Story type: Literature
The men who have given distinction to our state in politics could hardly be more than named in a record like this; and I shall not try to speak of them all or try to keep any order in my mention of them except the alphabetical order of the counties where they were born, or where they lived.
From Ashtabula County, the names that will come at once to the reader’s mind are those of Joshua R. Giddings and Benjamin F. Wade, both of a national fame inseparable from the history of the struggle with slavery. Giddings was first to cast his lot with the almost hopeless cause of freedom, but the fiery nature of Wade served to keep it warm in the hearts of its later adherents and to spread its light. Neither of these great Ohioans were Ohioans by birth. Giddings was born in Athens, Pennsylvania, in 1795, and came to Ashtabula County in 1806, where he dwelt until within a few years of his death, which took place at Montreal in 1864, while he was Consul General for Canada. He studied law, and succeeded at the bar before he entered political life. He was then twenty years in Congress as representative from the Ashtabula district, which promptly returned him when he was expelled from the House of Representatives for presenting a petition against slavery. His courage was so unconscious that he seemed never to assert it in his long career of defiance at Washington, but it never failed him in the presence of the dangers that often beset him there. In early life his people were desperately poor; he had scarcely a thought of school till he was twenty-three, and it was not until he had conquered from the wilderness a farm for his father and himself that he found time for study. He always loved the simplicity of the new country, and when he came home to the village of Jefferson from the sessions of Congress, he liked to “turn himself out to grass,” as he called it: to put on old clothes and a straw hat, and walk barefoot through the streets which he had known when they were forest trails.
Wade was born at Hills Parish, Massachusetts, in 1800, and he too was born in utter poverty. He worked on a farm, and then worked with pick and spade on the Erie Canal; but by the time he was twenty-one he knew much science and philosophy through studies he had pursued in a woodchopper’s hut by the light of pine knots. In Jefferson he read law and became Giddings’s partner. He was sent to the United States Senate in 1851 as an antislavery Whig, and he continued to stand four-square for freedom there during nearly twenty years. He was frank, bluff, even harsh in his speech and manner, but kind at heart, and it is told of him that once when he discovered a wretched neighbor robbing his corn crib, he moved out of sight that the man might not know he had been caught in the misdeed to which want had driven him.
Thomas Ewing, at one time United States senator from Ohio, and at all times a leading statesman and lawyer, was a citizen of Athens County, where his father settled in 1798. There the boy led the backwoods life, and struggled with all its adversities in his love of books, until he was nineteen. He loved the woods, too, and his boyhood was not unhappy, though his ambition was for the things of the mind. In his reminiscences, he tells of his early privations and of his delight in the first books which came to his hands: the “Vicar of Wakefield,” which he learned largely by heart, and the “Aeneid” of Virgil, which he used to read aloud to the farm hands on Sundays, and at such other leisure times as they all had amidst the work of clearing the land. At nineteen, he went to earn some money at the Salines on the Kanawha, and then lavished it upon the luxury of three months’ study at Athens. After several years’ labor in the salt works, he entered college at Athens, teaching school between terms, and going to Gallipolis to pick up French among the survivors of the disastrous settlement there. Then he turned to the law, and won his way to ease and honor. One of his daughters, as we know, became the wife of General Sherman, whom he had adopted as his son.
Benjamin Lundy, the meek and dauntless Quaker who was called the Father of Abolitionism, lived a long time in Belmont County, at St. Clairsville, where he founded his Union Humane Society, in 1815, and inspired the formation of like societies throughout the country. He was born in New Jersey, and had settled in Wheeling, Virginia, but life there became un endurable to him from the sight of slaves chained and driven in gangs through the streets, on their way to be sold in the Southern markets. In Belmont County, also, the first native Ohio governor, Wilson Shannon, was born.
One of the Ohioans whom history will not forget was Robert Morris, of Clermont County, our United States senator from 1813 till 1839. He was one of the earliest American statesman to own the right of the slave and to defend it. In his last speech he startled the Senate with the prophetic words in which he recognized the danger hanging over the Union, and he said, “That all may be safe, I conclude that the negro will yet be free.”
Benjamin Harrison, one of the five presidents whom Ohio has given the country within thirty years, was born at North Bend in Hamilton County, where his grandfather General William Henry Harrison lived until chosen President in 1840. He remained in Ohio until he was twenty-one; then he went to Indianapolis, and it was from Indiana that he went to the war, where he achieved rank and distinction by his talent and courage.
He is a great lawyer, as well as a soldier and politician, and a speaker of almost unsurpassed gifts.
Salmon P. Chase, governor of Ohio and United States senator, Lincoln’s first Secretary of the Treasury, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, was an Ohioan by grace of New Hampshire, where he was born, and where he lived till he was a well-grown boy. In 1830, when he was twenty-two years old, he began the practice of law in Cincinnati, and prospered in spite of his bold sympathy with the slave and the friends of the slave. The Kentuckians called him the attorney-general of the negroes, and the negroes gave him a silver pitcher, in gratitude for his “public services in behalf of the oppressed.” He was first an abolitionist, but later became a leader of the anti-slavery party, and was one of the first and foremost Republicans. As Secretary of the Treasury his mastery in finance was as essential to our success in the war as the statesmanship of Lincoln or the generalship of Grant. He was followed in the office of Chief Justice by another Ohioan of New England birth, who, like Chase, had passed all the years of his public life in our state. Morrison R. Waite, of Toledo, was perhaps even more Ohioan in those traits of plainness and simplicity in greatness which we like to claim for Ohio, only upon sober second thought to acknowledge that they are the distinctive American traits.
An Ohio Secretary of the Treasury assured to the nation the means of meeting the expenses of the Civil War, Ohio generals fought it to a victorious close, and an Ohio Secretary of War knew how to deal best with both the men and the money, so as to turn the struggle from its doubtful course. Without Edwin M. Stanton neither Chase nor Grant, with Sherman and Sheridan, could have availed. He was born at Steubenville in 1814, of a family of North Carolina Quakers, and as a boy his tastes were as peaceful as those of his ancestors. He had pets of all kinds, and he made collections of birds and insects. He was pretty diligent at school, but his studies there were not of the severer kind. He loved poetry; he founded a circulating library; and both before and after he went to Kenyon College, he was clerk in a bookstore. But deep within this quiet outside was the hot nature which fused the forces of the great war, and shaped them according to his relentless will. He became a successful lawyer, and had been President Buchanan’s Attorney-General when Lincoln made him Secretary of War. He left that office worn out with the duties to which he gave mind and body, and died soon after Grant had appointed him, in 1869, to the bench of the Supreme Court No man in office ever deserved more friends, or made more enemies. He was tender and kindly with the friendless and hapless, but with the strong and the fortunate, when they crossed his mood, he was rude to savagery.
The chief citizen of Richland County is John Sherman, who is also one of the chief citizens of Ohio, and of the United States. He has been in Congress ever since 1855, and ever since 1861 he has been in the Senate, except for the four years when he was Secretary of the Treasury under President Hayes. If any man in our public life during this long period merits more than he the name of statesman, it would be hard to say who he may be. But in his boyhood he gave promise of anything but the sort of career which he has dignified. He had all the impulsiveness of his famous brother, General Sherman, and something more than his turbulence. He himself, with that charming frankness which seems peculiarly a Sherman trait, tells in his autobiography what reckless things he did, even to coming to blows with his teacher; but all this heat seems later to have gone to temper a most manly and courageous character for a career of the greatest public usefulness.
He was born at Lancaster in 1810, and the second President who has called him from the Senate to a seat in his cabinet was born at Niles in Trumbull County, in 1844. William McKinley entered the army as a private in the famous 23d Ohio, when he was only seventeen, and fought through the war. When it ended he had won the rank of brevet major, but he had then his beginning to make in civil life. He studied law, and settled in Canton, where he married, and began to be felt in politics. He was thrice sent to Congress, and then defeated; but in 1896 he was elected the fifth President of the United States from the state of Ohio.
It is a long step backward in time, in fact more than a hundred years, before we reach the birthday, in 1794, of Thomas Corwin, one of the most gifted Ohioans who has ever lived.
He was born in Kentucky and was brought, a child of four years, by his parents to Ohio, when they settled at Lebanon in Warren County. He grew up in the backwoods, but felt the poetry as well as the poverty of the pioneer days, and it is told that the great orator showed his passion for eloquence at the first school he attended. He excelled in recitations and dialogues; but he was not meant for a scholar by his father and he was soon taken from school, and put to work on the farm. In the War of 1812 he drove a wagon in the supply train for General Harrison’s army, and the people liked to call him the Wagoner Boy, when he came forward in politics. A few years later he read law, and with the training which he had given himself at school as well as in the old-fashioned debating societies which flourished everywhere in that day, he quickly gained standing at the bar as an advocate. He was all-powerful with juries, and with the people he was always a favorite. Such a man could not long be kept out of public life. He was called to serve seven years in the state legislature, and ten in Congress; then he was elected governor. He was so beloved that when he was nominated a second time for the governorship it was taken for granted that he would be elected, but so few of his friends were at the trouble to vote for him that he was, to the profound astonishment of everybody, defeated.
It was a joke which no one could enjoy more than Corwin himself; for he was not only an impassioned orator, but a delightful humorist. He could put a principle or a reason in the form of a jest so that it would go farther than even eloquence could carry it with the whimsical Western people; and perhaps nothing more effective was said against the infamous Black Laws which forbade the testimony of negroes in the courts than Corwin put in the form of self-satire. He was of a very dark complexion, so that he might have been taken for a light mulatto; and he used to say that it was only when a man got to be of about his color that he could be expected to tell the truth.
He was sent to the United States Senate soon after his defeat for the governorship, and it was there that in 1847 he made his great speech against the war with Mexico, as a war of conquest for the spread of slavery. It may be that there are more eloquent passages in English than some of the finest in this speech, where he warned the American people against the doom of unjust ambition, but I do not know them. It was the supreme effort of his life, but it was addressed to a time of unwholesome patriotic frenzy, and Corwin’s popularity suffered fatally from it. He never disowned it; he defended and justified it before the people; but he declined from the high stand he had taken as the champion of freedom and justice, and the later years of his political life were marked by rather an anxious conservatism. His final efforts were unavailingly made to stay the course of secession by suggestions of impossible compromise between the North and South. At the close of the war he was stricken with paralysis while visiting as a private citizen the Capitol at Washington, where he had triumphed as representative and senator, and he died almost before the laughter had left the lips of the delighted groups which hung about him. Of all our public men he was most distinctively what is called, for want of some closer term, a man of genius, and he shares with but three or four other Americans the fame of qualities that made men love while they honored and revered him. In the presence of this great soul, so simple, so sweet, so true, so winning, so wise, I think the reader will scarcely care to be reminded that among the notable Ohio men of our day are some of the richest, if not the very richest, American millionaires.