Friday, September 20, 2013

The rise and fall of James Willis Patterson

Think about this quotation: “The use of large sums of money to influence either popular or legislative elections strikes directly at the fundamental principle of a Republican government.” It will come up again here as we consider the 10-year congressional career of James Willis Patterson.

Patterson was born in Henniker, N.H., on July 2, 1823. He graduated from Dartmouth in 1848, worked two years as a high school principal and then studied law. He became a math professor at Dartmouth in 1854 and remained in that position till the end of the Civil War. He ran for Congress twice before winning one of New Hampshire’s three seats in 1863.

The war dominated everything in 1863. Patterson spelled out his opinions about its direction and aims in a letter to Samuel A. Duncan, a former student who had been a tutor at the college. Patterson had just learned of Major Duncan’s decision to leave the 14th New Hampshire Volunteers, who were doing sleepy work guarding prisons in the nation’s capital, to take a commission as a colonel of African-American troops. Duncan’s father had correctly tagged his son as one of those men “ready to expose themselves to certain danger and death even rather than endure such a dul[l] monotonous life.”

Patterson wrote Duncan from Hanover on Aug. 7, just over a month after the Union victory at Gettysburg and the taking of Vicksburg. One thing on his mind was General Order No. 252, which President Lincoln had issued on July 30 in response to the Confederate practice of killing or enslaving captured black soldiers.

Lincoln’s order proclaimed: “To sell or enslave any captured person on account of his color, and for no offense against the laws of war, is a relapse into barbarism, and a crime against the civilization of the age. The Government of the United States will give the same protection to all its soldiers, and if the enemy shall sell or enslave any one because of his color, the offense shall be punished by retaliation upon the enemy’s prisoners in our possession.”

For “every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the law, a Rebel soldier shall be executed,” Lincoln wrote, “and for every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery, a Rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor on the public works, and continued at such labor until the other shall be released and receive the treatment due to a prisoner of war.”

Patterson knew this order would be of interest to Duncan, who would soon lead a brigade of “colored troops” into combat. He suggested to Duncan that Robert Gould Shaw’s death three weeks earlier leading the African-American 54th Massachusetts Volunteers at Fort Wagner had demonstrated what glory such an assignment could bring.

“The Presidents proclamation in relation to selling & killing in violation of military law, black and other soldiers, meets a response in every loyal heart,” Patterson wrote Duncan. “This war must settle the humanity & the consequent rights of the black images of God. If military law recognizes the rights of men in black & white alike, why should not civil law when the war ceases?

“The command of a black regiment will be likely to put you where powder & lead are thrown about with perfect looseness. Col. Shaw has won a place in history which he might have failed to reach if he had lived to four score years in quiet times. . . .

“We all feel like praising God for late victories but regret the escape of Lee.”

In the House in 1865, Patterson voted for the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. A few months later, on June 1, he was chosen as orator in Concord, the New Hampshire capital, at services in remembrance of President Lincoln. He assessed the martyred president with these words:

“It is the Christian apotheosis which a bereaved people may give a ruler, the grand results of whose life, and the masculine beauty of whose character, have entitled him to the honor of father of the reestablished and regenerated republic.”

After three terms in the House, Patterson was elected to the United State Senate in 1867. It was as a senator that he faced his darkest political hour.

In 1872, a select House committee discovered that the same group of stockholders managed both the Union Pacific Railroad, which was building the transcontinental railroad, and the Crédit Mobilier America Corp., which was financing the construction. Through a secret arrangement, Crédit Mobilier was overcharging the railroad – and by extension taxpayers – by $2 million.

This, of course, created fat profits for stockholders, many of whom, it turned out. were prominent members of Congress. Among these was Sen. James Willis Patterson of New Hampshire.

Walt Whitman was a clerk at the Interior Department until
his boss found out he had written Leaves of Grass.
Another of the accused was James Harlan, an Iowa senator whose recent past included an interesting footnote. As interior secretary under President Andrew Johnson, he had gone on a witch hunt, turning out employees he found disloyal or immoral. Among his victims was Walt Whitman, whom he fired after reading Leaves of Grass and declaring: “I will not have the author of that book in this department.”

Investigation of the railroad scandal showed that Harlan had accepted a $10,000 political contribution from a man who held top corporate jobs in both the Crédit Mobilier Corp. and the Union Pacific. It was over this issue that the investigators sounded an alarm that seems dated – though not unwise – in our age of corporate control of politics: “The use of large sums of money to influence either popular or legislative elections strikes directly at the fundamental principle of a Republican government.” Harlan was spared censure when his term ran out.

Good timing helped Sen. Patterson, too, but he did not help himself. On Feb. 4, 1873, he asked for a select Senate committee to investigate the scandal. His bribery and corruption case was the most serious the committee took up. Through an intermediary, he had invested $4,000 in Union Pacific and $3,000 in Crédit Mobilier.

Patterson told the committee he knew nothing of the Crédit Mobilier stock because the intermediary had given him no written receipt. Moments later, the intermediary showed the committee a receipt for the Crédit Mobilier stock signed by Patterson. For his lapse Patterson blamed poor memory and ignorance about money (an odd combination for a former math professor). And why, he asked, should he not own Crédit Mobilier stock?

The committee wasn’t buying. Its report accused Patterson of false testimony and recommended expulsion. The Senate did not take up this resolution until 11 days after Patterson’s term officially ended. Becasue he was gone, the Senate saw no need to expel him.

Patterson returned home to New Hampshire, where the scandal did not end his public career. He was elected to the Legislature and also served as state public school superintendent. He died in 1893 at the age of 69 and is buried in Dartmouth Cemetery.

No comments:

Post a Comment