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Gilded Age Cato

Gilded Age Cato: The Life of Walter Q. Gresham

Charles W. Calhoun
Copyright Date: 1988
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Gilded Age Cato
    Book Description:

    Union general, federal judge, presidential contender, and cabinet officer -- Walter Q. Gresham of Indiana stands as an enigmatic character in the politics of the Gilded Age, one who never seemed comfortable in the offices he sought. This first scholarly biography not only follows the turns of his career but seeks also to find the roots of his disaffection.

    Entering politics as a Whig, Gresham shortly turned to help organize the new Republican Party and was a contender for its presidential nomination in the 1880s. But he became popular with labor and with the Populists and closed his political career by serving as secretary of state under Grover Cleveland.

    In reviewing Gresham's conduct of foreign affairs, Charles W. Calhoun disputes the widely held view that he was an economic expansionist who paved the way for imperialism. Gresham, instead, is seen here as a traditionalist who tried to steer the country away from entanglements abroad. It is this traditionalism that Calhoun finds to be the clue to Gresham's career. Troubled with self-doubt, Gresham, like the Cato of old, sought strength in a return to the republican virtues of the Revolutionary generation.

    Based on a thorough use of the available resources, this will stand as the definitive biography of an important figure in American political and diplomatic history, and in its portrayal of a man out of step with his times it sheds a different light on the politics of the Gilded Age.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6179-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. 1-7)

    Walter Quintin Gresham has been described as “one of the Gilded Age’s most complex and enigmatic public figures.” Despite a record of substantial achievement, his career exhibited a blend of success and frustration. That he was ambitious there can be no question. His aspirations soared as high as the presidency. From the time of his youth men of prominence urged him forward in politics, in the words of one friend, to take command of “the generality of people [who] yield naturally to you.” His official career covered service in a broad range of positions, including a Union army generalship, two...

  5. ONE APPRENTICE: Mission of Great Responsibility
    (pp. 8-19)

    When Walter Quintin Gresham was born on a farmstead near Lanesville, Harrison County, on March 17, 1832, Indiana was still emerging from the frontier period. The state had entered the Union only sixteen years before, and Indians still inhabited much of the northern half, although the southern portion, especially the counties along the Ohio River, by this time exhibited a well-established, growing white settlement. Harrison County, nestled in a broad bend of the river just west of Louisville, was the fourth oldest county in the state and in 1830, with over ten thousand people, the sixth most populous. Most of...

  6. TWO PRESERVING THE UNION: Something for Myself
    (pp. 20-40)

    Republican victory in the 1860 election aroused anxiety for the Union on both sides of the Ohio River. A week later Gresham spoke to a gathering of Unionists at Brandenburg, Kentucky, to assure them that their state’s future was safer in the Union than out. He appealed to the Kentuckians’ state pride by quoting extensively from Henry Clay’s defense of the Union in 1850, reminding them that Clay had prescribed the “fate of a traitor” for anyone who raised the “standard of disunion.” But he also asserted that the Republican party was “pledged not to attempt to interfere with slavery...

  7. THREE DISTRICT JUDGE: Cultivate Contentment
    (pp. 41-64)

    Gresham took up his responsibilities as district judge in September 1869, nearly three months before his confirmation by the Senate. He felt some trepidation but found encouragement from Supreme Court Justice David Davis, the circuit justice with responsibility for Indiana. “If I fail it shall not be because I don’ttryto do right,” he told Davis. The two men had not met before but soon became close friends. Gresham also received assistance from his experienced clerk, John D. Howland. Learned and highly capable, Howland had been considered a possibility for the judgeship, but he now cheerfully helped Gresham master...

  8. FOUR POSTMASTER GENERAL: No Tranquillity or Happiness
    (pp. 65-84)

    By the early 1880s Gresham had grown uneasy in the district judgeship and considered returning to the private practice of law. His failure to reach either the Senate or the cabinet showed that it would be difficult to fulfill such ambitions unless he resigned from the bench. Moreover, the judicial workload had increased steadily since his appointment in 1869, but the $3,500 salary had remained the same. During 1881 he held court for 253 days in addition to work done in chambers. At Indianapolis alone he disposed of 423 cases and presided over 30 jury trials. In early 1882 the...

  9. FIVE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Not Anxious for the Honor
    (pp. 85-105)

    When Gresham arrived in Chicago in late 1884, he found a vigorous, self-confident city whose population of over half a million exhibited a broad ethnic mix. The city had recovered remarkably from the great fire the previous decade and was now a leading industrial and transportation center. The new circuit judge moved easily into Chicago’s elite, whose leaders included publisher Joseph Medill of theChicago Tribune,George M. Pullman, banker John W. Doane, Senator Charles B. Farwell, merchant and real estate promoter Potter Palmer, and his wife, Bertha Honore Palmer, the city’s premier hostess. Gresham had taken a 25 percent...

  10. SIX JEREMIAH: The Patriotism of Our Revolutionary Sires
    (pp. 106-120)

    The fate of Gresham and his followers in the Harrison administration was a subject of speculation as soon as the election result was known. Some observers hoped that Harrison would follow Abraham Lincoln’s example and appoint his chief competitors for the nomination to cabinet and other posts, with Gresham slated for a seat on the Supreme Court. Harrison did recognize his debt to James G. Blaine by inviting him back to his old post as head of the State Department, but he felt no similar obligation to his Hoosier rival.¹

    Less than three weeks into the new administration the death...

  11. SEVEN SECRETARY OF STATE: Proper Views of Things
    (pp. 121-144)

    Although Gresham’s announcement in favor of Cleveland momentarily thrust him into the churning political currents, in the fall of 1892 he had every expectation of finishing out his public life as circuit judge. “Nothing,” he told Charles W. Fairbanks, “could tempt me to go into politics.”¹ In the fall court term the most important case before him concerned the powers of the Interstate Commerce Commission, which had been investigating charges that several railroads owned by the Illinois Steel Company were guilty of unlawful discrimination in giving rate preferences to the latter firm. When company officials refused to answer questions or...

  12. EIGHT HAWAII: There Is Such a Thing as International Morality
    (pp. 145-161)

    The most perplexing problem Gresham dealt with as secretary of state, Hawaii, confronted him as soon as he took office and persisted throughout his term. In January 1893, in the waning days of the Harrison administration, Queen Liliuokalani was overthrown by a coup engineered by a group of nonnative, mostly American-descended lawyers, planters, and businessmen. Their chief complaint was her announced intention to reverse a past imbalance of political power under which foreigners had wielded much greater authority than her native Hawaiian subjects. Although the queen quickly backed down, the revolutionaries proceeded with their work, aided by the landing of...

  13. NINE SAMOA: Affairs That Do Not Specially Concern Us
    (pp. 162-171)

    At the same time Gresham blocked American imperialism in Hawaii, he sought to throw off the difficulties of empire already posed by the United States’ complex relations with the South Pacific island nation of Samoa. A half decade earlier the United States had entered into a joint protectorate over Samoa with Great Britain and Germany. Gresham thought this condominium was wrong, and its entangling the United States with two European nations made him all the more eager to get out. Although in the end he failed to secure American withdrawal, he did successfully articulate an elaborate case against “the evils...

  14. TEN THE ORIENT AND THE LEVANT: No Departure from the Wise Policy
    (pp. 172-185)

    As Gresham’s policy toward Samoa clearly showed, he generally took the view that the United States’ interests on the far side of the Pacific rim were minimal. And yet, events in the Orient during his tenure as secretary of state consumed a great deal of his time and energy. In advocating American withdrawal from Samoa he argued forcefully that “the only safeguard againstallthe evils of interference in affairs that do not specially concern us is to abstain from such interference altogether.” Yet at that very time a war between China and Japan in 1894-95 posed a severe test...

  15. ELEVEN THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE: The Consistent Policy Pursued
    (pp. 186-212)

    At the time of Gresham’s tenure in the State Department in the mid-1890s, American diplomatic concern rarely extended beyond the Western Hemisphere, and, indeed, a great deal of the diplomatic intercourse between the United States and European nations pertained not to matters in continental Europe but to European involvement in the American hemisphere. The United States carried on more diplomatic exchange with Great Britain than any other European country, and more often than not that intercourse focused on questions in the New World. Among the most time-consuming and convoluted of these issues was the Bering Sea fur seal controversy.


  16. TWELVE LAST CRISIS: The Clouds Had About All Cleared
    (pp. 213-222)

    The growing anxiety over economic expansion in the 1890s mirrored a general quickening of nationalistic spirit in the United States. Writing in May 1895, E.L. Godkin observed that “Jingoes” around the nation seemed to “treat even the extension of our commerce as a military operation.” “Profoundly dissatisfied” with isolation, they looked forward to a war “with a certain exultation.” Godkin’s comments appeared in a piece titled “Diplomacy and the Newspaper” in which he decried the “daily abuse of the Secretary of State” by those who mistook the “common politeness in his despatches” as “base truckling to foreigners.” Godkin defended Gresham...

    (pp. 223-224)
  18. NOTES
    (pp. 225-263)
    (pp. 264-268)

    Readers who desire a comprehensive accounting of the sources upon which this study rests should consult the chapter notes. The essay that follows is a suggestive overview of the more important sources that shed light on Walter Q. Gresham’s life.

    The chief primary source for Gresham’s career is the collection of his papers in the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress. The fifty-one volumes of this collection contain primarily correspondence, especially letters received, with some autograph letters and draft letters by Gresham interspersed. Fortunately, Gresham’s letters to his wife during the Civil War and to his friend Thomas C....

  20. INDEX
    (pp. 269-280)