I was surprised to find on Thursday, September 10, 1846, how many of America's 18 million citizens were on the journey to our “more perfect union”. In the pitiless Nevada desert members of the last California emigrant train of the season awoke to see the error of their ways in the snow capped Ruby Mountains. On that same day, out on the Great Plains, exhausted Mormons escaping religious persecution awoke to a violent downpour, and the commandment to rise from their sickbeds and retrace their steps. Sixty miles south of the Rio Grande River, an American invasion force was preparing to fall on the ill prepared Mexican city of Monterrey. While, at the center of this web of worry and hope, susceptible to each distant tug and pull, a 38 year old alcoholic was being chased by the shadows thrown by a flickering whale oil lamp in a Washington, D.C. hotel room.
At the foot of Capital Hill, on Pennsylvania Avenue and Third Street , and a few steps from the fetid Washington Canal, stood the three story wood frame St. Charles Hotel (above) - soon to be renamed the Capital Hotel. The establishment catered to southerners, boasting a basement room where slaves could be restrained so securely the management offered to reimburse masters should their property escape. One of the most popular resident guests was the congressman from Alabama's 7th district, Felix G. McConnell. He was known more for his biting humor, spendthrift ways and his voluminous drinking than his progressive politics. And this night he had reached the end of a hundred dollar drunk.
Tales of 38 year old McConnell's impromptu inebriated parties were legendary. During his first term, after inviting the occupants of the bar at the upscale Brown's Hotel to “Come up and licker'”, he was confronted by the scrupulously proper John W. Dade, superintendent of the District's jails. Dade had obviously been drinking for hours, and pompously inquired, “With whom have I the honor of drinking?” McConnell gave his stump speech reply. “"My name is Felix Grundy McConnell, Egad! I am a member of Congress from Alabama. My mother is a justice of the peace, my aunt keeps a livery stable, and my grandmother commanded a company in the Revolution and fit the British, gol darn their souls!” “Old Jack” Dade formally replied “Sir, I am a man of high aspirations and peregrinations and can have nothing to do with such low-down scopangers as yourself. Good morning, sir!” Dade was convinced to stay and drink with McConnell, and the two became fast friends.
But perhaps McConnell's most famous moment of public excess had come at a performance of “The Nordic Paganini”, Old Bull - Ole Bornemann Bull, the Norwegian solo violinists (above). This genius of self promotion, renowned for his “wild, unorthodox style” was already a phenom of rock star proportions in Europe and began his first American tour in late 1843. The New York Herald reported, “At the close of some of his wonderful cadences, the very musicians in the orchestra flung down their instruments and stamped and applauded like madmen.” The same critic went on to suggest the “Prince of Violinists” drew up to 4,000 people to his concerts because his “...pyrotechnic style and dramatic manner...captivated the musically uninitiated...”
Ole's bigger than life personality went over well in America. After one performance in Alabama, a westerner expressed admiration for the large diamond Old Bull had attached to his bow, and pulled a bowie knife to remove it. Bull closed the negotiations with a sharp chop to the aggressor’s throat. Witnesses insist the chastised assailant then offered his knife to Ole as a gift. The musician returned to Norway with five such knives in all. Ole's “boisterous... practical jokes” caused him to be described as a “charismatic but undisciplined...noble savage”. And he “could talk politics with even more earnestness and force than he could talk music.” All in all he seemed another natural friend for Congressman McConnell, except Ole was a tea totaler.
There is no record they ever met, but Ole played four concerts in Baltimore and Washington over the holidays in 1843, and in the midst of the Christmas Eve performance in the capital city a drunken Congressman McConnell suddenly rose and shouted, “None of your high-falutin, but give us ‘Hail Columbia’ and bear hard on the treble’! “ As a paper noted, “"Throw him out!”, people shouted, all over the house, and so they did, but the policemen had their hands full, for McConnell was a husky chap, and full of spirituous encouragement...” The officers had to resort to their night sticks, but given that most of the audience was not there for the music but for the show, it was not a significant interruption. Briefly he was charged with “rioting and disturbance”, before his high office and friends saw the charges dismissed.
In his two terms in Congress, McConnell sponsored just two pieces of legislation. In his first term he introduce a bill to annex Ireland. The bill wasn't meant to be taken seriously. It was a jibe at northern Democrats insensitively opposed the annexation of the slave state Texas, but who were sensitive to the fastest growing immigrant population then in America - the Irish. Having made his joke, Felix McConnell allowed it to quietly die. But at the beginning of his second term, he touched on something much closer to his heart.
On March 9th, 1846, just five days into the 29th Congress, McConnell introduced “A Bill to grant to the Head of a Family, Man, Maid or Widow, a Homestead not exceeding 160 acres of Land”. It was the first “Homestead Bill” introduced in the United States Capital (above). It's purpose was to democratize the frontier.
Since before the revolution money men had been bought up every tract of public land offered for sale, looking to profit by reselling it to other investors, as if it were stocks or stock derivatives Land speculation fever was so powerful, most investors eagerly went into debt to obtain as much land as possible, intending to sell before their note became due. Like Russian roulette, this game could end in only one of two ways.
Either some naive new owner would discover he now owned a swamp or a boulder field. This usually led to lawsuits and bankruptcies all around, or if the notes came due before an overextended speculator could find a bigger sucker than themselves. Either way the property would revert to the last legal owner, who was now free to re-sell the land to a new sucker. Bankrupting the unwary majority of speculators provided profit to the privileged few who were higher up on the pyramid. There has never been a shortage of optimistic suckers in America.
By the time an actual farmer obtained a tract, usually of 50 acres or less, the price was so inflated as to leave him so deeply in debt that after three or four years he would “pull up stakes”, abandon the farm and move further west to repeat the process. And again the land would revert to the last owner, who would resell to the next sucker. It was a very profitable business model, and reminds me of the current student loan system. But like the current for-profit college scams, it did not broaden the tax base, nor fund community improvements, like schools, roads or canals.
McConnell was far from alone even among southern Democrats seeking to break up this monopoly on land and money. Sam Huston from Texas wanted a homestead act. Andrew Johnson from Tennessee introduced his own version the same day as McConnell. But these southern progressives were being replaced by well funded, increasingly rabid pro-slavery politicians, who saw individual homesteaders as a block to the next generation of big slave plantations. Wrote one historian, “In spite of the undoubted earnestness of (McConnell), the bill seems to have been regarded as a jest...(and did not) elicit a respectful hearing from his fellow congressmen.” Andrew Johnson's almost duplicate bill was given a respectful hearing - before it was killed in committee.
It was the disrespect that seems to have broken Congressman McConnell's heart. Despite his reputation as a “dare-devil and a spendthrift”, McConnell was devoted to his job, missing just 8% of his floor votes in 1846, well below average. Perhaps if he had not left his wife Elizabeth and their three children back in Alabama, he would not have turned to drink in Washington. Perhaps if he had chosen to stay in a less expensive boarding house, where he could share meals and companionship with his colleges, as opposed to a $65 a month room at the St. Charles - perhaps things would have turned out differently. Except his father Perry had died at 52, also addicted to “ardent spirits”. And now it seemed, every one in every way had dismissed the young lawyer from Talladega as a joke and a drunk.
On the evening of May 13, 1846, the House of Representatives voted to go to war with Mexico – 174 to 14. The war had been sparked by the annexation of Texas by the United States, and was intended to help build a southern slave empire from Georgia through Texas to California. Congressman McConnell voted with the majority, but he knew, as did many other practical southerners, that even in the deep south, slavery was no longer economically viable. And yet, with the Mexican War, the south fell further under the control of firebrands and hot heads, determined to extend slavery at all costs.
On Tuesday, September 8, 1846 McConnell went to visit the man who had given him his first job, as Tennessee postmaster. President James K. Polk was surprised to see him, thinking McConnell had gone home to Alabama during the recess. In his meticulous diary Polk noted, “he looked ...as though he had just recovered from a fit of intoxication. He was sober, but was pale, his countenance haggard and his system nervous. He applied to me to borrow one hundred dollars (to clear up his debts) and said he would return it to me in ten days....I had known him in his youth and had not the moral courage to refuse. I gave him the one hundred dollars in gold and took his note. His hand was so tremulous that he could scarcely write his name to the note legibly. I think it probable that he will never pay me.”
Leaving the White House, McConnell settled his bill with the hackman (taxi driver), and disappeared. Where he was Tuesday night and all of Wednesday, no one could say. But early in afternoon of Thursday, September 10th, 1846, McConnell appeared in the bar of the St. Charles, inviting the few patrons to “Come up and licker”. He kept clicking gold coins between his fingers, and telling everyone he had been given them by President Polk. He even loaned the barkeep $35, although the man may have simply been trying to take the money out of McConnell's pocket before he drank himself to death. As evening approached the Congressman asked for a pen and paper, and struggled to compose a note. But after some time he rose and said he was going to his room.
Once behind his the locked door, McConnell lay upon the bed, and taking a “hawkbill knife”, stabbed himself several times in the abdomen. And when that proved ineffective, he slashed his own throat, twice. A short time later, someone was concerned enough to check in on the Congressman. Receiving no reply to a knock, a pass key opened the room, and Felix Grundy McConnell was discovered atop a blood soaked mattress.
A Washington newspaper said, “No doubt can be entertained that Mr. McConnell committed the act in a state of mental hallucination – most probably under the influence of delirium tremens, brought on by the intemperate course of his life.” According to the Baltimore Sun, “His friends say that for about a week past he had relinquished drinking, owing to indisposition, and that the absence of his usual stimulus caused great despondency...he had his watch and valuable jewelry on his person, besides a sum of money.” President Polk added to his diary, “A jury of inquest was held and found a verdict that he had destroyed himself. It was a melancholy instance of the effects of intemperance...he was a true Democrat and a trusted friend".
Having been thus safely categorized as an alcoholic and a jokester, Felix Grundy McConnell was buried in the Congressional Cemetery. Other than an occasional mention of his bill to annex Ireland, he was almost immediately forgotten. It was easier that way, to forget that he and other southerners, had once attempted to change the economics of the nation in a way that might have made the civil war unnecessary, that might have saved both of his sons, one born after his death, having to fight in that war which cost the state of Alabama almost 40% of its population, men, women and children, black and white, wise, foolish, saint, sinner, alcoholic and tea-totaler.
God bless Felix Grundy McConnell, for his journey. He did his best to do guide the people of Alabama and the nation to a “more perfect union”. He tried to lead them down a path to avoid war. He tried to lead the nation down a more just path. And if others did not notice his effort, that was their loss. And if he stumbled on the path, that was to be expected. In this journey failure is the inevitable. That is what makes success so sweet. That is why the journey must be made every day, to a “more perfect union”. Not perfect, just more perfect. And that was Felix Grundy McConnell – not perfect. Like the rest of us.
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