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An American In Paris
Faced with war, famine, and bloody revolution, a political wheel horse turned into a first-class ambassador.
February 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 2
“On the 10th day of September, 1877, I left Paris for home, going to Havre and then taking the steamer to pass over to Southampton where I was to take the German steamer for New York. After a reasonably good passage to New York we reached what was thereafter to be our home at Chicago, on the 23rd of September, 1877. It was on the 17th day of March, 1869, that … Mr. Hamilton Fish as Secretary of State … [had] signed my commission as Minister to France … this made my term of service as Minister eight years and a half, a longer time than that of any of my predecessors.”
There is an unmistakable note of satisfaction, of accomplishment and completion, in these last lines of Elihu Washburne’s Recollections of a Minister to France, and well there should be. When he had been appointed to the post by President Grant, he had served for sixteen years in the House of Representatives, some of that time as chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee; but his fitness for a diplomatic career was not apparent, and his appointment to Paris raised few cheers. “He goes as Minister to France, a post for which he may have some qualifications,” The Nation commented on March 18, 1869, “but what they are it would be difficult to say.” And the often-malicious Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, wrote: “He may represent correctly the man who appoints him, but is no credit to the country.”
Yet during his tour of duty in Paris Washburne was to prove very much a credit to his country, the personification of the nineteenth-century American ideal: the man of uncommon common sense who, when challenged beyond his expectation, responds beyond ordinary limits.
Washburne came from an unusual family. He and his brothers—who spelled their surname without the final “e”—were collectively to serve fifty years in Congress, representing four different states: Maine, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. During one five-year period, starting in 1855, three of them were in the House of Representatives together. Indeed it seemed, as the eccentric Populist congressman Ignatius Donnelly said, that in the Washburn family “every young male … is born into the world with ‘M.C.’ franked across his broadest part.”
But “Member of Congress” must have seemed a most unlikely expectation for the sons of Israel Washburn, Sr., a bankrupt Maine shopkeeper. In recounting his early years, Elihu wrote, “Our family was very, very poor.” He was not the type to exaggerate; only one “very” would not have been sufficient. After the sheriff had attached their country store in 1829, thirteen-year-old Elihu spent five months as a farmhand working off a twenty-five-dollar debt that his father owed one “Uncle Lovewell.” By the time he was fourteen Elihu could write, “I was not only not an expense to them [his parents], but my various little earnings went to help support the family.” He worked primarily as an apprentice printer, having been impressed by Franklin’s autobiography, until a doctor told him that he had a hernia and would have to find a less strenuous occupation. He chose the law.
His mother, hugely ambitious for her family, was to say that no one state was big enough to hold her sons. First to go west was Cadwallader. (Besides becoming a congressman, he would also be a Union general, governor of Wisconsin, and a millionaire.) Elihu left home the next year, 1840, and on Cadwallader’s advice settled in a little town in northwestern Illinois called Galena, population 4,000. Lead mines were fast making it the metropolis of the upper Mississippi; the rough miners lived in surrounding villages with such picturesque names as Blackleg, Red Dog, Bunkum, and Hard Scrabble. This was a profitable place for a young lawyer. “The people,” Elihu said, “are a litigious set.”
Washburne was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1852, at the age of thirty-six. His older brother, Israel, had preceded him by a term. (An ugly little fellow with a kind heart, Israel was to be the Civil War governor of Maine.) The handsome Cadwallader, elected from Wisconsin, followed his brothers to Washington in 1854. The three Whig congressmen shared the same house and, in the opinion of reporter George Alfred Townsend, “They loved and strengthened each other up.“ The fourth Washburn brother to serve in the House of Representatives, William Drew of Minnesota, did not arrive until after the Civil War. He became a millionaire miller and was elected to the upper house, which later prompted the Washington Gridiron Club to dub him “The Flour of the Senate.”
Fiercely proud of each other, the brothers were also fiercely united against all enemies. In February of 1858 an argument over slavery turned into a free-for-all on the floor of the House of Representatives. Washburn of Wisconsin rushed to the defense of Washburne of Illinois. Cadwallader grabbed Elihu’s attacker, William Barksdale of Mississippi, by the hair, but the hair turned out to be a wig and came off in his hands. “This incident was so funny,” reported an eyewitness, “that they all stopped to laugh and the pause put an end to the riot. Cadwallader restored Barksdale’s wig to him and in his excitement, Barksdale put it on wrongside foremost.” Elihu’s mail showed that his role in the fight had proved vastly popular with his constituents.