- The Washington Times - Friday, February 12, 2010


By Kathryn Allamong Jacob

Johns Hopkins, $40,

212 pages, illustrated


In the corrupt years of the Gilded Age, the lobbyists who had proliferated in Washington after the Civil War came in for scathing criticism. The influential Nation magazine defined a lobbyist as a man of the lowest morals, who, when Congress was not in session was “without honest means of livelihood.” Others were less diplomatic. Lobbyists were variously characterized as “leeches,” “vagrants” and “a portion of mankind … never heard mentioned in terms other than contempt and disgust.”

No single person was more associated with lobbying in the 19th century than hospitable Sam Ward, scion of a prominent American family and now the subject of a splendid biography by Kathryn Allamong Jacob, a curator of manuscripts at Harvard University.

Ms. Jacob’s focus is on Ward, but she provides a history of lobbying in general. It did not originate with President Grant; there had long been inventors, entrepreneurs and localities that sought help in dealing with the government. “As settlement spread westward,” Ms. Jacob writes, “newly organized towns and counties petitioned Congress to widen rivers, deepen harbors, build lighthouses … and a host of other improvements.” But it was the postwar expansion of the 1870s, particularly the construction of railroads, that made influence peddling a major cottage industry in the nation’s capital.

Sam Ward was born in New York City in 1814, the son of a wealthy banker and art collector. (A sister, Julia, would later compose “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.) After graduating from Columbia in 1834, he traveled and studied abroad, becoming proficient in French, German and Spanish. Upon returning, he joined his father’s banking firm, and for a while it prospered. The firm collapsed in 1847, and Sam’s speculation in commodities was widely seen as having caused its demise.

Ward fled to California, where he did well selling tools and other staples to gold miners. In 1851, however, a fire destroyed his warehouse, and he was broke again. He returned to New York and resumed speculating on Wall Street. His funds evaporated, and his first marriage ended in divorce.

He surfaced in Washington in 1858 when he talked his way onto a diplomatic mission headed for Paraguay to settle some long-standing differences. During the negotiations - ultimately successful - he made a secret agreement, sealed with a $1,000 down payment, to lobby in Washington on Paraguay’s behalf. The wanderer was on the brink of a new career.

However, the United States was also on the brink - of civil war. Ward was a friend of Lincoln’s incoming secretary of state, William Henry Seward, and Seward enlisted him to sound out opinion in South Carolina on the eve of war. Traveling as “Charles Lopez” with a British reporter, Ward was in Charleston in time to view the bombardment of Fort Sumter. He wrote to Seward, “While you are planning, these people are acting. … I feel convinced that the people here will never come back.”

Washington was a boom town in the war years, and aspiring contractors needed lobbyists to put in a word at the right places. Then came the Grant years, and Sam became a celebrity. “Short and stout, [Ward] had a noble head, twinkling eyes, and a snow-white imperial beard which gave him the appearance of a French count,” one reporter wrote. “Always dressed in the best of clothes and the whitest of linen, he habitually wore a rose in his buttonhole and diamond studs in his shirt.”

It was not all show, for Ward was something of a scholar. He and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were lifetime friends and carried on an extensive correspondence. He and future president James A. Garfield sometimes corresponded in Latin, addressing each other by quaint Roman names.

But business was business. Ward’s clients came to include insurance companies, steamship lines, railroads, mining interests and miscellaneous investors. As lobbyists went, he had standards. According to Ms. Jacob, “Nowhere - not in contemporary newspaper accounts, obituaries, congressional testimony, [or] Sam’s own letters … was there any hint that Sam ever took a bribe, offered a bribe, engaged in blackmail, or used any other such methods to win his ends.”

What he provided was access, for he knew everyone in Washington worth knowing. His weapon was the carving knife, and his opulent dinners became the talk of the town. The author writes, “Sam shopped for his own terrapin and canvasback ducks at the city’s markets, imported his own teas, and blended his own coffee.”

But he could not stand prosperity. By 1882, he had frittered away yet another fortune, this time on a failed real estate venture in California. He headed for Europe one jump ahead of his creditors and died two years later in Genoa, Italy.

To do Ward justice in an obituary was a challenge. The New York Tribune called him one “whom the sternest moralist could not find it in his heart to dislike … who adorned a questionable life with so much amiability, so much refinement, so much good breeding.”

Ms. Jacob has provided a graceful biography of an American original.

Biographer and historian John M. Taylor lives in McLean, Va.

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