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The Great Meddler
In Henry Bergh—a reformed dilettante who founded the A.S.P.C.A.—many saw a latter-day Saint Francis of Assisi. But others, especially the cruel or the thoughtless, regarded him as The Great Meddler.
December 1967 | Volume 19, Issue 1
Bergh entered Columbia College in 1830 with some thought of a career in law. As a collegian he was a young man of fashion, enjoying the balls and the company of the town wits. Preferring the pleasures of travel to the life of study, he dropped out of Columbia and, after tasting Europe, turned his thoughts to marriage, In 1839, he wedded Catherine Matilda Taylor, daughter of an English architect practicing in New York. With Christian Bergh’s death in 1843, the shipyard was closed, and Henry and his wife, childless and well off (contemporaries put their wealth at several hundred thousand to a million dollars), travelled and lived extensively in Europe. They also built an elaborate residence on Fifth Avenue and, when stateside, moved in the social circles of Saratoga and Washington, as well as New York.
In Europe, Bergh reacted rapturously to the right things—the Parthenon, the Tirol, the cathedral at Cologne. Nor did he neglect the pleasures of the palate: he savored the great white wines of the Rhine Valley and the fine pate of Strasbourg. A hint of the future came in Seville, where the Berghs attended a bullfight and were revolted as some eight bulls were killed and twenty horses eviscerated.
Sometimes Bergh carried official dispatches, which entitled him to a “cabinet passport” and immunity from prying customs officers. The couple was in favor at various American legations, and attended soirées at the Elysée during the presidency of Louis Napoleon. The American minister at the Court of St. James’s, Abbott Lawrence, presented Bergh to Prince Albert, and later he was escorted to the House of Commons, where he saw Sir Robert Peel and Lord John Russell. In 1850, he visited Russia and was shown through the Kremlin. He liked the country, especially the nobility and the people’s attitude toward Americans. “There are many points of resemblance between Russia and the United States,” he wrote, noting in particular two of the less flattering—slavery and widespread corruption in high places.
Bergh turned to literature and diplomacy, since the American government was dispatching a number of literary envoys—this was the era of Washington Irving in Madrid, George Bancroft in Berlin, Bayard Taylor in St. Petersburg, and John Bigelow in Paris. Moreover, Bergh was critical of many American diplomats he had met, considering them less accustomed than himself to the ceremonious side of diplomatic life.
As an author Bergh was, unhappily, a poet manqué and an unsuccessful though persistent playwright (he often attempted humor, a trait in which he was extraordinarily deficient). He was, briefly, more fortunate in diplomacy. Early in 1863, President Lincoln named him to succeed Taylor as legation secretary at the court of Czar Alexander II, and there he served under the colorful southern abolitionist, Cassius Marcellus Clay (see “The Roar of the Aged Lion” in the June, 1960, AMERICAN HERITAGE ). Bergh dreamed of a ministerial position in Europe, but disillusionment was quick in coming.
“Because of Clay’s apprehensions that one of his underlings would become more popular with the Russians than he,” wrote his most recent biographer, Professor David L. Smiley. “… he mistreated them all. Clay’s jealousy erupted, and Bergh soon returned to the United States.” He did so reluctantly, lingering in London for five months while he maneuvered for a new appointment. He appealed to a number of men in power at home, and finally to Lincoln himself—all to no avail.
But his one diplomatic assignment had left Bergh a lasting legacy. While in Russia, he had watched the peasants beat their horses and had, from the legation carriage, directed his splendidly liveried Vladimir or Alexander to order the droshky drivers to stop it. “At last,” he commented, “I’ve found a way to utilize my gold lace.” This was the turning point in Bergh’s life toward his true mission.
Yet he admitted that he had never been particularly interested in animals. Once when he was calling on Miss Clara Morris, a leading emotional actress of the period, he drew back when her small dog put a friendly, inquiring paw on his knee. And he had even been capable of actions which, in his later years, he would have been the first to condemn. An entry in an early Bergh diary tells of an evening in Athens when, “as every other amusement had been exhausted, we gentlemen sallied out and stoned the dogs with which the city abounds.”
Not as one devoted to pets, then, nor again out of a sentimental flinching at happenings that caused animals pain, but rather because of a kind of abstract concept of justice, Bergh seems to have undertaken his lifework as spokesman for those who could not speak for themselves. Yet one wonders if that quite covers it. Horses, one feels, must have been his secret passion. His speeches, lectures, and reports were filled with affectionate praise of “that generous and faithful servant, the horse” and “that noble creature, the horse.” Why else did this reserved New Yorker, who looked like a blend of Quaker and French count, wear a gold horse’s-head scarfpin in the folds of his black satin cravat and recall, in one of those classical allusions of which he was so fond, how Darius owed his crown to the neighing of a horse? “What struck me most forcibly,” Bergh declared, “was that mankind derived immense benefits from these creatures, and gave them in return not the least protection.”