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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
To an observer looking down from the House gallery on an ordinary day, the Illinois congressman appeared to be in perpetual motion—leaning back to whisper to a colleague, whistling for a page, scratching away with his pen, suddenly jumping up to raise an objection. His voice was full and deep, his style of oratory easy and offhand, his gestures “wild in the extreme.” “The model is Yankee,” wrote a newspaperman, “but the cargo is Western. He is broad-shouldered, good-bellied. … He leaves a plump impression upon your mind.”
He was to represent Illinois in the Congress for sixteen years, and eventually to rank first in seniority. As the tight-pursed chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee lie earned the title “Watchdog of the Treasury,” though on one occasion, after a private bill of Cadwallader’s slipped through without objection, a colleague noted, “The watchdog don’t bark when one of the family goes by.” To some, Elihu was the zealous guardian of the public’s money, the ever-alert foe of government waste and extravagance. To others, such as Secretary of the Navy Welles, Washburne practiced a “mock economy.” Congressman Donnelly, no friend of the family, said that if Elihu ever reached heaven “he would harangue the assembled hosts, cherubim and seraphim, angels and archangels, with insinuations of dishonesty, would plead for economy, and would have the wheels of the universe stopped because they consumed too much grease.”
Unlike brothers Cadwallader and William Drew, both millionaires and perhaps too arrogant to be really good politicians, Elihu was every inch the political animal, a master at the art of giving and receiving favors. The power that derived from his congressional seniority was exceeded only by the power whose source was his intimacy with two Presidents, Lincoln and Grant. While their relationship was partly an accident of geography—all three having lived in Illinois—Elihu nevertheless had the intuitive ability to spot a winner long before politicians whose divining rods were less sensitive.
He first met Lincoln in 1843, began calling him “Old Abe” in 1847, and in 1860 wrote a campaign biography for him that did much to win Lincoln the Presidency. Right before his inauguration Lincoln was smuggled into Washington because of a threat against his life. Washburne was the only one waiting to meet him at Union Station. It was early morning, still dark, and the Secret Service men nearly roughed up Washburne before Lincoln cried out, “Don’t strike him. I know that voice. It’s Washburne’s.” During the White House years Elihu was one of the President’s most frequent evening visitors; then Lincoln would put his long legs up on his desk and become again the storyteller of the Eighth Circuit. Washburne was Lincoln’s candidate for Speaker of the House in 1863. It was in a letter to him that the President announced his intention to seek a second term, and when Lincoln was assassinated, Washburne was a pallbearer.
Lincoln and Washburne were mutually indebted, but with Grant and Washburne the obligations were differently distributed. When in the spring of 1860 Grant came to Galena to clerk in his father’s leather goods store, he seemed to be marked as one of life’s losers. He had resigned his army commission amid tales of heavy drinking, and had failed as a farmer, rent collector, and real estate agent. Washburne met him around the stove in the Grant store, but Ulysses seemed so insignificant that the Congressman, usually one to find interest in any potential voter, scarcely noted the meeting.
Then came the Civil War, and in the rapid expansion of the Union Army a powerful congressman and White House intimate like Washburne was entitled to nominate a general; Grant was probably the only West Pointer in his district. When told of his appointment as brigadier, Grant seemed genuinely surprised and remarked, “That’s some of Washburne’s work.”
The Congressman doubtless enjoyed having his own general. Whenever his duties allowed, he would sneak off to the front to join Grant for a few days of war-watching. Washburne was at Grant’s side as he crossed the Rapidan into the Wilderness—one black-clad civilian in the midst of thousands of soldiers—and the commander’s aide-de-camp observed that the troops were curious to know whether Grant was bringing along a parson to read the Confederacy’s funeral service, or his private undertaker.
Following the victory at Vicksburg, Lincoln remarked that Washburne “always claimed Grant as his by right of discovery.” But the Congressman was not merely a fair-weather friend. His forceful defense of Grant after Shiloh kept the jackals away; anyone who doubted the value of such able political backstopping had only to consult such less fortunate generals as Charles P. Stone, Fitz-John Porter, Don Carlos Buell, even George B. McClellan. Lincoln bucked complaints of Grant’s intemperance to Washburne, a teetotaller, and no further action was taken. It was Washburne who introduced the bill to create the special rank of lieutenant general for Grant—and lobbied it through Congress. At Appomattox Washburne placed himself strategically at Grant’s side; there was no longer any doubt that he had hitched his wagon to a star. And on election night, 1868, Grant waited in the library of the Washburne home for the returns that would make him President.