March 28th.—I was honored to-day by visits from a great number of Members of Congress, journalists, and others. Judging from the expressions of most of the Washington people, they would gladly see a Southern Cabinet installed in their city. The cold shoulder is given to Mr. Lincoln, and all kinds of stories and jokes are circulated at his expense. People take particular pleasure in telling how he came towards the seat of his Government disguised in a Scotch cap and cloak, whatever that may mean.
In the evening I repaired to the White House. The servant who took my hat and coat was particularly inquisitive as to my name and condition in life; and when he heard I was not a minister, he seemed inclined to question my right to be there at all: “for,” said he, “there are none but members of the cabinet, and their wives and daughters, dining here to-day.” Eventually he relaxed—instructed me how to place my hat so that it would be exposed to no indignity, and informed me that I was about to participate in a prandial enjoyment of no ordinary character. There was no parade or display, no announcement—no gilded staircase, with its liveried heralds, transmitting and translating one’s name from landing to landing. From the unpretending ante-chamber, a walk across the lofty hall led us to the reception-room, which was the same as that in which the President held his interview yesterday.
Mrs. Lincoln was already seated to receive her guests. She is of the middle age and height, of a plumpness degenerating to the embonpoint natural to her years; her features are plain, her nose and mouth of an ordinary type, and her manners and appearance homely, stiffened, however, by the consciousness that her position requires her to be something more than plain Mrs. Lincoln, the wife of the Illinois lawyer; she is profuse in the introduction of the word “sir” in every sentence, which is now almost an Americanism confined to certain classes, although it was once as common in England. Her dress I shall not attempt to describe, though it was very gorgeous and highly colored. She handled a fan with much energy, displaying a round, well-proportioned arm, and was adorned with some simple jewelry. Mrs. Lincoln struck me as being desirous of making herself agreeable; and I own I was agreeably disappointed, as the Secessionist ladies at Washington had been amusing themselves by anecdotes which could scarcely have been founded on fact.
Several of the Ministers had already arrived; by and by all had come, and the party only waited for General Scott, who seemed to be the representative man in Washington of the monarchical idea, and to absorb some of the feeling which is lavished on the pictures and memory, if not on the monument, of Washington. Whilst we were waiting, Mr. Seward took me round, and introduced me to the Ministers, and to their wives and daughters, among the latter, Miss Chase, who is very attractive, agreeable, and sprightly. Her father, the Finance Minister, struck me as one of the y most intelligent and distinguished persons in the whole assemblage; tall, of a good presence, with a well-formed head, fine forehead, and a face indicating energy and power. There is a peculiar droop and motion of the lid of one eye, which seems to have suffered from some injury, that detracts from the agreeable effect of his face; but, on the whole, he is one who would not pass quite unnoticed in a European crowd of the same description.
In the whole assemblage there was not a scrap of lace or a piece of ribbon, except the gorgeous epaulettes of an old naval officer who had served against us in the last war, and who represented some branch of the naval department. Nor were the Ministers by any means remarkable for their personal appearance.
Mr. Cameron, the Secretary for War, a slight man, above the middle height, with grey hair, deep-set keen grey eyes, and a thin mouth, gave me the idea of a person of ability and adroitness. His colleague, the Secretary of the Navy, a small man, with a great long grey beard and spectacles, did not look like one of much originality or ability; but people who know Mr. Welles declare that he is possessed of administrative power, although they admit that he does not know the stem from the stern of a ship, and are in doubt whether he ever saw the sea in his life. Mr. Smith, the Minister of the Interior, is a bright-eyed, smart (I use the word in the English sense) gentleman, with the reputation of being one of the most conservative members of the cabinet. Mr. Blair, the Postmaster-General, is a person of much greater influence than his position would indicate. He has the reputation of being one of the most determined republicans in the Ministry; but he held peculiar notions with reference to the black and the white races, which, if carried out, would not by any means conduce to the comfort or happiness of free negroes in the United States. He is a tall, lean man, with a hard, Scotch, practical-looking head—an anvil for ideas to be hammered on. His eyes are small and deeply set, and have a rat-like expression; and he speaks with caution, as though he weighed every word before he uttered it. The last of the Ministers is Mr. Bates, a stout, thick-set, common-looking man, with a large beard, who fills the office of Attorney-General. Some of the gentlemen were in evening dress; others wore black frock coats, which it seems, as in Turkey, are considered to be en regle at a Republican Ministerial dinner.
In the conversation which occurred before dinner, I was amused to observe the manner in which Mr. Lincoln used the anecdotes for which he is famous. Where men bred in courts, accustomed to the world, or versed in diplomacy, would use some subterfuge, or would make a polite speech, or give a shrug of the shoulders as the means of getting out of an embarrassing position, Mr. Lincoln raises a laugh by some bold west-country anecdote, and moves off in the cloud of merriment produced by his joke. Thus, when Mr. Bates was remonstrating apparently against the appointment of some indifferent lawyer to a place of judicial importance, the President interposed with, “Come now, Bates, he’s not half as bad as you think. Besides that, I must tell you, he did me a good turn long ago. When I took to the law, I was going to court one morning, with some ten or twelve miles of bad road before me, and I had no horse. The judge overtook me in his waggon. ‘Hollo, Lincoln! Are you not going to the courthouse? Come in and I’ll give you a seat.’ Well, I got in, and the judge went on reading his papers. Presently the waggon struck a stump on one side of the road; then it hopped off to the other. I looked out, and I saw the driver was jerking from side to side in his seat; so says I, ‘Judge, I think your coachman has been taking a little drop too much this morning.’ ‘Well I declare, Lincoln,’ said he, ‘I should not much wonder if you are right, for he has nearly upset me half-a-dozen of times since starting.’ So, putting his head out of the window, he shouted, ‘Why, you infernal scoundrel, you are drunk!’ Upon which, pulling up his horses, and turning round with great gravity, the coachman said, ‘By gorra! that’s the first rightful decision you have given for the last twelvemonth.'” Whilst the company were laughing, the President beat a quiet retreat from the neighborhood of the Attorney-General.
It was at last announced that General Scott was unable to he present, and that, although actually in the house, he had been compelled to retire from indisposition, and we moved in to the banqueting-hall. The first “state dinner,” as it is called, of the President was not remarkable for ostentation. No liveried servants, no Persic splendor of ancient plate, or chefs d’œuvre of art glittered round the board. Vases of flowers decorated the table, combined with dishes in what may be called the “Gallo-American” style, with wines which owed their parentage to France, and their rearing and education to the United States, which abound in cunning nurses for such productions. The conversation was suited to the state dinner of a cabinet at which women and strangers were present. I was seated next Mr. Bates and the very agreeable and lively Secretary of the President, Mr. Hay, and except when there was an attentive silence caused by one of the President’s stories, there was a Babel of small talk round the table, in which I was surprised to find a diversity of accent almost as great as if a number of foreigners had been speaking English. I omitted the name of Mr. Hamlin, the Vice-President, as well as those of less remarkable people who were present; but it would not be becoming to pass over a man distinguished for nothing so much as his persistent and unvarying adhesion to one political doctrine, which has made him, in combination with the belief in his honesty, the occupant of a post which leads to the Presidency, in event of any occurrence which may remove Mr. Lincoln.
After dinner the ladies and gentlemen retired to the drawing-room, and the circle was increased by the addition of several politicians. I had an opportunity of conversing with some of the Ministers, if not with all, from time to time, and I was struck by the uniform tendency of their remarks in reference to the policy of Great Britain. They seemed to think that England was bound by her anti-slavery antecedents to discourage to the utmost any attempts of the South to establish its independence on a basis of slavery, and to assume that they were the representatives of an active war of emancipation. As the veteran Commodore Stewart passed the chair of the young lady to whom I was speaking, she said, “I suppose, Mr. Russell, you do not admire that officer?” “On the contrary,” I said, “I think he is a very fine-looking old man.” “I don’t mean that,” she replied; “but you know he can’t be very much liked by you, because he fought so gallantly against you in the last war, as you must know.” I had not the courage to confess ignorance of the Captain’s antecedents. There is a delusion among more than the fair American who spoke to me, that we entertain in England the sort of feeling, morbid or wholesome as it may be, in reference to our reverses at New Orleans and elsewhere, that is attributed to Frenchmen respecting Waterloo.
On returning to Willard’s Hotel, I was accosted by a gentleman who came out from the crowd in front of the office. “Sir,” he said, “you have been dining with our President to-night.” I bowed. “Was it an agreeable party?” said he. “What do you think of Mr. Lincoln?” “May I ask to whom I have the pleasure of speaking?” “My name is Mr. ——, and I am the correspondent of the New York ——.” “Then, sir,” I replied, “it gives me satisfaction to tell you that I think a great deal of Mr. Lincoln, and that I am equally pleased with my dinner. I have the honor to bid you good evening.” The same gentleman informed me afterwards that he had created the office of Washington Correspondent to the New York papers. “At first,” said he, “I merely wrote news, and no one cared much; then I spiced it up, squibbed a little, and let off stories of my own. Congress men contradicted me —issued cards—said they were not facts. The public attention was attracted, and I was told to go on; and so the Washington correspondence became a feature in all the New York papers by degrees.” The hum and bustle in the hotel to-night were wonderful. All the office seekers were in the passages, hungering after senators and representatives, and the ladies in any way related to influential people, had an entourage of courtiers sedulously paying their respects. Miss Chase, indeed, laughingly told me that she was pestered by applicants for her father’s good offices, and by persons seeking introduction to her as a means of making demands on “Uncle Sam.”
As I was visiting a book-shop to-day, a pert, smiling young fellow, of slight figure and boyish appearance came up and introduced himself to me as an artist who had contributed to an illustrated London paper during the Prince of Wales’s tour, and who had become acquainted with some of my friends; and he requested permission to call on me, which I gave without difficulty or hesitation. He visited me this evening, poor lad! and told me a sad story of his struggles, and of the dependence of his family on his efforts, as a prelude to a request that I would allow him to go South when I was making the tour there, of which he had heard. He was under an engagement with the London paper, and had no doubt that if he was with me his sketches would all be received as illustrations of the places to which my letters were attracting public interest in England at the time. There was no reason why I should be averse to his travelling with me in the same train. He could certainly go if he pleased. At the same time I intimated that I was in no way to be connected with or responsible for him.