Gossip at the National Capital

Mark Twain

The New York Herald/February 8, 1868

SPECIAL CORRESPONDENCE OF THE HERALD.

 Dickens—Congress and the Theatres—Homes for Congressmen—Eccentric Morality—Stated Festivities—A Look Into the Card Baskets—Society and the Way It is Mixed—Idiotic Aping of Fashion and Folly—Grant’s “Unsteady” Manoeuvres—Butler on the War Path Again.

Washington, Feb. 1, 1868

The approach of Dickens to the capital, which, in his “American Notes,” he was pleased to ridicule, has been heralded with the usual accompaniment of rumors. At first we were told that he was to domicile during his stay with Mr. Philip, a respectable and prosperous stationer here of the English persuasion. Subsequently it was affirmed that he would be the guest of Senator Sumner—an arrangement that could only be accounted for upon the similarity of their social conditions. Sumner being the Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, it was deemed appropriate that he should entertain the prince of English novelists, the absence of Mrs. Sumner, by mutual consent, affording a striking coincidence in the experience of Mr. Dickens. Latterly, however, it has been settled that he is to rendezvous at Welker’s, a small, but fashionable and expensive hotel on the European plan, the greater portion of which he will monopolize for himself and attendants, while his distinguished countryman, Mr. Thornton, the British Minister, occupies his unpretending apartment at the Ebbett House, and dines with the public. The Dickens’ reading will probably be well attended, though the agent still advertises a few good seats, as does also a respectable pawnbroker, who probably holds them in trust for one of his speculating nephews.

We have had a week or two of rivalry in theatrical attractions, which has somewhat improved their quality. “The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein” has had a fair run at the National, while the Wallack and Davenport combination have monopolized Wall’s Opera House, with moderate success.

For some unaccountable reason Congress has no passion for the theatre. It dotes upon a circus, while it turns away from the opera and the drama. I can only account for this in one way—the circus sends complimentary tickets—a trick that Spalding & Rapley and their rivals over the way have not learned. It is certain, at all events, that the producers of the legitimate drama are none the richer for Congress. They have not tried a white crook nor a black swan, or whatever their names may be, and unless this deficiency in the scant drapery line is supplied they will continue to suffer.

“Homes for the Million” has been a popular and, to some sagacious politicians, a profitable suggestion; but latterly we have had a proposition that eclipses this, at least in originality. A New York paper demands “homes for Congressmen.” It proposes that the government—which is another word for Congress in these days—shall supply each member with a furnished mansion, after the fashion of religious denominations that provide parsonages for their pastors. The object is to induce members to bring their families and reside with them at the capital during their membership, and conduct themselves in a virtuous and becoming manner. To one accustomed to life in Washington, it is easy to foresee that this extensive government parish would be costly, and it is questionable whether it would be remunerative in its moral results to the extent imagined by the sanguine originator of the plan. Congressmen are a somewhat eccentric class of moralists. A large proportion of them prefer to have their families remain at home, that they may better enjoy their freedom here; for in some respects Washington is a free and easy place and never more so than when Congress is in session. A favorite mode of life for the bachelors and temporarily emancipated benedicts is to take apartments, and trust to a first class hotel or restaurant for the sustenance that is essential to the proximity of soul and body. Nothing can exceed this for comfort and convenience, nor is there anything to interrupt the enjoyment save an occasional angry remonstrance from the proprietor of the apartments against some curious discoveries that are calculated to scandalize the establishment.

Now, at the first glance, it looks as though the Congressional parsonage plan would work badly, because the honorables would be just as likely to leave their wives at home as now, and if the government had anything like the trouble with the gay dwellers in its stately mansions as the lessees of respectable apartments do, it would have reason to covet an “underwriter’s illumination” as a profitable way of disposing of its property, without the usual loss which occurs to that excellent class of benefactors. If Parson Beecher will come to Washington and remain a week, he will be satisfied to go home and let the parsonage business alone.

The reception season at Washington is progressing with more than ordinary vigor and gayety. The fashionable people are indefatigable in their devotion to the stated festivities, and the result is that the day and evening levees are, with few exceptions, thronged; and it is noticeable, too, that there is a shade less of the last winter’s exclusiveness. Then it was quite a condescension for a devotee of the Congressional policy to be seen at the Executive hand-shaking. Now it is no rare thing to see a bevy of radiant radicals patrolling the East Room by the hour, looking as comfortable and complacent as though the Senate had suspended Andrew Johnson by the power of impeachment, and “good old Benny Wade” was dealing out patronage and profanity as only that saintly soul could. For another symptom of condescension let us look into the card receiver of the Postmistress General after one of her afternoon drawing rooms. Here we find the names of Mrs. Senator Cragin, Mrs. Senator Morrill, Mrs. General Butler and Miss Blanch Butler. Recalling the experience of a year ago the contrast is incomprehensible, inasmuch as there is no abatement of the old grudges and Congress is indefatigable in the pursuit of aggravating causes. It can only be accounted for upon the theory that the ladies will have their way in social matters; and this sagacious and suggestive conclusion provokes a single comment upon society at the capital.

“Politics make strange bedfellows.” This is a settled axiom, and it is no less a truism that our social regulations are productive of an equally mysterious conglomeration—a fact which I propose to demonstrate by another glance into the card basket. Let it be a costly one that graces the table of the lady of one of the Secretaries. Toss them over carelessly and there is the name of the wife of an admiral, here is the card of a commodore’s lady, then comes a token of appreciation from the wife of a titled ambassador, and underneath are innumerable Mrs. Senators and Major Generals. Search again and you find the unpretending names of Mrs. Jones and Miss Jeannie and Miss Georgiana Jones. You ask who they are. Excellent people. The mother lets rooms and the daughters have places in the department over which the husband of the hostess presides. They have spent a quarter’s salary for reception dresses, and certified their indifference to expense by bowling up to the stately mansion in a close carriage. At the evening levees we have a still more striking exemplification of the social mystery of the nocturnal partnership. These are thronged with clerks and clerkesses, with the slimmest of legs and the longest of trails (the clerks will readily be recognized as the ones with the attenuated bifurcations), and it is not an uncommon thing for a four story boarding house to turn out en masse, monopolizing a street car at first, and subsequently the Red Room of the White House. Neither is it a rare circumstance on these occasions—and proper enough if it is agreeable to all concerned—when a Senator or Congressman is in the midst of a gay and fascinating throng, to confront the lady who seasoned the soup for his dinner, and who, in spite of the fatigue incident to the arbitrary demands of society, will superintend the clearing of his matutinal coffee. As “necessity knows no law,” so is society in Washington indifferent to all restraints, not even excepting those which poverty and prosperity impose. There is no law against incomprehensible folly and an idiotic aping of fashion and extravagance. It were well if there was, and it would avail more to the general welfare then the accumulated plans for abolishing the Presidential office and the Supreme Court and placing General Grant where he could have increased facilities for improving his breed of dogs and run the government machinery by the one man power.

Talking of Grant, the stories of the Anti-Slavery Standard and New York Independent about his social habits and certain alleged “unsteady” exhibitions in the public streets, have occasioned quite a noise here. The same subject had been talked of some weeks ago privately, but its introduction into print has startled the Washington community. I am informed that Ben Butler is on the war path again, and that he is actually engaged in gathering affidavits relative to Grant’s before mentioned alleged “unsteady exhibitions.” This bottled up general will insist upon being uncorked at no distant day, and there will be a great explosion when that event takes place. Won’t it be funny and won’t somebody be hurt.

(Source: Twainquotes.com, http://twainquotes.com/18680203nyh.html)

The works of Mark Twain and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism. Visit our bookstore for single-volume collections–-ideal for research, reference use or casual reading.