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Recollections of a Long Life 1829 - 1915
Chapter XVI


OF my early experiences in Congress there is little to relate. The record of what was done during the six years I served as a member of the House of Representatives has been set down in detail elsewhere and it would be superfluous for me to comment upon it here. The part I played in the legislative deliberations of this time was a very small one. As a member of the minority I could accomplish little and moved with the other Republicans a shadow across the screen, while the Democratic majority directed the policy of government.

Although I was an uncompromising Republican, and have been ever since the organization of the party, - even before, I might say almost with accuracy, when the Whigs were battling for existence,— I did not feel that it was incumbent upon me to assert my allegiance to the extent of arousing the hostility of the Democrats. As a matter of fact I numbered among them some of my best friends. This was due partly to my own efforts and partly to the acquaintanceships I had formed before I thought of embarking upon a political career. William B. Ogden, Samuel J. Tilden, William H. Barnum, and many other prominent members of the party I had known intimately or had been associated with in a business way. Through them, not infrequently, I learned the political secrets of the Democratic party, subcurrents of thought and purpose not disclosed to the lesser leaders and the rank and file, so that, as a member of the minority, I came to the House under very good auspices. I had the ear of Randall, Tilden's ablest lieutenant; Blanchard, chairman of the river and harbor committee; and others who then directed the destinies of the majority. Many of the Democratic members themselves paid me the compliment of soliciting my aid in passing measures in which they were interested or in ascertaining what plan of action their own leaders had under contemplation. The same was true, in large measure, of the Republican leaders, whom I came to know through men outside of Congress who took no active part in political affairs.

My rather intimate association with Speaker Reed, Tom Reed, as he was better known, then the minority leader and of much more impressive personality than William McKinley, I enjoyed more than any other experience during my term of service in the house. Nearly every day we took luncheon together, sometimes by ourselves, sometimes with others. Among the latter was Representative Abram Stevens Hewitt,— "Abe" Hewitt, the great iron master of the firm of Cooper and Hewitt, an ardent Free Trader, who as Reed said, never opened his mouth unless it were "full of raw material." Reed's drollery was a source of constant amusement and, although he was a man of few words, his brief remarks, delivered with a. characteristic New England drawl, invariably brought to earth many ambitious legislators who essayed long and lofty flights of oratory. In the six years I served in the House I took luncheon alone but once. If it were not Reed it was some one else I had as my guest, a pleasure which had its benefits as it enabled me to meet and oftentimes to count as friends many of my associates whom I would otherwise have scarcely known.

One of the members of the house at this time was John Arnot, of Elmira, whose father had played a conspicuous part in the construction of the Erie Railroad and whose sister had, late in life, married William B. Ogden. With Arnot, a Democrat, Jesse Spalding, with whom I had been associated in various enterprises, and a general from Pennsylvania, whose name I do not recall, I called on President Arthur late one evening, a visit which I remember with unusual distinctness because of the impression that Arthur made. From eleven o'clock until half-past two in the morning we sat near the entrance of the White House conservatory, talking about various things simply for the pleasure it gave us. President Arthur was an ideal host, suave of manner and possessing a well developed sense of humor, and enjoyed the conversation as much as ourselves. At midnight we arose to go, but he insisted upon our remaining, telling us of his efforts to renovate the White House and of the discovery in the attic of a table purchased in Andrew Jackson's time. The general from Pennsylvania, who regaled himself with rye whiskey, protesting all the time that bourbon was the proper Democratic drink, achieved so great an admiration for the President before we departed that he declared he would vote for him if the Republicans had the wisdom to nominate him.

There were, of course, many other prominent men in Congress at this time whom it was my good fortune to know, but there is nothing for me to add to what others have said of them.

During these days we had not yet arrived at the point of federal extravagance that has since been attained. The Democrats were ultra-conservative in the matter of spending money and avoided what we have since come to regard as necessary and economical outlay. There was no post-office building at Augusta, the capital of Maine, for example. The city of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, had no federal building and the post-office at Milwaukee was a shambly, inadequate structure which occupied the site on which the Wells Building was subsequently erected. We set out to secure an appropriation for a building there, but met with much opposition and did not carry the struggle to a successful conclusion until the last moment of my three terms of service.

The Navy was also the object of little solicitude on the part of Congress. Representative "Sam" Randall, the Democratic leader in the House, in discussing the administration's naval policy, said that there was no enemy in sight and that, therefore, no Navy was needed. Such was the general point of view, particularly of the Democrats. The fallacy of this course of reasoning was disclosed soon afterward by the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, since which time the policy has been changed. The lesson of that experience, however, has been very largely forgotten. The habitual weakness of the American people is to assume that they have made themselves great, whereas their greatness has been in large measure thrust upon them by a bountiful providence which has given them forests, mines, fertile soil, and a variety of climate to enable them to sustain themselves in plenty, and an isolated position away from the maelstrom of international politics.

It might be well to look with much less complacency upon our own accomplishments and to distrust our own sense of security.

By reason of my early experiences on the lakes, as a sailor, officer, and vessel owner, the part I played in the improvement of harbors, the development of transportation facilities by the use of barges, and the construction of the Sturgeon Bay Canal, I took a very keen interest in the work of the Rivers and Harbors Committee, of which I was a member, and bent my efforts toward securing larger appropriations and making systematic expenditures for waterways. In the forties, as I have said, the Democrats had suspended all federal aid in the improvement of conditions on the lakes, which led every sailor to give allegiance to the Whig party. Since that time Congress had doled out money for this purpose in niggardly fashion.

In 1888, during my service on the House committee, we reported a bill carrying appropriations of twenty-two and one-half millions, six millions larger than any bill framed up to that time. The magnitude of the measure from the point of view then prevailing aroused opposition, and we realized that we had a fight before us to pass it. It fell to me to act in the capacity of whip, to secure pairs between the members opposed to and the members in favor of the bill, and to keep our forces at their places when needed. After working for three days and a half under the five-minute rule, we completed the consideration of only eleven pages. The speaker, pressed for time, was unwilling to proceed further with the debate on the measure and we at length decided to attempt to pass it under a suspension of the rules.

This was difficult of accomplishment. Representative McKinley, for example, afterward President of the United States, said that he was in favor of internal improvements of this character, but that he would not vote for the bill on its final passage under a suspension of the rules. He had no rivers or harbors in his district, he said, and would never be able to explain to all the old women and children why he voted for so large an outlay of money without even considering it. Rather than lose the bill entirely, however, he promised to support it if necessity arose.

On Monday, suspension day, we made our motion and were beaten by nineteen votes. McKinley's name was called, but he did not respond. Among those who opposed the bill was General Brown, from the Wabash district in Indiana, a very able man. He was a member of the Judiciary Committee and had some time before been defeated for the governorship by Hendricks. General Culberson, of Texas, the father of Senator Culberson and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, came to me as we were about to vote and said that he had to go to the White House to discuss an appointment with President Cleveland. We could not sacrifice any votes, and as I was looking about to see whom I could pair with Culberson, General Brown came up.

"Will you pair with General Culberson?" I asked.

"Where is the other man?" he replied. ''This motion requires a two-thirds majority and it will take two to pair against me."

For the moment I did not know where to turn, as he was right and there was no other man available for the pair. I therefore took the dilemma by the horns. "Has it come to this," I said, "that the chairman of the Judiciary Committee of the House is not equal to a fellow from an inland district down in Indiana?"

General Brown hesitated a moment, then laughed and said: "All right; I'll go down-town." The vote was saved.

On the second attempt we succeeded in suspending the rules. McKinley again refused to vote, but we had twenty more than the necessary two-thirds majority, and the bill was passed. Our success aroused a deluge of criticism on the ground of extravagance from all parts of the country. Nevertheless the appropriations for rivers and harbors have gone on increasing, reaching in the Fifty-ninth Congress the enormous total of eighty-three million dollars.

With indiscriminate denunciation of appropriations for rivers and harbors as "pork-barrel" measures, I have little patience. Of course there is no gainsaying that every precaution should be taken to avoid useless expenditure, but the opposition of inland districts which are without navigable rivers or harbors is as short-sighted as the efforts of other districts to secure as large an appropriation as possible without regard to the value of the improvement contemplated. Wisely designed projects are not for the exclusive benefit of the limited area in their vicinity. The Great Lakes, as I had ample occasion to know, were the broad thoroughfare over which the products of the Middle Western states, especially before the advent of the railroads, found their way to the seaboard. It was to the advantage of Iowa, Illinois, and other inland states as well as to the states of Wisconsin and Michigan that harbors were built and shipping facilities extended.

This line of reasoning might well be carried to greater lengths. The construction of canals and the improvement of navigable rivers will not only obviate some of the problems which now confront us,—the shortage of cars and the difficulty of moving crops,—but in the years to come will cheapen transportation and give comparatively inaccessible regions an outlet other than the railroads. To verge upon prophecy, I believe that, as the general development of the country permits, the great lakes should be connected with the Mississippi River by a ship canal with a system of locks by which the waters of Lake Michigan may be conserved and the level maintained. The Mississippi should provide an adequate waterway from St. Paul to the Gulf of Mexico over which the products of the North and Middle West might be carried directly to foreign markets. To impound the waters of the Great Lakes, the level of which must be maintained, a dam might be built at the head of Niagara Falls, raising the level of Lake Erie; the channel might be narrowed at the outlet of Lake Huron, reducing the waste there; the flow might be checked to some extent in the Straits of Mackinac at the narrowest point near St. Ignace, and precautions taken to retard time flow at the "Soo," the outlet of Lake Superior. Such projects are far in the future, perhaps, but they are worthy of attention. Millions, even hundreds of millions, might be expended annually, upon rivers, harbors, and canals in the United States to advantage. At the same time water power, for which there are many sites in northern Wisconsin and time northern peninsula of Michigan, will be developed extensively for the production of electricity, which will take the place of coal and time rapidly dwindling supply of wood.

In 1882, when I first became a candidate for Congress, I went to Ashland near the head of Mucquanicum Bay, where there were three or four sawmills. The water was shoal, not more than twelve feet deep, and Washburn, a village four miles to the north, competed with Ashland for traffic. For fear of disclosing their own lack of harbor facilities the people of Ashland not only made no effort to secure an appropriation, but frowned upon a movement to that end. To accomplish anything it was necessary for me to take the initiative and I accordingly induced Colonel Barlow, the engineer in charge of the district with headquarters at Milwaukee, to make a survey for a breakwater designed to prevent the sand from drifting into the harbor, and for deepening the channel by dredging. Recommendations were made to this effect, the survey was made, and in 1883 or shortly after I secured an appropriation to begin the work.

Such was the attitude adopted by many people of the country toward river and harbor improvement. One of the most zealous advocates of it was my brother, S. M. Stephenson, who during his four terms in Congress devoted much time and effort to the work. It was due largely to his energy and persistency that a continuing appropriation was made for the maintenance and improvement of the "Soo" Canal and that many projects on the lakes were undertaken.

Time has wrought marked changes in the makeup of Congress since my first years of service in the House of Representatives. Not only have the men who dominated the activities of the legislative branch of the government gone, but there are few of the same stamp to take their places. Men of experience in the business world - commerce, finance, manufacturing - have given way in great measure to lawyers, and the effort to eradicate the evils of the old régime has resulted in a mass of theoretical and experimental legislation enacted without regard to its effect upon the productive resources of the country. In my own time at least eleven of the sixteen members of the Committee on Commerce of the Senate were lawyers, and only one other than myself had ever had anything to do with a ship. To one member I suggested that the only knowledge he had acquired of shipping was confined to a prairie schooner, and the figure of speech could doubtless have been applied to many others. Small wonder, then, that the statute books have grown bulky with a mass of hastily enacted legislation impossible of enforcement and that men at the head of business institutions look with anxiety to the future.


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