REPRESENTATIVE AND LEADING
MEN OF THE PACIFIC
JAMES A. McDOUGALL
BY WILLIAM H. RHODES.
Vita sine literis, mors est.
When intelligence of the death of Gen. McDougall reached California, not a citizen of that State but felt that one of her brightest intellects, purest patriots, and wisest counselors had departed. The fame of the dead senator had penetrated every corner of that new dominion. As a lawyer, he had been eminently successful; as a public officer, incorruptible; as a statesman, wise, forearmed, and magnanimous. More learned than Baker, more successful than Hoge, and more consistent than Pratt, he led that mighty phalanx of GREAT WESTERNERS who at an early day immigrated into California, and by their united genius lifted her up into the position of one of the noblest States that adorn our confederacy. By their services, she early attained her proudest characteristic, the Empire State of the Pacific!
James A. McDougall was born in Albany county, in the State of New York, in November, 1817, and received the rudiments of his education at the Grammar School of that place. At a very early age, he assisted in the survey of the first railroad built in the State of New York—that connecting the two cities of Albany and Schenectady. His attention thus early was directed towards internal improvements, particularly to railroads, and some of the most important acts of his life owed their germs to this commencement. Here, indeed, may be seen the origin of his advocacy of the Great Pacific Railroad, to the construction of which he devoted much of his time and all of his talents: of this, however, we shall speak more at large hereafter.
After completing the survey of the Albany road, Mr. McDougall resolved to adopt the profession of law as the business of his life, and set about the study with industrious alacrity. He devoted all his time to this object, and with characteristic energy soon mastered the rudiments of the profession. Whilst still a mere boy, he emigrated to the great West—in 1837—and settled in Pike county, Illinois. Here he at once developed talents of the highest order, and rose with unprecedented rapidity to the highest honors of the forum. In 1842, he was elected Attorney General of Illinois, and at the conclusion of his first term of office in 1844, was again elected to the same position.
During his early career in Illinois, it was his fortune to meet and come into friendly rivalry at the bar with such men as Baker, Hoge, and Pratt. Nor is it doing any injustice to those distinguished jurists to assert that he fully equaled, if he did not surpass, them all. Indeed, for varied literary as well as legal lore; for scrupulous good taste in all his compositions; for fiery eloquence and aptness of quotation, no citizen of Illinois has ever yet approached him.
From Illinois, he led an expedition of his own forming, in 1849, to the head waters of the Rio del Norte. The object of this venture was primarily, exploration of the country, with a view to settlement, and secondly, a search for the precious metals.
The enchanting news from California seems to have taken entire possession of the minds of some of the ablest and most adventurous spirits of the far West, and hence the brilliant array of distinguished names that adorned the early annals of the Golden State. The results of the expedition not being satisfactory, instead of returning homewards, the caravan turned its face to the westward, and started across the deserts and hills of the Gila and Colorado for the El Dorado of the West.
Soon after his arrival in California, he settled in San Francisco, and devoted his attention to the practice of law. From the first moment of his appearance at the bar in that city, he became a man of mark and distinction. It was no easy task to take precedence of such men as Tilford, Randolph, and Sloan; yet McDougall soon found himself an overmatch for them all, and shared the dangerous honor of preëminence alone with Lockwood of Indiana. The contests between these two jurists of the law were always terrific, and very often extremely rough and personal. What Lockwood lacked in polish, he made up in erudition, and what was wanting in McDougall's delivery, was fully compensated for in sarcastic humor. Lockwood was ponderous in his blows, whilst his rival was alert and watchful. It was the old battle between Fitz James and Roderick Dhu, between David and Goliah, between rude strength and practiced skill. The Damascus blade generally triumphed over the rude claymore and the tough bull's hide. When the verdict came, it was received usually in sullen silence by the defeated Hoosier. The New Yorker smiled, but said nothing. Well he knew that when the appeal came to the Supreme Court, nothing could resist the polished irony, nervous vigor, and apt learning of his luminous pen. Still the battle was left undecided up to the period of Lockwood's death. After that event, it was generally conceded that James A. McDougall stood at the head of the California bar. No sooner had he established his right as a leader than he received the nomination of the Democratic party for the office of Attorney General of the State. He was triumphantly elected to that position in 1850, and served with great distinction. His legal eminence soon led to political preferment, and he was chosen member of Congress, as a Representative, in 1853.
Previous to his election, the question of the construction of a continental railroad began to exercise the minds of the most sagacious politicians on both shores of the hemisphere. On the western, McDougall took the lead. Unquestionably the most scientific of the laymen who advocated the measure, he soon, by his studies of the geography of the interior of the continent, led even the scientific corps who had been detailed by the Federal government to take the initiative steps towards its construction. It soon became the hobby of McDougall, as it had been for many years with Senator Benton of Missouri. All sources of information were explored by him with indefatigable industry, and his first great speech in Congress was upon his favorite theme. Before quitting home, he delivered several powerful speeches on the subject, and by his warm and magnetic eloquence aroused the leading minds of California and Oregon to a just appreciation of the subject.
Much has been written to prove who was the real father of the Pacific Railroad. It matters but little who first suggested the general idea; but the honor of practicalizing the thought is due to James A. McDougall. His powerful advocacy of the measure in Congress led to the first action of the Government on the question, and his ready learning on all the branches of the subject effected more towards its completion than all the surveys put together. In 1855, he declined a renomination for the Congress, and resumed the practice of law in San Francisco. In 1861, he was elected a United States Senator to Congress, and came forward with renewed strength in the prosecution of his favorite measure.
The war having in the meantime broken out between the sections North and South, afforded a wide field for proving the utility of the undertaking, and he did not fail to present the argument in its new light, as a necessary war measure. At this period his party being in a large minority in Congress, upon others, more in sympathy with the national administration, devolved the chief duty of presenting the question. But still, upon the shoulders of the Western Titan rested the heaviest part of the burthen. Ably seconded by Sargent and his colleagues, all difficulties were finally removed, and he lived to see the darling object of his political life on the high road to success.
In addition to the labors he performed on committee, as Chairman of the Pacific Railroad, he served also, and with no less distinguished honor, on the Finance Committee, and upon that of Naval Affairs.
Whilst in Congress, his principal speeches, aside from those on the Railroad, were delivered on the subjects of the expulsion of Senators Bright and W. P. Johnson; on Emancipation; on Slavery in the District of Columbia; on the establishment of a Steam Mail Line to China and Japan; on the Civil Rights Bill; on Reconstruction; on the Restoration of the Southern States; on the Freedmen's Bureau; the Continental Telegraph Lines; the National Academy; and upon that singular subject, the sale of liquor by retail within the purlieus of the Capitol.
Upon all these questions he spoke with the learning of a scholar and the moderation of a statesman. We doubt if there has been a more logical, eloquent, and unanswerable argument than that contained in his speech delivered in the Senate of the United States on the 12th of March, 1862, on the subject of the Right of Confiscation of Southern property. He threw a mighty blaze of historical and legal light upon the question, that amazed and confounded his opponents; and he silenced, if he did not convince them. It was in this celebrated speech that he defined his position on the question of negro slavery. Standing there as a representative, he did not hesitate to affirm:
Do not understand me, Mr. President, as being in any sense, in the remotest degree, an advocate for slavery in any form. I have never, since I have had opinions, entertained the opinion that it could exist to the advantage of any free State. I regard its influences as being worse upon the white than upon the slave population. I understand, too, that when I present my opposition to this measure, I come in contact with what is the popular opinion and feeling of the people throughout the States. That cannot measure my conduct. I understand the business of a Senator here in the passage of laws to be to inquire into what laws are necessary and just, what laws presented are impolitic or unjust, and to give his support to the one, and his opposition to the other. No notion of popular opinion should or will control me.
But lest his motives might be impugned, he took occasion also to say:
Sir, as far as I am able to read of the wisdom taught by the history and counseling of the past, the measure now proposed can never secure peace. The policy involved in it will continue an angry, remorseless, relentless war, which, if it do not involve subjugation, will involve extirpation. I fear that the country, and not only the country but the Senate, have been led wild with anger; that they have caught some of the angry spirit of their adversaries, and instead of taking lessons from the great States of the world, and the great teachers of ancient and modern times, have taken their advice from Richmond and Montgomery.
But Senator McDougall was also a leader of public opinion on another subject, which at the time of the delivery of his address subjected him to unworthy criticism and ill-natured comment. We allude to his Franco-Mexican speech on the 3d of February, 1863. The policy advocated by him at that time soon afterwards became the settled plan of the Federal Government, though at the moment of its expression no statesman was more bitter in his denunciations than Mr. Secretary Seward. This led to some ill-feeling betwixt the two statesmen, and induced General McDougall to pay a very equivocal compliment to the American premier, It is related, upon good authority, that McDougall, returning home one night from a prolonged session of the Senate, indulged rather freely in his favorite beverage, so much so as to fall down, without the power of self-elevation. At this moment a policeman approached, and before assisting him to rise, asked him who he was. He answered very laconically, "Don't you see? I'm Seward!"
This anecdote leads us to remark that the most characteristic speech he ever made was in the Senate, not long before his death, on the sale of intoxicating beverages within the Capitol building. This speech is full of the most delicate wit, subtle irony, and eloquent learning. Classical quotations, and historical incidents and allusions, abound in it from beginning to end. As an ironical defence of drunkenness, it has no parallel in English literature; and though McDougall was famous before for his classics, this effort left him without a peer in the Senate of the United States.
As a specimen of McDougall's serious style, his eulogy on the death of Col. E. D. Baker, Senator from Oregon, and killed in the battle of Ball's Bluff, is appended to this sketch. No finer eulogy than this was ever spoken upon the floors of Congress. The speech upon the sale of liquors in the National Capitol will also be found in this volume, immediately following the eulogy just referred to.
Yet, with all his talent, learning, and industry, he had one fault. This pursued him most relentlessly to his grave, and he died the victim of the same habits that cut off Prentiss in the splendor of his career and the meridian of his fame—the same enemy that throttled Alexander the Great, conquered Alcibiades, and killed Lord Clive; and though we could not pardon his self-indulgence during his life, we may be permitted to forgive it, now that he is no more. Requiescat in pace! He died at Albany, near the spot of his birth, on the 30th of September, 1867, aged fifty years.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Shuck, Oscar T., “Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific”, Bacon & Co., Printers & Publishers, San Francisco, 1870. Pages 689-695.
© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.