I can't make my mind up about Schuyler Colfax (above). Was he a crooked, intriguing politician, as a wise man once said, or was he a working class hero who rose to the second highest office in the land by his own honest efforts? As the media types like to prattle, he had an appealing story. He entered this world in New York City, heir to a prominent family name, but his father had died of tuberculosis five months before he was born. That made the infant and his mother Evelyn, a burden on the family. In November of 1836 she married an ambitious widower, 24 year old George W. Mathews. The following summer Mathew's moved his new wife, his 11 year old stepson and his own daughter by train and canal boat to the the glacier-washed flat lands of northern Indiana, along the Michigan border. Mathews opened a general store in the village of New Carlisle, but his real interest was politics. Three years later, in 1841, he was elected on the Whig Party ticket as auditor of St. Joseph County. So he moved the family again, to the county seat, at the south bend of the St. Joseph River - South Bend, Indiana. Fifteen year old Schuyler was hired as his stepfather's deputy.
At 19 the fair haired, soft blue eyed Schuyler and a partner pooled their resources to buy a failing weekly newspaper, which they renamed the “St. Joseph Valley Register”. In their premier editorial they declared their paper “shall be inflexibly Whig...On the issue of slavery we shall take the middle ground...we shall be fixedly opposed to enlarging the borders of slavery even one inch...and shall hail with happiness the day the Southern States shall...adopt a feasible plan for emancipation...”
They had just 250 subscribers, and ended the first year $1,400 in debt. But by 1844 they had made the paper such a success that Schuyler Colfax could afford to marry, and ten years later the teetotaler was elected to Congress, as a member of nascent Republican Party. He was just 31 years old.
In Congress they called the short Hoosier “Smiley” Schuyler, because of his ready grin and amiable nature. But there was a brain behind the benign smile and crude enunciation, and his ambition burned bright. Four years later, with his help Republicans won control of the House of Representatives, and in 1860, the White House itself. Schuyler expected to given a cabinet post, perhaps Postmaster General - he had chaired the postal committee in Congress. But he was told in a private conversation “Mr. Lincoln said...that with the troubles before us I could not be spared from Congress...” Instead Lincoln picked Caleb Smith, also from Indiana. After this rebuff, Schuyler drew closer to the Radical Republicans, demanding immediate emancipation of all slaves.
In 1862, in a stunning election upset, nervous Pennsylvania voters responded to the idea of four million slaves suddenly being freed by replacing radical Republican Speaker of the House Galusha Grow with the pro-union Democrat William Henry Miller. In Grow's absence, Schuyler campaigned to win the now vacant Speakership. And again Lincoln (above) moved to block him, urging his political ally Montgomery Blair to campaign against Schuyler because he was “"a little intriguer...aspiring beyond his capacity, and not trustworthy” In one of Lincoln's few failures, the popular Schuyler easily won election as Speaker of the House, despite his Hoosier twang and lack of diction - he'd left public school when his family left New York.
His approach to being Speaker was described as “a slap-dash-knock-'em-down-auctioneer style.” He knew the rules of the House by heart, and used then to keep the government moving to support the war effort. He also helped to push through the transcontinental railroad funding bills, a matter close to Lincoln's heart, as before the war he'd been a lawyer defending the railroads.
But Schuyler had also become a confidant of the humorless Radical Republican Secretary of the Treasury Salome P. Chase, who in the fall of 1862 tried to squeeze his rival, moderate William Seward, out of Lincoln's cabinet. Schuyler was not among the Congressional delegation which in December went to the White House to demand Lincoln fire Seward, and he was not there the next night when Lincoln confronted the conspirators, and forced Chase to retreat. But after this lesson in power politics, Schuyler tried to move closer to Lincoln.
When Schuyler's wife died in 1863, Lincoln attended her funeral. And after the crucial 1864 election was won, Schuyler assisted the President by helping to remove the thorn of Chase from his cabinet. He worked to convince the pompous Secretary to exchange his cabinet post for the robes of Chief Justice. And on 14 April, 1865, just before leaving for a tour of the California end of the transcontinental railroad, the Speaker met with the President. At that meeting Lincoln invited Shulyer to accompany him to the theater that night, but Schuyler begged off. And so Schuyler missed being an eyewitness at the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
After the war it was Schuyler Colfax who oversaw passage of the Thirteen Amendment, abolishing slavery in the United States. Later he led the forces that impeached Lincoln's reluctant successor, President Andrew Johnson. The impeachment trial failed in the Senate by one vote. But two years later, Schuyler used that half victory to maneuver against 11 other candidates to win the nomination for Vice President, on the 11th ballot alongside Presidential nominee Ulysses Simpson Grant. However that nasty victory left Schulyer with new enemies, and ensured that Grant would never trust him. Still Schuyler made history, because with his election that November he became the youngest Vice President in history, and also the first man to have presided over both the House of Representatives and the Senate. (In 1932 Texan John Nance Garner became the second.)
Two weeks after the election, Schuyler married again, this time to 34 year old Ellen M. Wade, niece of Ohio Senator Benjamin Wade. For a few weeks he was on top of the world. Then in January of 1869 Francis Adams Jr. broke the details of the Credit Mobilier scam in the magazine North American Review.
Before construction began in 1865, the men who sat on the board of the Union Pacific Railroad had created a general contractor company called Credit Mobilier, and awarded them the contract to actually build the eastern end of the transcontinental line. They, of course, also sat on the board of Credit Mobilier. And they ensured that every bill Mobilier submitted, no matter how outrageous or inflated, was paid by the Union Pacific. Over the four years of construction, Credit Mobilier was siphoning off every dime (and more) that a patriotic public paid for UP stock. By spreading Mobilier stock around congress, any obstructions were overcome, so that, in May of 1869, when the last rails were joined at Promontory Summit, the Union Pacific was $18 million in debt ($245 billion today). Meanwhile everyone holding stock in the little known Credit Mobilier made out like bandits – one of whom was Schuyler Colfax.
When asked about stock dividends he had received from Mobilier, Schuyler (above, center, in his Odd Fellows robes) insisted “I am an honest man...I never took anything that wasn't given to me.” It was probably the dumbest thing he ever said, so dumb, he may have never said it, but also so accurate, it stuck. Shortly there after Grant privately urged his Vice-President to resign. Grant insisted he wanted to appoint Schuyler as Secretary of State . “In all my heart I hope you will say yes,” wrote Grant. But Schuyler knew that as Veep he could only be removed by a messy impeachment trial, while cabinet members could be simply fired, and he refused the offer.
However he did announce, just two years into his term, in September of 1870, that after almost two decades in Washington, “My ambition is all gratified and satisfied.” Luckily, so was his fortune. He had decided to retire from politics, he said. Schuyler didn't mean it of course, he was only 47 years old. But the announcement forced his critics to move onto criticizing somebody else. Then, as he had done in the past, as the next election approached, Schuyler announced that reluctantly, at the urging of his friends, he had decided to stand for re-election for “the old ticket”. Then he dropped a bombshell. Since the Credit Mobilier scandal had tainted the party, he suggested that maybe Grant should be replaced at the top of the ticket
Grant's response was what you might expect. He decided to replace Schuyler Colfax with Senator Henry Wilson, of Massachusetts - known as the “Natick Cobbler”. It was an odd choice, since most people in Washington figured the shoemaker was responsible for the defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, because he had leaked Union battle plans to his mistress and Confederate spy, Rose Greenhow. But Wilson was a loyal radical Republican, and the Credit Mobilier scandal had already split the party, with newspaperman Horace Greeley running on the “Liberal Republican” ticket.
Determined to avoid an open floor fight at the Philadelphia convention, the internecine warfare went on in the backrooms, as Schulyer and Wilson supporters tried to out-promise and out-threaten each other. It was decided on the first ballot, sort of. Schulyer received 308 ½ votes, and Wilson got 399. Immediately the Indiana delegation ask to change their vote, and quickly Wilson became the unanimous choice. The clever man from South Bend had been out flanked. Grant and Wilson won, and Schulyer was out, but not forgotten.
In January of 1873 Schulyer was called before a House committee, where under oath he denied receiving a $1,200 check for Credit Mobilier dividends. But the Committee had a bank deposit slip for that amount in Schulyer's own handwriting. Democrats in the house voted to impeach the likable Colfax, but the Republicans saved his behind. But he was, finally, done in Washington. The next year, when the stock market imploded, brought down by the failure of the Union Pacific railroad, a bankrupted investor was heard to complain, “It was all Schulyer Colfax's fault, damn him.”
So, not yet fifty, the orphan returned to South Bend, determined to rebuild his reputation. Where future generations of disgraced politicians would go on cable TV, Schulyer Colfax went on the lecture circuit. Here his amiable and folksy veneer earned him generous speaking fees. And in the stories he told, old opponents became close intimates. He claimed that in 1864 Lincoln had confided his horror at the cost of war. “Why do we suffer reverses after reverses! Could we have avoided this terrible, bloody war!” his Lincoln said. It might have happened that way, but although the sentiment fits Lincoln's other quotes, the words seem far too melodramatic.
Schulyer made a good living, but the travel was exhausting. On Monday, 12 January, 1885, he left his home in South Bend, Indiana, to give a speech in tiny Rock Rapids, Iowa. Schulyer took a train to Chicago, where he transferred to the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad. At about ten the next morning he arrived at their station on Riverfront Street in Mankato, Minnesota (above). In the bitter cold he had to rush, dragging his luggage, three- fourths of a mile to the Union Pacific station on 4th Street.
The problem was, it was -30 Fahrenheit (-34 Celsius), and it took him almost thirty minutes to make the bitter journey. Five minutes after arriving at the station, he suffered “a fatal derangement of the heart's action”, and dropped dead. Nobody knew who he was until they checked the papers in his pockets. Oh, how the mighty had fallen. He was not yet 60 years old, and left his widow and only child an estate valued at $150,000 ($3.5 million today).
A newspaper man penned the ambitious Shulyer Colfax's best epitaph: “A beautiful smiler came in our midst, Too lively and fair to remain; They stretched him on racks till the soul of Colfax, Flapped up into Heaven again, May the fate of poor Schuyler warn men of a smiler, Who dividends gets on the brain!
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