February 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 2
Faced with war, famine, and bloody revolution, a political wheel horse turned into a first-class ambassador.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
The Paris where Washburne and his family arrived in 1869 was a city living in the sunset of the Second Empire, an empire which had been created in 1851 by Louis Napoleon, nephew of the great Bonaparte. The sunset, though brief, was splendid. At the Tuileries, St. Cloud, and Compiègne the beautiful Empress Eugénie presided over a court that set the standard for glamour throughout the world. Worth made the dresses, Delacroix and Winterhalter painted the pictures, and Offenbach and Gounod provided the music. Under orders from Louis Napoleon, Haussmann, as prefect of the Seine, had created the Paris the world still wonders at. He had laid out the broad avenues radiating from the Arc de Triomphe, opened the great square in front of Notre Dame, planted the Bois de Boulogne, built the Opera. The 32,000 gas lamps with which Haussmann lined the streets made Paris truly the city of light.
And indeed, under the mica-like glitter the Empire was in trouble. There was rising opposition to Louis Napoleon both from the right-wing legitimists who wanted a Bourbon on the throne and the left-wing revolutionaries who were being influenced by Karl Marx scribbling away in London.
Louis’s first attempt to distract the opposition by winning la gloire for France came to an ignoble end when in 1867 his puppet emperor of Mexico, Maximilian, was shot by Juárez’s nationalists (see “The Operator and the Emperors,” in the April, 1964, AMERICAN HERITAGE). But in 1870, Louis thought he saw a second chance to add luster to his regime. The Queen of Spain had been chased from her throne and had found refuge at the French court. In June the Spanish crown was offered to a Hohenzollern, Prince Leopold of Sigmaringen, and suddenly France felt herself in danger of being eclipsed by Germany. Louis Napoleon’s government protested so violently that the candidate was withdrawn, but this taste of success led the French to demand that Prussia also apologize for its affront to French pride in advancing a Hohenzollern in the first place and promise never to try it again.
King William of Prussia was taking the cure at Bad Ems; the French ambassador tracked him down there and began demanding an apology. The old, unwarlike William became irritated, said that he would make no guarantees about future candidates for the Spanish crown, and refused to give the ambassador further audience. He then sent a telegram explaining the incident to Bismarck in Berlin. To the Prussian premier, who had been searching for a cause that would unite the several German states, this seemed a Godsend. He immediately published those parts of the telegram that showed the King’s resentment of the French attempt to humiliate him. Louis Napoleon took offense at this revelation of his rebuff and on July 15 declared war.
The Emperor and Empress had always shown kindness to Washburne. Indeed, what would turn out to be the last formal dinner ever held at the Tuileries—on June 7, 1870—was given in his honor. Now the end was near for Napoleon III and Eugénie. As Washburne put it, they were “plunged into the most terrible events of the century”—the Franco-Prussian War, during which Paris would be under siege for 130 days and under bombardment for 22; and the fierce civil war between the Paris Commune and the new French government after the Franco-Prussian armistice.
For all practical purposes the war was over in six disastrous weeks. The Germans under Moltke had more than 400,000 superb fighting men and 1,440 guns, while the French could muster only 250,000 ill-equipped soldiers. After a series of defeats 104,000 French troops, with Louis Napoleon himself at their head, were surrounded at Sedan on August 30. There was nothing left for Louis to do but surrender.
And now came Washburne’s supreme test, for while the highly glossed representatives of the other major powers found excuses (some legitimate) for fleeing the war-wracked capital, Washburne remained at his post.
By August, 1870, Elihu Benjamin Washburne found himself representing two governments—one a neutral, the other a belligerent—whose interests did not always coincide. For when France declared war on Prussia, Count Bismarck asked the American minister in Paris to protect German lives and property in the enemy capital. As the representative of the United States, Washburne’s responsibility was to maintain the good will of the French government and people; as the representative of the North German Confederation, his responsibility was to defend the interests of a warring government even when it might cause the displeasure of the nation to which he was accredited. His position was made even more delicate by the absence of any clear precedent to guide his conduct as the representative of a hostile power within enemy territory.
On August 28, General Trochu, the governor of Paris, ordered all Germans out of the French capital. There were then some 30,000 of them in the city, and each had to have a visa from the American minister in order to leave. The expulsion order caused panic. For weeks, Washburne wrote, he was “literally overwhelmed by these poor people.” The streets around the United States legation were completely blocked by refugees desperate to get safe-conduct passes. Six gendarmes were called out to hold back the crowd and to try to keep the front door clear. Inside the building people pushed and shoved to get up the two flights of stairs to Washburne’s office. One woman, when she finally stood before the American minister, was so excited she forgot her name. Before seven on some mornings there were already 500 people waiting; on some days 2,500 to 3,000 tried to see Washburne. To handle the crush he expanded his staff to eleven, including two volunteers, Nicholas Fish, the Secretary of State’s son, and George Eustis, a former Louisiana congressman and Confederate diplomat.
All this was accomplished in the midst of two million highly suspicious Frenchmen, who imagined “Prussian spies” under every bed. Yet despite his ambiguous position and the mass hysteria that surrounded him, Washburne managed to become a hero to the French people. On September 7 he announced that the United States acknowledged the fall of Napoleon III and would be the first government to officially recognize the new Republic. In front of the American legation the fleeing Germans were replaced by happy Frenchmen crying, “Vive l’Amérique!” For days regiments of the national guard paraded, bands played, French and American flags waved, proclamations of thanks were presented, and Washburne was kissed on both cheeks. On one day he was visited by twenty-one delegations, and each had to make a speech of praise for the U.S. minister. The fact that he also happened to be the representative of the Prussian government was conveniently forgotten.
When the Germans wished to protest a violation of a flag of truce, they had to do it through Washburne; when the French wished to arrange for a safe-conduct pass so that Marshal MacMahon’s wife could cross Prussian lines to visit her wounded husband at Sedan, they had to do it through Washburne. He was the official means of communication between the French and German governments.
Washburne carried on all of these activities in addition to his usual tasks as a United States diplomat. He was hampered by long delays in communication with Washington, but continued to keep the State Department informed of fast-changing events as best he could. Sometimes he employed bits of midwestern color that must have startled Secretary Fish, the New York aristocrat. Describing General Trochu, for example, Washburne said he was “weak as the Indian’s dog which had to lean against a tree to bark.” Then there were Americans and American property to be protected. The French initiated several schemes to levy heavy taxes on the apartments of U.S. citizens, but Washburne succeeded in having them revoked. He was especially proud of the fact that while American property in Paris was estimated to be worth seven to ten million dollars, its owners suffered less than five hundred dollars in war damages.
The Prussian siege of Paris began on the weekend of September 17. By its thirty-fourth day food shortages were becoming a real concern and fresh meat was rationed to one-sixteenth of a pound per day. The American minister reported that “the magnificent blooded steed of the Rothschilds, by the side of the old plug of the cabman,” went to the slaughterhouse. Mule meat, two dollars a pound in gold, was considered superior to horse meat. (Washburne assured the Swiss minister that he would not starve; the Swiss, who had a sense of humor, answered, “Neigh.”) Butcher shops were stocked with cats, rats, and dogs. The zoos later contributed such items to Parisian menus as kangaroo, wolf, antelope, and elephant. Lions and tigers were spared because of the danger of trying to kill them, but the Boucherie Anglaise was offering its customers camel kidneys.
Washburne was in considerable personal danger. The street on which he lived was mined, and on January 5,1871, when the Germans began bombarding the city, a shell struck the American legation, missing Washburne by twenty feet. Yet he did not wait for danger to seek him out. As the secretary of the legation later recalled, “If we heard of any part of Paris where shells were likely to burst and bullets to whistle, Washburne was sure to have important business in that direction.” “Voila!” the Minister cheerfully wrote in his diary. “Another revolution.”
While the French government was forced to get what news it could via balloons and pigeons, Washburne regularly received English newspapers in diplomatic pouches from London. His office was filled with news-hungry reporters, but by agreement with Bismarck he gave no information. A Parisian journal pleaded, “We gave you Lafayette and Rochambeau, in return for which we only ask for one copy of an English paper.” Finally, after Washburne’s porter was offered a thousand-franc bribe for a paper, the Minister concluded that “it is too much to me to have the news for two millions of people. … I have therefore written Bismarck that I will have no more London newspapers sent to me.”
It was not an easy decision for Washburne, who found the long siege oppressive. “Four months of siege today, and where has all this time gone? It seems to me as if I had been buried alive,” he wrote in his diary on January 18, 1871. But finally, on January 27, the 131st day of the siege, the terms of an armistice were announced, and two days later it took effect.
The news was badly received by the average Parisian, who wanted to fight on. Under the terms of the armistice the Government of National Defense had the right to convoke at the city of Bordeaux a freely elected assembly which would decide whether to continue the war; if the decision was negative, the assembly would agree upon the terms of peace it would ask for. The assembly duly met at Bordeaux and sent commissioners to Versailles to negotiate a peace with the Germans. A treaty was signed at the end of February, and the assembly at Bordeaux ratified it shortly afterward. The terms were harsh: France was to pay an indemnity of five billion francs to Germany; Paris must submit to a triumphal parade of the Prussian army; all of Alsace and part of Lorraine were to be ceded to the conqueror. Meanwhile, with enormous insolence, Bismarck had had William of Prussia proclaimed Emperor of Germany in the palace at Versailles, where once the kings of France had received the homage of Europe.
To the people of Paris, the magnificent parade put on by thirty thousand German troops was particularly galling. Washburne’s description of the city on the day of the great insult, March 1, 1871, reveals their reaction:
When the Germans were all gone, a few days later, the Parisians furiously scrubbed the streets along which the victors had marched.
Embittered by the fact that their four months of suffering had come to nothing, humiliated by the entry of German troops into their city, and dissatisfied because their government was in the hands of men unsympathetic to the republican ideal, the people of Paris soon rose up in revolt and proclaimed a municipal government—the leftist Commune. It was made up of a dozen political groups: Moderate Republicans, radical Republicans, Jacobins, Socialist members of the First International, and true Communists. Their aims varied from a wish to separate church and state to a genuinely socialist program communizing all property. In London, Karl Marx gave the movement his blessing.
The Communards were helped by the National Guard, which was sympathetic to them and which had not been disarmed by the Germans. By the end of March a state of civil war existed between the Commune and the official government, which had moved to Versailles. Once again Washburne was in the middle. The city that he saw on his trips between Paris and Versailles was a sorry contrast to the splendid metropolis he had written about when he had first arrived:
But worse was to come. The Commune had taken hostages, especially nuns and priests. During the week of May 21-28, with the city under heavy bombardment, the desperate Communards began to execute the hostages. Typical was the fate of one group consisting of ten priests, a seminarian, a national guardsman, a police officer, a clerk, and three gendarmes. They were taken to an open lot and surrounded by a crowd that fired at them for twenty-five minutes, until all were dead. Altogether, some 480 people were massacred by the Commune, including the Archbishop of Paris, whom Washburne had interceded for without success.
Through it all Washburne continued to move about Paris helping where he could, attempting to save not only priests but the few Germans who remained. Then, on May 23, as government troops advanced to quell the uprising, the Communards set fire to Paris. By the time government forces had taken the city the Tuileries, the Hotel de Ville, and other important buildings were in ruins; the Louvre with all its treasures had just barely been saved. The Commune had lasted seventy-one days.
The government troops took a terrible vengeance. By conservative estimate they killed 17,000 Parisians suspected of being Communards—including many women and children. One general ordered any man with a watch to be shot, because he must have been an official of the Commune. Washburne, no sympathizer with the revolution, was horrified at the government’s excesses.
In the middle of June, with Paris again calm, Washburne headed off to the spas of Bohemia—first to Carlsbad for the six weeks’ cure, afterward to Franzenbad to take, as he said, “the famous mud baths.”
In December of 1874, the German government let it be known that it wanted to give him some testimonial for the services he had rendered its citizens in Paris. Washburne had to answer that he was not allowed to accept gifts from a foreign government. It was arranged that the recognition would be made after his tour of duty was officially over. In September, 1877, the last month of his stay in Paris, he went to Berlin to visit an old friend from Illinois and received an invitation to have dinner with the Emperor at his palace at Babelsburg. “I sat by the side of the Emperor at table,” Washburne recounts with evident pride, “and found him very agreeable. He was, as was also the Empress, full of expressions of gratitude to me for all that I had done for the Germans in France during the Franco-German War.” The gratitude was tangibly expressed by the presentation to the retiring minister of portraits of the Emperor and of Bismarck.
Washburne reached America—after an absence of more than eight years—in the latter part of September. Upon his return Secretary of State Hamilton Fish said, “Washburne is entitled to all the honor his friends may wish to confer upon him. … No compliment can be paid him that I would not join in.” There was some reason to believe that the honor would be the 1880 Republican presidential nomination. President Hayes had stated at the outset of his term that he would not be a candidate for re-election, and the field was wide open. Although Washburne was decidedly a dark horse, he did have several advantages: he had avoided the scandals of the Grant administration, having declined the Treasury portfolio in 1874 to remain in France; he was now immensely popular with the German-Americans; and his vigorous though unsuccessful negotiations with the Communards to spare the life of the Archbishop of Paris had earned him the gratitude of American Catholics.
As the nominating convention drew near, however, it became clear that former President Grant wanted a third term, and Washburne would not announce his own candidacy in opposition to his old friend. This tied the hands of his supporters. The nomination went—on the thirty-sixth ballot—to James A. Garfield. Afterward, Washburne’s backers claimed that Grant had cost Washburne the nomination. Grant, on the other hand, held that he might have made it if Washburne’s support for him had not been half-hearted; after the convention Grant’s son was reported to have called Washburne a liar and a fraud.