Monday, May 18, 2009

Behind the Scenes

The inauguration of President Grant in 1873. Washington at the beginning of the Gilded Age is the topic of Eward Winslow Martin's Behind the Scenes in Washington. Library of Congress.

Explaining the peculiar ways of Washington has been the preoccupation of authors and journalists since the swampy lands along the Potomac were designated as the nation’s capital.

In the early 1870s, Americans who wanted to know more about the District of Columbia could turn to Edward Winslow Martin’s Behind the Scenes in Washington for an in-depth look not only at the often sordid business of government but also its more inspiring features – the architecture of the U.S. Capitol, the city’s churches and historic cemeteries, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Library of Congress.

“The city of Washington, the Capital of the Republic, is the most interesting place in the Union to the American people,” Martin writes in his preface. “It is not only the seat of Government, but it is the centre from which radiate the varied influences which affect every citizen of the Republic, from the millionaire to the man dependent on his daily earnings.”

With its mixture of patriotic pride, earnest interest in the operations of the federal government, and outrage at the malfeasance of lawmakers, Martin’s book strikes a familiar chord for modern readers. Decades before Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart dramatized these themes in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Martin captures the enduring fascination and disgust with the capital.

Martin's book appeared in 1873, at the height of public outrage over the Credit Mobilier scandal, and he devotes considerable attention to the affair that colored American politics for a generation.

The complicated story is boiled down thusly: “The men entrusted with the management of the Pacific Road made a bargain with themselves to build the road for a sum equal to about twice its actual cost, and pocketed the profits, which have been estimated at about Thirty Millions of Dollars – this immense sum coming out of the pockets of the tax payers of the United States.”

He reviews the evidence against the major figures in the affair – Rep. Oakes Ames, the Massachusetts Republican who sold the stock to other members of Congress; Rep. James A. Garfield, R-Ohio, who would be elected president seven years later; Rep. Glenni W. Scofield, R-Pa..; Vice President Schuyler Colfax of Indiana, and a host of other congressmen and senators.

He absolves Rep. James G. Blaine of Maine, then speaker of the House and the Republican nominee for president in 1884, but shows no such inclination when it came to the congressional committee established to get to the bottom of the affair. Martin directs some of his most withering criticism at the findings of the panel led by Luke Potter Poland of Vermont.

“It is a miserable business,” Martin concludes of the committee's findings. “The country expected of Mr. Poland and his associates a manly and straightforward investigation, and not a miserable effort to hunt up a couple of scape goats to bear the sins of those who were to be saved from expulsion.”

On the other hand, his review of the case against Colfax is tinged with sincere regret. “He is still entangled in the terrible web of circumstantial evidence against him,” Martin writes. “That he may escape from it and vindicate himself is the wish of all good men.”

Martin paints a colorful but not terribly flattering portrait of Congress. The House of Representatives is plagued by poor oratory and bad manners, he writes. “Members are very unruly, and give the Chair a world of trouble. You seem them obstructing the aisles, talking and laughing in a tone which is audible in any part of the hall, or sitting with their feet elevated on their desks, oftentimes fast asleep.”

He is no less impressed by the Senate. “The chief qualification demanded of the aspirant for Senatorial honors is a devotion to party; and men who are not fit, either by reason of intellectual gifts, or the administration and confwidence of the people, to represent the great States of the Union, have found their way into the Senate …”

There is more than a little of the Sodom-on-the-Potomac motif that has been a recurring theme of Washington observers for more than a century. Martin’s chapter on “The Lobby,” begins by describing the influence of special interests on Congress but devotes an inordinate amount of time describing the nefarious influence of women of easy virtue on the legislative process.

Despite Martin's regrettable but predictable Victorian moralizing, his description of the influence peddlers who flocked to Washington with their hand out has a timeless ring. “People know that shrewd men and women are sent to Washington every year, and bountifully supplied with money by parties and associations whose habit is not to be so liberal without receiving an equivalent …” That suspicion is no less widespread today than in 1873.


Martin, Edward Winslow. Behind the Scenes in Washington. The Continental Publishing Co., and National Publishing Co., 1873.

No comments: