, on the family plantation in Goochland County, Virginia. He served in the war of 1812 against Britain, and then moved to St. Louis, Missouri Territory, to study law. He was admitted to the bar in 1817, and worked as an attorney while also rising through the political ranks in the new state of Missouri. He then served a term in the US House of Representatives (1827-1829) before returning to state politics in the 1830s.

Bates became a prominent member of the Whig Party during the 1840s. When the party broke up, though, he became a Republican. He also became involved in the campaign against slavery, and freed his own slaves. In 1860, Bates was one of the nominations to become the party’s presidential candidate but when it became clear he couldn’t win, he gave his full support to Lincoln, and was subsequently rewarded by being appointed Attorney General.

During his term of office in Lincoln’s administration, Bates opposed military conflict with the Confederacy; and then, during the civil war, he opposed the recruitment of black regiments. Subsequently, Lincoln and Bates disagreed about how the Confederacy should be treated after the war, and Bates resigned in November 1864. He died just over 140 years ago in March 1869. For more on Bates, see Wikipedia or Spartacus.

A diary - or rather notebooks - Bates kept in the last decade of his life was edited by Howard K Beale and published in Volume IV of the Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the year 1930 as The Diary of Edward Bates 1859-1866. This edition is freely available at Internet Archive. More recently, editions have been published by Da Capo Press in 1971 and Read Books in 2007, and these are partly viewable on Googlebooks.

The Preface to The Diary of Edward Bates 1859-1866 explains that it contains the edited contents of five volumes held by the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress. The first covers the period from April 1859, when Bates was already seriously discussing the possibility of his nomination for the Presidency, to February 1861, when he was about to depart for Washington to enter Lincoln’s Cabinet. The second contains ‘Notes of Business in Cabinet’ from February 1861 to November 1862. And the last is ‘badly worn and bulging with newspaper clippings and other insertions’. The preface also notes that although Bates kept an earlier diary (from 1846 to 1852), held by the Missouri Historical Society, it was not available for inclusion in this book.

In his introduction to the diary, Beale talks of it as being important in terms of politics, local and national, and social history: Bates ‘was interested in the minutiae of life’ such as ‘the weather, his garden, his servants, his financial dealings, the cost of a watch, his changes from summer to winter clothing, repairs on the outbuildings’. Plus, Beale says, one of the most interesting features of the diary is ‘the breadth of reading and familiarity with works of literature and history that it reveals’.

Here is the start of the very first entry in The Diary of Edward Bates 1859-1866, dated 20 April 1859, exactly 150 years ago today: ‘Today was published in St Louis papers (copied from the New York Tribune) a recent letter of mine to the Whig Committee of New York, in answer to their call upon me for my views and opinions on the politics of the country, and the signs of the times.’ And there follows the text of the long letter, and much about Bates’ politics.

A week or so later on 29 April, he wrote this in his diary: ‘This is the anniversary of my arrival in St Louis, 45 years ago April 29, 1814. Then, I was a ruddy youth, of 20, now I am a swarthy old man of 65, with a grey beard, and a head beginning to grow bald. In that lapse of time, I have witnessed mighty changes in population, locomotion, commerce and the arts; and the change is still going on, with a growing impetus. And every year adds to the relative importance of the Central position of St Louis. Already, it is the focal point of the great Valley, and, in course of time, will become the seat of Empire in North America. I will soon sink into oblivion, but St Louis the village in which I studied law will become the seat of wealth and power the ruling city of the continent.’

And here is the entry from 15 April 1865, the day of Lincoln’s assassination (see also earlier article Lincoln and Fanny Seward for another diary entry of the same day).

‘This morning we have the astounding news, by various telegrams that last night President Lincoln was murdered in a public Theatre, in Washington! and that the assassin escaped, in the stupid amazement of the crowd, by leaping from the box to the stage and disappearing behind the scenes. One account says that as the assassin ran across the stage, brandishing a knife, he exclamimed [sic] ‘I am avenged sic semper tyr[&]nnis’. Sic semper tyrannis is the motto on the shield of Virginia and this may give a clue to the unravelling of a great conspiracy, for this assassination is not the act of one man; but only one scene of a great drama.

Also that about the same hour, Mr. Seward, being ill in bed, was assailed by another (or the same) assassin, and received several stabs, but it is not yet known whether or no they are mortal !

It is also said that two of his sons (in attendance on a/c of his sickness his severe hurt - lately, at Eichmond) were dangerously wounded by the assassin : Fred : W Asst. Secy, was knocked down by a billet, over [the] head; and Major S paymaster, U. S. A. was severely stabbed.

This day was appointed by authority, for displays of rejoicing and thanksgiving over the recent great victories of the national arms. I presume it is turned into a day of mourning.

We will thank God as heartily, for the solid benefits derived by the nation, from those great achievements, but at such a time, any boistrous display of joy would be contrary to good feeling and good taste.

I shall abstain from all ostentacious [sic] displ[a]y of exuberant emotion, for besides a deep sense of the calamity which the nation has sustained, my private feelings are deeply moved by the sudden murder of my chief, with and under whom I have served the country, through many difficult and trying scenes, and always with mutual sentiments of respect and friendship. I mourn his fall, both for the country and for myself.’

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