“Subsequently Came to Grief”: Evidence and Stories of Corruption in the Autograph Book of Charles P. Stratton, Class of 1848, Part II

By Alec Israeli ’21

This is the second of a two-part series on the autograph book of Charles P. Stratton, Class of 1848, and its relationship to the scandal surrounding the career of William W. Belknap, Class of 1848, Secretary of War under President Ulysses S. Grant. Part one closed with the damning testimony of Caleb P. Marsh, which suggested Belknap had benefited from illegal kickback payments through a supplier of a Western fort. Here, after examining the shared racial politics of Belknap and the Pennsylvania congressman investigating him, I close with the response to Marsh’s testimony, as well as further considerations on the function and creation of historical evidence as relevant to Stratton’s book.

Pennsylvania congressman Hiester Clymer led the response to Caleb P. Marsh’s testimony in the corruption trial of William W. Belknap, Class of 1848. Clymer was a prominent politician, businessman, and another Princeton alum of the 1840s. Clymer graduated a year before Belknap, in the class of 1847. The two likely knew each other, as they both lived in “North College” (i.e., Nassau Hall; some secondary sources describing Clymer’s investigation claim that he and Belknap were actually roommates, but Princeton’s Catalogue suggests otherwise). And, like that of Edward Wall and William Belknap, the signature of Clymer can also be found in Stratton’s autograph book.

Hiester Clymer’s signature in Charles P. Stratton’s autograph book. Autograph Book Collection (AC040), Box 1.

The annotation next to his name in the book reads as almost laudatory, stating, “Has had a career. Has been in Congress from Reading; is there now (1877). Ran for Gov. in Pennsylvania. Was defeated; Is lucky, and knows how to make good use of small capital.” His “career” as a politician in the Democratic Party began even earlier than what is noted here. Before running for Governor in 1866, and before he was a US Congressman, he served in the Pennsylvania State Senate during the war. There, Clymer delivered fiery speeches against abolition and the Republican-led war effort. Before the Senate chamber, he maintained that slavery was not inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus, and that the nation’s founders had written a constitution which both recognized and protected slavery. Additionally holding that the war must only be for the preservation of the Constitution as it was (that is, as a pro-slavery document), he thus opposed Republican policy that would come to frame the war as one of explicitly for abolition— in his words, into a “visionary, fanatical struggle.”

For example, one of his speeches was in opposition to a Pennsylvania Senate resolution stating that “it is the unquestionable right and manifest duty of Congress to abolish Slavery in the District of Columbia; and instructing their Senators and requesting their Representatives to Congress, to vote for its total and immediate abolition in the said District, upon such terms as may be deemed just and equitable to the slave owners therein.” Here was a hardline stance indeed; he claimed (somewhat ironically) such abolition would “utterly enslave” the citizens of Washington DC, that it was a stripping “of property, of comfort and of many of the dearest relations of life.” All this, he said, even though the above resolution arguably provided for compensation for former slave-owners: abolition “upon such terms as may be deemed just and equitable to the slave owners therein.” This aspect of the resolution he commended.

Hiester Clymer speech on the Civil War to the Pennsylvania Senate, March 11, 1862. Undergraduate Alumni Records 1748-1920 (AC104).

Clymer further argued against this resolution on the grounds that abolition in Washington DC could not proceed without the consent of the voters of Maryland, which had ceded land for the creation of the District, and the District itself. This argument echoed the doctrine of “popular sovereignty” propounded by Stephen Douglas, famed Democratic opponent of Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election, and the 1858 Illinois senate race. The doctrine held that the Western territories seeking statehood should decide whether they be free or slave states by popular election, a solution framed as democratic only to the extent that “democracy” as such was exclusive to white men. 

Though the investigation may have made the pair opponents, Belknap’s politics were not all that far from Clymer’s in some respects. Both advocated for policy to maintain the white supremacist status quo. Before the war, Belknap was a Douglas Democrat. And, as a Republican during his tenure as Secretary of War, he hardly seemed to identify with the more radical wing of the party, which demanded a more involved federal approach to supporting former slaves and Black Americans more generally. Secretary Belknap did little to address the persistent racist harassment faced by James Webster Smith of South Carolina, the first Black cadet at West Point. As Edward S. Cooper and William S. McFeely have written, Belknap’s weak response was not for lack of awareness; he knew in detail of Smith’s case, and as Secretary of War ultimately had the power to enforce discipline at West Point.

Belknap also opposed federal attempts to address post-bellum inequalities in the South through the Freedmen’s Bureau, a War Department agency established to support former slaves and refugees by building schools and hospitals, ensuring laws were enforced equally, and mediating disputes, among other responsibilities. He recommended to President Grant in November 1871 that the Bureau be dissolved, and within a few months Congress closed the agency. The prospect of racial equality materially embodied by the work of the Bureau, especially in the wake of emancipation, provoked panic in sectors of white America. Hiester Clymer played to such fears in his failed 1866 gubernatorial race, running an explicitly white supremacist campaign that took specific issue with Black suffrage and the very Bureau that Clymer’s old Princeton classmate would soon bury.

And yet, the ties of alma mater and shared racial politics did not keep Clymer from pursuing the investigation into Belknap’s corruption. Two days after Marsh’s testimony (which revealed the pay-off arrangement between himself, Evans, and the Belknaps), and one day after Belknap and his lawyer appeared before Congress in response, Clymer presented a report from the Committee on Expenditures in the War Department calling for Belknap’s impeachment. However, earlier in the day before the call for impeachment, Belknap had handed in his letter of resignation to President Grant, and Grant accepted, not fully aware of the circumstances. A debate over whether Congress now had jurisdiction over Belknap followed, as his resignation had made him a private citizen again. Nonetheless, Congress voted unanimously to impeach Belknap. His following Senate trial, however, resulted in acquittal. Though the majority voted to convict Belknap, it was not a two-thirds majority as was necessary. Many voted for acquittal on the legal grounds that the Senate did not, in the end, have jurisdiction over Belknap after his resignation.

Belknap’s fall and Clymer’s partial victory (partial, if only because Belknap’s resignation beat Congress to the punch) did not bring the intrigue surrounding the position of Secretary of War to a complete close, especially from a Princeton perspective. George Robeson, the corrupt Secretary of the Navy and of the Class of 1847, briefly served as interim Secretary of War after Belknap resigned. He was succeeded by Alphonso Taft, whose tenure lasted but a few months until he was replaced by James Donald Cameron. The Stratton autograph book, by some strange fate— or rather, by a combination of fortuitous timing and Princeton alum’s influence in national politics— seems to physically bind the Princeton figures of the Belknap scandal together: Cameron’s signature, like Belknap’s and Clymer’s, is in the book.

Cameron graduated with the Class of 1852, though he at first entered Princeton to graduate with the Class of 1850: in another autograph book, that of Robert Hollingsworth of the Class of 1849, Cameron wrote he was the Class of 1850, and the Catalogue seem to indicate he took two years of absence after his junior year before graduating. In the Stratton autograph book, the annotation beside his name indicates that this Cameron was the same that assumed the position of Secretary of War following the Belknap scandal, stating, “1876 U.S. Sec. of War under President Grant: U.S. Senator in 1877.” “Sec. of War” is written here above “Attorney General”, which is scratched out; the annotator may have made this mistake because Taft, Cameron’s predecessor, became attorney general once Cameron succeeded him as Secretary of War. 

James Donald Cameron’s signature in Charles Stratton’s autograph book (left) alongside Cameron’s signature in Robert Hollingsworth’s autograph book (right). Click to enlarge. Autograph Book Collection (AC040), Box 1.

As many connections as are visible in the autograph book, furnished by the combination of signatures and annotations, their true depth is not immediately apparent. Though the annotator provided a sort of timeline along which the lives of the signers could be compared, detail (especially in the case of the Belknap scandal) is surprisingly lacking. While the annotations for Belknap, Clymer, and Cameron do state each of the men’s relative positions in the scandal, and they do state that Belknap “came to grief”, none explicitly mention the connection between the three. And, this information is not there, even though the annotations on all three appear to have been written in 1877, the year after the very public, well-covered event. Of course, it is possible that the annotator did not know who led the investigation of Belknap, or who ultimately succeeded him (indeed, as stated, the annotator seemed to think Belknap was the Secretary of the Navy, not of War). Or perhaps they did know, and did not recognize the Princeton connection, or did know and did recognize, but merely chose not to add it. Whatever the case, the paucity of information points again to the difficulty of ascertaining intention in historical evidence.

Whether or not Stratton’s autograph book (or even any historical artifact) may be placed in one of Marc Bloch’s categories of evidence in The Historian’s Craft may then be beside the point; the categories serve more as a heuristic than a rule in any case. Rather, the pieces of the Belknap scandal to be found in the book point towards the work of historical investigation in connecting disparate dots, of consulting other sources in order to glean whatever possible from a given artifact. Evidence, indeed, does not so much as merely exist for us to find, but is something we instead must construct for ourselves.

Sources: 

Autograph Book Collection (AC040)

Catalogue of the Officers and Students of the College of New Jersey.

The Congressional Record (Bound Edition). (Esp. Vol. 4, Parts 2 and 7)

Undergraduate Alumni Records (AC104). 

Wall, Edward. Reminiscences of Princeton College, 1845-1848. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1914.

For further reading:

Bloch, Marc. The Historians Craft. Introduction by Joseph R. Strayer. Translated by Peter Putnam. New York: Vintage Books, 1953.

Cooper, Edward S., William Worth Belknap: An American Disgrace. Madison [NJ]: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003.

McFeely, William S. Grant: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1981.

Purcell, L. E. “The Fall of an Iowa Hero.” The Palimpsest 57 (1976), 130-145.

Wood, Forrest G. Black Scare: The Racist Response to Emancipation and Reconstruction. 1st paperback edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.

Alec Israeli is a history major in the Princeton University Class of 2021. Aside from working at Mudd Library over the summer, his extracurricular activities include being an editor and writer for Princeton Progressive Magazine and a pianist for the Jazz Vocal Collective.

“Subsequently Came to Grief”: Evidence and Stories of Corruption in the Autograph Book of Charles P. Stratton, Class of 1848, Part I

By Alec Israeli ’21

This post is part one in a two-part series. Here in Part One, I discuss the nature of historical evidence as presented in the autograph book of Charles P. Stratton and the rise and fall of the career of one of its signers, William W. Belknap. Both were from the Princeton Class of 1848.

In his treatise on historical method The Historian’s Craft, Marc Bloch proposes that there are “[…] two chief categories into which the innumerable varieties of documents at the disposal of the historian are divided. The evidence of the first group is intentional; that of the second is not.” For the sake of demonstration, such a binary is useful; in unclear cases, it might be that the category may shift depending on what aspect of evidence the historian seeks. However, there may be some forms of evidence which elude both categories, evidence which is layered within itself, evidence whose creator’s intention may be difficult to ascertain.

Such may apply to the autograph book of Charles P. Stratton, Princeton Class of 1848.  It contains the signatures of Stratton’s classmates, mostly from 1847. The book may have served as a sort of memento of Stratton’s time at Princeton, thus placing it within Bloch’s first group of unintentional evidence; it is hard to imagine Stratton collected the signatures to provide a list of his classmates for us to look at in a manuscript library. That said, the deliberation of collecting signatures does point to some intention to catalogue; to commemorate; to create, if not “evidence” in a strict definition, at least a record. The nature of the evidence provided by the book is complicated further by pencil annotations (mostly dated 1877) and news clippings added next to many of the names. These additions state what a given signer did after graduation, up to the point of the annotation. The annotations, in a sense, are an intentional creation of a historical chronology, situating alumni in their time up to 1877, and providing dates and event markers to do so. And yet the question remains as to the intended audience of the annotations. For the annotator’s own benefit? For their children’s? For Princeton’s? For posterity’s?

Charles P. Stratton’s autograph book, ca. 1847. Autograph Book Collection (AC040), Box 1.

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Restrictions Reduced on Princeton University Administrative Records

By Dan Linke

The old architectural adage that sometimes “Less is more,” can also apply to archives in the right circumstances.  In this case, less, or more precisely, shorter, restrictions on records means more documents are accessible, and that is the case with the Princeton University trustees and administrative records.  After closely scrutinizing our current policies and practices, President Christopher L. Eisgruber decided recently to reduce the standard administrative restriction from the present 40 years down to 30 years. This means that most university records created in 1988 and earlier, including minutes of the meetings of the Board of Trustees, are now open for research.  A small subset of records with longer restriction periods, particularly student academic files, faculty personnel files, and other materials related to specific student or employee performance will continue to be protected for the lifetime of the individuals.

These materials from the presidency of William G. Bowen, which were restricted under the old policy, are now open to researchers.

“I recognize that making records accessible to historians and other researchers serves the mission of the University,” Eisgruber said. “I believe that the 30-year restriction will suffice to protect the University’s other interests.”

One benefit of this change is that now the records of the presidency of William G. Bowen are open, allowing researchers to study the range of issues from his administration: the creation of the college system, both the physical and intellectual campus expansions, and dealing with the challenges of the 1970s and 1980s relating to the national economy and broader political questions that were often voiced on campus such as divestment in South Africa.

Mudd Library is open from 9:00AM-4:45PM Monday-Friday during the academic year. For more information about conducting research in our reading rooms, please see our previous blog post.

Caroline Le Count’s Visit to Princeton

By April C. Armstrong *14 and Iliyah Coles ’22

Caroline Le Count, though not so well known today, was a prominent African American activist and educator in Philadelphia in the 19th century. The Philadelphia Citizen recently referred to her as “Philly’s Rosa Parks” because she worked to dismantle streetcar segregation in the city, a goal accomplished in 1867 with a new Pennsylvania law.

Flyer advertising Caroline Le Count’s February 5, 1877 appearance at Princeton’s Witherspoon St. Presbyterian Church.  Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 337, Folder 4. (Click to enlarge.)

After the Civil War, many African Americans, especially women, began refusing to comply with the segregation of public transit in Philadelphia, knowing they’d often be handled roughly when conductors ejected them. Theirs was a movement of civil disobedience that pushed for expanded civil rights for African Americans and built on the momentum of the Union’s victory over the Confederacy. When a conductor did not comply with the new law three days after its passage and would not allow Le Count to ride, yelling a racial slur as he drove past without stopping, she reported it to a police officer. After Le Count showed the officer a copy of the law, he then arrested the conductor, who had to pay a $100 fine. The law mandated not only that African Americans must be permitted to ride streetcars, but that any distinction made on the basis of race on streetcars—in seating or service—was prohibited.

After becoming the first black woman to pass the city’s teacher’s examination, Le Count began teaching at Philadelphia’s Ohio Street School in 1865. Later, sources say she became the second African American female to become principal of a public school, stepping in to serve in that post at Ohio Street School by 1868. She worked continuously to advocate for African American students, teachers, and principals. One newspaper editor said she was “a match for all the officers and members of the Board of Education combined.” After her fiancé, fellow activist Octavius V. Catto who had helped to draft the streetcar bill, was murdered on election day on October 10, 1871, the school was renamed in his honor. Le Count never married.

Le Count was a noted author and speaker. Some sources mention her entertaining her audiences with a perfect imitation of an Irish accent. Often, she spoke or recited poetry at fundraisers for African American churches. The above notice, found in our Historical Subject Files (AC109), shows that she was raising money for the African American community in Princeton as well. Though we don’t know whether any students at Princeton would have attended her 1877 performance, it is plausible that some of Princeton’s African American staff would have. Unfortunately, we have found no further information about Le Count’s visit to Princeton.

A Round Up of Princeton History for July 2-8 and Independence Day

The “Demystifying Mudd” series has been delayed due to unforeseen circumstances. We hope we can bring it to you next week. In the meantime, here is a round up of tidbits we’ve collected over the past several years to highlight events in Princeton University history for July 2-8 and some more in-depth looks at the impact of the American War for Independence on the College of New Jersey (Princeton).

In 2015, we told you about the death of Jimmy Stewart ’32, students who returned after doing a good deed to find their rooms had been ransacked, and a professor who won an Olympic medal for shooting.

In 2016, we reported on the Princeton Blues beginning the “Cannon War” with Rutgers, George Whitefield’s visit to campus, and a program to train every student for war.

1910 postcard by Christie Whiteman. Historical Postcard Collection (AC045), Box 4

In 2017, we showed you photos of the student who was the youngest person ever elected to a school board in the United States and a student who had a 20-game winning streak on Jeopardy.

If you’d like some in-depth stories appropriate to celebrate the American Independence Day, you might want to read about how Nassau Hall and the Rittenhouse Orrery were damaged in the Battle of Princeton. You might also be interested in learning more about how the cannons left behind have shaped Princeton’s traditions.

We look forward to demystifying ourselves soon. In the meantime, enjoy the holiday!

Princeton University’s 70 Books Project

By Rosalba Varallo Recchia

This post is part of a series on education and war related to our current exhibition, “Learning to Fight, Fighting to Learn: Education in Times of War,” on display through June 2018. Please stop by to learn more.

War can interrupt education as military training replaces traditional curricula. While away from campus, many soldiers, even those not pursuing a degree, turn to books for diversion or solace, as well as to increase their knowledge. By 1943, many Princeton students were leaving the University to join the U.S. military. Many of those serving were being stationed overseas.   Princeton University and its faculty members made an effort to send a Christmas packet to students abroad, hoping to provide intellectual stimulation along with recreation.

A special, personalized bookplate identified these pocket editions as gifts from Princeton University. Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 415, Folder 6.

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What Archival Silence Conceals—and Reveals: Recovering Princeton University’s 19th-Century African American Graduate Alumni

Archival silences distort the past, shaping our current and future self-understanding, so preserving Princeton’s history sometimes means attempting to correct the work of our predecessors. My struggle to bring 19th and early 20th-century African American graduate alumni to light illustrates one way white supremacy of that era continues to influence us today. It also supports the argument that archives are not neutral, so researchers and archival staff must pay close attention to the ways archival work reflects the values of those who did the preserving and discarding.

In our Graduate Alumni Records collection, I found files for Irwin William Langston Roundtree, George Shippen Stark, and Leonard Zechariah Johnson, African Americans previously known to have received masters degrees from Princeton. Contents were sparse. Stark’s and Johnson’s consisted primarily of the evidence that they had paid fees and earned course credit. Roundtree’s file had no information about the classes he took, but included an obituary that indicated he was a longtime resident of Trenton.

(Click to enlarge.) Academic record of Leonard Zachariah Johnson, graduate class of 1904. Graduate Alumni Records (AC105).

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Nassau Lit Available Online

Founded in 1842, the Nassau Literary Review was the first student publication established at Princeton University. Thanks to a collaborative project between the Mudd Library and Princeton University Library Digital Initiatives, all issues of this publication through 2015 (nearly 50,000 pages) are now digitized and available to view online via the Papers of Princeton website.

Cover of the December 1946 issue of the Nassau Lit

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Electing an American President

With the 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections just around the corner, we’ve been having fun answering the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration’s #ElectionCollection challenges on Twitter. The timing also seemed right to put some of our elections-related memorabilia on display here at Mudd. Our lobby exhibit case now holds a variety of elections-related materials from diverse collections in the Princeton University Archives and the Public Policy Papers, with a date range spanning nearly a century from William McKinley’s 1896 campaign to Bill Clinton’s in 1992.

McKinley_Badge_AC123_Box_406

William McKinley campaign badge, ca. 1896. Princeton University Library Records (AC123), Box 406.

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A Hope and A Hypothesis: The Curious Case of the Sonia Sotomayor ’76 Interview

Briana Christophers ‘17, a rising senior at Princeton University, made a discovery in the University Archives that solved a mystery we archivists didn’t know existed. In March, Briana visited us at the Mudd Manuscript Library, a visit arranged by Mudd’s Assistant University Archivist for Technical Services, Alexis Antracoli, in response to a petition Briana helped author and circulate through the Latinx Collective. Alexis coordinated the visit to respond directly to the petition’s section about the lack of Latinx presence and history at Princeton. In that section, the Collective stated the following needs, to:

1) Compile information on the contributions of students of color to this campus and beyond.

2) Organize the Mudd Manuscript Library resources related to students of color and the Third World Center/Carl A. Fields Center.

3) Collect information from alumni to create a permanent Students of Color at Princeton archive.

Thus, the purpose of Briana’s visit—which I attended as did my colleague, Lynn Durgin—was to affirm the truth behind the Collective’s observation, brainstorm about different ways for the Archives to do better, and allow Briana a chance to comb through the sparse records we do have pertaining to the history of Latinx students at Princeton. In the course of her perusing the Historical Subject Files, Briana stumbled upon something that few current undergraduate students have ever seen before: a 3.5’’ floppy disk.

3.5-inch floppy disk found by Briana Christophers '2017.

3.5-inch floppy disk found by Briana Christophers ’17 in AC109, Historical Subject Files.

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