General William Colfax, Washington's Friend—Mr. Colfax his Grandson—Mr. Colfax's Birth and Boyhood—Removes to Indiana—Becomes Deputy County Auditor—Begins to Deal with Politics—Becomes an Editor—The Period of Maximum Debt—Mr. Colfax's First Year—He is Burnt Out—His Subsequent Success as an Editor—His Political Career as a Whig—Joins the Republican Party—Popularity in his own District—The Nebraska Bill—Mr. Colfax goes into Congress—The Famous Contest for Speakership—Mr. Colfax Saves his Party from Defeat—Banks Chosen Speaker—Mr. Colfax's Great Speech on the Bogus Laws of Kansas—The Ball and Chain for Free Speech—Mr. Colfax Shows the Ball, and A. H. Stephens Holds it for him—Mr. Colfax Renominated Unanimously—His Remarkable Success in his own District—Useful Labors in Post Office Committee—Early for Lincoln for President—Mr. Colfax urged for Post Master General—His Usefulness as Speaker—The Qualifications for that Post—Mr. Colfax's Public Virtues.

General William Colfax, the grandfather of Hon. Schuyler Colfax, was a citizen of New Jersey, and was the commanding officer of Gen. Washington's life guards throughout the Revolutionary War. His holding that very confidential and responsible post is sufficient evidence of his steadiness, sense, courage and discretion. It is a further testimonial to the same effect, that Gen. Colfax latterly became one of the most intimate personal friends of the great revolutionary chieftain. Gen. Colfax's wife was Hester Schuyler, a cousin of Gen. Philip Schuyler.

General Colfax's son, Schuyler Colfax, the father of the Speaker, was an officer of one of the New York city banks, and died four months before his son was born.

Schuyler Colfax was born in New York city, March 23, 1823, and was the only son of his widowed mother. He was taught in the common schools of the city—finished his education at the high school then standing in Crosby St., and at ten years had received all the school training he ever had. He now became a clerk in a store, and after three years removed to Indiana with his mother and her second husband, a Mr. Matthews. They settled in St. Joseph County. Here the youth for four years again served as clerk in the village of New Carlisle. When 17 years old he was appointed deputy county auditor, and for the better fulfilment of his official duties, he now removed to the county town, South Bend, where he has lived ever since.

Like almost every western citizen of any activity of body and mind, young Colfax took practical hold of political matters about as soon as he could vote. He talked and thought, and began to print his views from time to time in the local newspaper of the place. His peculiar faculty of dealing fairly and at the same time pleasantly, with men of all sorts, his natural sobriety and sensibleness of opinion, and his power of stating things plainly and correctly, made him what may be called a natural newspaper man. He was employed during several sessions to report the proceedings of the State Senate for the Indianapolis Journal, and in this position made many friends, and gained a good reputation for political information and ability as a writer.

In 1845, he became proprietor and editor of the "St. Joseph Valley Register," the local paper of his town, South Bend. This was the beginning of his independent career, and if hope had been absent, the prospect would have looked meagre enough. He was a youth of just over twenty-one, and he had two hundred and fifty subscribers. But the youthful editor had hope, and what was far more important, remarkable tact and capacity for his laborious profession. By good fortune and perseverance, he was able to tide over the first dangerous crisis for a poor man who undertakes a large literary enterprise—the period of maximum debt, so fatal to new periodicals. This is a point like the darkest hour just before day, when the newspaper or magazine is very likely steadily gaining in reputation and even in circulation, but when the circulation has not quite reached the paying point, and the paper bills have been postponed to the latest possible moment, while the constant outgoes for paying the journeymen, and for the other weekly office expenses, have kept up their monotonous drain. With Mr. Colfax this period was at the end of the first year of his paper, when he owed $1,375. The concern gradually became productive, however. A few years afterwards the office was burned down, and the uninsured editor was left to begin his business over again. He did so, and has earned a very comfortable living by it, though he is by no means a rich man.

Besides paying well, the "Register," as conducted by Mr. Colfax, is entitled to the much higher praise of having been a useful, interesting and a morally pure paper, always on the side of what is good and right in morals and in society. It has been, for instance, constantly in favor of temperance reform; and it has always avoided the masses of vile detail which so many papers of respectable position manage to distribute in families under pretence that they must give full news of police reports and criminal trials.

Mr. Colfax was a Whig as long as there was a Whig party, and at its death, like all its members of clear heads, progressive tendencies, and decided character, he joined the Republican party. Before the rise of this great new organization, however, he had already risen to considerable influence in the Whig party, and had held several positions of political trust. In 1848 he was a delegate to the convention which nominated Gen. Taylor, and was one of its secretaries. In 1849 he was a member of the convention which revised the constitution of the State of Indiana, having been chosen in a manner especially honorable to him personally, as his district was politically opposed to him. Mr. Colfax, in this convention, was considered a judicious legislator, a ready debater and a fine speaker. A little after this time he declined a nomination to the Indiana Senate, for the sufficient reason that he could not afford at that time to be absent from his business.

Mr. Colfax's first nomination for Congress was in 1851, and he was beaten, though only by 200 majority, in a district strongly opposed to him in politics. His competitor was that Dr. Graham N. Fitch who was afterwards the congenial yokefellow of Mr. Bright in the U. S. Senate, on the side of the South, during Mr. Buchanan's presidency. Mr. Colfax's friends were of opinion, however, that the fatal 200 against him were illegal votes, imported by means of a certain railroad then constructing in those parts, and from among the laborers employed upon it. In 1852 he was a delegate to the Whig National Convention that nominated Gen. Scott, and as at the convention of 1848, was a secretary. He declined a second congressional nomination, and his district, which he had lost by only 200, was now lost by 1,000.

The Thirty-Third Congress, whose legal existence covered the period from Dec. 5, 1853, to March 3, 1855, Franklin Pierce being President, passed the Nebraska Bill. Upon this, the North, driven at last to the wall, turned short about in its career of surrender, and set itself to put a limit to the spread of slavery. The old established professional politicians of those days did not understand this crisis, and very many of them did not know anything about the change of public opinion—or rather of public intention—that was going on, until to their immense surprise and disgust, an anti-slavery-extension constituency that they knew not of, suddenly voted them out of their offices. Such a bat-eyed politician was Mr. Colfax's own representative in Congress at this time. Even after having been elected as a Free Soil Democrat, and after undergoing a special season of argument and entreaty by his friends and neighbors during a visit home while the Nebraska Bill was pending, the short-sighted legislator went back and voted for it. He very quickly reaped his reward, however. Had he known enough to take the opportunity of doing right, he would have found out that for once it was the way to temporal success, for unquestionably he would have been re-elected, and assuredly Mr. Colfax would have done his best to re-elect him. As it was, the energetic editor was at once selected by the anti-Nebraska men of that region to take the lead in punishing the delinquent. He was unanimously chosen candidate for Congress, and after the candid and jolly western fashion, the two nominees went round the district, yoked together for combat, like those duellists who are tied together by their left wrists and wield their knives with their right hands. The result was, Mr. Colfax's election by 2,000 majority, the previous majority of his competitor having been 1,000 the other way.

When the Thirty-Fourth Congress met, Dec. 3d, 1855, there was a majority opposed to the administration, but this opposition was of materials inharmonious among themselves. The anti-Nebraska members, properly so called, numbered about 108, the administration men, or Democrats, about 75, the third party, or "Know Nothing" men about 40; and there were a few who could not be classified. Now, the anti-Nebraska men alone had twenty less than the necessary majority (128) out of the 234 members of the House; and if the Know Nothings and Democrats should effect a complete union, they could choose a Speaker. Whether they would do so was the principal question of the famous contest for the Speakership which now ensued, which lasted from Dec. 3, 1855, to Feb. 2, 1856, two full months, and which resulted in the election of Mr. Banks—the first formal national triumph of the national anti-slavery sentiment. Its importance might be overlooked, but it was great, and lay in this: that the Speaker has power to constitute the committees of the House—who prepare and in very great measure decide, all its business—just as he pleases. Accordingly, if he were a pro-slavery man, past experience gave full guarantee that those committees would be so formed as to effectually silence the voice of the anti-slavery sentiment of the House, and to bejuggle the whole of its legislation into an apparent and deceitful endorsement of the administration. To resist this dangerous and humiliating result, required, under the circumstances, a good deal of courage, both moral and physical, and powers of endurance almost equal to the extremities of a siege; but the resolute phalanx of the anti-slavery men, cheered daily by their consciences within, and the earnest and increasing applause of every friend of man without, fought the battle bravely through.

During the contest, Mr. Colfax, who was a steady and unflinching soldier on the right side, served his cause at one very critical moment. It was the end of the first month of the struggle. There had been sixty or seventy ballots, and for the last thirty or forty of them the votes had been just about the same; for Banks, anti-Nebraska, 103 to 106; Richardson, Democratic, 74 or 75; Fuller, Know Nothing, 37 to 41; and Pennington, a second anti-Nebraska candidate, 5 to 8. Various experiments had been tried to relieve the dead-lock. It had been suggested that the lowest candidate should be dropped at each vote, until one of the last two must be chosen; that after three ballots, the candidate having most votes should be elected; and other plans were submitted, but all to no effect. About the end of December, Mr. Campbell, of Ohio, elected as an anti-Nebraska man, but of a sufficiently singular sort, either very unwise or very unsound, offered a resolution that Mr. Orr of South Carolina, "be invited to preside temporarily until a Speaker be elected." This extremely sly contrivance came within a hair-breadth of succeeding; for it looked like a mere amicable expedient to facilitate business, while it was in fact almost certain that once in, the subtle and energetic Orr, aided by the whole South, the Democrats, most of the Know Nothings, and perhaps some weak brethren of the anti-slavery opposition, would stay in. A motion to lay Campbell's resolution on the table failed by a majority of twenty; it looked as if Orr would be really Speaker in five minutes. Mr. Colfax now rose in the very nick of time, and made a motion which irresistibly reminds us of the device with which Hushai confounded the wisdom of Ahithophel. It was an amendment proposing to put the three contending parties on a fair equality during the contest, by allowing each to elect a temporary chairman, and these three to preside alternately in the order they might themselves agree upon. On this motion debate arose; there was a recess before any vote was reached; and the dangerous plan for making Orr Speaker was staved off. By next morning, Campbell's friends succeeded in inducing him to withdraw his resolution, and the contest settled back to its monotonous course of roll-calls and adjournments, until the final adoption of a plurality rule by the administration men, who, when they did it, thought it would help them, and the consequent election of Banks, at the 134th ballot, February 2d, 1856, by 103 to 100 for Aiken. The Know Nothings nearly all went to the Democratic side when the real pinch came.

It was during this session—June 21, 1856,—that Mr. Colfax delivered his well known and powerful speech on the bogus "Laws" of Kansas, imposed on that State by the fraud and violence of the pro-slavery ruffians of those days. This speech, a word-for-word quotation of clause after clause of this infamous code, accompanied with a plain, sober and calmly toned explanation of the same, produced a very great effect, and was considered so able a summary of the case involved, that during the Presidential campaign of that year, a half million of copies of it were distributed among the voters of the United States. By way of driving quite home the truths of the case, Mr. Colfax, where he quoted the clause which inflicted imprisonment at hard labor with ball and chain, upon any one who should ever say "that persons have not the right to hold slaves in this Territory," lifted from his desk and showed to the House an iron ball of the statutory dimensions (viz., 6 inches diameter, weighing about 30 lbs.), apologizing for not also exhibiting the six-foot chain prescribed along with it. Alexander H. Stephens, afterwards Vice President of the Rebels, who sat close by, asked to take this specimen of pro-slavery jewelry for freemen, and having tested its weight, would have returned it. But Mr. Colfax smilingly asked him to hold it for him until he was through speaking, and while the pro-slavery leader dandled the decoration proposed by his friends for men guilty of free speech, Mr. Colfax, in a few telling sentences, showed that Washington and Jefferson and Webster and Clay had said the words which would have harnessed them, a quaternion of convicts, into the chain-gang of the border ruffians.

The close of this weighty speech is here quoted, not merely for the noble tone of its assertion of lofty principles, but also for the sake of showing the opportune manner in which, by citing one of the departed great men of our land, he at once added to his argument the strength of a mighty name, did justice to a man much spoken against but of many noble traits, and also illustrated a striking peculiarity of Mr. Colfax himself—the warmth, strength and unending persistency of his friendship. He closed as follows:

"As I look, sir, to the smiling valleys and fertile plains of Kansas, and witness there the sorrowful scenes of civil war, in which, when forbearance at last ceased to be a virtue, the Free State men of the Territory felt it necessary, deserted as they were by their Government, to defend their lives, their families, their property, and their hearthstones, the language of one of the noblest statesmen of the age, uttered six years ago at the other end of this Capitol, rises before my mind. I allude to the great statesman of Kentucky, Henry Clay. And while the party which, while he lived, lit the torch of slander at every avenue of his private life, and libelled him before the American people by every epithet that renders man infamous, as a gambler, debauchee, traitor, and enemy of his country, are now engaged in shedding fictitious tears over his grave, and appealing to his old supporters to aid by their votes in shielding them from the indignation of an uprisen people, I ask them to read this language of his, which comes to us as from his tomb to-day. With the change of but a single geographical word in the place of "Mexico," how prophetically does it apply to the very scenes and issues of this year! And who can doubt with what party he would stand in the coming campaign, if he were restored to us from the damps of the grave, when they read the following, which fell from his lips in 1850, and with which, thanking the House for its attention, I conclude my remarks.

"But if, unhappily, we should be involved in war, in civil war, between the two parties of this Confederacy, in which the effort upon the one side should be to restrain the introduction of slavery into the new Territories, and upon the other side to force its introduction there, what a spectacle should we present to the astonishment of mankind, in an effort not to propagate rights, but—I must say it, though I trust it will be understood to be said with no design to excite feeling—a war to propagate wrongs in the Territories thus acquired from Mexico! It would be a war in which we should have no sympathies, no good wishes—in which all mankind would be against us; for, from the commencement of the Revolution down to the present time, we have constantly reproached our British ancestors for the introduction of slavery into this country."

Mr. Colfax's constituents, extremely satisfied with his course and abilities, renominated him by acclamation while he was in Washington this year, and he was re-elected after the usual joint canvass, although the presidential election of that fall went against his party. That such would be the result, Mr. Colfax had confidently predicted, as a consequence of the third-party nomination of Mr. Fillmore. But he worked with none the less zeal for his principles and his party. He had breadth and soundness and clearness of view enough to sight along the rising plane of the successive anti-slavery votes of 1844, 1848, 1852, and 1856, and to see that the Party of Freedom and Right was the Party of the Future; and while doubtless he would have been just as steadfast in doing right if he had no hope of a right-doing government, yet the very best of men works with a more cheery strength when, to use the words of the story, he can "see the chips fly." It was with sentiments of lofty resolution that he wrote, some months before the Republican nomination was made, and just after that of Mr. Fillmore; "Whether the Republican ticket shall be successful or defeated this year, the duty to support it, to proclaim and defend its principles, to arm the conscience of the nation, is none the less incumbent. The Republican movement is based on Justice and Right, consecrated to Freedom, commended by the teachings of our Revolutionary Fathers, and demanded by the extraordinary events of our recent history, and though its triumphs may be delayed, nothing is more certain."

In 1858 Mr. Colfax was again nominated by acclamation, and re-elected by a triumphant majority, and so he has been in every election since, carrying his district against untiring and desperate and enormous efforts directed against him specially as a representative man, not merely by his local opponents, but by the whole forces of every kind which the party opposed to his could concentrate within his district. Such a series of political successes shows not only the power of the public speaker, and the discretion of the politician, but shows also a hearty and vigorous unity of noble thoughts between the constituency and the representative, and also a magnetic personal attractiveness which holds fast forever any friend once made. Mr. Colfax hath friends, because he hath showed himself friendly.

During the 36th Congress, (December, 1859, to March, 1861,) Mr. Colfax was chairman of the Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads, and did much and useful work in keeping alive and healthy the somewhat unwieldy machinery of that important institution. He was in particular, successful in promoting the extension of mail facilities among the new mining communities in the Rocky Mountain gold fields, and in procuring the passage of the very important bills for the Daily Overland Mail, and for the Overland Telegraph to San Francisco, by way of Pike's Peak and Utah.

It was a matter of course that Mr. Colfax should go with all his heart into the great struggle of 1860. He felt and understood with unusual earnestness and clearness the importance of the principles involved, and the hazards of the political campaign. Into a paragraph or two written some time before the Chicago nomination, he condensed a whole code of political wisdom, and can now be seen to have pointed out Abraham Lincoln as the best candidate, by describing the political availability and ethical soundness of the position Mr. Lincoln then occupied. He wrote:

"We differ somewhat from those ardent cotemporaries who demand the nomination of their favorite representative man, whether popular or unpopular, and who insist that this must be done, even if we are defeated. We do agree with them in declaring that we shall go for no man who does not prefer free labor and its extension, to slave labor and its extension,—who though mindful of the impartiality which should characterize the Executive of the whole Union, will not fail to rebuke all new plots for making the government the propagandist of slavery, and compel promptly and efficiently the suppression of that horrible slave-trade which the whole civilized world has banned as infamous, piratical and accursed. But in a Republican National Convention, if any man could be found, North, South, East or West, whose integrity, whose life, and whose avowals rendered him unquestionably safe on these questions, and yet who could yet poll one, two or three hundred thousand votes more than any one else, we believe it would be both wisdom and duty, patriotism and policy, to nominate him by acclamation and thus render the contest an assured success from its very opening. We hope to see 1866 realize the famed motto of Augustine—"In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity."

That is very broad and sound sense. It was in exact accordance with this doctrine and with these intimations as to who was the right man, that Mr. Lincoln was nominated, according to the desire of Mr. Colfax's heart; and in the coming campaign in his own very important state of Indiana, he did most valuable service in assuring the victory.

Upon Mr. Lincoln's election, a very powerful influence, made up of public sentiment, the efforts of newspapers, the urgent recommendations of governors and legislatures, and in particular of the Republican presidential electors, members of legislature, congressmen, and whole body of voters of Indiana, united to press upon the new President the appointment of Mr. Colfax to the office of Post Master General. Mr. Lincoln however had resolved to make Hon. C. B. Smith, of Indiana, Secretary of the Interior, and could give no other Cabinet place to that State. But as long as he lived, he loved and respected and trusted Mr. Colfax; and it is on record that "he rarely took any steps affecting the interests of the nation without making his intentions known to Mr. Colfax, in whose judgment he placed the utmost confidence."

Continuing in Congress, Mr. Colfax served with efficient and patriotic fervor in his place, and in December, 1863, was chosen, and has since remained speaker. In this extremely responsible, important and laborious place, his official career has been openly visible to all men, while only those among whom he presides can competently appreciate the rare personal and acquired qualifications which he has so ably exercised—the even good temper, the exhaustless patience, the calm prompt presence of mind, the immense range of honest questions and sly quirks of parliamentary law which he must have at his tongue's end; even the vigorous health and enduring physical frame which enable him to sit through session after session, day after day, without losing his readiness or decisiveness of thought and action.

He has, however, maintained and even increased his reputation as a wise and just legislator, a most useful public servant, a shrewd and kindly chairman, and a skillful parliamentarian. His duties have not been in their nature so brilliant as the deeds of our great commanders by land or by sea; nor so prominent even as the labors of some civilian officials; but they have been such as to require the greatest and most solid and useful of the civic virtues, courage, integrity, forethought, justice, and steady inexhaustible industry.

Edwin M. Stanton

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook