« PreviousContinue »
ELECTION TO THE SENATE
THE contest for the succession to Senator Collamer in the Senate marked the turning-point in Morrill's career. It was the first serious political struggle he had ever engaged in and was probably a surprise, not only to him, but also to his opponent. Certainly no one foresaw that it would grow to such intensity as it exhibited or become one of the memorable political contests of Vermont. Morrill had given so many signs of indifference to office; he had made so little effort to retain his place, and during recent years had so frequently shown a desire to resign it, that his opponents may easily have deceived themselves into thinking that he was easily to be brushed aside. But he was now a national figure and his long service in the House had led many others, like Blaine to take it for granted that on the death of Collamer he would succeed to his place. Moreover, while it is certain that he would leave the House without reluctance, it was not sure that he might not desire to follow his friend and mentor, his model and the man he most admired, in the Senate.
Now, when the Governor turned aside from the natural choice and, instead of appointing Morrill or at least offering him the appointment to the Senate, drew the Chief Justice of the State from the bench, there was general surprise and some resentment. During the winter, as evidence increased that there was a strong and general desire, among his friends, among his associates in Washington, and throughout the State at home, that he should go to the Senate, he decided to enter the contest.
Let us take another look at him as he faces this interesting
crisis. He is now fifty-six years old, a tall, spare figure, but strong, alert, and keen. He has lived a careful, abstemious life, never, as he tells us, having taken a glass of liquor until he was forty and then very sparingly at the suggestion of his doctor - a glass of wine at dinner; he does not smoke, and his regular but active life has kept him in full vigor. His appearance is striking, his height, his fine head, with what are called "stern Roman features,” his abundant dark hair, his keen blue eyes, his kindly smile, make him a notable figure on the floor of the House. In June a writer for “The Independent,” looking down from the gallery of the House and taking notes, points out the leaders: “The tall gentleman, with the scholarly stoop in his shoulders, sitting near Thaddeus Stevens, is Justin S. Morrill. That stoop comes of working ... for years over miles of tax-bills. ... The clear eyes to be seen above these shoulders reflect the large intelligence ... the integrity and goodness of the man. Here is a face to believe in without any reservation."
We shall more easily follow the contest in Vermont by keeping in mind the setting and the characters. As to the setting: the mountains running north and south split Vermont into two sections which have in course of time formed political divisions, and by custom and unwritten law each had its Senator; there is one Senator for Western Vermont and one for Eastern Vermont. Senator Collamer had been the Eastern Senator, as Morrill was the senior Representative for that side. It was also known that, looking forward to his successor, three years before his death, Collamer had said, “Mr. Morrill is the best man you can send to the Senate from Eastern Vermont."
Morrill's opponent, “Judge” Poland — Luke P. Poland of St. Johnsbury — Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the State, who had resigned that office to accept the appointment for the brief unexpired portion of Senator
Collamer's term deserves our notice. The Judge was a conspicuous figure; a large, handsome, plausible man, who affected the Colonial style of dress - a great blue coat with brass buttons, which gave him his nickname of "Brass Buttons” — and had a big man's blustering way of sweeping all before him. He had been a Democrat and was now a Republican; he had a keen eye for office and believed in bargains; his case was not helped by the fact, when it became known, that his appointment to the Senate had been promised him in a bargain made three years earlier. He was unfortunate in being pitted, or rather pitting himself, against Morrill, for though clever and adroit as a politician, he lacked the intellectual precision, the moral integrity, and the force of character to meet such an opponent on even terms. Nevertheless, he plunged into the campaign with great confidence, and more than once the issue looked doubtful.
About this time, Senator Foot's death interposed. Governor Dillingham appointed to fill the uncompleted term George F. Edmunds, a learned and able lawyer, who made for himself an honorable career in the Senate where he remained for twenty-five years. The appointment produced changes in the situation and was interpreted as being favorable to Morrill's chances. Such, at least, was the opinion of C. W. Willard of Montpelier, a very competent observer, with whom Morrill was disposed to agree.
On the advice of Benedict, who, as editor of the “Burlington Free Press,” had his finger on the pulse of Vermont, Morrill delayed issuing his letter declining a reëlection to Congress until June. Then he issued a brief but admirably phrased statement dated from the House of Representatives. To the Voters of the Second Congressional District of Vermont:
It may be proper for me to say that I respectfully decline to be a candidate for reëlection. Proud of my constituency and pro
foundly sensible of their long-continued favor, it is right that my decision should be authoritatively announced in season for them to fix upon some one to be chosen as my successor. If I have been able in any degree to be useful in the public service, it is entirely due to the generous support of the people of the Second District of Vermont, who have honored me with six consecutive elections. In retiring from this post of honor, which I have faithfully endeavored to make the post of duty also, I tender to my friends and constituents the tribute of a grateful heart. (Washington, June 8, 1866.)
In the meantime his opponents devoted their utmost efforts to demonstrating that it was the duty of the State to keep Morrill where he was. In pursuit of this aim they proclaimed the great services he had performed in the House, the distinguished reputation he had won there, and all but convinced themselves that he was indispensable to the conduct of business in the lower chamber. On the other hand, they wished it to be inferred that Judge Poland was greatly needed in the Senate where his profound legal knowledge could be at the service of the whole nation. Morrill's announcement that he would not be a candidate for reëlection to Congress had the effect of turning the arguments of his opponents against themselves.
As the summer wore on, the struggle became more earnest and the interest in it spread far and wide. Articles appeared in the leading papers in New York, Boston, and many of the Western cities, as a rule in support of Morrill who was everywhere recognized as a leader and a veteran in Congress. Some of these articles, those from the “New York Tribune," the “Springfield Republican," and the "Boston Journal," were so much quoted and so widely reprinted in Vermont that the local papers supporting Judge Poland made a grievance of it, complaining that the choice of a Vermont Senator was being influenced by outside opinion. Meantime the local press was filled with the noise of battle and the
shouting. Hardly a paper in the State remained that was not earnestly engaged on one side or the other of the contest. In June the "Free Press” published a list of nineteen papers of which six were for Poland and thirteen, including nearly all those of substantial circulation and influence, were for Morrill. The signs multiplied that Morrill would be successful.
All through the summer, beginning about the middle of June, the county conventions were meeting and, as the returns came in, increasingly favorable to Morrill, making the position of Poland's supporters more and more uncomfortable, many overtures were made looking toward an understanding or compromise of some sort. From all such arrangements Morrill kept severely aloof; he would enter into no agreements or "deals" whatsoever; he was a candidate for office and would abide the decision of the electors. But he placed no veto on the action of his friends, and through them an agreement was reached that salved the feelings of the Judge and healed the wounds of the struggle. It was agreed that if Judge Poland would retire from the Senatorial contest and accept the nomination for Congress in Morrill's district, he should have the support of Morrill's friends to secure it. On this understanding he appeared as a candidate before the convention of the Second Congressional District and was nominated for Congress on the 7th of August, thus ending the long-drawn struggle. On Tuesday, October 23d, Morrill was elected Senator by the Legislature “with substantial unanimity.” On the Friday evening he celebrated the event with a rare if not unique burst of gayety, entertaining the Legislature and two or three hundred of his friends at a reception followed by an ample and festive supper — so ample and festive as to call out a protest from some who thought it a departure from early Republican simplicity. But there was warrant for it. The battle had