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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Breaking in a President

By Henry Adams (1838–1918)

[Democracy. An American Novel. 1880.]

OF all titles ever assumed by prince or potentate, the proudest is that of the Roman pontiffs: “Servus servorum Dei”—“Servant of the servants of God.” In former days it was not admitted that the devil’s servants could by right have any share in government. They were to be shut out, punished, exiled, maimed, and burned. The devil has no servants now; only the people have servants. There may be some mistake about a doctrine which makes the wicked, when a majority, the mouthpiece of God against the virtuous, but the hopes of mankind are staked on it; and if the weak in faith sometimes quail when they see humanity floating in a shoreless ocean, on this plank, which experience and religion long since condemned as rotten, mistake or not, men have thus far floated better by its aid than the popes ever did with their prettier principle; so that it will be a long time yet before society repents.

Whether the new President and his chief rival, Mr. Silas P. Ratcliffe, were or were not servants of the servants of God is not material here. Servants they were to some one. No doubt many of those who call themselves servants of the people are no better than wolves in sheep’s clothing, or asses in lions’ skins. One may see scores of them any day in the Capitol when Congress is in session, making noisy demonstrations, or more usefully doing nothing. A wiser generation will employ them in manual labor; as it is, they serve only themselves. But there are two officers, at least, whose service is real—the President and his Secretary of the Treasury. The Hoosier Quarryman had not been a week in Washington before he was heartily homesick for Indiana. No maid-of-all-work in a cheap boarding-house was ever more harassed. Every one conspired against him. His enemies gave him no peace. All Washington was laughing at his blunders, and ribald sheets, published on a Sunday, took delight in printing the new Chief Magistrate’s sayings and doings, chronicled with outrageous humor, and placed by malicious hands where the President could not but see them. He was sensitive to ridicule, and it mortified him to the heart to find that remarks and acts, which to him seemed sensible enough, should be capable of such perversion. Then he was overwhelmed with public business. It came upon him in a deluge, and he now, in his despair, no longer tried to control it. He let it pass over him like a wave. His mind was muddled by the innumerable visitors to whom he had to listen. But his greatest anxiety was the Inaugural Address which, distracted as he was, he could not finish, although in another week it must be delivered. He was nervous about his Cabinet; it seemed to him that he could do nothing until he had disposed of Ratcliffe. Already, thanks to the President’s friends, Ratcliffe had become indispensable; still an enemy, of course, but one whose hands must be tied; a sort of Samson, to be kept in bonds until the time came for putting him out of the way, but in the meanwhile to be utilized. This point being settled, the President had in imagination begun to lean upon him; for the last few days he had postponed everything till next week, “when I get my Cabinet arranged”; which meant, when he got Ratcliffe’s assistance; and he fell into a panic whenever he thought of the chance that Ratcliffe might refuse.

He was pacing his room impatiently on Monday morning, an hour before the time fixed for Ratcliffe’s visit. His feelings still fluctuated violently, and if he recognized the necessity of using Ratcliffe, he was not the less determined to tie Ratcliffe’s hands. He must be made to come into a Cabinet where every other voice would be against him. He must be prevented from having any patronage to dispose of. He must be induced to accept these conditions at the start. How present this to him in such a way as not to repel him at once? All this was needless, if the President had only known it, but he thought himself a profound statesman, and that his hand was guiding the destinies of America to his own reëlection. When at length, on the stroke of ten o’clock, Ratcliffe entered the room, the President turned to him with nervous eagerness, and, almost before offering his hand, said that he hoped Mr. Ratcliffe had come prepared to begin work at once. The Senator replied that, if such was the President’s decided wish, he would offer no further opposition. Then the President drew himself up in the attitude of an American Cato, and delivered a prepared address, in which he said that he had chosen the members of his Cabinet with a careful regard to the public interests; that Mr. Ratcliffe was essential to the combination; that he expected no disagreement on principles, for there was but one principle which he should consider fundamental, namely, that there should be no removals from office except for cause; and that under these circumstances he counted upon Mr. Ratcliffe’s assistance as a matter of patriotic duty.

To all this Ratcliffe assented without a word of objection, and the President, more convinced than ever of his own masterly statesmanship, breathed more freely than for a week past. Within ten minutes they were actively at work together, clearing away the mass of accumulated business. The relief of the Quarryman surprised himself. Ratcliffe lifted the weight of affairs from his shoulders with hardly an effort. He knew everybody and everything. He took most of the President’s visitors at once into his own hands and dismissed them with great rapidity. He knew what they wanted; he knew what recommendations were strong and what were weak; who was to be treated with deference and who was to be sent away abruptly; where a blunt refusal was safe, and where a pledge was allowable. The President even trusted him with the unfinished manuscript of the Inaugural Address, which Ratcliffe returned to him the next day with such notes and suggestions as left nothing to be done beyond copying them out in a fair hand. With all this, he proved himself a very agreeable companion. He talked well and enlivened the work; he was not a hard taskmaster, and when he saw that the President was tired, he boldly asserted that there was no more business that could not as well wait a day, and so took the weary Stone-cutter out to drive for a couple of hours, and let him go peacefully to sleep in the carriage. They dined together, and Ratcliffe took care to send for Tom Lord to amuse them, for Tom was a wit and a humorist, and kept the President in a laugh. Mr. Lord ordered the dinner and chose the wines. He could be coarse enough to suit even the President’s palate, and Ratcliffe was not behindhand. When the new Secretary went away at ten o’clock that night, his chief, who was in high good humor with his dinner, his champagne, and his conversation, swore with some unnecessary granite oaths that Ratcliffe was “a clever fellow anyhow,” and he was glad “that job was fixed.”

The truth was that Ratcliffe had now precisely ten days before the new Cabinet could be set in motion, and in these ten days he must establish his authority over the President so firmly that nothing could shake it. He was diligent in good works. Very soon the court began to feel his hand. If a business letter or a written memorial came in, the President found it easy to indorse: “Referred to the Secretary of the Treasury.” If a visitor wanted anything for himself or another, the invariable reply came to be: “Just mention it to Mr. Ratcliffe”; or, “I guess Ratcliffe will see to that.” Before long he even made jokes in a Catonian manner; jokes that were not peculiarly witty, but somewhat gruff and boorish, yet significant of a resigned and self-contented mind. One morning he ordered Ratcliffe to take an iron-clad ship of war and attack the Sioux in Montana, seeing that he was in charge of the army and navy and Indians at once, and jack-of-all-trades; and again he told a naval officer who wanted a court-martial that he had better get Ratcliffe to sit on him, for he was a whole court-martial by himself. That Ratcliffe held his chief in no less contempt than before, was probable but not certain, for he kept silence on the subject before the world, and looked solemn whenever the President was mentioned.

Before three days were over, the President, with a little more than his usual abruptness, suddenly asked him what he knew about this fellow Carson, whom the Pennsylvanians were bothering him to put in his Cabinet. Ratcliffe was guarded: he scarcely knew the man; Mr. Carson was not in politics, he believed, but was pretty respectable—for a Pennsylvanian. The President returned to the subject several times; got out his list of Cabinet officers and figured industriously upon it with a rather perplexed face; called Ratcliffe to help him; and at last the “slate” was fairly broken, and Ratcliffe’s eyes gleamed when the President caused his list of nominations to be sent to the Senate on the 5th March, and Josiah B. Carson, of Pennsylvania, was promptly confirmed as Secretary of the Interior.

But his eyes gleamed still more humorously when, a few days afterwards, the President gave him a long list of some two-score names, and asked him to find places for them. He assented good-naturedly, with a remark that it might be necessary to make a few removals to provide for these cases.

“Oh, well,” said the President, “I guess there’s just about as many as that had ought to go out anyway. These are friends of mine; got to be looked after. Just stuff ’em in somewhere.”

Even he felt a little awkward about it, and, to do him justice, this was the last that was heard about the fundamental rule of his administration. Removals were fast and furious, until all Indiana became easy in circumstances. And it was not to be denied that, by one means or another, Ratcliffe’s friends did come into their fair share of the public money. Perhaps the President thought it best to wink at such use of the Treasury patronage for the present, or was already a little overawed by his Secretary.

Ratcliffe’s work was done. The public had, with the help of some clever intrigue, driven its servants into the traces. Even an Indiana stone-cutter could be taught that his personal prejudices must yield to the public service. What mischief the selfishness, the ambition, or the ignorance of these men might do, was another matter. As the affair stood, the President was the victim of his own schemes. It remained to be seen whether, at some future day, Mr. Ratcliffe would think it worth his while to strangle his chief by some quiet Eastern intrigue, but the time had gone by when the President could make use of either the bow-string or the axe upon him.

All this passed while Mrs. Lee was quietly puzzling her poor little brain about her duty and her responsibility to Ratcliffe, who, meanwhile, rarely failed to find himself on Sunday evenings by her side in her parlor, where his rights were now so well established that no one presumed to contest his seat, unless it were old Jacobi, who from time to time reminded him that he was fallible and mortal. Occasionally, though not often, Mr. Ratcliffe came at other times, as when he persuaded Mrs. Lee to be present at the Inauguration, and to call on the President’s wife. Madeleine and Sybil went to the Capitol and had the best places to see and hear the Inauguration, as well as a cold March wind would allow. Mrs. Lee found fault with the ceremony; it was of the earth, earthy, she said. An elderly western farmer, with silver spectacles, new and glossy evening clothes, bony features, and stiff, thin, gray hair, trying to address a large crowd of people, under the drawbacks of a piercing wind and a cold in his head, was not a hero. Sybil’s mind was lost in wondering whether the President would not soon die of pneumonia. Even this experience, however, was happy when compared with that of the call upon the President’s wife, after which Madeleine decided to leave the new dynasty alone in future. The lady, who was somewhat stout and coarse-featured, and whom Mrs. Lee declared she wouldn’t engage as a cook, showed qualities which, seen under that fierce light which beats upon a throne, seemed ungracious. Her antipathy to Ratcliffe was more violent than her husband’s, and was even more openly expressed, until the President was quite put out of countenance by it. She extended her hostility to every one who could be supposed to be Ratcliffe’s friend, and the newspapers, as well as private gossip, had marked out Mrs. Lee as one who, by an alliance with Ratcliffe, was aiming at supplanting her own rule over the White House. Hence, when Mrs. Lightfoot Lee was announced, and the two sisters were ushered into the presidential parlor, she put on a coldly patronizing air, and in reply to Madeleine’s hope that she found Washington agreeable, she intimated that there was much in Washington which struck her as awful wicked, especially the women; and, looking at Sybil, she spoke of the style of dress in this city, which she said she meant to do what she could to put a stop to. She’d heard tell that people sent to Paris for their gowns, just as though America wasn’t good enough to make one’s clothes! Jacob (all Presidents’ wives speak of their husbands by their first names) had promised her to get a law passed against it. In her town in Indiana, a young woman who was seen on the street in such clothes wouldn’t be spoken to. At these remarks, made with an air and in a temper quite unmistakable, Madeleine became exasperated beyond measure, and said that “Washington would be pleased to see the President do something in regard to dress-reform—or any other reform”; and with this allusion to the President’s ante-election reform speeches, Mrs. Lee turned her back and left the room, followed by Sybil in convulsions of suppressed laughter, which would not have been suppressed had she seen the face of their hostess as the door shut behind them, and the energy with which she shook her head and said: “See if I don’t reform you yet, you—jade!”

Mrs. Lee gave Ratcliffe a lively account of this interview, and he laughed nearly as convulsively as Sybil over it, though he tried to pacify her by saying that the President’s most intimate friends openly declared his wife to be insane, and that he himself was the person most afraid of her. But Mrs. Lee declared that the President was as bad as his wife; that an equally good President and President’s wife could be picked up in any corner-grocery between the Lakes and the Ohio; and that no inducement should ever make her go near that coarse washerwoman again.

Ratcliffe did not attempt to change Mrs. Lee’s opinion. Indeed he knew better than any man how Presidents were made, and he had his own opinions in regard to the process as well as the fabric produced. Nothing Mrs. Lee could say now affected him. He threw off his responsibility and she found it suddenly resting on her own shoulders. When she spoke with indignation of the wholesale removals from office with which the new administration marked its advent to power, he told her the story of the President’s fundamental principle, and asked her what she would have him do. “He meant to tie my hands,” said Ratcliffe, “and to leave his own free, and I accepted the condition. Can I resign now on such a ground as this?” And Madeleine was obliged to agree that he could not. She had no means of knowing how many removals he made in his own invest, or how far he had outwitted the President at his own game. He stood before her a victim and a patriot. Every step he had taken had been taken with her approval. He was now in office to prevent what evil he could, not to be responsible for the evil that was done; and he honestly assured her that much worse men would come in when he went out, as the President would certainly take good care that he did go out when the moment arrived.