REPRESENTATIVE AND LEADING
MEN OF THE PACIFIC
WILLIAM I. FERGUSON
By THE EDITOR.
The history of political parties in California is illustrated with the genius of brilliant and ambitious minds from every section of the American Union: and of these it is noteworthy that a large and disproportionate number, prior to their advent in California, exercised a conspicuous leadership in public affairs in Illinois. Baker, McDougall, Ferguson, Campbell, Hoge, Hardy, Pratt—these are but a few of the ardent spirits sent forth by the Prairie State to the shores of the Pacific, endowed with the charms of oratory, strengthened by enlightened experience, and learned in the science of law.
William I. Ferguson was born May 9th, 1825, at Monongahela City, Pennsylvania, the native State of his father and mother. His grand-parents came to the United States from Ireland. His father, Benjamin F., was a carpenter and builder. William was the oldest of six children. When he was ten years of age, his parents removed to Springfield, Illinois, where his father died, and where his mother, sisters, and two brothers, now reside.
William received a common-school education. After leaving school, he clerked for a short time in a store; then, having determined to prepare himself for the bar, he applied himself closely for some years to the study of law in the offices of Judge Logan, Col. E. D. Baker, and other prominent lawyers of Springfield. He received his license to practice before he attained his majority, and soon obtained a good business. Politics, as well as law, had a charm for him. When he was a very young man, he became noted as an eloquent and forcible speaker. He had been raised a Whig, but, on becoming a voter, espoused the Democratic cause. He was several times elected city attorney of Springfield, and his name was placed on the Democratic electoral ticket in the presidential election of 1848, he then being only twenty-three years of age. In 1850 he was a candidate for the State Legislature, and ran far ahead of his ticket; but was defeated, there being at that time a very large Whig majority in his district.
The editor has received the following reminiscences of Mr. Ferguson, from Mr. W. H. Herndon, a leading lawyer of Springfield, formerly a law partner of President Lincoln. Mr. Herndon wrote his narrative hastily, intending only to furnish data for this sketch, without expecting that his language would be adopted by the editor:
Springfield, Ill., March 20th, 1869.
OSCAR T. SHUCK, ESQ.,
San Francisco, Cal.
DEAR SIR:—I knew Hon. William I. Ferguson as early as 1836, when he was going to school. I sold his father Gillies’ Greece for William to read. He read it well and with admiration, and was enthusiastic over its contents. He was fond of good history. About the year 1835, ‘6 or ‘7, I was president of a young men’s debating society in Springfield, Illinois. Ferguson joined it, and he soon assumed leadership of it. He was a number-one talker in the society. He generally studied his subject well, would converse with older heads, read books and papers, and thus became well informed on the subject of debate. He admired conversation more than reading. He would absorb all that was said; would assimilate it, digest and use it. I do not think he loved mathematics at school; but grammar and rhetoric were favorite studies. He was a close reader of Byron, Shakespeare, and Milton. William was an openhearted, spontaneous young man; would go to any lengths for a friend, even when a mere lad. He did not love to fight with boys; had too much good-will and sense. About the year 1837 or 1838, he was a clerk in a store in Springfield, owned by Bell & Speed, where he remained about one year. This occupation was decidedly distasteful to him; his active brain and impulsive nature yearned for nobler employments. His father then put him to learn the carpenter’s trade, but the boy was still unsatisfied. When pushing the jack-plane at his trade, he embraced every leisure moment to creep down into the shavings and read history or poetry. About this time, his friends thought he must die with the consumption. However, by keeping in the open air, and taking physical exercise, he got well. In the year 1842, he went into the law office of Hon. S. T. Logan of Springfield; he received his license in 1843. He and Hon. David Logan, now of Oregon, son of Hon. S. T. Logan, read law at the same time and place. They were boys of much promise, because they had by nature large minds, and were studious, determined, and patient. Ferguson, upon being admitted, went into an extensive practice at once. He was social and beloved. He knew how to attract and tie men to him. He was more of a thinker than a reader; was a great absorber of what was said in conversation. He soon came to be the first criminal lawyer at the Sangamon bar, among such men as Lincoln, Logan, Baker, McDougal, Bledsoe, Stuart, and others. I have watched the young man in a hard case with admiration; he was calm and self-possessed, knowing his case thoroughly. His leading characteristic, in mind, was his quick, excellent judgment. His reason was no better than that of a thousand other men. His intuitive judgments were admirable, keen, correct, and quick as lightning. He told what the law was when hearing it discussed, even before it was decided by the Court. He caught hints how to manage his case by closely watching the ideas of opposing attorneys. Ferguson intuitively knew that the opposition attorney’s side was antagonistic to his. Hence he never was at a loss to know how to manage a case, for a defendant especially.
Mr. Ferguson was chosen in this city of the Fourth of July, 1840, to be the orator of the day, over such men as Lincoln, Logan, and others. His oration was truly eloquent; it was finely, grandly eloquent. He gained great honor on that occasion. I forgot to say that one of William’s habits was to read aloud, and walk the room, when so doing, backwards and forwards; he loved to read orations—from sixteen to twenty-two, always repeating them: he would go into the deep woods and there speak to a tree, or to me as well as others of his friends. In politics he was raised a Whig; he turned Democrat about 1844.
On one occasion he and I were going to court in Christian county. Hon. David Davis was judge of what may be called the Sangamon District or Circuit. On the road we heard that Judge Davis was too ill to attend Court. “Hush,” said young Ferguson, “and we’ll have some fun: we’ll tell the people that we are authorized to hold Court for Judge Davis.” So we rode to the county seat, as appeared to the crowd, in a legitimate way. The Sheriff knew no better, nor did the clerk, nor the lawyers. I kept still—said nothing. One lawyer made motion, and during the time it was being argued, some one behaved rather badly. Young Ferguson said: “Mr. Clerk, fine Mr. ——— one dollar for contempt of Court, in making too much noise and for keeping his hat on in the court-room.” The man walked up; paid his fine with some grumbling. Two or three fines in addition were thus imposed. Probably four or five dollars were collected in this way. In about one or two hours, Ferguson rose up in the chair and said: “Mr. Clerk, Court’s adjourned. Let’s go and have a general frolic with the fine-money—a big, old-fashioned spree.” Then it was first discovered that it was a sham court. The people were wild in their fun, and those that paid, the fines enjoyed the joke more than all others. Your truly,
W. H. HERNDON.
Mr. Ferguson left Illinois on the 26th day of September, 1852, for Texas. He resided in Dallas county in the latter State, until the following spring, and then started overland for California, where he arrived in the summer of 1853. After residing for a few months at Marysville, he located permanently at Sacramento, and entered upon the practice of his profession. Possessed of a fine knowledge of law, of affable manners, and a very generous and kind disposition, his popularity soon became as great as his ambition, (which was unlimited) and procured him as much business as he could possibly attend to. He loved, but was not wedded to, his profession, although he distinguished himself as a criminal lawyer. He sought to make it a stepping-stone to political preferment; and cherished an honorable zeal to shine in the councils of the State and nation. He had an insatiable thirst for fame. He cared but little for money. The fluctuations in real estate, and the rise and fall of stocks, never cost him a sigh or gave him any concern. The records of the County Recorder of Sacramento county do not once reveal his name as the purchaser or vendor of a single inch of ground. He lived and moved in the midst of a restless throng, crazed by the eager desire for gain, but himself callous to the allurements of mammon. The example of indifference to the acquisition of wealth in an age of speculators and in a community of fortune-hunters, was novel and striking.
In 1855, Ferguson was nominated by the Native American or Know-Nothing party for State senator. His Democratic competitor was his first law-partner in Sacramento, Wm. S. Long. At the election, Ferguson received 3,437 votes to 2,592 cast for Long.
On entering the Senate, he was appointed chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and at once became a leading member of that body. The Legislature was called upon during that session to elect a United States senator. In the lower branch, the new party had a large preponderance, while in the Senate their majority was only one. Hon. Wilson Flint, one of the hold-over San Francisco senators, was known to be in sympathy with the Know-Nothings or Native Americans, and in company with Henry S. Foote, had stumped the State in 1850 for that party, and the votes of that party had been cast in a body for him, and aided his election to the State Senate. Therefore, his vote was relied upon for the American nominee for United States senator. It was the purpose of the Know-Nothing senators to go into joint convention, without first holding a caucus; but, as Mr. Flint declared he would not vote for the choice of the majority unless that choice were indicated by a caucus, the original intention was changed and a caucus was held. In a speech delivered in the Senate, January 15th, 1856, and which was reported in the Sacramento Union, Mr. Flint, in explaining his connection with the Native American party, used these words: “I assure the party to which I hold allegiance, that I am prepared at any time to abide the result of a caucus.”
At that time, it will be remembered, it required a majority of both branches of the Legislature to bring on the election of a United States senator. Seeing how evenly balanced the two parties were in the Senate, David C. Broderick was making herculean exertions to have the election postponed until the next session of the Legislature, when he hoped to secure the prize himself. The caucus of the dominant party had many sittings, in the endeavor to agree upon a candidate. Mr. Ferguson himself received a large vote for the high position. The principal candidate, however, was Hon. Henry S. Foote, and upon him the caucus at last combined. That gentleman would have been chosen, in a day or two thereafter, as the representative of the State of California in the United States Senate, but for the unexpected defection of Willson Flint, who refused, in the most stubborn and determined manner, to support the caucus nominee. Ferguson warmly endorsed the nomination, and was unable to restrain the impetuosity of his feelings against Flint. As he was master of satire and invective, he astounded the Senate, and even those who knew him best, by the withering anathemas which he hurled at the head of “the recreant.” But the Senate refused, by a majority of one, to go into joint convention with the Assembly, and Broderick’s star again ascended the political heavens.
In the fall of 1856, in the middle of his senatorial term, Ferguson openly renounced the Know-Nothing Order, and was welcomed back, with many joyous demonstrations, into the Democratic ranks. A committee of prominent Know-Nothings waited upon him and demanded his resignation. He agreed that, if his vote, should be necessary to decide the choice of a United States senator at the next session of the Legislature, he would resign, in time for the people of Sacramento county to elect his successor—intending in that event to go before the public as a candidate for reëlection; but as that exigency did not arise, he served out his term. At the next session both branches of the Legislature had Democratic majorities, and early in the session, Broderick was elected to the United States Senate, Ferguson voting for him.
In 1857, Ferguson was nominated by the Democracy as his successor in the Senate, and was reëlected. The contest was bitter and hotly contested. The vote stood: Ferguson, Democratic, 2,746; Brewster, American, 2,502; Nixon, Republican, 934.
The session commenced on the first Monday in January, 1858. About two months before the Legislature adjourned, occurred the memorable rupture between Douglas and Buchanan, and Ferguson promptly announced his sympathy with the former. Towards the close of the session, he delivered an elaborate speech on “Squatter Sovereignty,” which was an impassioned vindication of the views of the Illinois statesman, and replete with energetic and eloquent censure of the administration of James Buchanan. This speech was, perhaps, the most logical, finished, and effective of all his forensic efforts.
In August, 1858, Ferguson made a visit to San Francisco, and there became involved in a personal dispute with Hon. George Pen Johnston, which resulted in a duel being fought between them at Angel Island, in San Francisco Bay, on the 21st day of that month—the weapons being pistols, and Ferguson being the challenged party. At the fourth fire, the latter received his adversary’s ball in his right thigh, and was carried from the field—Johnston being slightly wounded in the left wrist. When his physicians examined Ferguson’s wound soon after its infliction, they informed him of its serious nature, and notified him that, unless the leg was amputated, the chances were a thousand to one against his recovery. He replied that he would not lose his leg for all California, and that he would take the solitary chance. The surgeons, therefore, rendered him such assistance as they could give, and did not resort to amputation until September 14th, when Ferguson’s condition made a further and minute examination necessary; whereupon, it became evident that amputation furnished the only hope for life. The patient at last yielded to the advice of his friends. He stated to those in attendance that he did not expect to survive, and requested that if the people of Sacramento asked for his body, it should be given to them, that he might be “buried in the county which had honored him with a seat in the Senate.”
At about half-past three o’clock in the afternoon, Doctors Angle, Sawyer, Rowell, Coit, and Gray, after administering chloroform, commenced the operation of amputating the limb. This was performed in a short time; but his long and painful confinement had enfeebled him to the last degree, and he could stand no more. Before the operation was complete, his spirit was disenthralled from its shattered earthly tenement, and gone (the writer, who loved him, devoutly trusts) to a sinless world.
It was then seen how tenderly he was beloved by the people of Sacramento. Only a day before his decease, the telegraph had announced that he was better, and the intelligence of his death spread a deep gloom over the capital. A large delegation of Sacramentans met the party in charge of the remains at Benicia, and escorted them to Sacramento, where the body was lain in state in the Senate chamber of the capital building throughout the following day. Thousands of the citizens of Sacramento county visited the State House, to behold for the last time the noble brow and form of him whose nervous eloquence had so often, in that very building, delighted and entranced them.
On the 16th day of September, after an impressive discourse by Rev. J. A. Benton, and a eulogy by Col. E. D. Baker, a very large concourse followed the remains to the grave. At the time of his death, he had one year more to serve as a State senator, and was a prominent aspirant for congressional honors.
The writer, for good cause, will not continue this sketch further. When Ferguson felt that he must soon die, he said to those who watched by his bedside: “My friend Baker has known me best in life: ask him, if he will, to speak of me when I am dead.” He could not have entrusted his memory to the keeping of a better friend than the eloquent old man whose voice always fell upon enraptured ears. Col. Baker fulfilled the sad trust committed to him, and spoke in pathetic terms of the young man whom he had known since his early boyhood. The writer, therefore, drops his pen, and hastens to refer the reader to Col. Baker’s Eulogy, which immediately follows this sketch, and which in turn is followed by Mr. Benton’s Discourse.
REMARKS ON THE DEATH OF WM. I. FERGUSON,
Delivered in the Assembly Chamber, Sacramento, Cal., September 16th, 1858.
By COL. E. D. BAKER.
The intense interest which is apparent in this crowded auditory too well evinced the mournful character of the ceremony we are about to perform. Wherever death may invade the precincts of life, whether in the loftiest or lowliest home, there is a tear for all who fall; there is a mourner for even the meanest and the most humble; but when beyond the deep impression which the change from life to death produces in all good minds—when beyond this we know that an eminent citizen is stricken down in the full vigor of his manhood and in the pride of his intellectual power, the impression is deeply mournful. And when to this we add that those who loved him in life, whose servant and representative he was, have gathered around his bier to-day to accompany him to his last resting place on earth, the impression is not merely mournful, but painful. And when we add to this that the man we mourn died by the hand of violence—suddenly—in a peaceful land, away from his own friends, the painful impression becomes an overwhelming sorrow.
At the personal request of our departed friend, it has been assigned to me to say a few words upon this occasion.
I have perhaps known him longer than anybody here. I have known him, more particularly in his early youth, perhaps better than any one here assembled. I have watched the bud, the blow, the fruit, and lastly the untimely decay; and while I desire to speak of him as he himself would wish to be spoken of; while I do to mean that personal friendship shall warp my judgment or lead me to say as his friend any thing unduly in his praise, so also, on the other hand, shall I say nothing against him or others that is unjust or unkind.
The gentleman whose remains you are about to consign to his last resting place until the trump of the Archangel shall sound, was a native of the State of Pennsylvania. I knew his father well; a respectable, worthy, honest man; a mechanic by pursuit, intelligent, self-reliant, and in every respect honorable.
The young man was ambitious from his boyhood. He sought the profession of the law, not merely for itself, but as an opening that would lead to what he considered were higher and more noble positions.
He was fitted for the study of law by nature. He was then what you knew him but lately—bold, self-reliant, earnest, brilliant, eloquent, a good judge of human nature, kind, generous, making friends everywhere, placable in his resentments, easily appeased, and a true friend. He read law not only with me, but also with far more able men, and he formed his judgment of public affairs while honored with the friendship of Douglas, his opponent Lincoln, John J. Hardin, who won a deathless name at Buena Vista, Judge Logan, and many others who are the pride and boast of the Mississippi Valley. He was early distinguished in his own State. He was very young, and he had those contests among his own friends which are peculiar to politics; and there had the reverses and crosses without which no man is worth much. The success which he achieved here had its foundation laid in defeat, and I think I may say that most of what he knew as a politician he had learned in the school of adversity—
“ That stern teacher of the human breast.”
It is not good for a man to be always successful, either in private or public life. No man’s character can be formed without trial and suffering, and our departed friend showed by his course of conduct that he could endure temporary defeat, confident of the ultimate success of the right—perhaps not the less confident of his power to achieve success. He was a successful candidate upon the Democratic ticket for presidential elector in 1848. He was as renowned in his own State, as a debater, as he was here, by his fidelity to his friends, high personal qualities, courage, intellect, brilliancy—by those qualities which rendered him so dear to many of you now before me.
He came here, and what he was here you know better than I. You knew him well, for he served you. You knew him well, for he ever strove for your approbation, and loved you living, and loved you dying. He had a great many qualities that make a successful politician, not merely in the personal sense of the word, but in a higher sense, the achievement of great deeds, and the advancement of great principles.
These halls have been the witnesses of many of his triumphs. As was well remarked by a contemporary newspaper, he hardly ever undertook that which, when he set himself earnestly to work, he did not accomplish. He had the determination to succeed—that knowledge of mankind—that control over other men’s minds—that kindly manner, those generous impulses for all—that love for humanity—those qualities of mind which, if they called forth grave defects, also called forth great virtues. And these are in most of the departments of life the great elements of success. Mere intellect, except in the closet, does but little; the qualities of mind, of mere abstract wisdom, which distinguished a Newton or a LaPlace, would do but little at Washington. It is the same both in private and public life. A knowledge of the human heart; a readiness of resources; kindness of heart; fidelity in friendship—will effect more than mere abstract wisdom, and must be combined with it in order to render that wisdom of avail. These, and all of these, our friend had.
You know how well he served you; and those who knew him best, knew ardently he desired your approbation, how earnestly he strove to win it. There is more than one thing in his legislative career, which deserves notice, and not the least is the manner of his death. He died poor—not poor in the common sense of the term, but poor as was Aristides when he was buried at the expense of the citizens of Athens. Amongst all his papers, there is not found the trace of a speculation. He had no property—no resources; his poverty, if remarkable, was honorable. In a land where corruption is said to be rife, the more especially in legislative bodies, and which, whether the charge is true or false, is proverbially liable to corrupting influences, it seems impossible that he used the vast power he possessed for aught except the public interest and welfare. And this alone would be a proud epitaph to record upon his tombstone. He was a man of undoubted courage, as his death proved. I am not here to speak of its manner. I am not here to discuss the subject of dueling. If I were, it would be to utter my unqualified condemnation of the code which offers to personal vindictiveness a life due only to a country, a family, and to God. If I were, under any circumstances, an advocate for a duel, it should be at least a fair, equal, and honorable duel. If, as was said by an eloquent advocate in its favor, “it was the light of past ages which shed its radiance upon the hill-tops of civilization, although its light might be lost in the dark shade of the valleys below;” if even I held this view, I should still maintain that a duel should be fair and equal; that skill should not be matched against ignorance, practical training against it absence. And while I am in no sense to be understood as expressing an opinion as to the late duel, knowing nothing of the matter myself, yet I do say that no duel should stand the test of public opinion, independent of the law, except the great element of equality is there. In the pursuits of common life, no one not trained to a profession is supposed to be a match for a professional man in the duties of his profession. I am no match for a physician in any matters connected with his pursuits, nor would the physician be a match for me in a legal argument. The soldier is no fair match for the civilian, when the latter has not been trained to the use of arms; nor, although his courage is equal, and he may have a profound conviction that he is right, will, therefore, the contest be rendered equal and just. I repeat that I do not make these remarks intending thereby to reflect upon the character of the late duel. Personally, I know nothing more than what I and you all have heard. Whether it was fair or unfair, it is not my province to inquire. I am denouncing the system itself, for it loses annually hundreds of valuable lives, and in the present state of civilization, it does no good, profits nothing, arrests no evil, but impels a thousand evils; but above all, do I protest against any contests of this nature where, in skill, knowledge of weapons, or from any cause, the parties are not equals in all the conditions of that stern debate. The friend whose loss we deplore was undoubtedly a man of courage. Whatever may be said with respect to the code of dueling—whatever may be said as to his motives—his conduct on the field was in all respects what his friends expected. He stood four fires, at a distance of scarcely twenty feet, with a conviction that there was a strong determination to take his life—that the matter should be carried to an extremity—and that, too, when, until the day before, he had never fired a pistol off in his life. But courage is shown not merely in action, but in many instances where many men would fail. A brave man—shows his courage no less in endurance than in action. It is a higher, a greater quality to suffer than to do; and in this respect our friend was no way defective. He bore a long and painful confinement—he bore a severe operation—he saw his hold upon life unclasping day by day, hour by hour; and amidst it all, neither his resolution nor his cheerfulness faltered for an instant. When he lay helpless, looking back upon the errors (and who has not errors?) of his life, he seemed to recall them for lessons of instruction and warning for the future; and when he knew he must die, he arrayed himself for the last contest, to die as became a man, amid all sweet and pious and holy recollections. He died with no vindictive passion in his heart. He died with words of affection upon his lips. He died with the thoughts of his mother present to his soul. He left this world with the thoughts of home and mother. He left with words of forgiveness and kindness. His last act of consciousness was an act of prayer.
Oh! Affection, Forgiveness, Faith! Ye are mighty spirits. Ye are powerful angels. And the soul that in its dying moments trusts to these, cannot be far from the gates of heaven, whatever the past life may have been. However passion or excitement may have led a soul astray, if at the last and final hour it returns to the lessons of a mother’s love, of a father’s care—if it learns the great lesson of forgiveness to its enemies—if at the last moment it can utter these words: “Father of life and light and love!”—these shall be winged angels—troops of blessed spirits—that will bear the fainting, wounded soul to the blessed abodes, and for ever guard it against despair. On, my friends! Those mighty gates built by the Almighty to guard the entrance to the unseen world, will not open at the battle-axe of the conqueror; they will not roll back if all the artillery of earth were to thunder forth a demand, which, indeed, would be lost in the infinite regions of eternal space! but they will open with thoughts of affection, with forgiveness of injuries, and with prayer.
But I am not here to speak of the virtues of the departed alone. He had his defects; they were great; they were marked; but they were incident to his career and his character. He was, by nature and habit, a politician; and of all callings, that of a politician is the most illusive and unsatisfactory; it kindles the mind in a state of constant excitement; it is a constant struggle, which if frequently injurious in its effects; and our friend, with all his fine qualities, was no exception to the rule. Let him that is without sin cast the first stone. Of how many can we say that no greater defect can be recorded? Of him who is dead, what worse can be said? He was honorable, honest, loving, generous, placable; and if amid his virtues there were some defects, they are but to be mentioned to be forgiven and forgotten. Fellow-citizens, the words I utter I should not deem complete if I did not, before I close, utter a word of warning. The most powerful intellect, the most amiable qualities may be shaded by a love for excitement and the evils which the life of a politician is but too apt to engender. What Ferguson was, we know. What he might have been, if he had conquered himself, who can tell? The inspired book says that “he that ruleth his own spirit is greater than him that taketh a city,” and if our departed friend could have conquered himself, who could have stayed the resistless course of his bright intellect? It should be a warning to us all, grey heads as well as to young men. All should remember that the pursuit of politics is delusive and full of temptation. No man should forget the duty he owes to his country, but all should remember that they owe a duty to themselves. When men—I refer now more particularly to young men—see a great statesman stand forth in the midst of a listening Senate, and mark the stamp which he makes upon the public mind and upon the policy of the country by the force of his intellectual vigor, they are apt to forget the labors by which that proud position has been achieved—to forget how many have sought to attain such a lofty position and have failed; and to forget that he who is now filling their minds with admiration, may be on the eve of a sudden fall! Politics should not be the pursuit, I mean the only pursuit, of any man. Representative honors, official station, should only be the occasional reward, or the occasional sacrifice; and if, forgetting this rule, young men attempt to make politics their only hope, with the probability that is many cases they will fail, and that if successful, they will surely be exposed to a thousand temptations; if they love excitement for its own sake—the noisy meetings, the conventions, the elections—this love for excitement will grow upon them, and they will soon be on the high road to ruin.
If any one is determined to achieve distinction in politics, let him first obtain a competency in some trade, profession, or pursuit, and then, even if unsuccessful in politics, the misstep will not be irretrievable. But, young men, do not be beguiled by the example of our Ferguson, even if you possess his splendid talents—even if you could achieve the success he did; look at the end! There he lies in a bloody grave. Let your habits be fixed. “Let all the ends thou aimest at be thy country’s and thy God’s.”
Fellow-citizens, I have said what I suppose this occasion most required. It I had been told sixteen years ago that it would be my fortune to stand by the bloody grave of my young friend, in the city of Sacramento on the Pacific coast, I could scarcely have believed it had an angel from heaven told me so; for at the time there was no civilized Pacific coast. Then his course was unmarked, and my future was so marked out, that it would seem but little less than a miracle that I should stand here, by his dying request, to offer a few poor remarks over his bier, before he is laid to rest in the place he loved so well—in the city named after the sweeping Sacramento. But who can tell what a day may bring forth? Here we see the sudden, untimely end of one who was amiable, gifted, and who was looking forward to a long career of honor and fame. And perhaps it may be my lot to be shortly laid in the grave; and perhaps in this assembly some one may be called upon to address some remarks over my poor lifeless body—even as I have been called upon on the present occasion; and if this should be so, I pray that that friend may accord to me as much of praise and as little of blame as will be consistent with the truth.
In conclusion, I would remark that I have no words sufficient to express my own personal regret. I have lost a warm personal friend. I may find others, but I shall not be able to find friends that I have loved in other years. I shall not often find those to whom I can, as I could to him, talk of the old familiar times and the lessons I taught him in early life—of the virtues and example of his parents—of his mother’s, his poor afflicted mother’s affection and love—of his old contests—his old hopes, so often broken. I shall not often find friends like these, nor can the breach which death has made be so easily repaired.
Let me hope, for myself and us all, that when we have filled our allotted space in this world; when we are attended by weeping friends, for the purpose of removing us to our last resting place, that it shall not be said of us that we have lived without purpose, but that we have gathered friends in the days of our manhood; that we have left fruits to bloom when we have departed.
DISCOURSE ON THE DEATH OF HON. WM. I. FERGUSON,
Delivered in the Congregational Church, Sacramento, Cal., Sept. 16th, 1858.
By REV. J. A. BENTON.
“Thy hands were not bound, nor thy feet put into fetters; as a man falleth before wicked men, so fellest thou. And all the people wept again over him.”—II. Samuel, iii. 34.
The worst has been realized. The poor mangled corse of our senator lies before us. Others may have felt the same; I certainly have feared from the first, that it would come to this, and have so expressed myself within a few days. For such were the antecedents, the circumstances, and the shock of the wound he received, that they would have imperiled the life of the most robust man; and they rendered it almost certain that a temperament and a constitution like his, so slender and delicate, would not long survive. And there are many who have been incredulous regarding the reports of his improved condition, as knowing they were premature; because the worst stage of the difficulty was not passed, nor the point of danger turned. When the time for decision came, a careful examination showed the wound gangrenous, and the parts adjacent moribund. Speedy amputation of the limb afforded the only hope of life; and even that was dim. And such was the severity of the proceeding, though the sufferer was under the influence of anćsthetics, and such his physical prostration, that his powers did not rally again nor his senses return. And so his eyes were closed upon the light of life, and he passed unconsciously away.
We shall look upon him no more. Three or four short weeks have sufficed for all this. A month ago the deceased was here among his friends, in his usual health, vigor, and activity. He was uncommonly spirited, cheerful, and energetic. He was in his element; in the exercise of some of his peculiar faculties, which always came out with remarkable force in the midst of a political excitement. He went to San Francisco to remain, as he supposed, but a few days. There he fell into a personal and political controversy; gave some offence to his opponents; was challenged to mortal combat; stooped to the acceptance of the proposal; fell at the fourth fire, and was carried from the field badly wounded. After four weeks’ absence, and three of lingering and suffering—of alternating hopes and fears—he is with us once again; but only in these lifeless remains, which have come to be garnered, as treasures, in the burying place of those who in his life had delighted to do him honor.
It saddens us to know that we shall no more look on his familiar features, so finely chiseled, so exquisitely moulded, so handsomely combined, so vivacious in their play, and so expressive of the varied emotions of the soul. The full brain that wrought under that fine brow and capacious forehead, throbs no more. We cannot see again the rare head and face that, but for an early thinning out of the hair, had been more than beautiful; they were even grand. The hands, the feet, the skin, the movement, the tone, as well as the features, all were expressive of fine sensibilities, genius, and character. None could behold him and not be impressed. None could turn away and quickly lose that image from his memory.
It saddens us more to think in what a conflict our senator came to his untimely end, and by what a process our community has been deprived of his services in the coming years.
From the Christian standpoint, no duel can ever be justified; nor any party thereto. This is conceded on every hand, and so positively that it never is expected that a professing Christian will ever send or accept a challenge; and he is always exempted from the operation of the “code of honor” without loss of reputation, or the disparagement of his spirit, bravery or courage.
From the standpoint of society, there is offered somewhat that may palliate, if it cannot justify, the practice of dueling. It is alleged that there are some personal offences of which the civil law taken no cognizance, or against which it affords no adequate protection; that, therefore, there must be some social law, to the usages of which such cases shall be referred; and that the “code of honor” is such law, and the practice of dueling the best method of arbitrament yet discovered. To support these allegations, the instances brought forward are those in which the laws of a State are not outwardly violated, while yet the offenders exhibit such an injurious, overbearing, and contumelious spirit, such studied insult, such malicious hate, and such fiendish passion, that, without quick resentment and revenge, the offended parties could no longer hold up their heads, or move in their accustomed circles, except with danger of being rejected, disparaged, and despised, or meet the offending parties on terms of equality, and with proper feeling of self-respect and complacence.
There is not time now to controvert these statements in full, on the basis of reason and common sense. I shall only say that the edge of all these allegations is turned by the fact that men have met such offences, have refused to fight duels, and have really lost nothing by the course they took; but rather have risen in the general estimate, and held a loftier social position ever afterward that would otherwise have been possible. The one brief reason, patent to all men of sense is, that the man of high spirit, great courage, and lofty character, can display his qualities without resorting to the duel; and one who has them not, will never bring away from the dueling ground any thing more of these qualities than their grim and ghastly shadows. But if we even assume that there are times when the duel is a necessity, and occasions on which it is allowable to have recourse to it, it is certain that all occasions are not fit ones, and that many personal offences ought to be excluded from the number that are actionable under the “code of honor.” There are such exclusions; and some offences are regarded as unworthy of a settlement on the field of honor. Yet, all sensible men must admit, even those who justify dueling in extreme cases, that matters trifling and contemptible are in our day far too frequently made the basis of a challenge, and that the whole matter needs a reformation.
Now, admitting for the moment that some occasions may justify dueling, I affirm that political differences, and the disturbances, disputes, and imputations growing out of them, are not sufficient occasions. They spring out of impulse, hot blood, the excitement of the moment, and are always to be taken with abatement, and men can endure them for a time without serious loss or damage; and when days are past, they will be withdrawn and apologized for by any with whom it is worth while for a man to associate. Political differences there must be. Disputes and bickerings will occur. Epigram, repartee, the shaft of wit, will fly, and may sting. Accusations will arise; recriminations be made, and imputations hurled. These are unavoidable incidents to the existence of parties and the freedom of debate. They grow in some measure out of our institutions and our social state, and they ought to be permitted and allowed licenses, for which no one is answerable except at the bar of public opinion. They ought not to be rewarded as insults, or as touching the tender parts of character, or as really derogatory to a man’s reputation. And there ought to be a combined effort, if not to suppress dueling, at least to banish all political troubles and their outgrowths from the operation of the dueling code. A determined and persistent effort might accomplish this. For their is no good reasons why our political differences, or animosities even, should be carried beyond their proper arena, and allowed to invade the social circle and disturb the harmonies of domestic life. It is time we learned a wider toleration of these differences, and forbade their entrance into the common walks of life. Till we do, opinion is not free, and the conduct of life in civil matters is subjected to a social inquisition, if not a tyranny, as impolite as it is unjust.
I say these things because this duel grew primarily out of a political difference and discussion in the midst of a social scene. It is only the latest, and not the first duel fought in our State, that has had a similar origin and a political significance. If I am not mistaken, political reasons were at the bottom of the duels between Denver and Gilbert, Broderick and Smith, Gwin and McCorkle, Washington and Washburn—others, also, it may be—and finally, Johnston and Ferguson. Of these, the first and the last only were fatal to one of the parties in each. And God grant that it may be years and generations before our annals shall be blotted with the record, and our soil stained with the blood of another fatal duel; and that we may never more hear of a resort to so cruel an arbitrator as this for the settlement of difficulties arising out of the ever-changing phases of political strife and political affairs! As I am not familiar with the intricacies of the “code of honor,” nor conversant with the details of proceedings under it, I do not feel competent to criticize the transactions of the case which just now has had so lamentable a result. But I may say that the contest might have terminated sooner, and otherwise, without disparagement to either of the parties. Three exchanges of shots were as good proof of personal qualities as a dozen could have been. And I agree with the person who had the loading of the pistols, that then, at the most, after the third fire, when the deceased had only escaped the loss of the lower part of the face by the momentary elevation of the chin, it was time to have done. But the demand for satisfaction was not yet met; and the fourth fire laid our young senator low, and has brought him hither, at length, “bound hand and foot in his grave-clothes.”
We will turn now to our text and its application. A long contest has been going on between the house of Saul and the house of David for supremacy in Israel. Abner was a prominent leader in the house of Saul, as Joab and his brothers were in the house of David. In process of time, after having fought many battles for the house of Saul, in one of which he had slain Asahel, Joab’s brother, Abner resolved to transfer his allegiance to the house of David. He had visited the head of the new party; had made his negotiations; and had gone away, in peace, to consummate the arrangement. On his way homeward at the well of Sirah, Abner was overtaken by messengers from David’s premier (to which transaction the king was not privy) requiring his return to Hebron. He went back with the messengers to the city gates. There he was met by Joab, who drew him aside as if to speak with him peaceably and in quiet. Then taking him at a disadvantage, when Abner was suspecting no harm, Joab thrust a dagger in his side, and slew him. Resentment against Abner for the past was one of the motives to the dead; and perhaps a jealousy of him for the future, lest himself might be overshadowed by one so eminent, was another. Such a death, of such a man, took the people by surprise. The sensation was deep and wide. The feeling rose almost to indignation, and the profoundest sorrow filled all Hebron. And David said to all the people that were with him, “Rend your clothes, and gird you with sackcloth, and mourn before Abner.” And King David himself followed the bier. And they buried Abner in Hebron; and the king lifted up his voice and wept at the grave of Abner; and all the people wept. And the king lamented over Abner and said; Died Abner as the fool dieth? Thy hands were not bound, nor thy feet put in fetters; as a man falleth before wicked men, so fellest thou. And all the people wept again over him. And when all the people came to cause David to eat meat while it was yet day, David sware, saying, God do so to me, and more also, if I taste bread, or aught else, till the sun be down. And all the people understood that day that it was not in the heart of the king to slay Abner. And the king said unto his servants, Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel? And I am this day weak, though anointed king, and these men, the sons of Zeruiah, are too hard for me.” The analogy between the scenes here described and these which we witness to-day, will not hold in all the particulars, but at some points it is a striking one. Here lies the body of one who has had a prominent place and run a brilliant career. As a public man, he has belonged to different and opposing parties. The transfer of allegiance from one to another has created some enmities, given rise to some jealousies, and left memories that only waited for their opportunity to render themselves formidable. He was alike eminent with whatever party he acted, and could not fail to be regarded by any party as an aspirants; he was held in esteem and honored by the masses of the people. He fell in the midst of life, when new honors and a fresh career were apparently awaiting him. He fell by the hands of one who should have been the very last man to shed his blood; and in death he is mourned by rulers and people, who gather with a common sorrow to follow him to his grave and weep at this tomb. In these respects, certainly, the person whose obsequies we observe to-day resembles the man concerning whom my text had utterance. And we, too, are weak this day, though clothed with power; and these modern sons of Zeruiah have been too hard for us.
Our friend, whom with lamentations we are here to bury, has been for three years one of our senators in the State Legislature, and is the first one in our history who has died during his term of office. He was fitted in many ways for a leader, and had those social qualities, that pleasing presence, that fascination of manner, that humor, pleasantry, and wit, that fluency of speech, that raciness of style, that gift of eloquence, and that power of command which always raise a man to a kind of supremacy over the masses of the people. He had a singular insight, a ready tact, skill to meet emergencies, confidence in his own unfailing resources, and that determination to suffer no defeat which is always sure to win success. His mind was naturally cool, clear, and bright in its action, and his intellect was one of a high order. And those who have heard him most at the bar, in the Senate chamber, and before the people, are the ones that have the highest opinion of his abilities, and give him exalted praise. As a public man, he has made as few mistakes, and given as little offence, as any one who has ever held the same office among us; and, in the estimate of many, he has rendered as much service to this community and to the State as any one of our various senators ever has.
In private life, Mr. Ferguson had faults; they were well-known; he confessed them; he attempted to conceal nothing. In his frank and generous nature, there was nought mean, furtive, or underhand. His eccentricities were numerous, and were all his own; and his methods were such as to throw a charm around habits and practices that in other men would have been accounted gross or offensive.
The pravity of some men is unimpassioned, steady, bitter, of set purpose, in foresight of consequences, and void of the wish to be other than it is, or to do better. The pravity of others is impulsive, genial, passionate, with no look towards consequences, stealing upon them through sensibilities delicately strung, that wave and vibrate as with some ethereal touch; and finally lift the swell and wake the storm which sweep the men away. And their language always is: “When we would do good, evil is present with us.” To this latter class belonged our friend; and fairness demands that we allow whatever abatement of censure such a temperament entitles him to. His convictions were right, his feelings not calloused, and his whole moral nature quick and sensitive; so that he could never attempt to justify himself in his indulgences, nor cease to condemn himself for this wrongs.
It can do no harm to refer to a fact already known to some, that may have had something to do with not a few of the eccentricities that have marked our friend’s brief life. He was the subject, some years ago, of one of those disappointments which, now and then, permanently wound the affections, darken the path, sadden the life, blight the hopes, and mar the prospects of young men in the outset of their career. Such a misfortune is peculiarly disastrous in its effects upon some natures; and while it is wept over in the other sex, in ours it is commonly the theme of mirth. How seriously it was felt by the deceased, and to what extent it affected him for the worse, we shall never know with precision; but the more I have thought of it, the more I am convinced that its influence was considerable.
Fellow-citizens, a bright light is quenched; another star has fallen from our sky; one more shall we miss from among the countenances that shine on us; another form of pride and power is turning back to ashes before our eyes.
We are here in the presence of Death, and of Him who is greater than Death; without whose permission the grim messenger had not been here to gather this form beneath his dark wings. It seems hard to mere mortal thought, that one should die thus, in the prime of his manhood, in the maturing season of his faculties, with high heart and hopes bright, with greener laurels yet before him, with the purpose to win a name on wider fields, and lead a life that should carry joy into the bosom of the household whence he wandered. But this life is cut off; these purposes are thwarted, and these hopes have perished.
Still, heaven is over us, and God is gracious. And though at last, death came suddenly upon the departed, it came out quite unexpectedly; and we may hope that changes were going on within him, and that some preparation for another world was making as he lay through those long days and nights, thinking, planning, resolving, and often giving utterance to his longing to lead a different life, and be a better man.
Standing here by these motionless limbs, how unconsciously rises to our lips the prayer of the Psalmist: “O my God, take me not away in the midst of my days: spare me a little before I go hence and be seen no more.” And while we thus indulge our sorrow and give expression to grief, let us remember that there are other hearts that will bleed and other eyes that will be wet with tears, weeks after our mourning shall have somewhat abated its intensity. To the widow’s God let us commend the mother who is so early bereaved of the son whom she may have loved to regard as the support and solace of her declining years. Let us pray for the welfare of sister and brothers, who shall never again welcome to their homes the departed one, or fold him in their fond embrace. The Lord be gracious to them, that their sun go not down at noonday, nor their hopes and plans of life be suddenly broken and scattered.
Ye rulers of the State! Magistrates, Legislators, and Judges! This scene admonishes you. How short is human life—how many our exposures—how unreliable our prospects, and how closely the deepest shadows are edged upon the spot where the brightest sunlight falls! The night comes. Do what you have to accomplish; redeem all your pledges; endear yourselves unto the people who have so generously trusted you, but the heartiness and value of your services; and render all due homage unto Him before whose tribunal your acts and lives must pass in solemn review.
Need I point you, young men, to this lifeless clay, and bid you remember that you know not what a day may bring forth? Voices from within are making themselves heard to-day. Heed them, and do not forget. Learn by what affections, generosities, activities, and virtues you may commend yourselves to the common regard and love of men. Understand, also, by what indulgences and passions one may mar his life and work toward the undoing of himself. Deplore the follies and vices of other men, and harbor not the same in your own bosoms. Be ever mindful of Him who rules in providence, without whose notice not a sparrow falls, and break not his wise laws. In your sin and sorrow, go to Him with whom is forgiveness, the world’s blest Redeemer. And as you would fain be adjudged by Him to blessing and honor in the great day of assize, live ye so that He cannot but say, “Well done; enter into my joy.”
“So live, that when thy summons come to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death.
Thou go not like the quarry slave at night.
Scourged to his dungeon; but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”
Nay, more: Live so that ye may rise toward the rapturous triumph of Him who said, in full view of his exit from the world: “The time of my departure is at hand: I have fought a good fight: I have finished my course: I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day.”
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Shuck, Oscar T., “Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific”, Bacon & Co., Printers & Publishers, San Francisco, 1870. Pages 319-339.
© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
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