By Alec Israeli ’21
This is the second of a two-part series on the autograph book of Charles P. Stratton, Class of 1848, and its relationship to the scandal surrounding the career of William W. Belknap, Class of 1848, Secretary of War under President Ulysses S. Grant. Part one closed with the damning testimony of Caleb P. Marsh, which suggested Belknap had benefited from illegal kickback payments through a supplier of a Western fort. Here, after examining the shared racial politics of Belknap and the Pennsylvania congressman investigating him, I close with the response to Marsh’s testimony, as well as further considerations on the function and creation of historical evidence as relevant to Stratton’s book.
Pennsylvania congressman Hiester Clymer led the response to Caleb P. Marsh’s testimony in the corruption trial of William W. Belknap, Class of 1848. Clymer was a prominent politician, businessman, and another Princeton alum of the 1840s. Clymer graduated a year before Belknap, in the class of 1847. The two likely knew each other, as they both lived in “North College” (i.e., Nassau Hall; some secondary sources describing Clymer’s investigation claim that he and Belknap were actually roommates, but Princeton’s Catalogue suggests otherwise). And, like that of Edward Wall and William Belknap, the signature of Clymer can also be found in Stratton’s autograph book.
The annotation next to his name in the book reads as almost laudatory, stating, “Has had a career. Has been in Congress from Reading; is there now (1877). Ran for Gov. in Pennsylvania. Was defeated; Is lucky, and knows how to make good use of small capital.” His “career” as a politician in the Democratic Party began even earlier than what is noted here. Before running for Governor in 1866, and before he was a US Congressman, he served in the Pennsylvania State Senate during the war. There, Clymer delivered fiery speeches against abolition and the Republican-led war effort. Before the Senate chamber, he maintained that slavery was not inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus, and that the nation’s founders had written a constitution which both recognized and protected slavery. Additionally holding that the war must only be for the preservation of the Constitution as it was (that is, as a pro-slavery document), he thus opposed Republican policy that would come to frame the war as one of explicitly for abolition— in his words, into a “visionary, fanatical struggle.”
For example, one of his speeches was in opposition to a Pennsylvania Senate resolution stating that “it is the unquestionable right and manifest duty of Congress to abolish Slavery in the District of Columbia; and instructing their Senators and requesting their Representatives to Congress, to vote for its total and immediate abolition in the said District, upon such terms as may be deemed just and equitable to the slave owners therein.” Here was a hardline stance indeed; he claimed (somewhat ironically) such abolition would “utterly enslave” the citizens of Washington DC, that it was a stripping “of property, of comfort and of many of the dearest relations of life.” All this, he said, even though the above resolution arguably provided for compensation for former slave-owners: abolition “upon such terms as may be deemed just and equitable to the slave owners therein.” This aspect of the resolution he commended.
Clymer further argued against this resolution on the grounds that abolition in Washington DC could not proceed without the consent of the voters of Maryland, which had ceded land for the creation of the District, and the District itself. This argument echoed the doctrine of “popular sovereignty” propounded by Stephen Douglas, famed Democratic opponent of Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election, and the 1858 Illinois senate race. The doctrine held that the Western territories seeking statehood should decide whether they be free or slave states by popular election, a solution framed as democratic only to the extent that “democracy” as such was exclusive to white men.
Though the investigation may have made the pair opponents, Belknap’s politics were not all that far from Clymer’s in some respects. Both advocated for policy to maintain the white supremacist status quo. Before the war, Belknap was a Douglas Democrat. And, as a Republican during his tenure as Secretary of War, he hardly seemed to identify with the more radical wing of the party, which demanded a more involved federal approach to supporting former slaves and Black Americans more generally. Secretary Belknap did little to address the persistent racist harassment faced by James Webster Smith of South Carolina, the first Black cadet at West Point. As Edward S. Cooper and William S. McFeely have written, Belknap’s weak response was not for lack of awareness; he knew in detail of Smith’s case, and as Secretary of War ultimately had the power to enforce discipline at West Point.
Belknap also opposed federal attempts to address post-bellum inequalities in the South through the Freedmen’s Bureau, a War Department agency established to support former slaves and refugees by building schools and hospitals, ensuring laws were enforced equally, and mediating disputes, among other responsibilities. He recommended to President Grant in November 1871 that the Bureau be dissolved, and within a few months Congress closed the agency. The prospect of racial equality materially embodied by the work of the Bureau, especially in the wake of emancipation, provoked panic in sectors of white America. Hiester Clymer played to such fears in his failed 1866 gubernatorial race, running an explicitly white supremacist campaign that took specific issue with Black suffrage and the very Bureau that Clymer’s old Princeton classmate would soon bury.
And yet, the ties of alma mater and shared racial politics did not keep Clymer from pursuing the investigation into Belknap’s corruption. Two days after Marsh’s testimony (which revealed the pay-off arrangement between himself, Evans, and the Belknaps), and one day after Belknap and his lawyer appeared before Congress in response, Clymer presented a report from the Committee on Expenditures in the War Department calling for Belknap’s impeachment. However, earlier in the day before the call for impeachment, Belknap had handed in his letter of resignation to President Grant, and Grant accepted, not fully aware of the circumstances. A debate over whether Congress now had jurisdiction over Belknap followed, as his resignation had made him a private citizen again. Nonetheless, Congress voted unanimously to impeach Belknap. His following Senate trial, however, resulted in acquittal. Though the majority voted to convict Belknap, it was not a two-thirds majority as was necessary. Many voted for acquittal on the legal grounds that the Senate did not, in the end, have jurisdiction over Belknap after his resignation.
Belknap’s fall and Clymer’s partial victory (partial, if only because Belknap’s resignation beat Congress to the punch) did not bring the intrigue surrounding the position of Secretary of War to a complete close, especially from a Princeton perspective. George Robeson, the corrupt Secretary of the Navy and of the Class of 1847, briefly served as interim Secretary of War after Belknap resigned. He was succeeded by Alphonso Taft, whose tenure lasted but a few months until he was replaced by James Donald Cameron. The Stratton autograph book, by some strange fate— or rather, by a combination of fortuitous timing and Princeton alum’s influence in national politics— seems to physically bind the Princeton figures of the Belknap scandal together: Cameron’s signature, like Belknap’s and Clymer’s, is in the book.
Cameron graduated with the Class of 1852, though he at first entered Princeton to graduate with the Class of 1850: in another autograph book, that of Robert Hollingsworth of the Class of 1849, Cameron wrote he was the Class of 1850, and the Catalogue seem to indicate he took two years of absence after his junior year before graduating. In the Stratton autograph book, the annotation beside his name indicates that this Cameron was the same that assumed the position of Secretary of War following the Belknap scandal, stating, “1876 U.S. Sec. of War under President Grant: U.S. Senator in 1877.” “Sec. of War” is written here above “Attorney General”, which is scratched out; the annotator may have made this mistake because Taft, Cameron’s predecessor, became attorney general once Cameron succeeded him as Secretary of War.
As many connections as are visible in the autograph book, furnished by the combination of signatures and annotations, their true depth is not immediately apparent. Though the annotator provided a sort of timeline along which the lives of the signers could be compared, detail (especially in the case of the Belknap scandal) is surprisingly lacking. While the annotations for Belknap, Clymer, and Cameron do state each of the men’s relative positions in the scandal, and they do state that Belknap “came to grief”, none explicitly mention the connection between the three. And, this information is not there, even though the annotations on all three appear to have been written in 1877, the year after the very public, well-covered event. Of course, it is possible that the annotator did not know who led the investigation of Belknap, or who ultimately succeeded him (indeed, as stated, the annotator seemed to think Belknap was the Secretary of the Navy, not of War). Or perhaps they did know, and did not recognize the Princeton connection, or did know and did recognize, but merely chose not to add it. Whatever the case, the paucity of information points again to the difficulty of ascertaining intention in historical evidence.
Whether or not Stratton’s autograph book (or even any historical artifact) may be placed in one of Marc Bloch’s categories of evidence in The Historian’s Craft may then be beside the point; the categories serve more as a heuristic than a rule in any case. Rather, the pieces of the Belknap scandal to be found in the book point towards the work of historical investigation in connecting disparate dots, of consulting other sources in order to glean whatever possible from a given artifact. Evidence, indeed, does not so much as merely exist for us to find, but is something we instead must construct for ourselves.
Autograph Book Collection (AC040)
Catalogue of the Officers and Students of the College of New Jersey.
The Congressional Record (Bound Edition). (Esp. Vol. 4, Parts 2 and 7)
Undergraduate Alumni Records (AC104).
Wall, Edward. Reminiscences of Princeton College, 1845-1848. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1914.
For further reading:
Bloch, Marc. The Historians Craft. Introduction by Joseph R. Strayer. Translated by Peter Putnam. New York: Vintage Books, 1953.
Cooper, Edward S., William Worth Belknap: An American Disgrace. Madison [NJ]: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003.
McFeely, William S. Grant: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1981.
Purcell, L. E. “The Fall of an Iowa Hero.” The Palimpsest 57 (1976), 130-145.
Wood, Forrest G. Black Scare: The Racist Response to Emancipation and Reconstruction. 1st paperback edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.
Alec Israeli is a history major in the Princeton University Class of 2021. Aside from working at Mudd Library over the summer, his extracurricular activities include being an editor and writer for Princeton Progressive Magazine and a pianist for the Jazz Vocal Collective.
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