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Recollections of a Long Life 1829 - 1915
Chapter XV


POLITICALLY as well as industrially the field of my activities broadened immediately after the Civil War. I had held local offices, the duties of which were in many respects but the continuation of those I had performed as superintendent of logging camps and mills before the civil organization of the community. From the building of roads, the carrying out of public improvements, and the regulation of general affairs as manager of the mill, it was but a short step to membership on the county board, which had most to do with the expanding problems of local government. For a time, also, I officiated as postmaster of Marinette. These things involved no great sacrifice of time taken in conjunction with my occupation and I did them as a matter of course, as I would have done them whether I had held office or not. But when I was called upon to expand my horizon and shoulder the obligations of state office, my attention was diverted from the responsibilities nearer at hand, and for this reason, the prospect of a political career was by no means alluring.

In 1865, much against my inclination, I was nominated a candidate for the Assembly on the Republican ticket and elected practically without opposition. Although it was the custom of the state legislature to adjourn from Friday until Tuesday when in session, these added duties were very irksome to me because, just at this time, we were doing an extensive business and the several companies of which I had charge were enlarging the scope of their operations in response to the commercial revival following the panic and the war. I returned to Marinette every week during the intervals between sessions, coming as far as Green Bay by train and driving over the ice to Marinette. This added to the inconveniences of public office and it was not long before I arrived at the conclusion that a legislative career did not appeal to me. I declined to run again.

The determination to remain in private life, however, and give my attention to business did not long prevail. In the autumn of 1867 the people of Oconto County became very much incensed over the grant of all the state lands in the county to the Eldred Lumber Company, of which Anson Eldred was the guiding spirit, for the improvement of the Oconto River. Much of the land involved in the grant was swampy, but on portions of it was valuable timber, and the people who were not to derive any benefit from the improvement were naturally of the mind that the resources of the many were being squandered to the advantage of the few. Some of the lands even bordered on the Menominee River. The use of them to improve a stream many miles away aroused a storm of protest, and popular wrath was visited upon the heads of the legislators who had acquiesced in the undertaking.

To block the enterprise, if possible, I was urged to reconsider my decision to retire and to run again. This I at first refused to do. The Democrats had nominated George Smith, of Oconto, and the Republican candidate was Richard Hubbell, son of Judge Levi Hubbell, of Muwaukee. For four weeks the people of Oconto County— or a large proportion of them—tried to persuade me to change my mind, but I remained firm until three days before the election, which was held on a Tuesday. On the Saturday preceding I telegraphed to George Farnsworth, at Oconto, that I was in the field and would accept the commission if the people desired to tender it to me. On Monday morning I went to Oconto and there met Smith, the Democratic nominee, an old friend. He assured me that I had no chance of election whatever, that my candidacy would divide the Republican strength, and that his success was certain.

To this I said nothing, and I did nothing, but allowed the campaign, brief as it was, to take its course without interference or effort.. My only outlay was a barrel of apples which I gave to the men at Marinette when my election was announced. The result was more than satisfactory from my point of view. I was not only elected, but received more votes than Smith and Hubbell together. In Marinette every vote was cast for me but one, and the name on that ballot was so badly written that it could not be deciphered. It might have been Stephenson as well as Smith, but I suggested to the canvassers that Smith ought to have it under the circumstances and it was recorded in his favor.

Somewhat reluctantly I returned to the Assembly. While there I succeeded in accomplishing the purpose for which I had been mainly elected. The grant to the Eldred company for the improvement of the Oconto River was revoked and the lands were restored to the state. Afterward they were sold from time to time in small pieces.

These were tumultuous days at Madison. Lobbyists in profusion, especially those in the employ of the railroads, hovered in the shadow of the capitol; whiskey flowed freely, and many legislative plans were made over steaming bowls of "hot Scotch." Not infrequently men remained all night drinking at the bar. In 1866-1868 both houses of the state legislature were Republican, and I proposed to the committee which had charge of the redistricting of the state the addition of one county to our assembly district. One Democrat rebelled, He threatened to bolt the meeting if politics was to be given consideration in rearranging the districts, but his defiance cooled somewhat when I recalled that in 1856, when he was chairman of the same committee, he had declared that he would gerrymander the state to prevent the Republicans from electing a member. Thereupon I proposed that the committee take a recess for fifteen minutes, during which we visit Young's saloon, then the largest in the capital. Every member of the committee was on his feet on the instant and I ordered "hot Scotch" for the crowd. On the way back one Senator locked arms with me and said I could have any change in the district I desired. (I had not taken any alcoholic liquor until 1852. In 1873, on April 4, I came to the conclusion that it. was not good for me and have not touched it since, avoiding even cider.)

On another occasion, in 1868, Horace Greeley came to Madison to deliver an address and was quartered in the same hotel at which a number of the members of the legislature, including myself, were stopping. Late in the evening a party of legislators, whose frequent visits to the bar had brought them to the pitch of noisy hilarity, crowded into my rooms which adjoined Greeley's. At my suggestion the Governor, who had misgivings about the propriety of his appearance in such a gathering, slipped out but was pursued by several members of the party who clattered down the stairs after him. He succeeded in escaping, however, and the pursuers returned to participate in the drinking which followed. I cautioned my colleagues to be quiet, as there was only a door between the room and Greeley's; but the admonition only aroused the retort, "To hell with Greeley!" or loud declarations that "Greeley's all right!" The famous editor observed afterwards that he had been in the worst places in New York City, but none so bad as Madison appeared to be.

My desire to avoid a political career and give my attention to my own affairs appeared to exert an adverse influence, for the more persistently I refused the more I was urged. For several years friends in various parts of the district tried to prevail upon me to enter the field of national politics and to come forward as a candidate for the House of Representatives; but I succeeded, for a time at least, in avoiding that responsibility. Philetus Sawyer, of Oshkosh, who was elected in 1864, had served for ten years. When the state was redistricted Dr. McDill, of Plover, Waupaca County, served for a term, at the conclusion of which he was defeated by Judge Cate, a Democrat of Stevens Point, by a half-dozen votes. Had it not been for the death of my father at this time I am convinced that I could have turned the scale in favor of McDill. When Cate's term expired I was again urged to accept the nomination; but I again refused and Thaddeus Pound, of Chippewa Falls, served for three terms.

At the end of this time Senator Sawyer and Judge Timothy O. Howe, who had been Postmaster-General in 1882, under President Arthur, importuned me to become a candidate for the Republican nomination for Representative from the district, a rather desperate chance, in view of the fact that Pound had made a good record and was popular among the voters. Some of the local Republican leaders, among them Thomas Scott of Merrill, and Myron H. McChord of Shawano, joined in the plea and still others communicated with me or came to see me. At length, in the face of my refusals, those who were urging me to become a candidate took time by the forelock and spread the report that I would enter the contest. With some misgivings I finally consented and the announcement was made through the Milwaukee Sentinel that I was in the field.

The uncertainty of politics was very soon brought home to me. Both Scott and McChord and other Republican leaders in the Wisconsin River valley, who had so persistently urged me to run, brought out promptly on the following day Charles M. Webb, later Judge Webb, who was obviously to receive the support of the organization. The next day E. L. Brown of Waupaca, announced his candidacy. There were, therefore, four Republicans out for the nomination: Pound, Webb, Brown, and myself.

The complications that followed in this four-cornered fight were perplexing. In the first place it was a bad year for the Republican party generally, the split between Blaine and Conkling having resulted in the formation of two factions. In my own case were the internal difficulties. It was quite obvious that the politicians despaired of beating Pound with any candidate from among their own number and counted upon my strength with the voters to weaken his position. The Pound men were quite as convinced that the discord in the Republican ranks would give them the upper hand. According to the plans that had been laid, my candidacy was merely to serve this secondary purpose; and the next strategic move of the Republican politicians was to put forward Webb in the hope that in the manoeuvring between Pound and myself and, possibly, Brown, he would, in racing parlance, take the rail. The odds against me, therefore, seemed to be overwhelming, but I was not ready to give up the struggle.

It was said at the time that the people of Portage County were for E. L. Brown, the convention for Webb, but the delegates for me. When the convention met, Brown, convinced that he could not win, said that his delegates would switch to me after the first ballot, but I told him there would be no second ballot. This proved to be the case. I mustered the necessary majority on the first roll-call.

This upset the plans of the politicians and when I asked the leaders to bring out the vote they assumed an attitude of indifference; said that they did not know whether they would go to the polls or not, and that they might vote the Prohibition ticket. The burden of the entire campaign fell upon me. Pound's friends showed their disappointment by refusing to work at all, and some of the Webb men refused not only to work but to vote. On the other hand, Judge Parks, of Stevens Point, the Democratic candidate, had a very large following and being judge of the district was supported very generally by the lawyers, regardless of politics, who hoped to obtain favors at his hands. In spite of the odds against me I was elected by a majority of two hundred and fifty-six out of a total of forty-seven thousand votes.

In the Wisconsin delegation to the Forty-eighth Congress were three Republicans and six Democrats. The House of Representatives was also controlled by the Democrats by a majority of eighty-one votes and being in the minority we could accomplish little.

In 1884 I was a candidate for a second lime. The situation was then much different. The opposition to me had crumbled and after an easy campaign I was re-elected by a majority of four thousand. The fight centered mainly upon the state legislature, control of which the Republicans sought in order that they might designate one of their own number as the successor to Angus Cameron, whose latter term expired in March, 1885. John C. Spooner was the candidate and all the energies of the party were directed toward his election. At this time I began to appreciate the pecuniary demands of politics. The clamor of the political leaders for funds wherewith to carry on the conflict was incessant. Although my own campaign presented few difficulties and my own election was a foregone conclusion, I contributed, to carry on the struggle for control of the state legislature in the interest of Spooner, twenty-two thousand dollars. Our efforts were successful and Spooner assumed office on March 4, 1885.

Much the same situation prevailed in 1886, when Senator Sawyer was up for re-election. My own campaign gave me little concern. I was elected for the third time with a majority of five thousand and might have had a much larger vote if I had not neglected my own affairs to devote my time to the fight for the control of the legislature in the interest of Sawyer. In this we were again successful and Sawyer was returned.

This ended my career in the House of Representatives. It had been sufficiently long to convince me that it was better for me to remain at home and attend to the business affairs which had suffered much by my absence, as my partners were not practical lumbermen and could not altogether fill my place. At the expiration of the third term I announced, in 1889, that I would not accept the nomination again. It probably would have been given me by a unanimous vote, for my political strength appeared to increase with time and the opposition waned in inverse ratio as my majority had gone up. But I had performed such duty as could have been expected of me and had had sufficient experience in public office to know that the sacrifices it involved were to one in my position out of all proportion to the advantages it conferred or the good it enabled one to accomplish. Upon my withdrawal the Republicans nominated Myron H. McChord, who served but one term.

Politics did not cease to interest me altogether, nor did many of the Republicans regard me as having entered into permanent retirement. Once or twice I was urged to become a candidate for gubernatorial honors, but the sacrifice of taking over the responsibilities of another office for two years, although nearer at home, was as great as that involved in going to Washington, and I refused to consider the proposals. I did, however, go to the Republican national convention of 1892, at which Harrison was nominated for the second time, and was also a delegate at large and chairman of the state delegation in 1900, when McKinley was nominated the second time. My first experience of this kind had been gained in 1880, when I was a delegate to the convention which nominated Garfield.

In 1896, after the election of President McKinley, the plan was conceived by the friends of Henry C. Payne, who had been the active force in organizing and directing the Republican campaign, of suggesting to the President his appointment as Postmaster-General. At this time I held no office, but as I had known the President when we were both serving in the House of Representatives I went to Canton in December with Senator Sawyer to see him and to urge Payne's appointment. The President-elect received me cordially and after we had discussed at some length the forthcoming inauguration and experiences in the house, where he had also known my brother, S. M. Stephenson, intimately, I broached the subject of Payne's appointment. He gave us such assurances that both Senator Sawyer and I went away with the conviction that Payne would be chosen for the place. This, however, did not come to pass.

Later on in Washington I called at the White House and ventured to tell President McKinley that he had made a mistake. He said that he had found it to be impossible to carry out his intention and volunteered to appoint Payne to any post in the diplomatic service except London, Paris, or Berlin, which had already been filled. Afterward Payne, at my suggestion, went to the White house and the President repeated the offer to him, but he declined it, preferring to remain in the United States. He finally received his reward, however, at the hands of President Roosevelt, who appointed him Postmaster-General upon the resignation of Charles Emory Smith.

For a number of years, except for incidents such as this, I enjoyed a much needed respite from the cares of public office and was very glad to be left undisturbed in the management of my own business affairs. But in 1898 and 1899, clouds again began to gather upon the political horizon. Senator Sawyer, whom I had known very well not only in Wisconsin but in Washington, and other Republican leaders in the state proposed that I become a candidate for the United States Senate to succeed John L. Mitchell, whose term was to expire in 1899. Sawyer, Payne, Spooner, and various other men for a period of two years had discussed the subject of my possible candidacy. Payne himself wanted the office, but his health was impaired and opposition to him from certain classes of people in the state was so pronounced that the chances of his election were doubtful. To the plan of putting me forward I was one of the last to give my approval, and personal considerations would have led me to remain where I was after having experienced the disadvantages that a congressional career entailed. But at the solicitation of those whom I regarded as my friends, and with the purpose of doing what seemed best from a party point of view, I finally consented to run.

The moral of that undertaking was a valuable one to me. I discovered for the second time that political assurances were not to be taken at their face value and that I could not rely upon the promises of my friends - or at least some of those whom I had regarded as my friends,— with half as much certainty as I could expect the opposition of my enemies, confirming and accentuating the conclusions I had reached as the result of my first campaign for Congress. No sooner had the decision been reached when the organization leaders switched their support to Quarles and left me dangling in midair. Perhaps my defeat was due in some measure to the fact that, unaware of the turn of events, I had gone to California, where my daughter christened the battleship "Wisconsin," and so lost valuable time in the campaign. In any event, Quarles was elected.

To be quite frank, however, I was disappointed, if wiser, at the end. I felt that I had done much for the Republican party in the State of Wisconsin from 1858 up to that time, only to receive scant reward, if one might be permitted to consider the situation in that lesser light. In itself this meant little to me, and I had not worked with the expectation of receiving anything in return, but simply as one interested in party success. Nor was I indifferent to the distinction that election to the United States Senate or service in that body confers. It is an honor worthily sought, the one office in all my political career I would willingly have accepted.

But there was another phaise to the situation. It was quite natural, considered in a purely personal light, that I should have felt some resentment against those who had urged me to become a candidate in the interest of the party and then given their support to another,— these, too, the men whom I had assisted in good faith and for whom I had made great sacrifices. Had my defeat been due to popular choice there would have been no occasion for complaint and I should have accepted my fate without murmuring. But it was not a question of popular choice at all. I began to realize for the first time the power and devious ways of the "machine."


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