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CONGRESS. In the interior of the Capitol much space is at present wasted, but this arises from the fact of great additions to the original plan having been made. The two chambers,—that of the Senate and of the Representatives, are in the two new wings, on the middle, or what we call the first-floor. The entrance is made under a dome, to a large circular hall, which is hung around with surely the worst pictures by which a nation ever sought to glorify its own deeds.
There are yards of paintings at Versailles which are bad enough ; but there is nothing at Versailles comparable in villany to the huge daubs which are preserved in this hall at the Capitol. It is strange that even self-laudatory patriotism should desire the perpetuation of such rubbish. When I was there the new dome was still in progress, and an ugly column of woodwork, required for internal support and affording a staircase to the top, stood in this hall. This of course was a temporary and necessary evil; but even this was hung around with the vilest of portraits.
From the hall, turning to the left, if the entrance be made at the front door, one goes to the new Chamber of Representatives, passing through that which was the old chamber. This is now dedicated to the exposition of various new figures by Crawford, and to the sale of tarts and gingerbread, -of very bad tarts and gingerbread. Let that old woman look to it, or let the House dismiss her. In fact, this chamber is now but a vestibule to a passage, a second hall as it were, and thus thrown away. Changes probably will be made which will bring it into some use, or some scheme of ornamentation. From this a passage runs to the Representative Chamber, passing between those tell-tale windows, which, looking to the right and left, proclaim the tenuity of the building. The windows on one side, that looking to the east or front, should, I think, be closed. The appearance, both from the inside and from the outside, would be thus improved.
The Representative Chamber itself—which of course answers to our House of Commons-is a handsome, commodious room, admirably fitted for the purposes required. It strikes one as rather low, but I doubt if it were higher whether it would be better adapted for hearing. Even at present it is not perfect in this respect as regards the listeners in the gallery. It is a handsome, long chamber, lighted by skylights from the roof, and is amply large enough for the number to be accommodated. The Speaker sits opposite to the chief entrance, his desk being fixed against the opposite wall. He is thus brought nearer to the body of the men before him than is the case with our Speaker. He sits at a marble table, and the clerks below him are also accommodated with marble. Every representative has his own arm-chair, and his own desk before it.
This may be done for a house consisting of about 240 members, but could hardly be contrived with us. These desks are arranged in a semicircular form, or in a broad horseshoe, and every member as he sits faces the Speaker. A score or so of little boys are always running about the floor, ministering to the members' wishes, carrying up petitions to the chair, bringing water to long-winded legislators, delivering and carrying out letters, and running with general méssages. They do not seem to interrupt the course of business, and yet they are the liveliest little boys I ever saw. When a member claps his hands, indicating a desire for attendance, three or four will jockey for the honour. On the whole, I thought the little boys had a good time of it.
But not so the Speaker. It seemed to me that the amount of work falling upon the Speaker's shoulders was cruelly heavy. His voice was always ringing in my ears, exactly as does the voice of the croupier at a gambling-table who goes on declaring and explaining the results of the game, and who generally does so in sharp, loud, ringing tones, from which all interest in the proceeding itself seems to be excluded. It was just so with the Speaker in the House of Representatives. The debate was always full of interruptions; but on every interruption the Speaker asked the gentleman interrupted whether he would consent to be so treated. “The gentleman from Indiana has the floor.” “The gentleman from Ohio wishes to ask the gentleman from Indiana a question." “ The gentleman from Indiana gives permission.” “The gentleman from Obio!”—these last words being a summons to him of Ohio to get up and ask his question. “The gentleman from Pennsylvania rises to order." “The gentleman from Pennsylvania is in order.” And then the House seems always to be voting, and the Speaker is always putting the question. “The gentlemen who agree to the amendment will say, Ay.” Not a sound is heard. «The gentlemen who oppose the amendment will say, No.” Again not a sound. “The Ayes have it,” says the Speaker, and then he goes on again. All this he does with amazing rapidity, and is always at it with the same hard, quick, ringing, uninterested voice. The gentleman whom I saw in the chair was very clever, and quite up to the task. But as for dignity —! Perhaps it might be found that any great accession of dignity would impede the celerity of the work to be done, and that a closer copy of the British model might not on the whole increase the efficiency of the American machine.
When any matter of real interest occasioned a vote, the ayes and noes would be given aloud ; and then, if there were a doubt arising from the volume of sound, the Speaker would declare that the “ayes” or the “noes” would seem to have it ! And
this a poll would be demanded. In such cases the Speaker calls on two members, who come forth and stand fronting each other before the chair, making a gangway. Through this the ayes walk like sheep, the tellers giving them an accelerating poke when they fail to go on with rapidity. Thus they are counted, and the noes are counted in the same way.
It seemed to me that it would be very possible in a dishonest legislator to vote twice on any subject of great interest; but it may perhaps be the case that there are no dishonest legislators in the House of Representatives.
According to a list which I obtained, the present number of members is 173, and there are 63 vacancies occasioned by secession. New York returns 33 members, Pennsylvania 25, Ohio 21, Virginia 13, Massachusetts and Indiana 11, Tennessee and Kentucky 10, South Carolina 6, and so on, till Delaware, Kansas, and Florida return only 1 each. When the constitution was framed, Pennsylvania returned 8, and New York only 6; whereas Virginia returned 10, and South Carolina 5. From which may be gathered the relative rate of increase in population of the Freesoil States and the Slave States. All these States return two senators each to the other House, Kansas sending as many as New York. The work in the House begins at 12 noon, and is not often carried on late into the evening. Indeed this, I think, is never done till towards the end of the session.
The Senate House is in the opposite wing of the building, the position of the one house answering exactly to that of the other. It is somewhat smaller, but is, as a matter of course, much less crowded. There are 34 States, and therefore 68 'seats and 68 desks only are required. These also are arranged in a horseshoe form, and face the President; but there was a sad array of empty chairs when I was in Washington, nineteen or twenty seats being vacant in consequence of secession. In this house the Vice-President of the United States acts as President, but has by no means so hard a job of work as his brother on the other side of the way. Mr. Hannibal Hamlin, from Maine, now fills this chair. I was driven, while in Washington, to observe something amounting almost to a peculiarity in the Christian names of the gentlemen who were then administrating the Government of the country. Mr. Abraham Lincoln was the President, Mr. Hannibal Hamlin the Vice-President, Mr. Galusha Grow the Speaker of the Representatives, Mr. Salmon Chase the Secretary of the Treasury, Mr. Caleb Smith the Attorney-General, Mr. Simon Cameron the Secretary at War, and Mr. Gideon Welles the Secretary of the Navy.
In the Senate House, as in the other house, there are very commodious galleries for strangers, running round the entire chambers, and these galleries are open to all the world. As with all such places in the States, a large portion of them is appropriated to ladies. But I came at last to find that the word lady signified a female or a decently dressed man. Any arrangement for classes is in America impossible; the seats intended for gentlemen must as a matter of course be open to all men; but by giving up to the rougher sex half the amount of accommodation nominally devoted to ladies, the desirable division is to a certain extent made. I generally found that I could obtain admittance to the ladies' gallery if my coat were decent and I had gloves with me.
All the adjuncts of both these chambers are rich and in good keeping. The staircases are of marble, and the outside passages and lobbies are noble in size and in every way convenient. One knows well the trouble of getting into the House of Lords and House of Commons, and the want of comfort which attends one there; and an Englishman cannot fail to make comparisons injurious to his own country. It would not, perhaps, be possible to welcome all the world in London as is done in Washington, but there can be no good reason why the space given to the public with us should not equal that given in Washington. But, so far are we from sheltering the public, that we have made our House of Commons so small, that it will not even hold all its own members.
I had an opportunity of being present at one of their field-days in the Senate. Slidell and Mason had just then been sent from Fort Warren across to England in the Rinaldo. And here I may as well say what further there is for me to say about those two heroes. I was in Boston when they were taken, and all Boston was then full of them. I was at Washington when they were surrendered, and at Washington for a time their names were the only household words in vogue. To me it had, from the first, been a matter of certainty that England would demand the restitution of the men.
I had never attempted to argue the matter on the legal points, but I felt, as though by instinct, that it would be so. First of all there reached us, by telegram, from Cape Race, rumours of what the press in England was saying ;-rumours of a meeting in Liverpool, and rumours of the feeling in London. And then the papers followed, and we got our private letters. It was some days before we knew what was actually the demand made by Lord Palmerston's cabinet; and during this time, through the five or six days which were thus passed, it was clear to be seen that the American feeling was undergoing a great change-or if not the feeling, at any rate the purpose. Men now talked of surrendering these Commissioners as though it were a line of conduct which Mr. Seward might find convenient; and then men went further, and said that Mr. Seward would find any other line of conduct very inconvenient. The newspapers, one after another, came round. That, under all the circumstances, the States Government behaved well in the matter no one, I think, can deny; but the newspapers, taken as a whole, were not very consistent and, I think, not very dignified. They had declared with throats of brass that these men should never be surrendered to perfidious Albion; but when it came to be understood that in all probability they would be so surrendered, they veered round without an excuse, and spoke of their surrender as of a thing of course.
And thus, in the course of about a week, the whole current of men's minds was turned. For myself, on my first arrival at Washington, I felt certain that there would be war, and was preparing myself for a quick return to England; but from the moment that the first whisper of England's message reached us, and that I began to hear how it was received and what men said about it, I knew that I need not hurry myself. One met a minister re, and a senator there, and anon some wise diplomatic functionary. By none of these grave men would any secret be divulged ; none of them had any secret ready for divulging. But it was to be read in every look of the eye, in every touch of the hand, and in every fall of the foot of each of them, that Mason and Slidell would go to England.
Then we had, in all the fulness of diplomatic language, Lord Russell's demand and Mr. Seward's answer. Lord Russell's demand was worded in language so mild, was so devoid of threat, was so free from anger, that at the first reading it seemed to ask for nothing. It almost disappointed by its mildness. Mr. Seward's reply, on the other hand, by its length of argumentation, by a certain sharpness of diction to which that gentleman is addicted in his State papers, and by a tone of satisfaction inherent through it all, seemed to demand more than he conceded. But, in truth, Lord Russell had demanded everything, and the United States Government had conceded everything.