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Schuyler Colfax


IF the life history of this eminent statesman, so widely known and so universally beloved, we have another of those instances of which we have had so many in this volume, of a man rising by the power of genius and industry from humble life, and filling exalted stations with a grace, ease, and dignity, which could not be surpassed had he been "to the manor born."

SCHUYLER COLFAX comes from some of our best revolutionary stock. His grandfather, Captain Colfax, was the commandant of General Washington's body-guard; his grandmother was a near kinswoman of that noble patriot of the Revolution, Major-General Philip Schuyler. He was born in New York city, March 23d, 1823, his father having died in early manhood, a short time before his birth. When he was ten years old, his mother married again, becoming the "Mrs. Matthews," whom all recent habitues of Washington have seen presiding at her son's receptions. With this event the boy's school life closed, but the scanty term seems to have been well improved, for one of his early schoolmates tells us "Schuyler always stood at the head of his class." 

The next three years were spent in his step-father's store. In 1836, his stepfather having decided to emigrate to the west, Schuyler accompanied his parents to the valley of the St. Joseph river, and they settled in New Carlisle St. Joseph county, Indiana. The region was then a wilderness, but it is now densely populated, and its thrift, fertility, enterprise and beauty have made it the garden of the State. The five years which followed, were, we believe, spent as clerk in a country- store. His disposition to study was inbred, and every leisure moment was improved. A friend and companion of his boyhood, in New York, now an active business man and philanthropist, tells us that, in those days, he and Schuyler Colfax kept up an active correspondence, and that Schuyler's letters always spoke of the studies he was prosecuting by himself in the wilderness, and were full of knotty questions, which both tried their best to solve.

In 1841, his stepfather, Mr. Matthews, was elected county auditor, and removed to South Bend. Schuyler became his deputy, and made such studious use of his leisure, that when but little more than eighteen, he became undisputed authority on precedents, usage, and State laws affecting the auditor's duties. He was also very busily engaged in the study of law at this time. A debating society, that inevitable necessity of American village life, was organized at South Bend in 1843, and, on some one's suggestion, it was transformed into a moot State Legislature, of which Hon. J. D. Defrees, since government printer, was speaker, and young Colfax an active member. The rules of parliamentary debate, and the decisions of points of order, were followed with amusing punctiliousness in this body, and Colfax, who had improved his previous familiarity with these matters, by two years' service as Senate reporter for the State Journal, soon became the acknowledged authority on all parliamentary questions, and was thus unconsciously qualifying himself for that pest he has since so ably filled.

In 1845, he started a weekly journal at South Bend, the county seat, with the title of the St. Joseph Valley Register, becoming its sole proprietor and editor. In this connection it is doubtless proper to correct a mistake into which the public has fallen relative to Mr. Colfax's connection with the printing business. Mr. Lanman, in his Dictionary of Congress, says :—"He was bred a printer." He never was apprenticed to the printing business, and knew nothing of the practical part of the "art preservative of all arts," until after be had commenced the publication of the Register. With his ready tact and quick perception, however, and great anxiety to economise, for his means were yet very limited, he soon mastered the art sufficiently to "help out of the drag;" but he never attained to any great proficiency in the business; his editorial labors, the business of the office, and other duties, soon claiming his entire attention.

The Register prospered, and soon became a source of profit to its proprietor. It was ably edited, and was a model of courtesy and dignity. Every paragraph, however small, seemed to have passed under the supervision, and to reflect the mind and elevated thoughts of its editor.

How he toiled at this time, and what was the opinion of the people of South Bend of the young editor, are very pleasantly related by Mr. Samuel Wilkeson, in a speech at a press dinner, in Washington, in 1865, at which Mr. Colfax was an honored guest.

"Eighteen years ago, at one o'clock of a winter moon-lighted morning, while the horses of the stage-coach in which I was plowing the thick mud of Indiana, were being changed at the tavern in South Bend, as I walked the footway of the principal street to shake off a great weariness, I saw a light through a window. A sign, 'The Register,' was legible above it, and I saw through the window a man in his shirt sleeves walking quickly about like one that worked. I paused, and looked, and imagined about the man, and about his work, and about the lateness of the hour to which it was protracted; and I wondered if he was in debt, and was struggling to get out, and if his wife was expecting him, and had lighted a new candle for his coming, and if he was very tired. A coming step interrupted this idle dreaming. When the walker reached my side, I joined him, and as we went on I asked him questions, and naturally they were about the workman in the shirt sleeves. `What sort of a man is he?" He is very good to the poor; he works hard; He is sociable with all people; he pays his debts; he is a safe adviser; he doesn't drink whisky; folks depend on him; all this part of Indiana believes in him.' From that day to this, I have never taken up the &nth Bend Register without thinking of this eulogy, and envying the man who had justly entitled himself to it in the dawn of his manhood"

Mr. Colfax himself, in his reply to this speech, acknowledged that in the early history of the newspaper, which numbered but two hundred and fifty subscribers when he established it, he was often compelled to labor far into the hours of the night. His paper was, from the first, Whig in its politics, and frank and outspoken in its expression of opinion on all political questions, but though in a district then strongly Democratic, and surrounded by Democratic papers which waged a constant, and often unscrupulous warfare against his paper and his principles, the constant readers of his paper cannot recall a single harsh or intemperate expression in his columns, in reply to the fierce personal attacks made upon him.

In the year 1848, Mr. Colfax was appointed a delegate from his adopted State to the Whig National Convention, of which he was elected secretary, and although extremely young, he discharged the functions of his office commendably. In 1850, he was elected a member of the Indiana State Convention, having for its object the preparation of a State Constitution. Here he persistently opposed the unmanly clause prohibiting free colored men from entering the State. This clause, submitted separately to the people, was indorsed by majorities of eight thousand in his district and ninety thousand in the State, yet, where a mere political trimmer would have waived the personal issue, he, like a man, openly voted with the minority, though he was at the time a candidate for Congress. In 1851, unanimously nominated from the ninth district of Indiana, he made a joint canvass with his opponent, Dr. Fitch, and, solely on account of this vote, was defeated by two hundred and sixteen majority, although the district had been Democratic, by large majorities, for many years.

In 1852, he was again sent as a delegate to the Whig National Convention, of which also he was appointed secretary. In 1854, Mr. Colfax was elected to Congress as a Republican nominee; and from that time to the present, he has always occupied his seat as a Representative.

At the opening of the Thirty-fourth Congress occurred the memorable contest for the speakership, resulting in the election of Mr. Banks to that position. During that session Mr. Colfax took his stand as one of the most promising of our Congressional debaters. His speech, upon the then all-absorbing topic of the extension of slavery and the aggressions of the slave power, was a masterly effort, and stamped him at once as a most influential orator. This speech was circulated throughout the country at the time, and was used as a campaign document by the Fremont party during the canvass of 1856. Five hundred thousand copies of it were issued, a compliment perhaps never before received by any member of Congress.

Mr. Colfax labored zealously for John C Fremont, who was his personal friend; the result of that campaign is well known. In the Thirty-fifth Congress, Mr. Colfax was elected to the important position of Chairman to the Committee on Post-Offices and Post Roads, which place be continued to hold until his election as Speaker to the Thirty-eighth Congress, on the 7th of December, 1853, to which responsible position he was subsequently twice re-elected—to the Thirty-ninth and Fortieth Congresses—honors awarded before only to Henry Clay.

As Speaker of the House of Representatives he was ready, seldom hesitating to replace a word, or failing to touch the quick of a question, never employing any words for stage effect; but straightforward, direct, and often exquisitely elegant in image and diction, he was, in the genuine sense, eloquent. His every speech was a success, and though one often wondered how he would extricate himself, in the varied and often untimely calls made upon his treasury, he always closed with added wealth of gratified admirers. If George Canning was once the Cicero of the British Senate, Schuyler Colfax was equally that of the American House.

In the chair, he was suave and forbearing almost to excess, but as impartial as the opposite Congressional clock. Nothing escaped him, nothing nonplussed him. The marvel of his presiding watchfulness was equaled alone by the intuitive, rapid solution of the knotty point suddenly presented, and having either no precedent, or, at best, but a very distant one. In every quandary, the Indiana Legislature, or the Journal reporter, or the persistent student of Jefferson or Cushing, or all, rally to the rescue of the wondering House and still smiling chairman. The advocate is never confused with the judge. While presiding, it is as difficult to remember, as when debating to forget, that he is radically a Radical.

He was one of the first advocates, and is still one of the warmest friends of the Pacific railroad. Indeed, he takes a warm interest in any movement looking to the development of the boundless resources of the great West. It was, doubtless, the interest he felt in that section of the country, which induced him to take his celebrated journey "Across the Continent." His trip was a perilous one, but his welcome at " the other end of the line" was so spontaneous, truly genuine and heartfelt, that it more than repaid him for all the dangers and hardships he passed through. This tour led him to prepare one of the most entertaining lectures ever delivered in this country. It was listened to with rapt attention by the people of almost every city in the North. Pecuniarily, however, it was of but little profit to him, for with that liberality which has ever been a marked trait in his character, the entire proceeds of a lecture were oftener donated to some charitable purpose than retained for his own emolument.

His intimacy and confidential relations with Mr. Lincoln are well known. They labored hand in hand as brothers in the cause of the Union, holding frequent and protracted interviews on all subjects looking to the overthrow of the rebellion, for there were no divisions between the executive and legislative branches of the Government, then, as there have been since. A patriot was at the head of the Government then—a statesman who could give counsel, but often needed it as well. During the darkest hours of that bloody drama which cast so deep a shadow over the hearts and homes of the nation, they were ever cheerful and hopeful. Confident in the justness of the war waged for the preservation of the Union, and placing a Christian reliance in that Providence which guides and shapes the destiny of nations great reverses, which caused others to fear and tremble, at times almost to despair, seemed only to inspire them with greater zeal and a firmer belief in the ultimate triumph of our cause.

There has not been a great radical measure before the country, since his advent into Congress, that Mr. Colfax has not supported with all the warmth of his nature. But he is not one who will rush blindly forward into a pitfall. He would rather make haste slowly, that no backward step may be necessary—he would duly weigh every measure in all its bearings, and from its various standpoints, before committing himself wholly to any particular line of action relative to the subjects under consideration. Previous to his re-election as Speaker of the Thirty-ninth Congress, in response to a serenade tendered him, he said:

"The danger is in too much precipitation. Let us, rather, make haste slowly, and then we can hope that the foundation of our Government, when thus reconstructed on the basis of indisputable loyalty, will be as eternal as the stars."

Had this warning been heeded, much of the legislation of the Thirty-ninth Congress would have needed no revision at the hands of that which has succeeded it.

His course, while in the great council of the nation, was one of straightforward, unswerving integrity; and he counted many friends among even his political opponents. He so discharged the important duties of the speakership, that lie was considered one of the best presiding officers that has ever been called upon to conduct the proceedings of a great body.

Mr. Colfax is only forty-nine years of age. In personal appearance, he is of medium height, solid and compactly built.  His hair and whiskers are brown, now a little tinged with gray.  His countenance has a pleasing and intellectual expression. His person is graceful, and his manner denotes unusual energy. His eyebrows are light in color, and overshadow eyes which sparkle with intelligence and good-humor. He is strongly affectionate and kindly in disposition. Whenever his mother-in-law appeared in the gallery of the House, Mr. Colfax generally called some member to the chair, and went immediately to her side. Such a trait in his character serves still further to deepen the respect and esteem in which he is held everywhere.

As a speaker, Mr. Colfax is earnest, frank, pointed and fluent. This manner is pleasing, and his language is always well-chosen and refined. Urbane in demeanor, and courteous and fair toward opponents, he always commanded respect and attention on both sides of the House. He is zealous and fearless in maintaining his principles, though his benevolence and good-humor so temper his speeches that he gains few or no enemies. He is one of the few whose personal qualities have secured exemption from the bitterness of feeling generally displayed by the friends of pro-slavery aggression toward their opponents. He seldom indulges in oratorical flourish, but goes straight to his subject, which, with his keenly perceptive intellect, he penetrates to the bottom ; while his close, logical reasoning presents his aspect of a question in its strongest light.

On the question, "Shall freedmen be citizens, and be allowed the right of suffrage?" he took an early opportunity of avowing his views. At the opening of the second session of the Thirty-ninth Congress, he said: " The Creator is leading us in his own, way rather than our own. He has put all men on an equality before Divine law, and demands that we shall put all men upon the same equality before human law."

In an address delivered in 1867, before the Union League club of New York, we find these eloquent passages:

"How rapidly and yet how gloriously we are making history; but posterity will read it on the open pages of our country's annals. Six years ago—how brief it seems—but a fraction of an individual's life —but a breath in the life of a nation—the banners of rebellion waved over the hostile armies and stolen forts from the Potomac to the Rio Grande, and the on-looking world predicted the certain downfall of the Republic. Now, thanks to our gallant armies and their gallant commanders—Grant the inflexible—Sherman the conqueror—Sheridan the invincible--and all their compatriots on sea and shore—but one flag waves over the land—the flag that Washington loved, and that Jackson, and Scott, and Taylor adorned with their brilliant victories —the flag dearer to us in all its hours of peril than when gilded by the sunshine of prosperity and fanned by the zephyrs of peace, at last triumphant, unquestioned, unassailed. Six years ago, millions of human beings born on American soil, created by the same Divine Father, destined to the same eternal hereafter, were subject to sale like the swine of the sty, or the beasts of the field, and our escutcheon was dimmed and dishonored by the stain of American Slavery. Today, auction-blocks, and manacles, and whipping-posts are, thank God, things of the past, while the slave himself has become the citizen, with the freedman's weapon of protection—the ballot—in his own right hand. Nor can we forget, while rejoicing over this happy contrast, the human agencies so potential to its accomplishment. First, and conspicuous among the rest, rises before my mind the tall form of a martyred President, whose welcome step no mortal ear shall ever listen to again. Faithful to his oath, faithful to his country, faithful to the brave armies his word called to the field, he never swerved a hair's breadth from his determination to crush this mighty rebellion, and all that gives it aid, and comfort, and support. Unjustly and bitterly denounced, by his enemies and yours, as a usurper and despot; compared to Nero and Caligula, and all other tyrants whose base deeds blacken the pages of history, your noble League stood by him amid this tempest of detraction, cordially and to the end; and you have now your abundant vindication and reward. Though the torch of slander was lit at every avenue of his public life while he lived, the civilized world would become mourners at his coffin; and with those libelous tongues hushed, our whole land enshrines his memory to-day with the Father of the Country he saved."

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

"I cannot doubt the future of the great party which has won these triumphs and established these principles. It has been so brilliantly successful, because it recognized liberty and justice, as its cardinal principles; and because, scorning all prejudices and defying all opprobrium, it allies itself to the cause of the humble and the oppressed. It sought to enfranchise, not to enchain; to elevate, not to tread down; to protect, never to abuse. It cared for the humblest rather than for the mightiest —for the weakest rather than the strongest. It recognized that the glory of states and nations was justice to the poorest and feeblest. And another secret of its wondrous strength was that it fully adopted the striking injunction of our murdered chief: 'With malice toward none, with charity for all, but with firmness for the right, as God gives us to see the right.' Only last month the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, in defending his Reform bill, which holds the word of promise to the ear to break it to the hope, exclaimed : `This is a nation of classes, and must remain so.' If I may be pardoned for replying, I would say : 'This is a nation of freemen, and it must remain so.' Faithful to the traditions of our fathers in sympathizing with all who long for the maintenance or advancement of liberty in Mexico or England, in Ireland or Crete, and yet carefully avoiding all entangling alliances or violations of the law, with a recognition from ocean to ocean, North and South alike, of the right of all citizens bound by the law to share in the choice of the law-maker, and thus to have a voice in the country their heart's blood must defend, our centennial anniversary of the Declaration of Independence will find us as an entire nation, recognizing the great truths of that immortal Magna Charta, enjoying a fame wide as the world and eternal as the stars, with a prosperity that shall eclipse in future all the brightest glories of the past."

Religion gained the early adherence of Mr. Colfax, who many years ago began a Christian life, joining the Dutch Reformed Church, and serving humbly and usefully as a Sunday school teacher for twelve years. The "pious passages" so frequent in his public speeches are not mere sentiment or oratorical arts, for he loves to talk, in private, of how God rules and how distinctly and how often, in our history, his holy arm has been revealed; and the ascription of praise comes from a worshipping heart, reliant on God through Christ. His personal example at Washington is luminous. When twenty, he made vows of strict abstinence, which have never been broken. Liquors and wines are never used at his receptions, while Presidential dinners and diplomatic banquets are utterly powerless to abate one jot or tittle of his firmness. Many of our readers well remember his speech at a Congressional temperance meeting, and how he banished the sale of liquor from all parts of the Capitol within his jurisdiction.

On the 21st of May, 1868, the National Republican Union Convention, in session at Chicago, nominated Mr. Colfax as their candidate for the vice-presidency, on the fifth ballot, his name receiving five hundred and twenty-two votes out of the six hundred and fifty polled.

At the Presidential election, November 3d, 1868, General Grant and Mr. Colfax were elected President and Vice-President, and on the 4th of March, 1869, Mr. Colfax took his seat as President of the Senate, and his inaugural oath as Vice-President of the United States. 

The President of the Senate is not like the Speaker of the House, an elected member of the body over which he presides, and hence can take no part in the discussions of that body, nor is he allowed any other than a casting vote. The rules of the Senate are also very different from those of the House, and of late years it has lost its ancient reputation for dignity and decorum, and under the lead of some of its less discreet members; has seemed to be striving to win from the House its old name of reproach, "the National Bear Garden."

To preside successfully over such a body is even a more difficult task under the circumstances, than over the more boisterous, but at the same time more easily controlled, House of Representatives. Yet in a position which some of the ablest parliamentarians had found exceedingly difficult, and among men who sometimes regard themselves as entirely above the law, it is much to his credit that Vice-President Colfax has presided with an easy dignity and grace which has been recognized by all classes as wholly without partiality, and has furnished no grounds of complaint. His excessive labors at one time broke down his health, and compelled him to take a long rest; but his temperate habits, his systematic and methodical ways, and his vigorous constitution enabled him to recover his health completely.

In 1870, Mr. Colfax wrote to a friend in New York declaring his purpose to withdraw forever from public life at the close of his present terra of office. This letter was published and variously commented on by the press. Subsequently the urgency of his friends induced him to reconsider this intention, and suffer his name to be brought before the Philadelphia National Republican Convention; but this was done at so late a date that Senator Wilson who had been a competitor for the nomination in 1868, had a decided advantage, and was nominated by a small majority on the first ballot, at Philadelphia.


Source: Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872  

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